Sunday, March 19, 2023

Chris Walters digs the masterful composers

Nashville-based pianist and singer Chris Walters dug deep into the Great American Songbook - and two of his own worthy gems - in what mostly was a tip of the hat to icons George Gershwin and Cole Porter at the Gulf Theater in Punta Gorda, Florida on Saturday, March 18.

Walters called this tour "Rhapsody in Burlesque" - melding a reference to Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" with his sometimes playful and unusual treatments of the material. Rest assured, there were no dancers involved, other than his fingers dancing over the keyboard. 

Chris Walters
He was backed by bassist Zebediah Briskovich and drummer Miles Vandiver, both from St. Louis. While each had a few improvisational moments, this was more a well-arranged tribute to composers who had a profound impact on 20th century American music and the extensive jazz repertoire.

Walters opened with medley from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess operetta that included an intimate, dirge-like take on "Summertime" and infused "It Ain't Necessarily So" with a bit of honky-tonk piano and his husky vocals.

Miles Vandiver
Zebediah Briskovich
Porter's "Night and Day" and a boogie-woogie treatment of "Anything Goes" followed. Briskovich's rich-toned bass was featured on Gershwin's "Lullaby," which segued right into his "Cuban Overture." Much later in the program, Vandiver was featured with a wide-ranging drum solo on Porter's "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To," which provided the most extensive jazz feel of the night.

Walters made sure to acknowledge a few other composers, with instrumentals that included Willie "The Lion" Smith's "Echoes of Spring," Jack Fina's sprightly "Bumble Boogie" (based on "Flight of the Bumblebee"), Peter Nero's clever "Scratch My Bach" and a solo piano journey through "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." The latter piece ended with a snippet of Judy Garland's vocals from The Wizard of Oz. 

The trio delivered several standout moments:

  • Walters paired a salty take on Gershwin's "Here Come De Honey Man" with Porter's "Love For Sale" with his own unusual twist. Both lyrics were sung from the viewpoint of a pimp, not the lady marketing her wares upstairs.
  • He also shared two beautiful standards-quality originals: "Waltzing With a Broom," about a man whose wife/dancing partner had passed on, and "Cool Blue Swing," the latter a metaphor for living the good life. It was delivered with a shuffle-beat rhythm of his native New Orleans.

The 90-minute performance, with no intermission, concluded with Walter's exquisite interpretation of "Rhapsody in Blue."

Walters has extensive jazz, pop and country music credentials. He was pianist and musical director for Barbara Mandrell and J.D. Souther, toured for seven years with the band Alabama, and now works with Alison Brown, the Peter Mayer Group and saxophonist Jeff Coffin's Mu'tet.

The concert was co-sponsored by the Gulf Theater at the Military Heritage Museum and the Charlotte County Jazz Society.

Briskovich, Walters, Vandiver

Saturday, March 18, 2023

The art of the duo personified

The jazz duo is the ultimate musical challenge. With just two musicians on stage, there is no coasting allowed. You're either doubling on the melody, listening intently to anticipate how to respond to the other player's solo, comping behind him -- or all of the above.

Dick Hyman, Diego Figueiredo
That fine art was in the spotlight at the 42nd edition of the Sarasota Jazz Festival on Friday, March 17 in the hands of pianist Dick Hyman and Brazilian guitarist Diego Figueiredo. 

Their musical conversation belied their half-century age gap. NEA Jazz Master Hyman turned 96 last week. Figueiredo, a rising star on his instrument, is just 42.

It was a call-and-response set from the get-go as they explored a wide range of Brazilian and Cuban material, with a few American standards sprinkled in for good measure. At every turn, they found common ground through the music itself.

Diego Figueiredo
"The Color of Brazil" and "So Danca Samba" led to a playful take on "All The Things You Are," with Figueiredo filling behind Hyman's lead. Whether he is popping off blistering solos or comping, the Brazilian draws on his wonderful combination of finger pick-style jazz and classical guitar techniques, sometimes adding a bit of body English for emphasis.

After digging in to Antonio Carlos Jobim's bossa nova classic "Wave," the festival's new musical director, Terell Stafford, joined them on flugelhorn for an extended exploration of Jobim's "Triste." 

Then came a solo tune apiece by the two co-stars. Hyman uncorked a teasing-at-times, bouncy and bright version of "Cherokee" that included a clever Stride piano segment. Figueiredo used his solo space to explore "Tico-Tico No Fubรก," one of the high-energy Brazilian features in his repertoire. Zequinha de Abreu wrote this Brazilian choro in 1917. 

Dick Hyman
Because it happened to be St. Patrick's Day, Hyman included "Danny Boy" in the program. This gentler moment was a chance to catch one's breath before the fiery closer. Together, they roared through Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona's Latin classic "Malaguena."

Hyman, a prolific pianist, organist, composer, arranger, bandleader, composer of film scores and orchestral works in a career dating to the late 1940s, is a master of the keyboard. He mixes sparking delicacy with uptempo fluidity, exploring multiple styles with ease.

Dick Hyman, Diego Figueiredo
He played the first Sarasota Jazz Festival back in 1981 and has been the event's most frequent performer. At first a snowbird, he has lived in nearby Venice full-time for more than 25 years. At 96 and not wanting to travel extensively anymore, this may have been one of his last significant performances. But you never know.

This year's festival, produced by the Jazz Club of Sarasota, was held under the Circus Arts Conservatory's Big Top at Nathan Benderson Park. 

The festival's other headliners included singers Kurt Elling (with guitarist Charlie Hunter), and Lizz Wright, pianist Christian Sands, bassist Marcus Miller, reed player Paquito D'Rivera, B-3 player Tony Monaco, tenor saxophonist Houston Person and the more-contemporary Allen Carmen Project with Gumbi Ortiz.

Dick Hyman, Diego Figueiredo, Terell Stafford

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

A Night of Classic Jazz and Other Gems

Gems from the Great American Songbook, opera and operettas, and a few classic-jazz staples were in the splendid mix when The Midiri Brothers brought their quintet to Punta Gorda FL on Monday, March 13 for their first Charlotte County Jazz Society appearance.

The Midiri brothers
Paul and Joe Midiri have both serious chops and a love for the instrumental jazz tradition. Together, they imbued the music with a bright sound and connected with the audience through humorous, well-honed banter about their identical twinship.

The band this fine night included Paul - the older brother by one minute - on vibraphone, Joe on clarinet and saxophones, Jeff Phillips on piano, Jay Mueller on bass, and Patricia Dean on drums. It was night three of a brief Florida tour.

Joe Midiri
The brothers have a finely honed sound warmed by the collective brightness of their primary instruments. Paul's vibes style draws much from pioneers Lionel Hampton and Red Norvo, while Joe's clarinet playing comes straight from the Benny Goodman approach. The pair hail from the Mid-Atlantic Region. They've been a hit at classic jazz festivals across the U.S. for more than 20 years.

Their interplay and the band's swinging tempos made for a joyous night as they coursed through an interesting range of Swing-era standards. "Always" and "Poor Butterfly" (inspired by Madame Butterfly) led into a burning version of "Lady Be Good." 

Jeff Phillips
Paul Midiri shifted with ease between two and four mallets depending whether he was featured on the melody or comping with chords behind his brother's solos. Joe switched to soprano sax for a beautiful take on "September Song," which featured an elegant yet understated piano solo from Phillips. 
Patricia Dean

Whether or not intentional, then came an interesting thematic grouping of songs with "You" in the title. 

Patricia Dean, a Southwest Florida double threat on drums and vocals, was featured on the Peggy Lee hit "I Don't Know Enough About You." Phillips provided the keyboard pyrotechnics on "Yours is My Heart Alone," a Franz Lehar gem from the 1929 German operetta The Land of Smiles. It was first recorded in the U.S by Bing Crosby and later was a mega-hit for Mario Lanza. The thematic cluster, and the first set, ended with the quintet's take on Eubie Blake's nostalgic classic "Memories of You," which was popularized by Goodman and Rosemary Clooney.

After intermission, The Midiri Brothers offered more treats from a wide range of sources. Fat's Waller's classic "Honeysuckle Rose" turned into an extended improvisational jaunt, particularly for clarinet, piano and vibes. Then came "Polka Dots and Moonbeams," Frank Sinatra's first hit  when he sang with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra in 1940. Ol' Blue Eyes stayed with the band for three years before launching his solo career.

Paul Midiri, Jay Mueller

Dean was featured on no-theatrics vocals again on "This Can't Be Love," a Great American Songbook staple by Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart from the Shakespeare-inspired Broadway musical "The Boys From Syracuse." 

The Midiri brothers
Joe Midiri's soprano sax artistry on the Sidney Bechet ballad "Si Tu Vois Ma Mere" (If You See My Mother) was poignant moment. Bechet wrote it in 1952 after moving to Paris. The song was popularized in Woody Allen's 2011 film Midnight in Paris.  

Joe then shared his lone vocal solo of the night, a Louis Armstrong-like take on "Pennies From Heaven." His Satchmo-like singing voice is uncanny, delivered in a reverential style that triggered much applause when he was done.

The quintet closed on another instrumental high note, roaring through "After You've Gone," a 1918 popular song whose early hit performers included Armstrong, Guy Lombardo and Rudy Vallee. While more than a century old, it still finds its way onto new recordings by young jazz musicians. A staple for sure. And still a crowd pleaser.

The CCJS concert was at the Military Heritage Museum's Gulf Theater.

Jeff Phillips, Paul Midiri, Jay Mueller, Joe Midiri, Patricia Dean

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Saluting Henry Mancini's immense musical legacy

If you watched television, went to the movies or listened to the radio in the 1960s, '70s or '80s, the music of composer Henry Mancini was everywhere. He left a stunning legacy of movie scores and TV theme music, which the Orlando Jazz Orchestra explored and celebrated on Monday, February 13 in its first Charlotte County Jazz Society appearance.

Mancini, who was both prolific and versatile throughout his five-decade career, died in 1994 at age 70. He won four Oscars, one Golden Globe and 20 Grammy Awards, plus a posthumous Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, for the most memorable of his hundreds of compositions.

Greg Parnell
Musical director Greg Parnell brought an 11-member version of his fine Central Florida-based repertory ensemble. Thanks to crafty, swinging arrangements for its six horn players, it often sounded like a robust big band.

For the several hundred listeners at the Charlotte Performing Arts Center in Punta Gorda FL, this was a trip down a musical Memory Lane, with Parnell interspersing bits of historical perspective and anecdotes as the band explored Mancini's elegant melodies.

Justin Diaz, Charlie Bertini
The band included David MacKenzie on alto sax and clarinet, Rex Wertz on tenor sax, Fil Lorenz on baritone sax, Charlie Bertini and Justin Diaz on trumpet, Clay Lucovich on trombone, Judi Glover on piano, Steve Luciano on guitar, Greg Zabel on bass, and the drummer's wife, Amy Parnell, adding vocals on six tunes.

They opened with an early composition "BT Jump." Mancini, then a journeyman pianist, arranger and composer wrote it for the Tex Beneke Orchestra, which was carrying on the Glenn Miller big band tradition. (Parnell was the revived Glenn Miller Orchestra's drummer and road manager for many years). They followed with "Too Little Time," the love theme from 1954's film The Glenn Miller Story. 

Amy Parnell
Steve Luciano, Greg Zabel
Two pieces followed from the late 1950s TV private detective series Peter Gunn: "Brothers Go to Mothers" and "Dreamsville." Wertz and Luciano were featured as the band dug into the theme from the series Mr. Lucky, opting for a version that trombonist Phil Wilson arranged for the Buddy Rich Band.

The band's Latinized take on "Moon River," the Mancini-Johnny Mercer ballad from Breakfast at Tiffany's, featured Amy Parnell's wistful vocals and a Bertini horn solo. That in turn set up a swinging romp through "The Days of Wine and Roses" that energized the room. Mancini won Grammys and Academy Awards for both. 

David MacKenzie

Other fine moments included MacKenzie's teasing clarinet solo on "Baby Elephant Walk" from the 1962 film Hatari, and the themes from two editions of The Pink Panther, with Lorenz turning in a fine baritone solo on "A Shot in the Dark."

The OJO's version of "The Sweetheart Tree" from The Great Race featured beautiful interplay between Amy Parnell and Glover, and then MacKenzie's answering alto sax solo. Shifting gears from soundtrack and TV theme music, the band dug into "Cheers!," a hard-driving big band instrumental that Mancini recorded in 1963 on his Uniquely Mancini album.

Judi Glover
Saving the best for last, the band wrapped up the evening with four standouts. They included Glover's poignant extended piano solo on "Two For the Road" and a searing Latinized take on "It Had Better Be Tonight" from The Pink Panther original movie with frisky vocals, as well as an extended drum feature for the leader. 

Then came another Glover feature on Mancini's arrangement of Nino Rota's “Love Theme from Romeo and Juliet” (also known as “A Time For Us”). Mancini's recorded version resulted in his only No. 1 hit single during the rock ‘n’ roll era, spending two weeks atop Billboard magazine’s Hot 100 in the summer of 1969.

The Orlando Jazz Orchestra finished on a high note, lots of them actually, with one of Mancini's first TV music hits, "Peter Gunn Theme." 

The Lemon Bay High School jazz ensemble, the Jazz Rays, performed a varied pre-concert set that included several New Orleans classics, some Miles Davis, and closed with the Jaco Pastorius-Bireli Lagrene version of the Pee Wee Ellis composition "The Chicken."

Orlando Jazz Orchestra

Lemon Bay High School's Jazz Rays

Monday, February 13, 2023

Celebrating a giant legacy

Friends, fans and fellow musicians from near and far gathered in Naples FL on Sunday, February 12 to celebrate the love and life of trumpeter Dan Miller. He died suddenly on August 19 at age 54 but left a giant legacy. A legacy of phenomenal trumpet artistry, an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz, renown as a skilled and passionate educator, and a life filled with joy and a genuine kindness to everyone he met.

Dan Miller
Those traits were underscored time and again during the two and a half-hour celebration at North Naples Church. The program included a revolving cast of bands, beginning with the Gulf Coast Big Band, which Dan led for 10 years, followed by blends of musicians he had worked with through the years - on the road with the Harry Connick Jr. big band, in New York, in New Orleans, and in Florida for the past 18 years.
Wendell Brunious
"Dan was the embodiment of brilliance, kindness and love for all," his longtime girlfriend, Judi Woods, told the hundreds in attendance.

All of the material on this afternoon, programmed by longtime band-mate Lew Del Gatto, consisted of Dan's favorite tunes. Trumpeters Leroy Jones and Wendell Brunious and clarinetist Caroline Brunious were there from New Orleans, with Jones capping their back-to-back appearances with "When It's Sleepy Time Down South."

Nathaniel Williford
Another group dug into one of Dan's favorite formats, a Jazz at the Philharmonic-style ballad medley. It opened with one of Dan's former students, Nathaniel Williford, playing "Tenderly;" and five tunes later, closed with Horace Silver's ballad "Peace," that featured Del Gatto, trumpeter Terumasa Hino and violinist Glenn Basham.

Lew Del Gatto, Terumasa Hino
The live performances were interspersed with video clips from 11 musicians who were unable to be there in person. They included Connick and fellow New Orleans musicians Craig Klein and Jeremy Davenport; as well as fellow trumpeters Randy Brecker, Chuck Findley and New Mexico-based Bobby Shew, who Dan treasured as a mentor. Singer Carmen Bradford's poignant clip featured her a capella version of "Danny Boy," while teen-aged pianist Brandon Goldberg, who Miller took under his wing about seven years ago, played Duke Ellington's "In a Mellow Tone."
Jeff and Preston Rupert
Later in the program, a septet of longtime Miller collaborators also performed "In a Mellow Tone." This grouping included tenor saxophonist Jeff Rupert, who heads the jazz studies program at the University of Central Florida, and his son, Preston, who was a trumpet student of Dan's since age 10.

The joyous closer was an extended take on Miles Davis's "Blues By Five," which Dan used as a first-set finale at many of his performances. 

This one had a dozen participants: pianist Roy Gerson, bassist Chuck Bergeron, drummer Jim White (in from Colorado), trumpeters Hino, Brunious, Preston Rupert and Kenny Rampton (in from New York), and tenor saxophonists Jerry Weldon (in from New York), Gerald Augustin, Jeff Rupert and Lou Califano. 

In his video remarks, Connick said Dan had been a cherished and talented member of his band and a treasured friend. "His legacy is of joy. He was this giant teddy bear of a sweetheart that we all loved so much."

Blues by Five:
Kenny Rampton, Lou Califano, Gerald Augustin, Lew Del Gatto,
Jerry Weldon, Jeff Rupert, Wendell Brunious (partially hidden),
Preston Rupert, Terumasa Hino

Friday, February 3, 2023

The tasty groove of Jazz Simpatico

After pandemic pauses and a Hurricane Ian-related cancellation last fall, the Charlotte County Jazz Society delivered the fifth edition of its informal matinee concerts on Thursday, February 2 - and it was a gem.

Bob Zottola
Trumpeter Bob Zottola performed with his Naples-based Jazz Simpatico band at the Grill at 1951 in Port Charlotte, Florida. It was billed as a trio performance with steady collaborators Stu Shelton on keyboard and Tim Ruger on drums. But it was much more, given the scope of their musicality and an unexpected guest: tenor saxophonist Len Pierro, a Philadelphia bandleader who spends winters here.

Len Pierro, Bob Zottola
Zottola moved to Florida in 2004 after decades on the New York jazz and Broadway musicals scene, including a 16-year run in the pit orchestra for Les Miserables. The leader's trumpet and flugelhorn chops belie his 86 years on the planet. His range and control of dynamics on this most demanding of instruments are marvelous. He often muted his trumpet with a purple Seagram's Crown Royal bag to dampen the horn's bright sound.
Stu Shelton

Shelton brought an interesting twist, passing up the venue's Yamaha grand piano for his own electric keyboard. He has an unusual technique, playing swinging, beautiful melodies with his right hand while delivering solid bass lines with his left. Close your eyes, and you'd swear there was a string bass player in a dark corner of the stage. 

Tim Ruger
Ruger spent years on the road with the Tony Award-winning musical The Fantastics. He delivered solid, no-frills propulsion all afternoon, adding tasty accents without any excess or bombast. This is a very good thing.

Their material shifted between The Great American Songbook and a bit of Broadway to jazz chestnuts, the latter including Antonio Carlos Jobim's bossa nova classic "Triste." Pierro added his beautiful tenor work to half of them. Zottola also sang on four numbers: "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square," "Bye Bye Blackbird,"  "I'm Old Fashioned" and a poignant version of Leonard Bernstein's "Some Other Time" from the 1944 musical On The Town.

Pierro, Zottola
Several instrumental choices underscored the band's creativity:

  • Their uptempo version of John Coltrane's minor blues "Mr. P.C.," written in tribute to bassist Paul Chambers, featured Pierro on tenor sax, with Shelton delivering a relentless bass line and a classic B-3 organ sound.
  • Alternating notes on their respective horns, Zottola and Pierro teased their way into the melody before turning up the heat on "Stella by Starlight."
  • A clever rearrangement of Dave Brubeck's "In Your Own Sweet Way" took the beautiful ballad in new directions.
  • An extended exploration of the classic tenor saxophone feature "Body and Soul," which Coleman Hawkins transformed into a jazz standard, showcased Pierro's beautifully laid-back tenor sound. He can swing hard when warranted, but never overplays.

They closed the afternoon with an extended take on "The Theme," one of Miles Davis's classic jazz heads based on the first eight bars of "I Got Rhythm." They rode with great joy over the chord changes, known in the jazz vernacular as "rhythm changes." It was the perfect summation of everything that preceded it.

Pierro, Zottola, Ruger Shelton 
Prior concerts in this occasional series featured pianist Bobby van Deusen in 2018, pianist Billy Marcus and bassist Don Mopsick in 2019, pianist Roy Gerson's trio in January 2020, and guitarist Nate Najar and singer Daniela Soledade in 2021.

Saturday, January 28, 2023

A few more images from The Jazz Cruise

Matt Wilson

 Here are a few more of my favorite images from the 2023 edition of The Jazz Cruise aboard the Celebrity Millennium. It sailed January 6-13 out of Fort Lauderdale, Florida to and from the Caribbean, after a two-year pandemic-related pause.

Jason Brown, Monty Alexander  
Dee Dee Bridgewater, Christian McBride, Benny Green
Christian Tamburr, Clint Holmes
Bria Skonberg, Nicki Parrott, Niki Haris

Sullivan Fortner

John Hart

Marvin Sewell

Axel Tosca
Samara Joy

Etienne Charles' kit

Trey Henry

Don Vappie, Carlos Henriquez, Wynton Marsalis

Niki Haris, James Morrison, Rodney Whitaker

Ken Peplowski, Wycliffe Gordon, Luke Sellick

Joey DeFrancesco posthumous Hall of Fame induction concert
Randy Brecker, Ken Peplowski, Christian McBride,
Emmet Cohen, John Pizzarelli, Lewis Nash