Festival Faves, pt. 1

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Brrrrr…Baby, it’s cold outside…and windy! Philly’s cold temps and brisk winds have me longing for outdoor festival season, so I thought I would take a moment to share three of my favorite LiveJazz Journey festivals to date: Vision Festival, Caramoor Jazz Festival, and the inaugural Exit 0 International Jazz Festival. The fiercely iconoclastic Vision Festival celebrated its 17th year of presenting creative improvised music in June. The festival was held at Roulette in Brooklyn and honored multi-instrumentalist/conceptualist Joe McPhee. VisionFest2012 063The powerful Opening Invocation featured vocalists Patricia Nicholson, Fay Victor and Kyoko Kitamura with William Parker (bass), Hamid Drake (drums) and Gerald Cleaver (drums). We stayed for sets by Kneebody and Dunmall Shipp Morris Cleaver, slipping out just as guitarist Elliott Sharp and poet/vocalist Tracie Morris took to the stage. Kneebody’s electric, funkified avant jazz was propelled by the frenetic Nate Wood – he definitely makes my list of favorite drummers. His band mates included Adam Benjamin (keyboard), Shane Endsley (trumpet), Ben Wendel (sax), and Kaveh Rastegar (bass).They were a sharp contrast to the more cerebral, but no less passionate than Dunmall Shipp Morris Cleaver (Paul Dunmall, reeds; Matthew Shipp, piano; Joe Morris, bass; and Gerald Cleaver, drums).

Caramoor_nlee 379The 2012 Caramoor Jazz Festival provided a gorgeous Italianate setting for a stellar line-up that included The Cookers, Gretchen Parlato, Kenny Barron, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and Roy Haynes Fountain of Youth Band. Well worth the drive from Philly to Katonah, NY – even in the pouring rain! It’s not a stretch to say that The Cookers has one of the most impressive rosters currently performing in jazz: Eddie Henderson (trumpet), David Weiss (trumpet), Craig Handy (alto saxophone), Billy Harper (tenor saxophone), Orrin Evans (piano), Cecil McBee (bass) and Billy Hart (drums). With her sultry voice and distinctive phrasing, Gretchen Parlato has a mesmerizing way with a song. She was nimbly backed by Taylor Eigsti (piano), Burniss Travis III (bass), and Kendrick Scott (drums). Kenny Barron has to be one of the most elegant pianists on the scene. His discography is phenomenal and he delivered a crowd-pleasing solo turn at Caramoor, setting the stage for the ebullient Dee Dee Bridgewater. With her high energy and theatrical sensibility, the three time Grammy winner is a photographer’s dream. It’s hard to call someone as hip as Roy Haynes “venerable”, which sounds so stodgy, but the 88 year old Living Legacy Award recipient has been a sought after drummer since 1945. His Fountain of Youth players included Jaleel Shaw (saxophones), Martin Beherano (piano), and David Wong (bass). Cookers saxophonist Craig Handy had to be one of the busiest players at the festival – he performed with Dee Dee Bridgewater and made a cameo appearance with Roy Haynes.

Rounding out my top three festivals list is the Exit 0 International Jazz Festival, held in Cape May, New Jersey just days after Hurricane Sandy ripped through the Atlantic Seaboard, Exit 0 featured more than 30 hours of music over three days at seven different venues. I went down on Saturday, November 10 and saw Cap’n Black Big Band, Mark Murphy, Claudia Acuna and Ramsey Lewis. Pretty decent line-up, right? Well, I almost missed the Festival altogether. I’d been looking forward to it for weeks, Fellow Travelers, and of course, Friday night I’m diligently checking all of my gear, charging my battery, being sure to pack extra storage cards. Next morning, the weather is gorgeous. I get up, gas up, and hit the road headed to the shore. Two hours later, I arrive. The Festival is well organized. Folks are friendly. I get my credentials, say “Hi” to trumpeter Josh Lawrence and head into the Convention Center, the first venue on my list. Claudia Acuna is onstage, my fellow photogs are in place. I’m excited. Settling in. I fire off a test shot. Nothing happens. Nada. Nothing. I have no power in my camera, Fellow Travelers. I had left my battery still charging at home. Ai-yi-yii…!!!

What’s a girl to do two hours from home, press credentials in place and credibility on the line? Well, ask another girl where to shop, of course. One of the festival staff gave me directions to the nearest shopping area, and, well…I never thought I would ever say this, but…Walmart to the rescue. I raced off to a strip mall a couple of towns over, purchased a camera I could use with my lenses and got back to the festival whilst pianist Orrin Evans’s swinging Cap’n Black Big Band was mid-set. Whew!

Exit0jazzfest_nlee 359x2I was amply rewarded for staying calm and driving fast. The Cap’n Black set was fantastic, featuring Nicholas Payton, Marcus Strickland, the aforementioned Josh Lawrence, and a host of other strong players. Up next: the incomparable Mark Murphy of Stolen Moments fame. Though his craggy baritone has weathered with age and a few notes may have eluded him, Murphy remains fluidly improvisational and expressive. After the dinner break, I saw new-to-me Chilean singer/songwriter Claudia Acuna, who delivered a relaxed, appealing performance, mostly in Spanish, which I no comprende at all, but I enjoyed what I saw before dashing out to catch headliner Ramsey Lewis and his Electric Band roll through the three-time Grammy winner’s iconic hits (Wade in the Water, The In Crowd, and my fave: Sun Goddess) and new material. Lewis has been in the limelight almost as long as I’ve been on the planet; his elegance and style are timeless and his set was polished and engaging.

That was it for me, Fellow Travelers; I had to hit the road back to Philly, though the Festival continued past 1:00 a.m. and wrapped up the next day. By the time the Pedrito Martinez Group took to the stage at 2:30 pm Sunday, I had returned that camera to Walmart and was moving through the rest of my weekend. C’est la vie.

Don’t let the cold keep you from seeing some live jazz, Fellow Travelers…enjoy!

Sisters in Front

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One of the most supportive jazz lovers in Philly, Fellow Travelers, is a vocalist by the name of Rhenda Fearrington. Rhenda is usually front-and-center at shows and she encourages other women to join her. It is in Rhenda’s honor that I title today’s post, Sisters in Front, borrowing her nomenclature as I share with you four of the women leaders that I’ve encountered in my journey thus far: cellist Akua Dixon, and vocalists Carmen Lundy,  Denise Montana, and Karen Rodriguez. There have been others within the context of festivals, but that’s another post or two away. Meanwhile…

Akua Dixon beautifully melds her classical and jazz training with a bluesy sensibility. She is one of those amazingly versatile artists who perform with just about everyone and in many different contexts. I first learned about her, maybe 20 years ago when she brought her Quartette Indigo to DC. Wish I could remember who was in the ensemble at that time, because it looks like the personnel have changed a few times over the years. For her May 25 gig at Shanghai Jazz in Madison, NJ, her quartet included Ron Jackson on guitar; Christian Fabian played bass; and Darrell Green played drums. They performed an eclectic set that included “Sweetest Taboo,” “A Night in Tunisia,” “Throw It Away,” and a few of Ms. Dixon’s original compositions.

Sometimes it pays to be spontaneous (and to live within a quick bus ride of New York City). You cannot believe my excitement, Fellow Travelers, when I learned that Carmen Lundy would be performing at the famed Blue Note on July 7th. I dropped everything and headed up I-95 on the Megabus. The journey was memorable, but not in a good way, so I will spare you; suffice it to say that I arrived and was seated just in the nick of time. But, wow, was I rewarded for my spontaneity. The multi-talented Carmen Lundy is a gifted storyteller with a timeless vocal style and elegant, expressive delivery. She and her stellar band mates performed mostly original tunes from her new album, “Changes,” including one penned in 2010, “Love Thy Neighbor,” that was a fitting tribute to Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old whose shooting in February sparked protests across the country. Ms. Lundy’s polished and spirited ensemble included her brother and lifelong collaborator Curtis Lundy on bass; Anthony Wonsey on piano; and Jamison Ross on drums. Ms. Lundy has been making music for more than 30 years and “Changes” is her 12th CD release. And, get this Fellow Travelers: in celebration of being under consideration for a Grammy, she is generously offering free downloads of the album here.

Both Denise Montana and Karen Rodriguez are well known to Philly-area jazz lovers. I first saw them perform in December at a benefit for the musician support organization Jazz Bridge that showcased many of the gifted women artists based in the region. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I headed up to the Lafayette Bar in Easton, PA, though. Let me just say that as a 4’11” woman, I was glad I was traveling with a 6’2” former basketball player that night.  The Lafayette definitely had a hardscrabble, neighborhood bar vibe and the denizens all took notice when we entered. In all honesty, we did have just a moment of trepidation, but life is good and no one paid us any mind as we settled in. Then, a funny thing happened as the music got underway: the mix completely changed. The hipsters and jazz lovers soon filled the room and we were treated to Denise’s heartfelt, soulful song stylings backed up by the Go Trio – veteran bassist Gene Perla, Sean Gough on piano, and drummer Tom Whaley. This was Denise’s first time playing with the trio, but they swung classic jazz tunes from “On Green Dolphin Street” to “Old Devil Moon” to “Quite Nights” and beyond as if they’d been playing together for years.

We saw Karen Rodriguez Latin Jazz Ensemble at The Mill in Spring Lake Heights, New Jersey on August 6. Completely different vibe than the Lafayette Bar, y’all. Situated beside a lake, the Mill is one of those multi-space venues that play host to weddings and other special occasions, although the Ensemble performed in the bar area.  Their playlist included classics such as “Dindi,” “All the Things You Are,” and “Footprints,” along with a Cuban folk tune or two and an original penned by pianist Suzzette Ortiz. Drummer David Silliman and bassist Tony Cimorosi rounded out the quartet.

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Lots more to share, but that’s it for now, Fellow Travelers. Go out and see some live jazz…then let me know all about it. Peace & luv, always…

Pharoah Sanders!

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Well, Fellow Travelers, when I started this LiveJazz Journey in April, I promised you a bonus visit or two to my hometown of Washington, DC, where my journey with this music we call jazz began. Little did I know that I’d be returning there so soon, but I absolutely could not pass up the chance to see the iconic tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. My introduction to Pharoah Sanders came via WPFW Radio almost 30 years ago. One of the music programmers there, Bro. Hodari Ali, played You’ve Got to Have Freedom as his theme song. Wow…Wow…Wow! It was unlike anything I had heard up ‘til then. Sanders’ contrasted nimble, full-toned playing with dissonant honking. The driving melody and spare lyrical content combined to create an anthem that still rings true to me (you’ve got to have freedom…you’ve got to have peace and love…).

In the early 1960’s, Little Rock, Arkansas-born Ferrell Sanders moved to New York City from Oakland, California, where he had begun his professional career. He performed for a time with the omniversal pianist/composer/bandleader Sun Ra, who is credited with providing him a home and his nickname. In 1965, Sanders teamed up with kindred spirit and fellow tenor player John Coltrane. Throughout the ‘60’s and early ‘70’s as his approach to music continued to evolve, Sanders worked with a number of phenomenal musicians who were taking the music into a decidedly soulful spiritual direction. Among them were Alice Coltrane, Leon Thomas, Lonnie Liston Smith and Cecil McBee.

Fast forward to last week, when the venerable Grammy-winner enjoyed a three-day, six show engagement at D.C.’s Bohemian Caverns. Lucky me, I caught the very last show on Saturday night (Sept. 15th). Sanders did not disappoint. Though a bit older and grayer, he still plays with energy and verve. His multi-generational quartet included strong sidemen: William Henderson on piano, Eric Wheeler on bass, and John Lamkin on drums. Baltimore-based flutist Delandria Mills joined the group on stage at one point and by the end of the show Sanders was getting down, partying; no doubt inspired by the standing-room-only audience’s rousing cries for an encore and a local blues singer’s spontaneous tribute. A memorable time was had by all. Enjoy the slideshow, Fellow Travelers, and go out and see some live jazz!

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P.S. So, yeah, it’s been a while since I touched base with you Fellow Travelers. I have to say, I had a pretty eventful summer. I look forward to sharing it all with you in the coming weeks. And, hey, hit me back; let me know what you’ve been up to. Peace & luv ‘til next time.

CORRECTION: Fellow Travelers, when I first wrote this post, I misidentified Pharoah Sanders’s drummer. He is John Lamkin, not John Hampton. Thanks, Sara.

Skins & Voices

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Greetings, Fellow Travelers. I have another Philly post for you today. Last month (I can’t believe we’re already in June!), I saw a truly extraordinary performance at the Painted Bride Art Center in Old City. The Bride is known for nurturing and showcasing innovative, multi-culti artists, so it makes sense that they would bring together two such groups – Spoken Hand Percussion Orchestra and Philip Hamilton’s Voices in one fantastic show. Over a period of several months, Spoken Hand and Voices collaborated to bring forth Skins & Songs, a musical celebration of “the universal heart and soul that connects us all.”

The dynamic assemblage that is Spoken Hand includes four drum batteries playing traditional and contemporary North Indian, West African, Afro-Cuban and Brazilian rhythms in original compositions (take a moment to imagine what that might sound like). The group was founded in 1996 by tabla player Lenny Seidman, the Painted Bride’s music curator, and Daryl “Kwasi” Burgee, one of the City’s most well-regarded African drummers, and has gained a national audience with performances at major festivals and venues of note.

Philip Hamilton’s Voices is an exciting melding of international vocalists that usually performs a cappella. Hamilton, an accomplished composer and vocalist, conceived of Voices “to take audiences on a vocal journey merging cultures, time periods and vocal styles.” The first time I heard Voices (at the Bride, of course) was maybe two-three years ago; in Skins & Songs, the ensemble was as breathtaking as I remembered.

Performing in Skins & Songs were: VOICES CAST: Philip Hamilton, Harry Bayron, Patricia Antunes, Patricia Silveira, Giovanna Moretti, Giovana Robinson, and Ras Mikey C. SPOKEN HAND CAST: Daryl Burgee, Lenny Seidman, Alex Shaw, John Wilkie, Joe Bryant, Ken Fauntleroy, Omar Harrison, Ron Howerton, Ishmael Jackson, Steve Jackson, Chuckie Joseph, Tom Lowery, Mike Nevin, Josh Robinson and Dan Scholnick.

So, before I let you go, Fellow Travelers, I must give props to Shaneca Adams for her gorgeous production and lighting design and to sound engineer Gaetan Spurgin. Fabulous, fabulous job, folks!

Until next time, Fellow Travelers – go out and see some LiveJazz (and hit me back; I wanna know what you’ve seen)!

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Ai-yi-yii!!!

Greetings, Fellow Travelers. I’ve been a bad blogger. I’ve been racking up all of these wonderful LiveJazz experiences and not sharing them with you. From seeing Muhal Richard Abrams debut his new work for Warriors of the Wonderful Sound to flying round-trip in one day to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival to venturing out to South Jersey, and beyond – I’ve been seeing and photographing some fantastic artists at work. Have I shared any of this with you? Noooo…

Please forgive me and dive into this whirlwind post that doesn’t do justice to any of what I’ve seen, heard and photographed, but at least gets me back on track (almost). Thank you for your understanding…enjoy!

Muhal Richard Abrams with Warriors of the Wonderful Sound

Renowned pianist-composer Muhal Richard Abrams joined Bobby Zankel’s Warriors of the Wonderful Sound following the Center City Jazz Festival on April 28 to debut a work commissioned by the adventurous big band. In 1965, Abrams co-founded Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), the seminal collective that has nurtured the careers of such innovators as Amina Claudine Myers, Henry Threadgill, and members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. A Philadelphia resident since 1975, Zankel organized the Warriors in 2001 as a platform for kindred spirits seeking to stretch the compositional boundaries of jazz. The concert was presented in collaboration with Ars Nova Workshop and held a stone’s throw away from Philadelphia at Montgomery Community College in Blue Bell, PA, where the Director of Cultural Affairs, Helen Haynes welcomes a diverse range of stellar performers. Personnel on the Warriors date included Bobby Zankel, alto saxophone; Bryan Rogers, tenor saxophone; Elliott Levin, tenor/flute; Daniel Peterson, alto saxophone; Julian Pressley, baritone saxophone; Herb Robertson, trumpet; Bart Miltenberger, trumpet; Stan Slotter, trumpet; Adam Hershberger, trumpet; Fred Scott, trombone; Larry Toft, trombone; Dave Champion, trombone; Steve Swell, trombone; Tom Lawton, piano; Anthony Tidd, bass; Craig McIver, drums.

We sweat. We endure. We love.

Barely 12 hours after Muhal Richard Abrams conducted the last note with the Warriors, your LiveJazz journeyer was among the eager crowd streaming through the gates of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival on Sunday, April 29. I almost missed my flight, Fellow Travelers; who knew there would be long lines at the airport at 5:00 in the morning, for goodness sakes! However, thanks to the kindness of a stranger, I jumped ahead of at least 30 folks as my flight was being announced and arrived at the gate just in the nick of time.

The Jazz & Heritage Festival sprawls across seven stages and various tents. If you’re into jazz, chances are you’ve been to New Orleans and know how warm and lovely the folks are down there. The temperature was soaring into the 80’s as I was getting my bearings on the festival grounds. I found myself walking toward a familiar looking stranger who wiped my brow while suggesting I needed a handkerchief. When I told him about the LiveJazz Journey, he offered the headline above. It pretty much summed up my experience of the Festival.

My must-see list for the day included Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue, Dianne Reeves and Debo Band Ethiopian Groove Collective. Don’t ask me why I thought that’s all I would see. Boy was I wrong…there was soooo much going on; I went from tent-to-tent and stage-to-stage, barely pausing to grab a bottle of cold water. I must have been quite a sight, because the gracious purveyor of assorted beverages also handed me a chunk of ice to cool off with. Dianne Reeves had been replaced by Ramsey Lewis, so I didn’t get to see my favorite vocalist on the planet, but the Debo Band was just phenomenal…talk about high energy! Wow! It was a great day and I was really grateful to get home later that night, safe and sound.

Two guys and two guitars.

Virtuosic guitarist Jef Lee Johnson took a moment off from touring with Esperanza Spaulding to join bassist Chico Huff for Jazz Bridge’s final neighborhood concert in Collingswood, NJ on May 3rd. The low-key, congenial gathering was really refreshing after the intensity of the two festivals and concert of the previous week. Johnson hails from the area and is a multi-instrumentalist and vocalist of note. He’s performed with a wide range of R&B, jazz and pop artists. Jazz Bridge is a non-profit that was founded by musicians and fans to provide support to jazz and blues artists in crisis. They also organize a series of concerts in neighborhoods around Greater Philadelphia.

There’s more to report, but that’s all for now, Fellow Travelers. Go out and see some live jazz!

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