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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Week Four: Two Festivals and a Concert

Greetings, Fellow Travelers! Hope this post finds you wonderfully well. Last weekend’s marathon LiveJazz Journey was pretty fantastic, but the next time you hear me say that I’m going to cover two jazz festivals and a standalone concert in two days…stop me! Saturday’s Journey was all about my hometown, Philadelphia, PA: the inaugural Center City Jazz Festival in the afternoon and Warriors of the Wonderful Sound with Muhal Richard Abrams that night. On Sunday, I caught an early flight down to Nawlins for the opening weekend of the 43rd annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival…and got back in time for work Monday morning.

The Center City Jazz Fest featured 16 bands in four venues within easy walking distance of each other in downtown Philly. We started our Journey at Chris’s Jazz Café, where the fabulous Ms. Denise King was holding court. Ironically enough, Chris’s is one of Philly’s few remaining jazz clubs (thankfully, there are a number of DIY presenters, concert halls, restaurants, pubs and the like). It’s located on Sansom Street, which has to be one of the busiest and most eclectic little side streets in town. From restaurants, bookstores and salons to upscale boutiques, bars, shoe stores, parking lots, dumpsters and the back entrances of home furnishing stores, Sansom Street is a microcosm of Philly’s downtown district.

 Starting the festival with Denise King was an inspired bit of planning, if I do say so myself. The show was underway when I arrived after wending my way through detoured traffic, a demonstration and Philly’s one-way streets. Chris’s was jam-packed with a very appreciative audience clearly in thrall to the music. A gifted vocalist with a warm tone and infectious spirit, Denise infuses jazz standards with a fresh, soulful energy that’s all her own. Her nimble ensemble included Aaron Graves on piano, Lee Smith on bass and Khary Abdul-Shaheed on drums. Denise ended her set with Susanne Burgess joining her on Marvin Gaye’s classic, What’s Going On.

Next up was CCJF organizer, trombonist Ernest Stuart performing at the bar and music venue MilkBoy Philadelphia at 11th & Chestnut.  Stuart conceived of the festival to “showcase the talent that we have here and bring the simmer to a boil.” Not a whole lotta folks pick up the trombone for some reason and Stuart will tell you it wasn’t his first choice of instrument. Nonetheless, he’s developed a high-energy, fluid approach that injects an element of funk and Philly soul into his own take on straight-ahead jazz. Holding it down with Stuart were the stylish vocalist Chrissie Loftus, the ubiquitous veteran bass player Mike Boone, thrilling young drummer Justin Faulkner, and keyboardist Jason Shattil. They performed selections from Stuart’s recently-released/self-produced recording, Solitary Walker for a very enthusiastic, standing-room-only audience.

My final Festival stop was at Fergie’s Pub, also on Sansom St., where the expressive, young avant-garde bassist Alex Claffy led a quartet. The first time I heard Claffy play was with the wonderfully talented Philly-based pianist Orrin Evans. He was as passionate and engaging as I had recalled and generous as a leader, giving his daring fellow players the space to stretch out into exciting improvisational territory.

So, congrats to Ernest Stuart and everyone associated with the first of what I hope will be many Center City Jazz Festivals. It was fantastic to see so many folks out on a Saturday afternoon, going from venue to venue to check out a sampling of the wonderful jazz artists who call Philly home.  Be sure to check out Part 2 of our marathon weekend of live jazz: Bobby Zankel’s Warriors of the Wonderful Sound with Muhal Richard Abrams. Go out and see some live jazz, y’all!

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