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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Busy, busy weekend in Philly

Busy weekend for jazz in Philly, Fellow Travelers. Saturday afternoon, the LiveJazz Journey will take us to the inaugural Center City Jazz Festival. We’ll head out to the ‘burbs in the evening to experience Bobby Zankel’s Warriors of the Wonderful Sound, with special guest Muhal Richard Abrams at Montgomery County Community College. Trombonist Ernest Stuart deserves all sorts of kudos for putting the CCJF together. The DIY showcase for some of Philly’s homegrown and now-based-here talent extends the City’s rich jazz legacy. The festival unfolds at four venues within easy walking distance in the heart of downtown (we call it Center City, here, just so you know). Right now, I’m planning a mix that includes songstress Denise King at Chris’ Jazz Cafe, Ernest Stuart at Milkboy, and bassist Alex Claffy at Fergie’s Pub, but just like the music itself, I’m allowing myself space to improvise. Really wish I could stay for another set, but I cannot miss the chance to see legendary pianist/composer/orchestra leader Muhal Richard Abrams with the Warriors. They’ll be premiering a new piece that Abrams has written expressly for the adventurous big band. Abrams is one of the co-founders of the famed Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), around which much phenomenally innovative Chicago talent coalesced, including Amina Claudine Myers, Henry Threadgill, and members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Many years ago, I saw Muhal leading his own orchestra at the Kennedy Center, so I will be front-and-center with my camera on Saturday night. Have a great weekend, y’all – go out and see some live jazz!

Week Three: Embodiment of Elegance

Busy, busy week, Fellow Travelers! I’m getting this post to you days later than I intended. Nonetheless, I’m excited to share pix from the outstanding Kenny Barron Trio concert. The weather was just perfect – sunny and warm – as I traveled down to Baltimore on Sunday (the 15th) to see the show. The Baltimore Chamber Jazz Society was closing out its 21st anniversary season and with a full house at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Inspired by the City’s renowned Left Bank Jazz Society, BCJS launched in 1991 to present stellar jazz ensembles in an intimate concert setting.

Pianist extraordinaire. Educator. Composer. Kenny Barron is one of those gifted and accomplished artists with an impressive list of accolades. Among the highlights: NEA Jazz Master (2010), nine Grammy nominations, Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation Living Legacy Jazz Award (2008), multiple Jazz Journalists Association Best Pianist honors, and numerous jazz readers and critics polls. During his 50+ year career, the native Philadelphian has played with many of the most significant artists in mid-century jazz, including Roy Haynes, James Moody, Dizzy Gillespie, Milt Jackson, Sonny Stitt, Ron Carter and Yusef Lateef – whom he credits as an influence on his approach to improvisation (the essence of jazz, no?). The 1980’s found him collaborating with Stan Getz and founding the Thelonious Monk-inspired quartet Sphere with Buster Williams, Ben Riley and Charlie Rouse. I could go on and bring you into the 21st century, Fellow Traveler, but his bio says it all.

Fast forward to Sunday’s concert in Baltimore, where he was joined by gifted musicians Kiyoshi Kitagawa on bass and Johnathan Blake on drums. Kitagawa has been performing in the States since 1988 with a stellar roster of musicians and was with the Jimmy Heath Quartet for more than 10 years. With a Masters degree from Rutgers University (where Barron was on the faculty from 1973-2000), Blake is the youngster of the group. Music is in his genes, though: the Philadelphia native is the son of jazz violinist John Blake. Altogether, the Trio is the embodiment of elegance. Their repertoire included compositions by Baltimorean Eubie Blake, Thelonious Monk, Kenny Barron originals, and more. Their playing was lyrical, heartfelt and inspiring. At times, it was downright cinematic; not surprising, considering that Barron has written a film score or two. As I write this post, I’m uploading a video to YouTube of Barron taking a solo turn. Give it a listen when you get a chance. Meanwhile, hope you enjoy the slideshow.

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Week Two: Giants Walk Among Us

As I hit the road headed to Marlboro, NY to see the Billy Hart Quartet recently, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I had never heard of Marlboro, a hamlet in the Hudson River Valley about an hour-and-a-half outside of NYC (and to my knowledge, I had never set foot inside a hamlet). I found the intriguingly eclectic Live @ The Falcon music series online, saw that the Billy Hart Quartet would be playing on April 10 and added the show to the LiveJazz Journey. The weather was gorgeous as I set my GPS to the scenic route and headed out from Philly.

Billy Hart is one of those legendary musicians I’ve heard about over the years from gigs with many of the giants of modern jazz, including Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Wayne Shorter, Miles Davis, Hamiet Bluiett, and Stan Getz, but truth be told, I had no idea what he was like as a leader. Boy was I in for an awakening! His stellar Quartet includes pianist Ethan Iverson, a member of The Bad Plus trio; saxophonist Mark Turner; and bassist Ben Street.

The Quartet is touring in support of its new release, All Our Reasons, a gorgeous recording that you can find in the usual places. As exciting as the album is, there’s nothing like seeing the interplay among these elegant, skillful musicians in a live performance. Hart’s drumming is masterful: fluid, inventive and propulsive, and his respect for his fellow players was evident in every interaction. He is naturally charming and gracious and in this interview, he tells us a bit about his background, how the Quartet formed and his seminal influences. Billy Hart is a giant walking among us, whose music carries the history of jazz and expresses it in a fresh and modern light.

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Hope these photos give you some idea of how fantastic the concert was! (To stop the slideshow, hover your cursor over one of the image and you’ll see the player’s controls. Hit the stop button and scroll through at your leisure.)

BCJO Update

WoBCJO co-founder Joe Herreraw! The response to the LiveJazz Journey post on the Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra has been wonderful! Thank you so much. Delighted to share with you an update, courtesy of BCJO trumpeter and co-founder/co-leader Joe Herrera (pictured left). Joe ran a big band in Arizona for three years. When he moved to the District, it was natural for him to think about replicating that experience.   He connected with Brad Linde, who reached out to Bohemian Caverns owner Omrao Brown and the BJSO was born. So, here’s the line-up from April 2nd: Saxes: Brian Settles – Alto Sax, Sarah Hughes – Alto Sax, Elijah Balbed – Tenor Sax, Leigh Pilzer – Tenor Sax, Brad Linde – Baritone Sax. Trombones: Corey Wallace, Steve Shaw, Mike Matarazzo and Shannon Gunn. Trumpets: Mike Davis, Joe Herrera, Donvonte McCoy and John Williams. Rhythm Section: Dave McDonald – Drums, Eliot Seppa – Bass, Dan Roberts – Piano and Rodney Richardson – Guitar.

The BCJO’s 2nd anniversary is coming up April 16 and given the orchestra’s extensive repertoire, the many remarkable musicians living in the DMV (that’s DC, Maryland and Virginia) and the City’s warm embrace (consistently selling out Monday nights!), I’m thinking they’ll be around for many years to come.