Festival Faves, pt. 1

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!

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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