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!

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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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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.)

The Journey Begins

Week One: Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra

Thanks for joining me on this LiveJazz Journey! For the next 52 weeks, I will be checking out a live jazz show in a different city each week. From Seattle to Miami, Boston to L.A. and dozens of points in between, I plan to explore and share with you the wide-ranging diversity of this music we call jazz. And what better month to begin than April, Jazz Appreciation Month?

To get this party started, I traveled to my hometown, Washington, D.C. and checked out the Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra on April 2nd. Located in the heart of the still-evolving U Street corridor, which used to be known as America’s “Black Broadway,” Bohemian Caverns is an anchor of the City’s vibrant jazz scene. The neighborhood holds a special place in my heart. From 1994-1998, I was the first executive director of the U Street Theatre Foundation, which operates the historic Lincoln Theatre – one of three theaters that earned the aforementioned appellation in the early part of the 20th century. The neighborhood’s resurrection so many years after being devastated by riots in the wake of Dr. King’s assassination in 1968 and subsequent years of blight is an urban success story in many regards.

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The 17-piece Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra has staked a claim on Monday nights in the District. Founded by Bohemian Cavern owner Omrao Brown and baritone saxophonist Brad Linde, this nimble large ensemble moves effortlessly through the big band canon and then some! It was hard to keep track of the playlist with my camera in hand, but the audience was treated to fresh arrangements of tunes by Wes Montgomery, Count Basie and a few originals from BCJO members. Linde shares the music director chair with trumpeter Joe Herrera and the two of them see to it that the ensemble swings with sophistication and verve.

Bohemian Caverns has a remarkable history and it was exciting to see the Orchestra enjoying a standing-room-only house on a Monday night. Granted, the space is intimate and as you’ll see from the photos, the décor definitely evokes a cavern. The vibe is anything but spooky, though. As one of three rooms in the three-story venue (the second floor is a restaurant and the third floor is home to Liv, another performance space/lounge), it feels more like a black box theater than a smoky jazz club. If you’re heading to D.C. for business or a quick getaway, definitely put seeing live jazz at Bohemian Caverns on your must-do list.