CD Review: Helen Sung “Anthem For A New Day” (Concord Jazz Records)

January 15, 2014

By Devon Wendell

Pianist and composer Helen Sung has quickly established herself as a jazz veteran over the past decade, performing and recording with icons such as; Clark Terry, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, T.S. Monk, Lonnie Plaxico, and Terri Lyne Carrington to name a few.

She is one of the most consistently brilliant recording artists in jazz today. And her sixth and latest release, Anthem For A New Day, scheduled for release on January 28th,  is her hardest swinging album to date. The album is also produced by Sung.

Helen Sung

Sung wastes no time, kick starting the album with her hard-bop tribute to Thelonious Monk entitled “Brother Thelonious.” The horn section of Ingrid Jensen on trumpet and Seamus Blake on tenor sax has a Kenny Dorham and Hank Mobley at the earliest stages of The Jazz Messengers feel to it. Sung’s solo proves that she has a clear understanding of Monk’s harmonic complexities and knows how to incorporate them into her own virtuosic style.

Paquito D’Rivera’s melodic clarinet soloing dances around Sung’s polyrhythmic textured piano playing on her adventurous arrangement of Chick Corea’s “Armando’s Rhumba.”

Another guest is Regina Carter who offers some tasteful and thematic violin lines to Sung’s “Hidden.” Ingrid Jensen’s trumpet truly shines on this piece, as does Sung’s elegant phrasing on Fender Rhodes electric piano.

One of the most impressive elements of this album is how clean the rhythm section (Reuben Rogers, bass, Obed Calvaire, drums, and Samuel Torres on percussion) was recorded. No effects, compressors, or reverb were added to the drums and upright bass, which is refreshing in a time when many traditional and contemporary jazz recordings are destroyed by overly adventurous producers and engineers.

There’s a wonderfully pure tone to this album as a whole. Sung’s reading of Duke Ellington and Irving Mills’ swing anthem “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” is an album highlight. Sung uses her own chordal voicings, and her improvisations blend bop-styled pedal tones with classical elements in a completely natural way.

Sung’s originals — “Hope Springs Eternally” and the album’s title track – dip into a more late ‘60s fusion- jazz groove with a hint of third stream. John Ellis provides colorful bass clarinet shadings atop Sung’s funky staccato Fender Rhodes arpeggios on the album’s title track.

Sung’s rendition of Jay Livingston and Ray Evans’ “Never Let Me Go” is the perfect vehicle for the piano trio format. Obed Calvaire’s drums are subtle and melodic and Reuben Rogers’ bass solo is dynamic and mournful.

“Chaos Theory” brings to mind early Weather Report with fast changing meters, and piercing alto-sax runs by Seamus Blake. This composition shows off Sung and her band’s tight chemistry and creative fearlessness.

In order to truly capture the spirit of Thelonious Monk, a musician must bring forth what makes them truly unique when covering one of the High Priest’s compositions. And Sung and company achieve this on an utterly funky, gospel take of “Epistrophy.” The energy of the band is ecstatic. There’s lots of love for Monk here.

The album closes with a beautifully haunting solo piano cover of the great Stanley Cowell’s “Equipose.”

What stands out most on Anthem For A New Day is not only Sung’s fluid and imaginative piano playing but her awe-inspiring talent as a truly unique composer and arranger. Her music is adventurous, personal, and a powerful force to be reckoned with in the jazz world.

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To read more posts, reviews and columns by Devon Wendell click HERE.


Live Music: Wayne Shorter 80th Birthday Celebration at the Hollywood Bowl

August 30, 2013

By Don Heckman

The 2013 jazz season at the Hollywood Bowl reached a peak Wednesday night with an 80th birthday celebration for saxophonist/composer Wayne Shorter.

Wayne Shorter

Wayne Shorter

The participants featured, of course, Shorter himself, playing in duo with his close friend and creative associate Herbie Hancock, with his own quartet, and with the woodwind ensemble the Imani Winds. Other performers included the Joe Lovano and Dave Douglas Quintet and the trio A.C.S. (with pianist Geri Allen, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and bassist Esperanza Spalding).

Shorter himself did not actually arrive on stage, however, until the program was well underway. His connection with the opening act — the Lovano/Douglas quintet — seemed elusive, despite the fact that the band has reportedly been influenced by Shorter.  In fact, the seemingly random improvising that was a prominent element in the Lovano/Douglas set often leaned more in the direction of the wide open free jazz ’60s style associated with Ornette Coleman.  Although it was delivered with considerable skill, it often displayed more technical virtuosity than inventive imagination.

Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter

Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter

One of the evening’s creative highlights actually traced to the Hancock/Shorter duo, with Shorter playing soprano saxophone. Very much in the mold of the duet performances and recordings they explored two decades ago, the playing had the inventive flow of symbiotic improvising. Too bad more time wasn’t allocated for the always musically fascinating encounters between these two gifted players.

The A.C.S trio took a somewhat more straight ahead jazz approach than the Lovano/Douglas group. But the improvising was no less ebullient, with Allen’s soaring piano lines underscored by the propulsive bass of Spalding and the irresistibly dynamic percussion of Carrington.

Shorter had two more principal appearances after his duo segment with Hancock. Each had its own appeal. The first was illuminated by the highly engaging, compatible interaction between Shorter’s ever-adventurous playing and the spontaneous responses from the group he’s worked with frequently in recent years: pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade.

The second showcased another aspect of Shorter’s far-ranging creative skills via the selections he composed for the Imani Winds woodwind quintet. Here, too, the evening provided yet another perspective of Shorter’s iconic status as one of the most gifted members of his jazz generation.

What was missing from Shorter’s 80th birthday celebration, however, was any on-stage acknowledgment of the event. Grant the fact that it was a pleasure to see and hear Shorter’s still potent musical artistry in action. But why couldn’t the production of the program also have included a host – possibly a celebrity host – with a thorough introduction of Shorter’s long career and superb accomplishments.

And, too, there could have been something acknowledging the birthday and providing an opportunity for the more than 8,000 audience members to share the celebration. A singalong of “Happy Birthday” to Wayne? Why not? I’m guessing Shorter would have enjoyed it immensely, especially if the musical accompaniment had been led by Hancock’s always imaginative piano playing.

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Photos courtesy of the Hollywood Bowl.


Record Rack: Steven Casper & Cowboy Angst; Noah Preminger and Terri Lyne Carrington

May 2, 2013

Of Americana Rock, American Tenor Sax and American Genius Reprised

 By Brian Arsenault

The range of great American music never ceases to amaze me.  When they’re writing about our civilization, such as it is, a number of centuries hence I am quite sure it will be our music that is most treasured and remembered.  Unless the whole grid collapses, of course.

 Steven Casper & Cowboy Angst

Trouble (Silent City Records)

There is just no disputing the good time of bad times this EP (not LP) provides the listener.  Five tunes, one done twice, to take you deep into the heart of American music done road house bounce — blues, r&b, zydeco, Tex-Mex, Looziana all tied up in a just dazzling display.  In other words, rock and roll to delight the soul.

What Casper and his new Cowboy Angst lineup understand is that it’s all connected.  From the hills of West Virginia to the Delta. From Nashville to New York. At its best, it’s all American music. The Band knew that and so does Casper.

“Cat On A Hot Tin Roof” opens the proceedings and rightly so; a nasty tasty blues/gospel tune you won’t hear in church, with two McCrary sisters singing backup to Casper’s lead vocal.  In this version, it’s the guy who’s the cat.

Then here comes “Soul Deep”. Real nice lap steel guitar by John Groover McDuffie. Tom Petty would probably have a hit with this.

“I know where you end is the start of me.”

The title song is pure Louisiana  barroom rock.  How can trouble make you feel so good.

“I don’t go looking for trouble. Trouble comes looking for me.”

But the absolute gem of the album is “How Can I Miss You When You’re Not Gone?” Keeps the Cajun going and the irony can’t be missed.. The song is repeated as a “front porch” instrumental with banjo and fiddle to finish out the album.  But the first version will make you dance alone if there’s no one to dance with.

“Hey Marie” reaches way back to the 1950s to what Don and Phil Everly might have cut with Chuck Berry if songs could have been so damn bad back then without being censored or masqueraded. Chuck knew how to do that.

Marie writes on the wall: “Had a real good time. Don’t bother to call.”  Years later he sees their history “while standing in the grocery line.”

This little album is so good we might not deserve it. But it’s here this summer.

Noah Preminger

Haymaker (Palmetto Records)

Something special your way comes on May 14.

Noah Preminger, like Hemingway, boxes.  And like Hemingway he’s clear and concise.  He wants you to get it without the merely decorative and overly descriptive.  Here, here it is. Hear it.

On Haymaker, his tenor sax is moody and reflective at times — think Hawkins — as on the opening tune “Morgantown.”  Lovely and cool at other times — as on “Tomorrow,” whether you liked the musical Annie or not.

All saxophones played well are great to me, but tenor is the most satisfying; expressive and deeply touching. It’s why Kerouac called players of the instrument “tenorman.” They were special. Still are.

There are good songs all over the place. Preminger can’t remember what girl he wrote “My Blues for You” for, so it’s for all the girls you’ve loved.  Ben Mondor’s guitar solo picks up Preminger’s mood but it almost hurts when his horn breaks off.

Monder steps out front in the intro to his composition “Animal Planet.” Real smooth. Then Preminger comes in with such melodic lines.  A real favorite of mine.

On “Stir My Soul” and elsewhere, drummer Colin Stranahan sometimes annoys with his insistent pounding.  Oh, he’s good but he doesn’t need to fill every available space.  More Charlie Watts, less Keith Moon, please. Or listen to the next album (see below).

Still, he’s fine on the Dave Matthews song “Don’t Drink the Water.” The band makes you feel so good here as they start real smooth, go off into space and then return to the song’s melody.

“Motif Attractif” is a sweet little sendoff to close the album.

Preminger’s playing — ascending, descending, roaming, retuning — is just so sensitive to tonality, melody, timing and the other musicians that he is special to hear.

A haymaker in boxing can produce a knockout all on its own.

 Terri Lyne Carrington

Money Jungle Provocative in Blue (Concord Blue)

Shoot for the top.  Can’t hurt and it might work.

Drummer supreme Terri Lyne Carrington does just that with a reworking of Duke Ellington’s remarkable trio recording Money Jungle with Charles Mingus and Max Roach.  She gathers up the superb piano of Gerald Clayton and bassist Christian McBride with a few others and nails it.

I’m kinda late reviewing this album that came out during the winter but it got buried in the stack and just has to be paid homage to the way she pays homage to Ellington.

Even when she throws in a few of her own songs she seems true to the Duke.  I think he would have liked them. A lot.  And Clayton gets his own cut, “Cut Off,” which also resonates as a true Ellington descendant.

But the Ellington tunes, oh yeah.  A money hating downer narrative leading us into the album is overridden by the joyousness of the music that follows.  Clayton’s piano complemented just perfectly by Carrington’s drumming. She understands that the spaces are as important as the hits.

The only jarring note in the tune “Money Jungle” is the music being interspersed with speech clips from various politicians.  Doesn’t do much for me.  Money may be the enemy of art, but try paying the rent without the coin from gigs and recordings.  Politicians don’t do anything for art or anyone.  They don’t make things better for anybody but themselves.

But back to Ellington’s music.  “Fleurette Africain” demonstrates beautifully Mingus’ quote in the liner notes about simplicity.

“Anybody can play weird; that’s easy (and) making the simple complicated is commonplace.  What’s hard is to be as simple as Bach.  Making the simple, awesomely simple… That’s creativity.”

You’ll get it when you hear it.  Simple. Note to note. Chord to chord. Builds, weaves but always simple.  You hear every bit of it.

Same with “Backward Country Boy Blues,” with “Switch Blade,” with all of the Ellington compositions so lovingly handled here.

The wrap comes with “Rem Blues/Music” and the recitation of an Ellington poem within.

“Music is a woman . ..

When you think what you think,

She already knows”

Terri Lyne knows.

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To read more posts, reviews and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE.


The Playboy Jazz Festival 2012: Sunday’s Program at the Hollywood Bowl

June 19, 2012

 

By Devon Wendell

Photos by Bonnie Perkinson

This year’s choice of performers at The 34th Annual Playboy Jazz Festival may have had both the serious jazz fan and struggling jazz musician recoiling in disgust, but even the most stubborn jazz aficionado can’t deny that fun and diversity dominated the festival.

Before covering Sunday’s highlights, we’ll follow up on Mike Katz’s Saturday review with a few additional thoughts about some of the outstanding moments in Saturday’s program.

The first is The Cos Of Good Music (Farid Barron: piano, Dwayne Burno: bass, Ndugo Chancler: drums, Tia Fuller: alto sax, Mathew Garrison: bass guitar, Ingrid Jensen: trumpet and flugelhorn, Babatunde Lea: Percussion, and Erena Terakubo on alto sax.)  Out of all of these world class musicians handpicked by Bill Cosby, it was the three women of the reeds (Fuller, Jensen, and Terakubo) who stole the spotlight.  The group’s rendition of the Ray Noble classic “Cherokee” (which helped a young Charlie Parker find his own innovative technique) was one of the greatest moments of the entire festival.   During this difficult composition, Fuller, Jensen, and Terakubo, made it apparent that they are well versed in the vocabulary of both the be-bop and hard-bop genres.  From Bird, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, to Phil Woods, John Coltrane and Lee Morgan, the ladies could do it all and without mere mimicking.  They had their own feminine slant to the music, which made it even more special. No male musicians at the Festival could match the virtuosity of these young women.  You would not believe that Terakubo is only 20 years old by her command, technique, and soul on the alto saxophone. Boney James (also on the bill on Saturday) could learn volumes from Terakubo.

Bill Cosby ant the Cos of Good Music

Cosby took the microphone and went into the humorous “Hikky Burr” (which Cosby had originally recorded with Quincy Jones in ’69), which gave Fuller, Jensen, and Terakubo a chance to show off their blues chops. They seemed totally at ease and didn’t sound like over-trained jazz musicians trying to play blues, which often happens on songs like this. Cosby’s vocals were playful and funny and became the perfect way to bid him farewell as Master Of Ceremonies at The Playboy Jazz Festival.

The authentic Louisiana funk of The Soul Rebels (Leo Nocentelli: guitar, Ivan Neville: keyboards and vocals, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux: vocals, Lumar Leblanc: snare drum, Derrick Moss: bass drum, Julian Gosin, Marcus Hubbard: trumpets, Paul Robertson, Corey Peyton: trombones, Erion Williams: saxophone, and Edward Lee Jr., sousaphone.) was another exhilarating part of Saturday’s show. The group’s big brass Creole soul arrangements of Michael Jackson’s “Off The Wall” and Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish” were filled with harmonic textures and rhythmic layers that made these renditions more compelling than the originals.

Seeing original Meter’s guitarist Leo Nocentelli with keyboardist Ivan Neville, performing The Meter’s classic “Hey Pocky A -Way” in this big band setting was a brilliant departure from the original recording from 1974.  Big Chief Monk Boudreaux joined the band on his topical piece “Find The Levee And Burn It Down.” And Nocentelli’s wonderfully primitive bare bones rhythm guitar chops gave this Bayou swamp boogie a Reggae groove twist.

Sunday’s lineup was an eclectic mix of jazz, fusion, blues, and even pop.  The attentive and well rehearsed Calabasas High School Band under the direction of Joshua Barroll kicked of the day’s program.

Mixing Afro-Cuban funk with reggae, KG Omulo was the perfect band for the Bowl audience. On originals such as “Moving Train,” “Quality Woman,” “Acuna” and “No Means No,” Omulo and his band sounded like a cross between Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Bob Marley And The Wailers, and early Funkadelic. Guitarist Michael Schmidt’s screaming wah-wah guitar locked in with bassist Dave Whitaker’s solid bass lines.  Omulo is also a charismatic vocalist and front man.  But it did feel as though Omulo and his band would have had a greater impact had they performed later in the day or evening.

Although the Cookers consisted of some legendary jazz players (Eddie Henderson: trumpet, Billy Harper: tenor sax, Craig Handy: alto sax and flute, David Weiss: trumpet, George Cables: piano, Cecil McBee: bass, and Billy Hart on drums), their energy and softness did anything but cook.

The Cookers (Billy Harper, David Weiss, Eddie Henderson, Craig Handy)

Harper’s composition “Capra Black,” and McBee’s “Peace Maker” sounded like Miles Smiles era modal jazz, but needed something more.  All of these seasoned musicians played strong solos but the material seemed redundant. Cables’ dynamic and inventive piano playing stood out among the rest of the group. Overall, however, the Cookers did more simmering than cooking.

Chico Trujillo brought the pace back up from the second they took the stage with their Chilean cumbia, ska, and Latin rhythms. Though the band was energetic and high spirited in its stage presence (especially lead singer Macha), the music was repetitive and sloppy.  And, though the focus was on the percussionists and lead singer, it was saxophonist Fela, and trumpeter Zorrita, along with keyboardist Joselo, who held together the band’s melodies.

Terri Lyne Carrington and bassist Mimi Jones

Terri Lyne Carrington’s Mosaic Project played one of the most tasteful and consistently brilliant sets of the day — one of the highlights of the entire Festival. Along with Carrington on drums, the Mosaic Project consisted of Tia Fuller: alto sax, Ingrid Jensen: trumpet (both also featured on The Cos Of Good Music), Mimi Jones: bass, Patrice Rushen and Helen Sung: piano, and Linda Taylor on guitar with special guest vocalists.

Nona Hendryx added her one of a kind vocal style on her classic “Transformation” (Re-recorded on The Mosaic Project album), Gretchen Parlato (who has proven to be one of the finest vocalists in contemporary jazz) brought her sweet sultry sound to “Simply Beautiful.” The melodic interaction between pianists Rushen and Sung was astounding. Carrington’s strength as a drummer is in her subtlety. Her flourishes were so delicate behind Dianne Reeves on “Echo,” that it almost sounded as if she were laying out completely — even though if she were, the foundation would have been lost. It takes a true musical thinker to pull that off successfully.

Angela Davis’ spoken word addition to “Echo” was a startling presentation of her “New Freedom movement.”  Fuller and Jensen’s horn lines wove in and out of the melody, creating a dream-like effect that was a perfect match with Carmen Lundy’s vocals on Geri Allen’s “Unconditional Love.”  The music was hypnotic and sensual on “Soul Talk” with Dee Dee Bridgewater on vocals.  Every note between Jensen, Fuller, Rushen, Sung, Jones, and guitarist Linda Taylor was perfectly placed without losing spontaneity.

On “Show me a sign,” Carrington ended the piece with a thunderous, Art Blakey-esque drum solo.  Bill Cosby was so blown away that he took the mic and thanked Carrington on behalf of the Playboy Jazz festival, urging her to stand and take a bow.

The Preservation Hall Jazz Band

The Preservation Hall Jazz Band (Mark Braud: trumpet, vocals,band leader, Ben Jaffe: sousaphone, bass, creative director, Rickie Monie: piano, musical director, Joe Lastie Jr.: drums, Clint Maedgan: saxophone, vocals, Charlie Gabriel: clarinet, vocals, Freddie Lonzo: trombone, vocals, and Frank Demond: trombone) just may be the most traditional New Orleans sounding jazz ensemble the Festival has ever presented.  The ghost of Louis Armstrong and his Hot Fives and Sevens was felt on “Down On Bourbon Street,” “Swing That Thing,” and “Sweet Substitute.”  Braud, Gabriel, and Maedgan shared the lead vocal spots.  The concept of collective improvisation (which began in New Orleans with The Dixieland bands) was what The Preservation Hall Jazz Band was all about. Each reeds man soloed at once in a way that was orchestrated and organized but irresistibly fun and danceable.  Jaffe’s bouncing bass line on the sousaphone got the Bowl crowd up on their tipsy feet.

For the blues portion of the festival, Keb’ Mo’ and his band played a set full of whimsical R&B based urban blues like “The Whole Enchilada,” “Government Cheese,” and “One Way Home.” Though Keb’ Mo’ is know mostly for his slide guitar work, at the festival, he stuck to playing straight blues leads on a Strat, which sounded like the yuppified blues style of Robert Cray. Though a talented singer, songwriter, and guitarist, with a more than capable band, it was hard to tell one song from another during this set. There wasn’t much blues to this music.

The real excitement in his program came when Keb’ Mo’ brought out the legendary Barbara Morrison for a duet on a Chicago blues shuffle version of Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Further On Up The Road.”  Morrison can belt out the blues like no one else and has an electrifying stage presence which was needed throughout the set.

Ramsey Lewis

The Ramsey Lewis Electric Band had this jazz/soul pioneer experimenting with a more soft jazz/ fusion sound that didn’t seem fitting.  The group’s reading of The Stylistics “Betcha By Golly Wow,” Lewis’s own “Brazilica,” Stevie Wonder’s “Living For The City” and Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Sun Goddess” (which Lewis had recorded with the band and referred to as “Wayo”) all felt flat. Tim Gant’s electric keyboards sounded too synthetic and cheesy.

Lewis sounded best (and even looked happier) when sticking to his more gospel influenced material and playing tunes that him famous — “Wade In The Water,” and his biggest hit “The In Crowd” – while alternating between acoustic piano and Fender Rhodes electric piano with ease and focus.

The Playboy Jazz Festival can and has ventured pretty far from jazz but no more so than having Robin Thicke perform on the bill. Thicke and his band brought their boy-band sounding bubblegum pop to the Bowl and there were plenty of young, screaming girls present to enjoy it.  Not much more to say about it than that.

Jack Bruce and Cindy Blackman Santana

Closing the performance was the hardest, loudest, and most creative experimental group of the entire Festival. Spectrum Road (Featuring Vernon Reid: electric guitar, Cindy Blackman Santana: drums, Jack Bruce: bass, and John Medeski on keyboards) is a newly formed tribute band to the late great drum giant Tony Williams.   The band performed material from their self titled debut album Spectrum Road such as “Vuelta Abajo,” “Where” and William’s “There Comes A Time” with Jack Bruce on vocals. The music was tight but chaotic, piercing, arrogant, skillful, and daring in all the best ways. These characteristics match Tony Williams’ playing and personality to a tee.

Reid’s fierce, frenetic guitar playing fused marvelously with Blackman Santana’s drumming which echoed that of Williams. Jack Bruce’s guttural, busy bass lines followed Blackman Santana’s bombast no matter how far out she would go.  Medeski’s B3 organ sound was the only element that didn’t always fit. It was too heavy for this already ferocious sound.

Blackman Santana and Reid were clearly the stars of the group, even facing each other for most of the set, feeding off each other’s energy. The group sounded like a combination of Sonny Sharrock’s early ‘90s instrumental experiments, mid-‘70s Santana, and Vernon Reid’s work with his band Masque, but more powerful.

Blackman Santana’s long drum solo after “Where” was one of the great moments of the festival. She never repeated an idea twice and though she was inspired by Williams, she proved to have an energy all her own, all powerful and all woman.

The band even did a cover of Cream’s “Politician” (once again, fitting for the times), in which Jack Bruce’s vocals sounded the same as they did when he performed the song in 1967.  Reid and Blackman Santana put Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker to Shame, taking this 60s psychedelic blues anthem far beyond the stratosphere.

And so another Playboy Festival has come and gone. Some may bicker about the “Lack of real jazz at the festival,” but the number of innovative artists certainly outnumbered the fluff, and there were plenty of surprises.  Most importantly, everyone was having fun, which is ultimately what this Festival is all about.


The Playboy Jazz Festival: The First Ladies of the Skins

June 14, 2012

The 2012 Playboy Jazz Festival, which takes place at the Hollywood Bowl this weekend, features the rare presence of three world class female jazz drummers.  Writer/musician Devon Wendell describes his reaction when he first saw the Festival line up.  

By Devon Wendell

Growing up, I always thought of the drums as being this potent symbol of masculine power.  I’d listen to Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones, Elvin Jones, Billy Higgins, Art Blakey, Tony Williams, and Roy Haynes.  These men sounded tough, pissed off, strong and as if they possessed boundless energy.  Bird, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, or Miles could be playing the sweetest melody you’ve ever heard and then this bombastic force would enter in a way that felt like Zeus throwing thunder bolts from the heavens – and at the same time it always complimented the music perfectly.

The initial experiences of that drum sound were so wild that it made me giggle as if I were listening to something forbidden.  It was a similar feeling that I had when sneaking off with my high school chums, smoking and listening to Richard Pryor albums when no adults were present.

Although I could play guitar, bass, harmonica, and some keys by my mid-teens, the drums always intimidated me. I felt too weak and geeky to be a drummer.  It was Max Roach with Bird on those classics Verve sides that scared me away from picking up those sticks.  Once I had second thoughts and was going to give it a go, I heard Philly Joe Jones’ drum solo behind Miles Davis on Miles’ version of the Dizzy Gillespie classic “Salt Peanuts” from those incredible Prestige recordings of 1956.  Once again I felt like the scrawny kid watching the jocks slamming into each other on the football field.

I knew that I could be lethargic, lazy and fake self confidence with an electric guitar but not with drums. Unless you’re playing an electric kit like that dreadful sound Phil Collins was selling to the public in the 80s, there’s nothing to hide behind on the drums. To me, this was a tough guy’s instrument.

My perception of drummers quickly shifted when I first saw Sheila E. performing with Prince on TV.  She bashed away at the kit, creating polyrhythmic bliss.  All of my sexist, preconceived notions of what a woman could and couldn’t do vanished like all my dreams and aspirations did in high school.  Sheila E. appeared just as confident and energetic as Elvin Jones playing with John Coltrane.

Sheila E.

Many years later I saw Sheila E. perform with her father – the brilliant and legendary percussionist and composer Pete Escovedo.  There must have been six or seven percussionists up their on stage, and they all seemed to be having a hard time keeping up with Sheila E., who had this ferocious look on her face. Her teeth were gritted as she stared down her father and his comrades.  I could imagine her saying, “Take that boys!”  I found this confidence to be extremely sexy.

Cindy Blackman

One night while I was attending college, I ventured down to the Knitting Factory in NYC to see Pharoah Sanders.  Although he was great in his own right, it was his drummer that got my attention.  Here was this slender woman with big, wild hair tossing back and fourth on her head, and her arms flailing all over the drums. She looked totally relaxed but played as aggressively as Tony Williams. I rushed over to the sound man to find out who she was and he told me, “Man, that’s Cindy Blackman.”

At times, her facial expressions revealed possible shyness, which I could not match with her total control and mastery of the drum kit.  Her ideas kept flowing.  She played the top and bottom of the kit while taking risks and never missing a beat.  I instantly had a crush on Blackman, whose appearance was that of a modern day, elegant, psychedelic goddess. But I wasn’t cool enough to approach her, not even close.  I barely saw Sanders and whoever else was in the band that night. I knew that this drummer was someone who was going to get a lot of attention.

The next time I saw Blackman play was a year later with Lenny Kravitz at some God awful rock festival in New Jersey.  Behind Kravitz, she played a funkier, more subordinate roll, but the effect was just as compelling.  She gave Lenny some much needed groove.

In 2003, I was in Atlanta and went to see Herbie Hancock, who was set to play with fellow legend, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson.  This was one of the greatest performances I’ve ever witnessed.  Once again, the drummer caught my ears and eyes.

Terri Lyne Carrington

Hancock introduced her, and the name Terri Lyne Carrington has stayed with me ever since.  What struck me about Carrington was her sense of dynamics.  Amazingly, she could play soft and hard all at once, using high hat flourishes with the bass drum in a way that was completely unique.  Herbie may have been the band leader, but Carrington was the driving force, taking the band way up and then down to where you could hear “A rat piss on cotton,” as Ella Fitzgerald used to put it.  It was as if Carrington was aware of what Hancock, Hutcherson, and bassist Scott Colley were going to do before they did. She played melodically the way Art Taylor did behind Jackie McLean. The jazz dork in me was in love again.

All three women let it be known that they are proud and strong and can give any male drummer a run for their money. Cindy Blackman (now Cindy Blackman Santana) has said, “I wouldn’t care if Art Blakey was pink with polka dots wearing a tutu or if Tony Williams was green.  Me being a female drummer has nothing to do with anything except for the fact that I wear bras and panties and guys don’t.”  (Well, some guys.)

Terri Lyne Carrington says of her latest musical venture (and fifth album as a bandleader) The Mosaic Project: “This particular project really is to celebrate women artists, women musicians, and women instrumentalists and singers.” Like bassist Esperanza Spalding, (who has also proven to be a great innovator on a male dominated instrument), Carrington is also a uniquely soulful vocalist.  The Mosaic Project won a Grammy this year in the Best Jazz Vocal category.  The album not only celebrates woman musicians and artists but features such great ladies as Dianne Reeves, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Nona Hendryx, Cassandra Wilson, Esperanza Spalding, Gerri Allen, and Sheila E.  All the musicians on the album are women. Sheila E. said about the project, “I dare any man to come and try to do this!”

You can see all three artists perform at The 34th Annual Playboy Jazz Festival this weekend.

Sheila E. will be playing a set with her own band on Saturday, June 16th, the opening day of The Festival.

Cindy Blackman Santana appears on Sunday’s program with her latest band, Spectrum Road, which is a tribute to Tony Williams (featuring Vernon Reid: guitar, John Medeski: keyboards, and Jack Bruce on bass) performing music from their self-titled debut album Spectrum Road on Sunday.

And Terri Lyne Carrington and her Mosaic Project – with Gretchen Parlato, Carmen Lundy, Tia Fuller, Ingrid Jensen, Helen Sung, Linda Taylor, Mimi Jones, Patrice Rushen, Angela Davis (and some surprise guests) are also on the Sunday Playboy Festival line up.

I can visualize Max, Elvin, Philly Joe, Art Blakey, and Billy Higgins all standing together, dressed to the nines, looking down from heaven at these three women playing and then slapping each other five and saying, “Yeah, they got it covered,” and maybe even looking somewhat envious at what they see and hear.

* * * * * * * *

For information about the 34th Playboy Jazz Festival, call the Festival hot line –  (310) 450-1173 — or click HERE.

To read more posts and reviews by Devon Wendell click HERE.


Here, There & Everywhere: The 2012 Jazz Grammy Winners

February 13, 2012

By Don Heckman

The 2012 Grammys are in, and once again there’s not much sound of surprise in the results.  Certainly nothing in the same ballpark as last year’s Best New Artist award for Esperanza Spalding.  That’s not to say that any of the wins were undeserved.  Because they all were the products of gifted artists doing their best. Nor were any of the nominees any less deserving than the winners.

Still, both the awards and the Recording Academy’s current approach to jazz raise some questioning observations.  Take, for example, the inclusion of Terri Lyne Carrington’ s The Mosaic Project in the Jazz Vocal grouping.  Doesn’t it seem inevitable that a collection of songs by such major names as Dianne Reeves, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Cassandra Wilson and, yes, Esperanza Spalding (among others) is going to have a major head start in any competition against recordings by single artists?  What chance did the other nominees – especially the unusually superlative trio of albums from Tierney Sutton, Roseanna Vitro and Karrin Allyson – have against a full line-up of such musical heavyweights?

Notice, too, some of the repetitions: multiple nominations for Randy Brecker, Fred Hersch and Sonny Rollins.  Great artists, all, but where are the nominations for the youngest generation of jazz players?  It’s worth noting that Gerald Clayton is the only nominee still in his twenties.  And Miguel Zenon is the only nominee still in his thirties.

Add to that several aspects in this year’s awards procedures that underscore the diminishing role that jazz is playing in the Grammy overview.  Start with the reduced number of categories.  In 2011 there were six: Contemporary Jazz Album, Vocal Album, Improvised Jazz Solo, Jazz Instrumental Album (Individual or Group), Large Jazz Album and Latin Jazz Album.

This year, there are four: Best Improvised Jazz Solo, Best Jazz Vocal Album, Best Jazz Instrumental Album and Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album. Some jazz fans won’t miss the Contemporary category, despite the fact that its absence eliminates the presence of some fine, pop-oriented jazz stylists.  But the Latin Jazz omission is unforgivable, and should receive careful re-consideration in the planning for next year’s Grammys.

In the listings below, I’ve also included Best Instrumental Arrangement and Best Instrumental Composition, because, in these nominees, the emphasis is almost completely in the direction of jazz.  They could easily have had different orientations — pop, rock, electronica, classical and otherwise — given the all-inclusive nature of the descriptions “Instrumental Arrangement” and “Instrumental Composition.”

Ultimately, the single word that comes to mind in considering all the above is “irrelevant.”  Receiving a Grammy award continues to be one of the music world’s greatest honors – for the individual artist.  And every jazz player –like every other musical artist – has to be delighted to receive the gold statuette.  But the overall significance of the Grammys to jazz, the Awards’ full commitment to honoring one of America’s greatest cultural contributions, continues to diminish.  And if it continues in its current direction, the long, historical Grammy/jazz connection won’t just be irrelevant, it’ll be non-existent.

Here are this year’s awards:

Best Improvised Jazz Solo

 Winner.  Chick Corea : “Five Hundred Miles Highfrom Forever.

Other Nominees:

Randy Brecker: “All or Nothing at All” from The Jazz ballad Song Book

Ron Carter: “You Are My Sunshine” from This Is Jazz.

Fred Hersch: “Work” from Alone at the Vanguard.

Sonny Rollins: “Sunnymoon For Two: from Road Shows, Vol. 2.

Best Jazz Vocal album

Winner: Terri Lyne Carrington and Various Artists: The Mosaic Project.

Other Nominees:

Tierney Sutton Band: American Road

Karrin Allyson: ‘Round Midnight.

Kurt Elling: The Gate.

Roseanna Vitro: The Music of Randy Newman.

Best Jazz Instrumental Album

Winner: Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke & Lenny White.  Corea, Clark & White.

Other Nominees:

Gerald Clayton: The Paris Sessions.

Fred Hersch: Alone at the Vanguard.

Joe Lovano/Us Five: Bird Songs.

Sonny Rollins: Road Shows, Vol.2

Yellowjackets: Timeline.

Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album

Winner: Christian McBride Big Band. The Good Feeling.

Other Nominees:

Randy Brecker with the WDR Big Band: The Jazz Ballad Song Book.

Arturo O’Farrill & the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra: 40 Acres and a Burro.

Gerald Wilson Orchestra; Legacy.

Miguel Zenon: Alma Adentro: The Puerto Rican Songbook

Best Instrumental Arrangement

Winner: Gordon Goodwin: Rhapsody in Blue.

Other Nominees:

Peter Jensen: ‘All or Nothing At All” (for Randy Brecker with the GDR Big Band)

Clare Fischer: “In the Beginning: (from the Clare Fischer Big band’s Continuum.)

Bob Brookmeyer: “Nasty Dance.” (from the Vanguard Jazz Orchstra’s Forever Lasting).

Carlos Franzetti: “Song Without Words” (from Alborada).

Best Instrumental Composition

Winner: Bela Fleck and Howard Levy: “Life In Eleven” from Rocket Science.

Other Nominees:

John Hollenbeck: “Falling Men” from Shut Up and Dance.

Gordon Goodwin: “Hunting Wabbits 3 (Get Off My Lawn) from That’s How We Roll.

Randy Brecker: “I Talk To The Trees” from The Jazz Ballad Song Book.

Russell Ferrante: “Timeline” from Timeline.


Picks of the Week: Jan 10 – 15

January 9, 2012

By Don Heckman

Los Angeles

Youngjoo Song

- Jan. 10. (Tues.)  Youngjoo Song.  Korean jazz pianist Youngjoo Song brings an affection for classical music and American gospel song to her creatively eclectic view of jazz, as both a player and a composer.  In this rare Los Angeles appearance, the rising jazz star’s  group features the similarly versatile,  fast-fingered, multi-saxophone playing of  the always inventive Bob SheppardThe Blue Whale.   (213) 620-0908.

- Jan. 11. (Wed.)  Nora Rothman.  The talented young jazz singer/pianist, just barely into her ‘20s, has the skill and the style of a major talent in the making.  She’s backed by Nick Chuba and Charlie Mischer.  Catalina Bar & Grill.   (323) 466-2210.

Judy Wexler

- Jan. 12. (Thurs.)  Judy Wexler Quintet.  One of the many great things about hearing jazz singer Judy Wexler in action is the unpredictability of what to expect.  Always compelling, she makes a song her own, whether it’s American Songbook, Jazz Standard, Top 40 Pop or Singer/Songwriter.  The LAX Jazz Club at the Crowne Plaza.  l  (310) 258-1333.

- Jan. 12. (Thurs.)  Paul Jacobs.  The winner of a 2010 Best Solo Instrumental Grammy – the first organist ever to do so – Jacobs presents a challenging program of 20th century works, including Messiaen’s Livre du Saint Sacrement.  Royce Hall Organ Recital.  UCLA Live.   (310) 825-2101.

- Jan. 12. (Thurs.)  Pilc – Moutin – Hoenig.  The world class trio of pianist Jean-Michel Pilc, from France, bassist Francois Moutin, also from France, and drummer Ari Hoenig, from Philadelphia have been affirming the true international nature of jazz for more than a decade with their cutting edge version of the jazz piano trio.  The Musicians Institute Concert Center.  A Jazz Bakery Movable Feast.    (310) 271-9039.

- Jan. 12. (Thurs.)  Kate Reid and Larry Koonse.  Singer/pianist Reid’s recent CD, The Love I’m In, offers a potent display of her rich, intuitive way with a song.  Working in tandem with the superb guitar of Koonse should produce similarly intriguing results.  Vitello’s.   (818) 769-0905.

- Jan. 12 – 14. (Thurs. – Sat.)  George Duke’s Fusion Band. He’s got the skills to go in any musical direction.  This time out, celebrating his 66th birthday (on Thurs.) the versatile keyboardist is digging into his rich bag of funk. Catalina Bar & Grill.   (323) 466-2210.

Gustav Mahler

- Jan. 13. (Fri.) through Feb. 5. (Sun).  The Mahler Project.  9 Symphonies, 3 Weeks, 2 Orchestra, 1 Conductor.  Gustavo Dudamel takes on the Herculean task of conducting Gustav Mahler’s nine completed symphonies in performances by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela at venues in Los Angeles and Caracas.  The Mahler Project.   (323) 850-2000.

- Jan. 13 & 14. (Thurs. & Fri.)  Vardan Ovsepian Chamber Ensemble.  Part I and II.  Armenian-born pianist-composer Ovsepian is musically inhabiting the broad land between jazz and concert music with remarkably intriguing results.  The Blue Whale.    (213) 620-0908.

- Jan. 15. (Sun.)  Sing! Sing! Sing! This week’s singalong with the Sing! Sing! Sing! vocalists and the adroit backing of pianist Judy Wolman focuses on the incredible song catalog of Irving Berlin.  Between songs, Howard Lewis will provide some fascinating nuggets of information about the Great American Songwriter who was born Israel Baline.  Sing! Sing! Sing! 

Seattle

- Jan. 12 – 15. (Thurs. – Sun.)  Arturo Sandoval. The gifted trumpeter/pianist/percussionist/singer (and more) takes a band of L.A.’s finest players up to the Northwest for a display of Southern California/Cuban Latin jazz.  Jazz Alley.    (206) 441-9729.

Boston

J D Souther

- Jan. 12. (Thurs.)  J. D. Souther.  He may be best known as the writer of some compelling hit songs for Linda Rondstat, the Eagles and himself (among others), but Souther – his performances spiced with his affection for jazz – is best to see and hear on his own.  Click HERE to read iRoM’s review of Souther’s latest recording.  Regatta Jazz Bar.   (617) 395-7757.

New York

- Jan. 10 – 12. (Tues. – Thurs.)  The Clayton Brothers. Not just the Clayton Brothers, bassist John and alto saxophonist Jeff, but also the next generation’s impressive new star – John’s son, pianist Gerald Clayton.  All these hugely talented, interrelated genes will be backed by trumpeter Terrell Stafford and drummer Obed CalvaireDizzy’s Club Coca Cola.   (212) 258-9800.

- Jan. 10 – 15. (Tues. – Sun.)  Geri Allen, Esperanza Spalding, Terri Lyne Carrington.  Here they are, all in one incredible package – a trio of three of the contemporary jazz world’s most gifted female artists.  Don’t miss this one.  The Village Vanguard.    (212) 255-4037.

Berlin

Kurt Rosenwinkel

- Jan. 14. (Sat.)  Kurt Rosenwinkel Berlin Quartet.  In a world filled with ambitious guitarists, Rosenwinkel has managed to hold his own, developing a style that is both unique, appealing and immensely musical.  A-Trane.   030/313 25 50. Guitarist Rosenwinkel,


Picks of the Week: Aug. 3 – 8

August 3, 2010

By Don Heckman

Los Angeles

Gustavo Dudamel

- Aug. 3. (Tues.)  The Los Angeles PhilharmonicGustavo Dudamel conducts a stunning program of Bernstein and Gershwin. Gabriela Montero solos in the Rhapsody In BlueThe Hollywood Bowl.   (323) 850-2000.

- Aug. 3. (Tues.)  Wayne Bergeron’s Big Band.  Trumpeter Bergeron steps down from the trumpet section to lead own large jazz ensemble.  Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.   (310) 474-9400.  www.vibratogrilljazz.com.

- Aug. 4. (Wed.)  Denise Donatelli.  With a warm, embracing voice, a solid sense of swing and an intuitive gift for interpretation, Donatelli has all the right stuff for engaging jazz vocalizing. Charlie O’s (818) 994-3058.

Rickie Lee Jones

- Aug. 5. (Thurs.) Rickie Lee Jones. The quirky, singer-songwriter star of the ‘70s and ‘80s still knows how to put it all together.  She makes a rare Southland appearance.  Twilight Dance at the Santa Monica Pier. (310) 458-8900.

- Aug. 5. (Thurs.)  The Los Angeles PhilharmonicGustavo Dudamel adds another stirring Bowl appearance, conducting Ravel’s Bolero, Falla’s Three Cornered Hat, Villa-Lobos Bachianas Brasileiras and more.  Soprano Isabel Leonard is featured.  The Hollywood Bowl.   (323) 850-2000.

- Aug. 5. (Thurs.)  Elliott Cane Quintet. Trumpeter/optometrist Cane showcases his bebop chops in one of L.A.’s most amiable settings.  The Descanso Gardens.   (818) 949-4200

- Aug. 5. (Thurs.)  Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys. The Grammy-nominated Playboys should bring the crowd to their feet with an irrepressible collection of Cajun dance rhythms.  The Skirball Center.  http://www.skirball.org (310) 440-4500.

- Aug. 5 – 7. (Thurs. – Sun.)  Kenny Burrell.  Master guitarist Burrell takes a break from his academic duties in the UCLA jazz program.  He’s backed by the solid ensemble of Tom Ranier, Roberto Miranda, Clayton Cameron and Tivon Pennicott Catalina Bar & Grill.  (323) 466-2210.  .

- Aug. 6. (Fri.)  Henry Franklin.  Bassist Franklin, affectionately known as The Skipper, recalls some of the superb sounds he made with the likes of Hugh Masekela, the Three Sounds and Freddie Hubbard.  LACMA (323) 857-6000.

- Aug. 6 – 8. (Fri – sun.) Rent. The Tony-winning, Pulitzer Prize-winning, long-run Broadway hit is this Summer’s choice for the Bowl’s annual fully staged musical. The Hollywood Bowl.   (323) 850-2000.

- Aug. 7. (Sat.)  The Mike Melvoin Trio.  Melvoin has done so many things so well for so many years — compose, conduct, produce, arrange — that his finely honed skills as a jazz pianist don’t always receive the accolades they deserve.  He’s at his best when he works, as he does here,  in a virtually symbiotic musical partnership with bassist Tony Dumas and drummer Ralph PenlandKeyboard Concepts L.A. 3:30 – 5 p.m.  Reservation required.  (323) 651-3060.

Ringo Starr

Aug. 7. (Sat.)  Ringo Starr and his All Starr Band.  There’s usually a Beatles vibe when Ringo’s around.  But for this appearance, celebrating his latest album, Y Not, he shifts gears with a stellar ensemble that includes Edgar Winter, Rick Derringer, Gary Wright, Greg Bissonette and others. The Greek Theatre.   (323) 665-3125.

- Aug. 7. (Sat.)  Mitch Forman Trio.  Versatile keyboardist Forman displays his impressive musical wares in the intimacy of a trio setting.   Vitello’s.   (818) 769-0905.

- Aug. 8. (Sun.) The Music of Scott LaFaro.  A musical and literary tribute to the late great bassists.  Alan Pasqua, Pat Senatore and Joe La Barbera perform.  And LaFaro’s sister, Helene LaFaro-Fernandez will be present to sign her book, Jade Visions: The Music and Life of Scott Lafaro Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc.   (310) 474-9400.  .

- Aug. 8. (Sun.) The Four Freshmen and the George Kahn Trio. The current edition of the jazz vocal and instrumental quartet display their lush harmonies in a fund raiser for the California Jazz Foundation. Catalina Bar & Grill.  (323) 466-2210.  .

- Aug. 8. (Sun.)  Johnny Polanco y Su Conjunto Amistad.  Multi-instrumentalist Polanco cranks up his Latin jazz rhythms in the laid-back setting of KJAZ’s Sunday Champagne Brunch.  The inimitable Bubba Jackson is the host.  The Twist Restaurant in the Renaissance Hotel & Spa.

- Aug. 8. (Sun.)  Los Angeles Jewish SymphonyCinema Judaica.  The LAJS, conducted by Noreen Green performs the film music of such Jewish composers as Jerry Goldsmith, Elmer Bernstein, Steven Schwartz and others.  The Ford Amphitheatre.   (323) 461-3673.

San Diego

Aug. 6. (Fri.)  Joyce Cooling.  Smooth jazz guitarist and vocalist Cooling brings style, substance and swing to everything she does.  Anthology San Diego.   (619) 595-0300.

San Francisco

- Aug. 3 – 4.  (Tues. & Wed.)  Alfredo Rodriguez. Young Cuban expatriate pianist Rodriguez has everything he needs to surface as a major talent for years to come. Yoshi’s San Francisco.   (415) 655-5600.

New York

- Aug. 3 – 7. (Tues. – Sat.)  The Heath Brothers.  Saxophonist Jimmy and drummer Tootie keep the proud Heath family jazz banner flying.  Birdland (212) 581-3080.

Greg Osby

- Aug. 3 – 8 (Tues. – Sun.)  Greg Osby Quintet.  Alto saxophonist Osby stretches the boundaries of contemporary improvisation with the dynamic backing of guitarist Nir Felder, pianist Marc Copland, bassist Joseph Lepore and drummer Terri Lyne CarringtonVillage Vanguard.   (212) 255-4037.

- Aug. 3 – 8. (Tues. – Sun.) Ron Carter Trio.  Combine bassist Carter with the piano work of Mulgrew Miller and the guitar of Russell Malone and you can expect (and receive) world class jazz results.  The Blue Note.  (212) 475-8592.

Rhode Island

Aug. 6 – 8 (Fri. – Sat.)  The Newport Jazz Festival.  Actually, the current, sponsored title is the CareFusion Newport Jazz Festival. But whatever the title, George Wein’s remarkable summer weekend of jazz has been both the model and the leader of jazz festival events since its inception in the ’50s.  And this weekend once again is filled with superlatives.  Among the highlights: On Friday — Jamie Cullum and Grace Kelly.  On Saturday — the Chick Corea Freedom Band, Ahmad Jamal, the Maria Schneider Orchestra, Anat Cohan, Darcy James Argue, the Newport All Stars, Trio Da Paz, Rez Abbasi, Fly, JD Allen.  On Sunday – Herbie Hancock, Chris Botti, Wynton Marsalis, Amina Figerova, John Faddis, Dave Douglas, Ben Allison, Jason Moran, David Binney, Gretchen Parlato.  And much, much more.  The CareFusion Newport Jazz Festival.  (401) 848-5055.


Live Jazz: The 7th Panama Jazz Festival

January 22, 2010

By Fernando Gonzalez

Panama City, Panama. The 7th Panama Jazz Festival, celebrated in Panama City January 11-16, concluded Saturday with a free, outdoor concert at Plaza Catedral, in front of the historic cathedral in Old Panama City. What started only a few years ago as a Quixotic adventure by Panamanian pianist, Grammy winner and educator Danilo Pérez has become one of the most significant events in jazz, and music education,  in Latin America.

But as good as the music was throughout the week, it was only part of the story. The festival features the participation of educational institutions such as the New England Conservatory, Berklee College of Music, the Conservatorio de Música de Puerto Rico, Fundazione Siena Jazz from Siena, Italy, and the Golandsky Piano Institute at Princeton University. And the educational activities — directed by saxophonist Patricia Zárate, Perez’s wife — included educational programs, clinics and workshops ranging from Panamanian Folklore to yoga, a children’s program and technology. Also, during this festival it was announced the launching of Berklee College of Music’s Global Jazz Institute, a new, interdisciplinary initiative.

Danilo Perez

“The festival was a labor of love, not just for me but for many people, Carmen Aleman, Robin Tomchin, Javier Carrizo, many people,” said Pérez in an interview Saturday. “But also many people would come and tell me ‘Jazz? In Panama? Salsa maybe, but jazz? Really?’ And in our first year I put up most of the money and frankly, I almost lost everything. We barely made it. But in the second year we got one sponsor, Samsung, and that helped; and the third year we got another, Toyota, and then the administrations in Panama joined in and helped out — and here we are.”

“I know now, for some people it looks like this just happened, that it started yesterday. But it didn´t happen that way,” continues Perez, who notes he started educational activities 25 years ago.  “Many people have helped. This has become a movement.¨

This year’s edition was attended by an estimated 22,000 people (again, a reminder:  for jazz, in Panama).

Ellis Marsalis

The event is now the main promotional and educational program of the Danilo Pérez Foundation, an organization created in 2005 to promote social change through education in music.

The festival´s headliners this year included pianist Ellis Marsalis’s trio, saxophonists Joe Lovano and Carlos Garnett, singer Lizz Wright, bassist John Patitucci, guitarist Tom Patitucci, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and percussionist Jamey Haddad, alongside the ubiquitous, ever present Perez on piano.

Following a festival tradition of paying tribute to a Panamanian jazz figure, this year’s event was dedicated to Panamanian pianist Sonny White (neé Ellerton Oswald) who in the mid-1930s worked with Sidney Bechet, Teddy Hill, and Billie Holiday, among others. Notably, White was the pianist for Holiday on “Strange Fruit.”

Musically, the festival offered some extraordinary moments, beginning on Thursday with Marsalis’ soberly elegant performance leading a trio also featuring Jesse Boyd on bass and Jason Marsalis, drums, as well as the stunning set by Lovano, Perez, Patitucci, Carrington and Haddad.  Friday’s program followed with a moving (and effective) appearance by Garnett,  a Panamanian player perhaps best known in the US for his work with Miles Davis, and  a quietly powerful performance by Wright — made  even more remarkable by the fact that she was supposed to be on her way to Costa Rica for a vacation.

Lizz Wright

But a last minute cancellation due to illness by singer Dee Dee Bridgewater and a personal plea from Pérez, brought Wright to Panama. She turned out to be an inspired choice. Performing nearly without rehearsal with an ad hoc (albeit deluxe) backup band, Wright offered a set of standards and originals with uncommon aplomb and grace.  She has a dark, rich voice with deceptive range, and her dramatic, opening number, “I Loves You Porgy,” sung a cappella, silenced the cavernous Teatro Anayansi and the raucous Panamanian audience. It also set the tone. There were several high points in the set,  but the called-on-the-spot duet with Pérez on “Embraceable You” was a reminder of the nature and power of jazz — not just improvisation and swing and soul but also smarts, adventure and risk-taking.

But if the music was impressive, the loudest noise was the buzz of educational activities, not only because of the teachers at hand (Lovano, the Patitucci brothers, and Haddad offered hands on workshops throughout the week) but the level of participation.

“New England Conservatory came first. Berklee [College of Music] started coming in 2006, and both soon realized that something was happening, ” says Perez who is a Berklee and NEC alumnus, has taught at both schools, and is now the artistic director of Berklee’s Global Jazz Institute. “They realized we have grown organizationally but also in concerts and clinics and workshops. When they first came we had 4 concerts now we have 15. We have 80 clinics, panels, workshops. And they have seen these kids grow up before their eyes. Their level has gone up. The first year we auditioned for scholarships nobody qualified. We gave one scholarship and it went to Melisa Saldaña from Chile. Now …”

This time, an estimated 830 students attended the educational program, eight scholarships were given out to Berklee (seven to Panamanian students, one to a Costa Rican pianist)  and six to the Golandsky Piano Institute at Princeton, N.J..

This will have an impact long after the music has faded.  A reminder that at the Panama Jazz Festival, what happens onstage is only part of the story.

Lizz Wright and Ellis Marsalis photos courtesy of Toddi J. Norum: http://toddinorum.zenfolio.com


Live Jazz: The John Beasley Quartet at Catalina Bar & Grill

October 6, 2009

By Michael Katz

Every once in a while it’s good to remember why we go out to see live music. John Beasley, backed by Nicholas Payton on trumpet, Terri Lyne Carrington on drums and Victor Bailey on basss, provided a mix of virtuosity and exuberance Saturday night, bringing his combination of gentle swing and New Orleans style funk to Catalina’s for the  opening show.

John-Beasley hat pianoBeasley opened with a couple of tunes from his Letter to Herbie CD. Especially effective was “Bedtime Voyage,” in which he visited Hancock’s “Bedtime Story” and “Maiden Voyage,” tiptoeing around the chordal structures of both in a haunting intro, while  Carrington provided elegant stick work behind him. Payton took up the familiar melody to “Maiden Voyage,” showing off the rich mid-tones of his trumpet, using the higher notes as exclamation points.

From there, Beasley turned the attention to his new CD, Positootly! He introduced “Shatita Boom Boom” with some vocal “boom chicas” before settling back into the piano chair. Payton then added a New Orleans groove, (with a small shot of “Tequila”), and Bailey chipped in with a bass solo that at one point mimicked a Big Easy back line tuba. Beasley, meanwhile, laid back before closing out with a bright, cathouse piano solo that had the near-capacity house on its feet.

Beasley switched to the Fender Rhodes for “Black Thunder,” a tribute to Elvin Jones. When Beasley moves to electric piano, the band takes on a funkier tone, with traces of a 70’s jazz-funk sound. Payton led with a growling trumpet solo, moving up the harmonic ladder for some hard-charging riffs, at one point echoing Freddie Hubbard’s “Straight Life” line. Payton is one of the leading lights in a New Orleans trumpet succession that includes Wynton Marsalis and  Terence Blanchard, and it was a real treat to see him in this ensemble. But the highlight of “Black Thunder” — no surprise given the source material — was  Carrington’s high energy drum solo, a more than worthy nod to Elvin Jones.  Overall this quartet was an excellent vehicle for Carrington, whose percussion shone the entire set.

The quartet closed with a playfullyJohn-Beasley_CJB_#2 dramatic rendition of Argentine composerAstor Piazzolla’s “Tanguedia III.”  Payton introduced the tango, again with total command of his trumpet’s middle octaves. Beasley supported on the Fender Rhodes; he and Payton interspersed their solo work with dramatic pauses, keeping the audience hanging on each note.

Throughout the set, Beasley demonstrated a rapport with the audience that was especially welcome in the intimate surroundings. He doesn’t overwhelm the audience with pyrotechnics, but captivates with infectious rhythm on the Fender Rhodes and understated riffing on the acoustic piano.  He’s assembled quite a talented band to keep together, but here’s hoping audiences will get more opportunities to see them perform.

Photos by Juan E. Morse

To read other reviews and commentary by Michael Katz click here.



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