Mining and Mentoring the Valley's Jazz Riches
Here’s a counterweight to yesterday’s blog about my encounter with 42 college students who’d never heard of Duke Ellington. Happily, I can report that Connecticut River Valley venues have been host to performances this week that have attracted scores of jazz lovers, and there’s more to come.
(all photos by Steven Sussman)
On Sunday night, the Bill Charlap Trio played the Iron Horse in Northampton. Charlap’s a perennial at the Horse, and he’s developed a local following that brings out show tunes mavens eagerly anticipating an obscurity or two. Sunday's included "I'm All Smiles" and "Why Did I Choose You" from The Yearling, a show that The Times featured in this article about songs with cult followings. With his longstanding trio mates Peter Washington on bass and Kenny Washington on drums, Charlap's 90-minute set featured a baker's dozen including Bud Powell’s “Celia," Dizzy Gillespie’s “Groovin’ High,” Duke Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady," and the Songbook standards “Dream Dancing,” “I'll Remember April,” an unusually slow tempo rumination on Harold Arlen’s “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” and a stunning encore on Michel Legrand’s “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?” I’m always impressed by how locked-in this trio sounds together, and by the depth of Charlap’s keyboard genius, which evokes a lineage that stretches back to Debussy and includes Art Tatum and Errol Garner, Powell, Bill Evans and Chick Corea. Speaking of the latter, another surprise in Sunday’s show was Corea’s “Tones for Joan’s Bones,” the title track of his 1966 debut recording.
Jeremy Pelt led his quintet with J.D. Allen, Danny Grissett, Duane Burno, and Jonathan Barber at Black-eyed Sally’s in Hartford on Monday night. Barber, who sat in for Gerald Cleaver, is a young drummer who’s rising fast on the Hartford scene. Pelt’s last appearance in this Hartford Jazz Society-sponsored Jazz Jam series found the trumpeter on a blowing session with local luminaries Lummie Spann, Zaccai Curtis, Curtis Torian, and Dezron Douglas, the bassist who’s been a member of the Cyrus Chestnut Trio for the past few years. This week Pelt played mostly originals from his new High Note release Soul in a show that served as a bon voyage for the quintet’s month-long tour of Europe which begins this weekend in Terrassa, Spain, then moves on to Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Poland and Sweden.
Tenor saxophonist Grant Stewart made a great session with Charlap a few years ago, Grant Stewart + 4, and he was back as guest soloist in the Jazz Workshop Series at the Clarion Hotel in Northampton on Tuesday. The series, which began two years ago in the now-shuttered Green Street Café, has been packing them in at its new home for the last five weeks. It didn’t take more than a half-chorus of “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” for the crowd to become enthralled by Stewart’s full-bodied tone and fluid drive. Frank Loesser’s great original was followed by “It’s You or No One,” “The Birth of the Blues,” “Oleo,” “On Green Dolphin Street,” and the Sonny Stitt flag-waver, “Deuces Wild.” Kudos as always to the hard-swinging house rhythm section of Paul Arslanian, George Kaye, and Jon Fisher, and to drummer Claire Arenius, whose appearance for the evening’s jam session prompted Stewart to return to the bandstand where he backed singers Hilarie O’Toole on “Detour Ahead,” and Barbara Ween, who sang “On the Street Where You Live.” Stewart ended the night with “Hittin’ the Jug,” the classic blues by Gene “Jug” Ammons that he’s recorded with Eric Alexander in their two-tenor partnership, Reeds and Deeds.
Bob Weiner, the veteran drummer who’s been calling Amherst home in recent years, wrote on Wednesday to say, “I absolutely loved hearing Grant Stewart last night. His tone is one of the best I've heard, especially of a person his age. He has digested something inexplicable- as Bob Mintzer always says, 'strive for tone'--well, Grant is there.”
The Jazz Workshop series continues next week with the return of vocalist Giacomo Gates, the Bridgeport, CT native who’s a keeper of the flame of the vocalise style established by King Pleasure, Eddie Jefferson, and Jon Hendricks. Giacomo’s latest release, The Revolution Will Be Jazz, is devoted to songs of the late Gil Scott Heron. It’s won critical raves, including this feature in the Huffington Post. The Boston Globe's Steve Greenlee writes, "No male jazz singer has a bigger gap between talent and fame than Giacomo Gates." Catch him on his way to stardom this Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. I'll be curious to hear if Gates cooks up something with Workshop regulars Ween, Carol Smith and Jill Connolly, who call themselves the Valley Divas.
Another mainstay of the area scene is the Amherst Jazz Orchestra, which has been playing on the first and third Mondays of the month at the Amherst Brewing Company for 13 years. UMass faculty members David Sporny and Jeff Holmes have shepherded the AJO over the years, and the big band's ranks have featured trumpeters Pete Grimaldi and Rob Faulkner, trombonist Tim Atherton, saxophonists Bruce Krasin and Frank Newton, and bassist Bob Ferrier among several others. Word's just in that the AJO will be backing Karrin Allyson at the Berkshires Gateway Jazz Weekend in Lee this September. Charles Neville, the saxophone-playing Neville Brother who makes his home in Western Mass, far from his New Orleans birthplace, will also be on the bill. Allyson, by the way, makes the most of her second home in the Valley by showcasing some of her far-flung favorites at area venues. On Friday, June 1, she'll share the stage with the California-based singer Kenny Washington at the Unitarian Meetinghouse in Northampton.
The next couple of weeks will see area appearances by Sheila Jordan and Steve Kuhn at the Vermont Jazz Center on March 24; Ahmad Jamal at the Colonial Theater in Pittsfield on the 31st; and on the same night, Ernie Watts with the UMass Jazz Ensemble at Bowker Auditorium at UMass. The Fine Arts Center's Joy of Sax series continues on April 13 with Ravi Coltrane; I'll give a pre-concert talk before the saxophonist's performance at Bowker Auditorium. And saxophonist Jeff Lederer will be at the Northampton Unitarian on Thursday, March 29 for a Magic Triangle concert. Lederer's ensemble is called Shakers'n'Bakers, which explores the mystical "Vision Songs" of Shaker women.
Keep up with all the details on area concert and nightclub listings with the Hartford Jazz Society’s Jazz Calendar, which is continually updated and available by e-mail subscription. My colleague Kari Njiiri also maintains an extensive music calendar on the Jazz Safari page at New England Public Radio's website.
Steve Davis, Hartford’s world-renowned trombonist, maintains an admirable commitment to the local scene as a performer, educator, and tireless scout for playing opportunities, not only for himself, but for the profusion of young players who make the Hartford scene one of the most exciting in the country. Steve teaches in the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz Studies at the University of Hartford’s Hartt School of Music. When he was an undergraduate at Hartt in the mid-‘80’s, Davis was also earning his stripes at the 880 Club in Hartford’s South End. Earlier today, he noted that the 880 gave him the opportunity to meet dozens of jazz greats, many of whom he’s gone on to play with professionally, and he credits the 880’s house pianist Don DePalma with making sure young “Stevie-D” got on the bandstand at least once a night, even if it meant hanging out till the last number.
Today, Davis sees to the education of young musicians at Hartt, and mentors others who are enrolled at the Artists Collective, West Hartford’s Conard and Hall High Schools, and other institutions, and he remains dedicated to cultivating venues as showplaces for jazz. He’s currently hosting Steve Davis & Friends at the Russian Lady on Tuesday nights; guest soloists appear each week, a young rhythm section (Douglas and Barber, when they're in town) keeps it swingin', and Don DePalma’s been at the piano this month.
“It’s not only important for musicians to have places to play, but jazz people need places to congregate too,” says Davis. “Sitting at home and watching isolated, incomplete jazz clips on the computer just doesn’t do it. I know it’s an uphill battle, but I’m not gonna go down without a fight. Sure, big name clubs are still in business in New York and Boston and other cities, but the music needs to live at the local, grass roots level, otherwise where’s anyone going to play?”
One answer to Davis's question is the Titanium Lounge in Middletown, CT, which will begin hosting a jazz series on Friday nights beginning tomorrow with the One For All Quintet, followed by a jam session at 11 that will feature students from Hartt. Next Friday, Ed Fast & Conga Bop, Hartford's fine hard bop-oriented Latin jazz band, will be at Titanium, and in the following weeks bands led by pianist Jen Allen and trumpeter Josh Evans will be headlining. Conga Bop also appears on Wednesday nights at the Firebox at Billings Forge in Hartford. Here's a web page where you'll find profiles of several of the dizzying array of Hartford's emerging, and in some cases, established young jazz players.
Davis’s playing experience includes stints with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Jackie McLean, Chick Corea’s Origin, the Dizzy Gillespie Alumni All-Stars, and countless studio sessions. He was also a charter member of One For All, the cooperative sextet that came together at Augie’s, the legendary Upper West Side jazz club in the 1990’s. One For All members Joe Farnsworth and Nat Reeves will be at the Titanium with Davis, along with alto saxophonist Mike DiRubbo, the New Haven native and Jackie McLean protege, and pianist Mark Templeton, whose extensive sideman work includes lengthy stints with Freddie Hubbard and Kenny Garrett. Davis adds, "I can think of no better way to launch "Friday Jazz at Titanium" than by having a few of our New York-based friends from One For All help us ignite the flame!"
Alas, the 880 and Augie's are gone, and so too countless other venues, record stores, and jazz radio formats. But the music manages to thrive in workshops and rehearsal studios and bandstands, ever hopeful of another gig and another patron coming through the door to discover its soulful sounds and life-enhancing riches.