• WBGO's Michael Bourne on Litchfield Jazz 2012

    August 23, 2012. Posted by Michael Bourne.

    Rainy when it started. Sunny when it ended. Thirteen concerts over the weekend, August 10-12. Come rain or shine, the Litchfield Jazz Festival is always musically enjoyable, smartly programmed by Vita Muir, efficiently organized by Lindsey Turner, superbly stage-managed by Abram Sirignano, and seriously dedicated to jazz education.

    Young musicians came to the Litchfield Jazz Camp over the month before the jazzfest. Don Braden was the jazz dean, teaching with a jazz who's who, including this year's festival artist-in-residence, baritone saxist Gary Smulyan. Some of the camp's best and brightest played opening night at a gala party for the festival sponsors. After several years playing in a hockey rink of the school in Kent, Connecticut, the jazzfest returned this year to an enormous tent in a field in Goshen, Connecticut.

    Don Braden (left) with WBGO's Cephas Bowles and Ambrose Akinmusire

    The Four Freshmen sang the group's beautifully harmonized songbook for starters. I became a Freshmen fan as a kid in Saint Louis. I was a freshman myself in high school, and I grumbled when my folks took me to a Hawks basketball game. I assumed that the group playing a concert on the basketball court after the game, a group called The Four Freshmen, must be a rock and roll band. I never listened to rock back then. I was a freak for operas and musicals -- several years before I ever heard any of the Singers Unlimited.


    I was delighted that instead, amazingly and amusingly, the Freshmen sang a variety of pop songs with the vocal arrangements anchored to the high voice of bassist and trombonist Bob Flanigan -- who was also funny. I eventually bought most of the Capitol records they recorded in the 50's and 60's, albums with titles like "Voices in Love," "Four Freshmen and Five Trumpets" or "Five Trombones" or "Five Guitars" and a live double-LP with the Stan Kenton big band.

    Through the years since the group first came together at Butler University in the latter 40's, there have been Twenty-Four Freshmen, and the four singing now have been singing in the group 12-20 years. What's deeply delightful for a Freshmen fan is that they sing the vocal arrangements -- full-throated, with subtle and surprising twists of a phrase or the meter of a song -- perfectly, and yet they're not doing an imitation or impression of the group. They embody the classic sound of the group, and the songs come alive. "Graduation Day." "Day By Day." "It's a Blue World." "Route 66." I miss the trombone and the whimsical presence of Bob Flanigan, but I can hear him in the heart of the sound. The Four Freshmen were, for me, laughing and singing along, worth the trip to Connecticut.


    Plenty of highlights happened thereafter, including on opening night Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks revisiting 20's and 30's swing classics of Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson. Vince Giordano told stories about the music and anchored the band's bottom on an aluminum string bass, bass saxophone, or a tuba.

    Saturday's marathon kicked off with the Helen Sung Trio. Avery Sharpe presented his Sojourner Truth Project, music inspired by the African-American woman who pioneered the anti-slavery movement in the 19th Century, including a powerful blues composed to one of her own poems, sung by Jeri Brown.


    I first heard the quintet of trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire live this summer at the Montreal festival, and again in Goshen I felt a rush of originality like I remember when I first heard Woody Shaw. Gary Smulyan gathered an octet, plus tenor saxist Eric Alexander, to "salute" the arrangements of George Coleman, climaxed by a full-tilt rocking (with a Matt Wilson back-beat) "Isn't She Lovely." Benny Green played flabbergastingly as always, and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band blew the roof -- does a tent have a roof? -- off.


    Sunday opened with, for me, the highlight of all the festival's highlights, the quartet of Gregoire Maret. His sound on the harmonica is the most original since Toots, and he pulls the audience into the sound as he breathes. Sometimes a lovely breeze. Sometimes a roiling riptide. He's energized all the more by the percussive dancing of Clarence Penn at the drums.

    Mark Giuliana is another drummer to be reckoned with, whipping up the quartet of ever-edgy tenor saxist Donny McCaslin. Hubert Laws played his golden flute magisterially, especially "My Ship" and one of his orchestral Afro-Classics: Tchaikovsky's love theme of "Romeo and Juliet."


    Miguel Zenon played his "Alma Adentro" sounding of the Puerto Rican songbook. And for a finale, the "Kansas City Swing" of singer Kevin Mahogany and guitarist Dave Stryker again blew the roof off. Or blew the tent down? Anyway, this year's 17th annual Litchfield Jazz Festival ended with a great groove.


    -- Michael Bourne

  • Bourne's Montreal: And Then Some

    July 16, 2012. Posted by Michael Bourne.

    It was raining as I flew into Montreal, June 27th, the day before Day One of the 33rd annual Festival International de JAZZ de Montreal. And except for a few cloudbursts that never lasted more than a few minutes, the weather through the jazzfest was ... summery. Ideal for a jazzfest that attracted about two million festgoers.

    Photo by Frederique Menard-Aubin
    Photo by Frederique Menard-Aubin

    Montreal is sometimes called City of a Hundred Cultures, and FIJM is the most popular of an annual oodle of festivals. Tourists came. Locals came. Whole families came, dressed like they dressed back home around the world. "International" the city is, and so is the (always bolded in the logo) JAZZ festival.

    Photo by Jean François Leblanc
    Steve Hill, photo by Jean François Leblanc

    FIJM presents each day about forty gigs around Place des Arts in the heart of the city, indoors ticketed, outdoors free. I heard most or all of maybe forty concerts, mostly in the festival's own jazz joint, L'Astral in the Maison du Festival, or in my favorite venue, Gesú (aka Jesus) Centre de Creativité in the Jesuit church around the corner from the festival's Quartier des Spectacles.

    Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller, Victor Wooten, photo by Denis Alix
    Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller, Victor Wooten, photo by Denis Alix

    I always say that a hallmark of the festival's greatness is that I miss more great concerts than I get to attend. I missed plenty of stars I'd meant to hear: Wayne Shorter, Melody Gardot, Eliane Elias, James Carter, Ron Carter, Stanley Clarke's Invitation concerts, Tord Gustavsen's Invitation concerts, and Liza Minelli. I much more often opted to hear artists I've never heard (or even heard of), usually some of the most memorable music through the years.

    Miche Braden, photo by Victor Diaz Lamich
    Miche Braden, photo by Victor Diaz Lamich

    Two theatrical shows were featured. Carlos Saura, Spanish moviemaker of the thrilling flamenco "Carmen," created a fusion of thunderous feet, visceral voices, and jazz, "Flamenco Hoy," for four evenings. Miche Braden ressurected Bessie Smith in her down-to-earthy bio-musical, "The Devil's Music," for five evenings. You can hear Miche singing elsewhere on the WBGO blog when she sang Bessie's blues live on a blues hour.

    FIJN's Maison du Festival is named for one of the festival's principal sponsors, Canada's aluminum corporation Rio Tinto Alcan. What was once an abandoned building on Ste Catherine is now the year-round festival building with a museum of festival artifacts and a mediatheque. Have a look at Becca Pulliam's blog tour of the extraordinary jazz library with curator Serge Lafortune.

    The Maison also offers a nice restaurant, Balmoral, and the festival's year-round jazz cabaret, L'Astral. I attended eight of this year's concerts at L'Astral. Rafael Zaldivar, a Cuban-born pianist with a Monk-ian edge, played opening night with guest Greg Osby.

    Taurey Butler, photo by David Tallacksen
    Taurey Butler, photo by David Tallacksen

    Taurey Butler, a Jersey-born pianist showing Petersonian chops, now lives and loves (married a soulful singer) in Montreal. Collin Vallon, a Swiss-born pianist, deconstructed melodies as if clockworks, then re-connected all the intimate gears and wheels.

    Colin Vallon, photo by Jean-François Leblanc

    Vic Vogel's big band played mostly Dizzy's Afro-Cuban classics with an oomph of brass I haven't heard since Stan Kenton shattered my bones. Vic Vogel's presence at the festival is a virtual ritual.

    He's played all 33 years, but I wonder if that's equaled by bassist Michel Donato, one of the long-time godfathers of Montreal jazz. If not always a leader, I'll bet he's played in someone's band every year. He's co-leader of a quartet with accordionist Marin Masturica and two guitar masters, Richard Leveille and Luc Fortin. They criss-crossed musical wings -- French musette, Brazilian chorinho, Gypsy swing. They told stories between songs that were longer than the songs and always disrupted the musical momentum, but then they'd play charmingly. I especially enjoyed two Brazilian songs: Hermeto's "Bebe" and a batucada with the guitars scratching strings as if cuicas.

    Photo by Victor Diaz Lamich
    Photo by Victor Diaz Lamich

    I've always enjoyed groups that swing joyously and are also...I believe le mot juste is nuts. Willem Breuker's Kollektief highlighted my early years at the festival. Italians used to be routinely wacky in the Jesus Room, especially the groups playing whirligigs of clarinets and accordions.

    This year's hoot was one of Montreal's own: L'Orkestre des Pas Perdus. First gathered almost 20 years ago by trombonist Claude St Jean, the "Lost Steps" Orchestra is an octet: seven "brass and other metals" (as the program says) plus drums. Laughing, like a circus band on steroids, they blasted in-your-face funk. And the walls of L'Astral almost came a-tumbling down.

    Photo by Frederique Menard-Aubin
    Photo by Frederique Menard-Aubin

    Two singers charmed me at L'Astral, both with uniquely theatrical charms and chops. Dorothee Berryman is best known for acting in Quebecois movies and as a jazz DJ on the radio. Her stories about the songs ("Autumn Leaves," "I'm in the Mood for Love") and songwriters (Jacques Prevert, Carolyn Leigh) she told mostly in French, but even if you understand (like me) only un petit peu, you laughed as much (or more) from her untranslatable comic timing. Or else she'd be deeply dramatic, like when she'd stop, as if in amber, her hand reaching for a love always out of reach. "Killing Time" was hauntingly still. "Love Is Like a Cigarette" was seductively smoky.

    Nellie McKay appeared in a flowery orange dress, looking like a suburban mom on a summer patio. She played piano with witty counterpoints to her songs. She played ukelele with surreal sweetness -- sweetness with a razor lurking. She spoke in a schoolgirl French, mostly whimsically, but often with surprisingly angry asides about the absurdities of life, love, politics. When she sang the country song "One's on the Way," about a woman unhappily pregnant, she observed "I like single women and married men. That's why I'm for gay marriage."

    Photo by David Tallacksen
    Photo by David Tallacksen

    When she sang the Beatles song "So Tired," she screamed "I'd give you everything I've got for a little peace of mind!" She sang with a British accent a medley of British songs, complete with an upbeat "Georgy Girl." And even a sing-along with the audience was delightfully...sideways: a call-and-response of gibberish, as Cab's "Hi-De-Ho' might've sounded after a stroke.

    When asked what concerts I wanted to attend, I said everything at 10:30 in the Gesu. " Jazz dans la nuit," as the concerts are called, have been booked mostly by long-time programmer Johanne Bougie. (One of my favorite moments every jazzfest is seeing Johanne's red hair coming through the crowd. One of my favorite moments this jazzfest was being greeted by the smile of Johanne's daughter Rose, receptionist of the Salle de Presse MB.) Even if I've never heard of the artists, I know that whoever plays the Jesus Room will be cool.

    And so they all were: the multi-culti World Kora Trio ... lung-busting solo saxophonist Colin Stetson ... the electro-bop quartet Get The Blessing ... beautiful piano duets of Bill Charlap and Renee Rosnes ... spontaneous piano duets of Joey Calderazzo and Aaron Parks ... trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire ... the Cedar Walton trio ... the Lorraine Desmarais trio. So many highlights ...

    Photo by Denis Alix
    Photo by Denis Alix

    Colin Stetson played alto or bass sax. He'd lean back as if about to throw a fastball and then, keening back and forth, with circular breathing, music powerfully gushed like fountains from his horns. Without apparent electronic loops or other devices, he'd somehow criss-cross motifs, sometimes playing rhythms with his fingers clicking and clacking the sax keys. One piece was inspired by a whale that's been recorded around the earth singing -- but out of tune with its species, its songs unanswered.

    Stetson's "Loneliest Whale" was heartbreaking, and, marveling how he sustains storms of sound, Stetson's performance was emotionally and almost physically (even for us listening) exhausting. I also especially enjoyed Bill and Renee playing an exquisite "Last Time I Saw Paris," Joey and Aaron abstracting "The Meaning of The Blues," the Woody-like freshness of Ambrose Akinmusire, and Cedar's upbeat "Lush Life."

    Photo by Denis Alix

    While countless thousands loudly danced to Chromeo as a festival finale, I was a block away as Lorraine Desmarais played much more intimately in the Gesu. I've been delighted by Lorraine's piano all of my 20 years at FIJM, the interplay of her trio, the punch of her big band, her solos lively and lovely, her melodies so romantic, her playing always swinging. I brought back a tower of CD's from the festival, and Lorraine's newest trio album, "Couleurs de Lune," is the best.

    Every year in Montreal, the jazzfest is actually, blatantly, impossibly, bigger. Place des Arts, already the biggest arts complex in Canada, somehow squeezed in an enormous new symphony hall, and it's gorgeous. Wood paneling, brown and blond. Seats more than 2000 -- with serious leg room. And great acoustics.

    I didn't get to Maison Symphonique de Montreal until the last evening. One of the festival's best (and, as I like to say, "very Montreal") discoveries, Catalonian 5-string bassist Renaud Garcia-Fons, first played solo.

    Pizzicato, his fingers dancing. Arco, his bow swift as a violin's. And then he bounces his bow rhythmically on the strings. After hooking himself into electronic pedals, he sometimes played loops, or Bach-like fugues, counterpointing himself, echoing himself, amazing and (especially after passing paper through the strings for a buzz) amusing all of us.

    Photo by Denis Alix
    Photo by Denis Alix

    Andalusian flamenco pianist Dorantes also played solo, his fingers darting and stomping like flamenco feet. And then came Bulgarian flute player Theodosii Spassov -- although, really, it only looks like a flute.
    Spassov's kaval is played through what looks like a mouthpiece at one end -- except when he's blowing in the sounding holes.

    When he played a solo, he'd sometimes sing (or moan) through the horn, his voice other-worldly. Though the group was called The Free Flamenco Trio, they were, with a drummer, a quartet -- but free, yes. They abstracted flamenco melodies and rhythms -- nonetheless with the music's passion.

    One last blast happened on Sunday in the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, the festival's annual Battle of the Bands. Andre Menard, the festival's artistic director, in previous years brought back a showdown with ghost bands. Last year: Artie Shaw vs Glenn Miller. This year: Count Basie vs Duke Ellington.

    Working bands year-round, pianist Tommy James was leading the Ellington band, drummer Dennis Mackrel was leading the Basie band -- with Steve Johns at the drums.

    "We flipped a coin. We get to go first," said James and kicked off "Take the A Train." To students of the music's history, Mackrel said "This IS history" and answered with "April in Paris." Early on, the Ellington soloists looked younger and played hungrier. If these bands are machines, Duke's band was running on high octane -- but then Count's band shifted into overdrive.

    John Williams, Basie's baritone saxist more than 40 years, was featured. Doug Lawrence, Basie's tenor saxist, became the band's best battler, especially horn-to-horn with Ellingtonian Mark Gross.

    One expected the classics from the Basie/Ellington "For the First Time" album, but "To You" sounded sluggish, as if neither band ever plays it. "Segue in C" became a much more animated showdown. Judges for the Battle -- bandleader Vic Vogel, hockey announcer Dick Irvin, and aerodynamically-curved singer Florence K -- voted the Basie band the winner. "If we get to vote," said Mackrel, "we vote for the lady."

    "The real winner," said Mackrel, "was the music." He'd played drums with the band in Basie's last years, and Mackrel said that Count Basie so greatly loved Duke Ellington that, on Basie's behalf, he presented the Battle trophy to Duke's band. And as a finale, Lester leaped in.

    Duke Ellington Orchestra saxophonist Mark Gross

    I've never been around the festival on the day after. A little sad, it is. A little eerie, it is. All around Place des Arts, the stages and tents and kiosks and grills were coming down. And even Salle de Presse Michael Bourne was closed.

    A la prochaine ...

  • NJ Youth Theatre's "Smokey Joe's Cafe" with Michael Bourne

    July 11, 2012. Posted by Tim Wilkins.

    Michael Bourne talks with Cynthia Meryl, director of the New Jersey Youth Theatre's production of "Smokey Joey's Cafe," and cast members. The musical showcases rock 'n' roll compositions by songwriters Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, which will run from July 18th through 21 in the Alexander Kasser Theater at Montclair State University, and from July 26th through 29th at the Sitnick Theater  at Lackland Performing Arts Center in Hackettstown, New Jersey.


  • Drummer Dion Parson with WBGO's Michael Bourne

    July 11, 2012. Posted by Tim Wilkins.

    Drummer Dion Parson talks with WBGO's Michael Bourne about his 21st Century Band, and their performances and recordings at Jazz at Lincoln Center's Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola. Enjoy!


  • Bourne's Montreal: Le Quartier des Spectacles

    July 11, 2012. Posted by Michael Bourne.

    Montreal is sometimes called City of Festivals, and all through the summer, events happen on the Quartier des Spectacles.

    Photo by Victor Diaz Lamich

    Having come to the jazzfest for 20 years, I remember the street scene back before the award-winning (for urban and commercial architectural design) changes. Jeanne-Mance, the avenue alongside Place des Arts, once was bordered by an enormous grassy knoll. Montreal levelled (more like sloped) the hill, and now in the street, fountains festively appear.

    Montreal was hot during the jazzfest, and kids (also some overheated grown-ups) danced in the water spouts. Stilt-walkers giraffed among the crowds, and (as if trying out for the city's Cirque du Soleil) a pretty girl acrobatically whirled about on a steel hoop.

    Photo by Frederique Menard-Aubin
    Photo by Frederique Menard-Aubin

    Battles of the Bands also happen on the Quartier, and I especially enjoy when the hippie-looking band Streetnix plays at one end while the NOLA-looking band Swing Tonique plays at the other. They'll each play a half hour far enough away (Jeanne-Mance is a long avenue) that the crowds around either can't hear the other. And then they march to the middle, playing as the crowds dance along, finally meeting in a middle like the marching bands of Charles Ives, playing their own tunes until they all somehow segue into the same trad jazz classics. "Basin Street Blues" was a frequent fusion.

    Photo by Victor Diaz Lamich
    Photo by Victor Diaz Lamich

    WBGO's David Tallacksen recorded Streetnix in the street for our festival broadcast. You can hear them during my interview with Streetnix saxophonist Jennifer Bell.

    Photo by Victor Diaz Lamich
    Photo by Victor Diaz Lamich

    Free concerts also happen on the Scene TD, a large stage (sponsored by the festival's prime presenter, TD Bank) at one end of the Quartier. In the daylight, you'll hear some of the Canadian jazz groups vying for this year's TD Grand Prix. In the evenings, as many as 100,000 attend "Grandes Evenements" on the Quartier -- dancing, drinking, and I've never seen trouble.

    Photo by Victor Diaz Lamich
    Photo by Victor Diaz Lamich

    This summer's "Big Shows" kicked off with Montreal singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright. ("I heard Liza Minelli was in town," he laughed, sparkling in his cherry-red spangled shirt. "Game on!") Escort, a retro-disco troupe from Brooklyn, played a mid-fest spectacular, and the fest's finale also rocked the Quartier, the electro-funk twosome Chromeo, joined by sexy strings and singers.

    Photo by Jean-François Leblanc

    I was curious about Mr Ho's Orchestrotica, a 22-piece "lounge" orchestra dedicated to the exotica of Esquivel. Back at the turn of the 60's, when stereo was first phenomenal, Esquivel played with sound and musically criss-crossed steel guitars with bass flute, bass trombone, marimbas and other breezy percussion, playing songs as if in a tropical dive -- albeit a swanky dive. Brian O'Neill, leader at the vibes, transcribed Esquivel's arrangements of "Frenesi," "Night and Day," an island "A Train." "Esquivel didn't like lyrics," said O'Neill, so the singers mostly coo'd or sang syllables. O'Neill even re-created Esquivel's fascination with stereo ping-pong. And at the jazzfest, it didn't work. Not on a big in-the-street stage like the Scene TD. O'Neill's Orchestrotica didn't have enough show biz flash, and Mr Ho's exquisite bagatelles got lost outdoors in the night.

    Photo by Frederique Menard-Aubin

    If not on the Scene TD, Canadian jazzers playing for the Grand Prix TD also performed on the smaller and more intimate (but much noisier) CBC Radio stage nearby. Winners get a $5K grant from TD Bank, 50 hours of studio time, a licensing deal for an album on the label Effendi, and gigs: at the jazzfest in Zacatecas in central Mexico, at the jazzfest in Rimouski on an eastern waterway in Quebec, and at FIJM.

    I was again a judge, and most of us have adjudicated for years. We used to be seated right near the front of the stage, and all the players could see us scribbling notes. Now we're within the crowd, and the musicians can't see when, after no more than 30 minutes, our delightful handler, Genevieve Venne, gathers all of our scribbles and we walk out.

    Photo by Frederique Menard-Aubin
    Photo by Frederique Menard-Aubin

    Sometimes we hear 3, 4, or more groups before we hear a group prizeworthy. We often have argued about the best, but usually we all know when we hear "One" that can win. We ritualistically look at each other with an index finger up, and my long-time fellow judge, Martin Roussel of Festi Jazz Rimouski, smiles and says "We have ONE!" And for the judges, that's the band that all the groups thereafter have to beat. This year's grand prize was won by our "One," the trio of pianist Robi Bitos, a disciple of Oscar Peterson from Ontario.

    We also vote for a best composition, and the winner gets $5K from the Canadian satellite system Galaxie. Martin and I always have been friendly adversaries, but this year, for the first time, Martin and I both voted not only for the same group but also for the same composition. One of the pieces composed by Robi Bitos, "Unanswered," opened with him tapping the piano strings, sounding to me like the hammered zither of "The Third Man."


    What followed was what I felt was the most beautiful melody of the competition, but the other judges, including my favorite Quebecoise musician, pianist Lorraine Desmarais, and Galaxie prize-giver Pierre-Jean Lavigne, outvoted us. "Backbone," a more straightahead Blue Note-ish tune won the Galaxie grant for composer Don Scott of another group from Ontario, Peripheral Vision.