WBGO Blog
  • A Cirque Du Soleil For The Senses: Five Jazz Groups From Montreal

    June 28, 2012. Posted by Simon Rentner.

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    L'Orkestre des Pas Perdus' latest album, L'âge du cuivre, was just nominated for a Juno Award. (Image Credit: Courtesy of the artist)

    C'est la saison de jazz à Montreal! Starting Thursday night and running through next weekend, Francophone Canada's cultural metropolis hosts its grand prix: the Montreal International Jazz Festival. The self-proclaimed "largest jazz festival in the world" casts a musical spell over the city, across 10 outdoor stages, 15 concert halls and clubs galore with more than 1,000 shows.

    Much of the festival's magic comes from its two million attendees. High society in bow ties and evening gowns peacefully intermingles with young fans in high-top sneakers. Toddlers and old folks dance together in the streets. Brass bands battle across intersections. Jugglers, puppeteers, clowns — street performers of all stripes — compete for your attention. Mix in Montreal's wondrous culinary pleasures, and it's Cirque du Soleil for your senses.

    As for the on-stage talent, it comes from everywhere, but many featured performers have a well-known Canadian connection. The singer-songwriter Rufus Wainright will give a free homecoming concert for an anticipated record-setting crowd. Many of the city's local jazz artists are propped up, too. Here are five to catch.

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  • The Harmonica-Playing Baron Of Belgium

    May 18, 2012. Posted by Becca Pulliam.

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    Toots Thielemans performs at the North Sea Jazz Festival in the Netherlands in July 2005. He's celebrating his 90th birthday with a series of concerts throughout his native Belgium. (Image Credit: Rick Nederstigt/AFP/Getty Images)

    People throughout Belgium are currently celebrating the harmonica player and guitarist Jean-Baptiste "Toots" Thielemans, born in Brussels on April 29, 1922. That puts the NEA Jazz Master, also made a Baron by the King of Belgium in 2001, just a few days past 90.

    The night after his birthday, Thielemans set out on an eight-concert tour across his homeland. In Ghent, Belgian guitarist Philip Catherine joined him as a special guest. In Brussels, his long-time pianist Kenny Werner and guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves came from the U.S. and Brazil, respectively. In Hasselt, Thielemans — who had broken his foot — performed from a wheelchair. And last night and tonight, May 17 and 18, the two final concerts take place in Liège and then Dinant. It's all taking place in a country where everyone can pronounce the name "Thielemans." (Try "teel-mahnz.")

    Invited by the Belgian Tourist Office, I attended his May 9 performance at the Palais des Beaux-Arts, a.k.a. BOZAR (get it?), in Brussels. The interviews and meet-and-greets were canceled, but the concert was sold out and a great success.

    Thielemans entered to roaring applause. His band members helped him cross the stage to perch on a high chair so his feet could dangle and clap together. He looks frail, but his breath support and musicality seem little diminished. Just the sound of his Hohner harmonica brings joy and sadness together, and sweetly so.

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  • Stan Kenton At 100: Artistry In Rhythm

    February 17, 2012. Posted by Simon Rentner.

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    Stan Kenton. (Image Credit: William P. Gottlieb/Library of Congress via Flickr)

    Last December, the late composer, arranger, bandleader and pianist Stan Kenton would have turned 100. Centennial celebrations have been happening since then; Jazz at Lincoln Center plans a two-night retrospective of his music starting tonight.

    Kenton's brassy big band was enormously popular during his lifetime. He left behind an astonishing body of work as bountiful as it is strange, influencing even such groundbreaking artists as Cecil Taylor. And many of jazz's greatest improvisers passed through the band — baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, alto saxophonist Art Pepper, singer Anita O'Day, trumpeter Shorty Rogers and tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims, among others.

    But Kenton never lacked for controversy, and was often criticized for bombast. In 1948, Barry Ulanov wrote about the "sheer noise" of the Kenton orchestra in Metronome magazine: "There is a danger of an entire generation growing up with the idea that jazz and the atom bomb are essentially the same phenomenon." Accusations of racism also plagued the bandleader. Annoyed by the exclusion of what he felt were worthy players in the 1956 Down Beat critics poll, he sent a telegram to the magazine protesting on behalf of "a new minority, white jazz musicians." Though Kenton regularly employed African-American musicians and professed friendship and admiration for black jazz pioneers, he never fully shook the stigma.

    Kenton has also been in the news after his daughter, Leslie Kenton, published a 2010 book that stated alcoholism drove him to sexually abuse her repeatedly from when she was 11 until she was 13. The book is called Love Affair, and according to Wall Street Journal reviewer Will Friedwald, it takes a tone of "forgiveness rather than accusation." The Kenton estate offered no public comment when reached.

    Despite the offstage drama, Kenton tirelessly promoted his "artistry in rhythm" and sought original directions for jazz. How did Kenton hit the pop charts while remaining uncompromisingly experimental? Here are five notable selections from the man who called his music "progressive jazz."

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