The Hartford Public Library's free Baby Grand Jazz has morphed from years of obscurity to become one of the hottest, most popular jazz events in town.
Basking in its skyrocketing success over the past several years, the now robust BGJ launches its most ambitious season ever on Sunday, January 3, with a gala opening at 3:00 pm for the weekly series of 16 Sunday matinees running through April 24.
The series, which for many years drew sparse turnouts worthy of cult-like, virtually covert cultural events, might well draw far more than a thousand devout, delighted BGJ fans to the downtown library's scenic atrium. With packed houses now routine, BGJ opens with a virtually guaranteed, crowd-pleasing bang as it unleashes the dazzling firepower of the charismatic virtuoso Colombian harpist, Edmar Castaneda.
Right through winter into spring, BGJ serves genres ranging from Latin jazz, salsa, and sambas to cutting-edge experimentation, bebop, and music not easily corralled into convenient categories. Showing an appreciation of local cultural history, the library concerts conclude with one of the last of Hartford's venerable jazz patriarchs, pianist Emery Austin Smith. A kick-ass octogenarian musician/savant and lifetime Hartford resident, the indefatigable Mr. Smith is still a bebop master of the 88s.
Between the bookends of Castaneda and Smith, the library presents familiar, top-shelf names—including such premier Nutmeg talents as pianist/vocalist Warren Byrd and Turkish-born guitarist Sinan Bakir. Plus, there's a whole new cast of varsity players ready to please atrium aficionados, including the brilliant, genre bending, risk-taking Israeli pianist Alon Nechushtan.
Variety is the keynote here, exemplified by Castaneda, whose intensity ranges from celestial to demonic, and Smith, who as a young man played with such jazz immortals as Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Shavers.
With his hands a blur flying all over the strings of his portable Colombian folk harp, Castaneda weaves beautiful, freewheeling improvisations, inspired by an array of influences. Among these are Colombian, Ecuadoran and Venezuelan folkloric traditions; African and Brazilian rhythms, the transcendental flights of John Coltrane and mystical musings of Alice Coltrane. His devilishly bravura passages are evocative of the legendary violinist Niccolo Paganini’s unearthly prestidigitation, believed by some to have been inspired by Satan himself.
Along with his magical realism and signature cross rhythms and layered chords, you can add the Colombian harpist's gift for spinning spontaneous Celtic sagas. In his global jaunts, he's played at the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival in Ireland, in the heart of the land of the harp, with acclaimed Irish bohdran player Eddie Cavanagh.
Among other performers adding to BGJ's international flavor are the pianists Ayako Higuchi, a native of Japan; Abelita Mateus, originally from Brazil, Russian-born pianist Alex Nakhimovsky, and Dutch master trumpeter Saskia Laroo.
For lovers of Latin music, the series offers a trifecta of Brazilian flavors by Sambeleza, saucy salsa/jazz by Orquesta Espada, and the savory syncopation of Hartford's great Latin jazz trumpeter, Ray Gonzalez.
Here's the season lineup: Edmar Castaneda, January 3; Sinan Bakir featuring Alex Nakhimovsky, January 10; Alon Nechushtan Trio, January 17; Ayako Higuchi, January 24; Abelita Mateus Trio, January 31; Warren Byrd/Saskia Laroo Duo with guest vibraphonist Jay Hoggard, February 7; Taino Pacheco Trio, February 14; Sylvia Mims Trio, February 21 and Orquesta Espada, February, 28.
Also, Lenore Raphael Duo, March 6; Jonathan Ball Quintet, March 13; The Colbys, March 20; Ray Gonzalez Latin Jazz Quartet, April 3; Sambeleza, April 10; TRIchrO, April 17; and Emery Smith, April 24.
The series is sponsored by the Charles H. Kaman Charitable Foundation, which has kept the invaluable series afloat.
Obviously, the 2016 season is a cause for celebration for the jazz community throughout the region. At the same time, however, the end of 2015 also, regretfully, marks the final day at the helm for Hartford Public Library's visionary CEO, Matthew K. Poland, who steps down December 31.
During Poland's remarkable seven-year-run, the Hartford native lifted a troubled library into the 21st century, transforming it into a welcoming, progressive urban center of learning and literacy in the high-tech age, as well as a public forum and democratic community hub offering pragmatic programs for all, including immigrants aspiring after skills, knowledge. and American citizenship.
Besides the obvious importance of the cherished values of the traditional library, Poland believes that today's urban public library “is also about exciting people about music and art and technology -- knowledge that inspires them to learn more and to do more to develop skills they need for successful lives.”
Along with providing free, world-class entertainment, he said, Baby Grand Jazz reflects exactly the sort of democratic, communal, and cultural values that he believes an innovative, contemporary library must have to be a vital, relevant force and catalyst for knowledge in modern city life.
"Baby Grand Jazz," he said of the series' dramatic ascent to popularity, "has opened the opportunity to showcase the library as a place where people gather to learn about one another, to learn about the issues of the day, and to be able to do multiple things in one visit to the library, to maybe even explore a passionate interest that they might have."
"I've seen Baby Grand Jazz grow in such a way that the connections people make there reach out into other events and special programs that also happen here. I've developed friendships with people who began coming to Baby Grand Jazz and now attend all of our Art Walk openings, or come to our author events, people who never did that before," he said of the gateway effect the series has had on the library's expansive range of educational and cultural offerings.
"Every day that I've been here," he added, "it has been a pleasure and an honor for me to help bring to this community a wide variety of programs. It has just been an awesome responsibility and one that I will cherish for the rest of my life."
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