“With the wind at his back, he can sound like an ocean roar.” Using meteorological and oceanographic allusions fit for portraying a mythic hero, jazz critic Gary Giddins described the powerhouse pianist Harold Mabern, a life force on the jazz scene for more than half a century.
Even without the wind at his back, Mabern, if true to form, will sound like an ocean roar as he performs as a special guest with his good friend and frequent collaborator Nat Reeves as the elegant, Hartford-based double bassist leads his quartet at 8:00 pm on Saturday, August 16, in the free, outdoor New Haven Jazz Festival on the New Haven Green.
Although never granted sufficient fame and acclaim, the quintessential hard-bop pianist with a robust, soulful style has been the piano man of choice for a Cooperstown array of jazz Hall of Famers, including Miles Davis, Lee Morgan, Jackie McLean, Sonny Rollins, Freddie Hubbard, and two Hartford-linked notables, drummer Walter Bolden and trombonist Steve Davis.
Self-taught and gifted with a terrific ear, dazzling digital dexterity and an insatiable hunger for jazz knowledge, the self-made virtuoso taught himself by studying recordings and by tapping into the collective wisdom of older players, his hands-on “professors,” in live sessions, constantly absorbing new ideas, listening more critically and practicing harder.
While he’s made many albums as a leader since recording his first one under his own name in 1968, he seems to have a preference for the sideman role, providing backup firepower for such heavyweights as his old friend and terrific, simpatico sparring partner, saxophonist George Coleman; vocalist Betty Carter, guitarist Wes Montgomery and his much younger foil in recent years, saxophonist Eric Alexander.
A native of Memphis, Tennessee, Mabern has played countless times in the Hartford area, everywhere from downtown clubs -- many that have long since passed on to the packed Valhalla for defunct jazz venues -- to the Hartford Jazz Society’s annual riverboat ramble along the Connecticut River.
Even on the most atrocious sounding of box-like pianos, whether in Hartford or elsewhere, Mabern’s giant, blacksmith-like hands have managed to forge clanging chordal clusters of well-wrought steel. A resilient force, he can take advantage even of out-of-tune keys by simply using their flatness or sharpness as a kind of extra, edgy seasoning for his inner voicings.
On his latest CD, Right on Time (Smoke Sessions Records), Mabern burns with heat and soul, as on his searing take on “My Favorite Things.” His hypnotic intensity echoes the passion of the classic version by John Coltrane. A great believer in high-flying energy, he also pays a spirited homage to his friend Lee Morgan in a kinetic piece called “Edward Lee.”
Throughout the Smoke session, Mabern is accompanied by two frequent collaborators, bassist John Webber and drummer Joe Farnsworth. In the liner notes, he named his three preferred rhythm section mates as Reeves or Webber on bass, and Farnsworth on drums.
Damon Smith, who designed the album’s artwork, has the final word in the CD’s liner notes, making the wise observation that “now is the time to make Harold Mabern an NEA National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master.”
“His music, made at the highest level for over 50 years, is one of the great treasures of jazz …his music is idiosyncratic and personal, it comes from within, and it’s all Mabe. Let’s make it happen,” he said of the 78-year-old, who’s a Jazz Master, even without the NEA in front of that title.
Another not-to-be-missed highlight at the festival is the formidable saxophonist and composer Mike DiRubbo, a New Haven native and former Jackie McLean protégé, who leads his quintet at 5:30 pm, prior to the Reeves/Mabern set.
An adventurous alto player, DiRubbo plays with classic intensity and emotional depth. “I want to make the hair stand up on the back of your neck,” he said on his website, ksantirecords.com, home base for his indie label, Ksanti Records. His latest on Ksanti -- Sanskrit for patience -- is his well-received quintet disc, Threshold.
The High School in The Community Jazz Band opens the festival at 4:30 pm.
Also featured on the bill is the Venezuela-born violinist Ali Bello and the Sweet Wire Band, which serves multi-cultural blends with Afro-Latin roots at 6:45 pm.
As part of Jazz Week in New Haven, the ambitious festival picks right up the following weekend, August 23, with yet another free bash on the New Haven Green.
Its headliner is the great saxophonist/composer Joe Lovano presenting his Trio Fascination project with vocalist Judi Silvano at 7:30 pm. Lovano and his wife, Silvano (a portmanteau blend of Silver, her maiden name, and Lovano) recently performed at Wesleyan University. Among his trunk full of trophies, Lovano is the winner of the 2014 Downbeat Critics Poll award for Tenor Saxophonist of the Year.
Obviously, one of the world’s greatest tenors would be well worth hearing again so soon after the Middletown concert even if his performance on the Green weren’t for free.
The August 23 concert opens at 6:00 pm with trumpeter Harold Zinno’s sextet featuring vocalist Nicole Pasternak. Zinno’s special guest is 13-year-old Matthew Whittaker, a young, blind piano prodigy who began playing at age three on a small Yamaha keyboard. A native of Hackensack, New Jersey, Whittaker was the opening act for Stevie Wonder’s induction into the Apollo Theater’s Hall of Fame. Aside from the Apollo, the wunderkind has performed in other prestigious venues ranging from the United Nations headquarters to Lincoln Center, and has toured internationally from Capri, Italy to Tokyo, Japan.
The ambitious festival also features more than 25 concerts and events in participating New Haven restaurants, bars and clubs in a ten-day jazz marathon running from August 15 through August 24.
The festival’s club-scene extravaganza steps off handsomely with the swinging saxophonist Kris Jensen leading his high-quality quintet at 8:00 pm on Friday, August 15, at Café Nine at 250 State Street in New Haven. He’s joined by pianist Mark Templeton, bassist Phil Bowler, drummer Tom Melito, and violinist Jason Anick, winner of the Downbeat magazine Rising Star award. Cover: $10.00. Festival information: jazzhaven.org.
Over the Rainbow
Years before Jane Monheit became a famous jazz diva, the then unknown but obviously gifted, young singer with Hollywood starlet looks regularly broke the hearts and won the minds of innumerable new Nutmeg converts with her performances in Connecticut. Especially so in her early appearances with the then also obscure but now noted tenor saxophonist Joel Frahm, a Wisconsin native who grew up in West Hartford.
At New Haven’s historic Shubert Theater more than a dozen years ago, for example, Monheit’s evocative, show-stopping interpretation of “Over the Rainbow” made strong men and no less strong women in the enraptured audience weep openly, unashamedly and sadly yet joyfully into their Kleenex tissues and handkerchiefs.
A natural-born story-teller with a dramatically expressive voice, Monheit, who’s now 36, is on tour promoting her new CD, Hello Bluebird, her celebration of the jazzier side of Judy Garland. Very much in her own distinctive style, Monheit bonds with the spirit of Garland, the legendary singer/actress who could squeeze every ounce of emotional drama out of any song she sang.
Monheit’s yellow brick road for her promotional tour leads to Northampton’s Iron Horse Music Hall where at 7:00 pm on Saturday, August 16, she’ll sing soaring selections from her new album whose full title is Hello Bluebird: Celebrating the Jazz of Judy Garland.
“I want to get away from the drama, and celebrate what we all loved about Judy…the immense joy she brought through song, and her innate understanding of jazz,” Monheit said of the artistic direction for her Garland project. “She did so much more than break hearts…she put them together again, and that’s what we’re going to be about with this show.”
Among many Garland favorites, Monheit’s tribute repertoire includes such classics as “I Wish I Were in Love Again,” “The Sweetest Sound,” “Zing Went the Strings of My Heart,” “Johnny One Note,” and “That Old Black Magic.” A closing medley will, more than likely, feature Monheit’s magic worked on Garland’s signature songs, “Over the Rainbow,” and “Hello Bluebird.” Helping Monheit to mend hearts and put zing into the sweetest sounds is her backup trio. It features pianist Michael Kanan, bassist Neal Miner and drummer Rick Montalbano (Monheit’s husband), ready to make your troubles melt like lemon drops. Tickets: $35.00 at iheg.com and (413) 586-8686.
Carmichael’s Giant Strides
Since Judy Carmichael arrived on the New York scene in the early 1980s, she’s become recognized as one of the world’s great practitioners of stride piano, a two-fisted, technically and physically demanding, rollicking and rolling style that has historically been a male bastion.
With a little bit of help from two extraordinary friends, tenor saxophonist Harry Allen and guitarist Chris Flory, Carmichael will strut her stomping stride style at 8:30 pm on Saturday, August 16, at The Side Door Jazz Club at 85 Lyme Street in Old Lyme.
Historically, stride piano was dominated by such legends as the cigar-chomping Willie “The Lion” Smith, James P. Johnson and the famously high-living, hard-swinging Babe Ruth-like character named Fats Waller, and other keyboard kingpins and mythic macho masters of the rough-and-tumble art form.
All of which made Carmichael seem like such an anomaly, even a novelty when she first arrived. Until, of course, she sat down and played stride with absolute authority, wit, verve and an irrepressible will to swing. This young, pretty, blonde suburbanite from Southern California was so good and so strong, in fact, that Count Basie, who knew a bit about stride and swing, nicknamed her “Stride.”
Basie, a devout minimalist, didn’t waste words any more than he wasted notes with his telegraphic piano style. So for him, as far as this physically slight but pianistically imposing young woman went, the single word Stride said it all.
While shaking up New York’s preconceptions of what a stride player should look like, Carmichael was simultaneously becoming a Hartford favorite in the ’80s with gigs at restaurateur/impresario John Chapin’s chic downtown clubs, whose hip fare regularly featured such master pianists as Teddy Wilson, Dave McKenna, Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones, Barry Harris, and McCoy Tyner, among others.
Since then, Carmichael, a Grammy nominee, has literally strode on to acclaim as a recording artist and globe-trotting performer, playing in a variety of prestigious venues from Carnegie Hall to the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice, Italy.
An articulate missionary, she’s spread the good word about stride and traditional jazz piano in clubs across the continent and through US government-sponsored tours taking her from India to China. In 1996, she added vocals to her act after making her singing debut at the famous Tavern on The Green in New York City.
Multi-talented, the pianist/singer, has created a documentary on early jazz musicians; hosted her own NPR show, Judy Carmichael’s Jazz Inspired; written instructional music books and, in her spare time, articles on jazz for JazzTimes, among other pursuits. Admission: $35.00. Information: thesidedoorjazz.com and (860) 434-0886.
Other Noteworthy Notes
The Galvanized Jazz Band heats up Music Mountain in Falls Village at 6:30 pm on Saturday, August 16, with its molten mix of traditional jazz, everything from blues and rags to swing and stomps. Bring your dancing shoes. Admission: $27.00, advance; $30.00, door. Information: musicmountain.org.
Veteran pianist John Brighenti welcomes vocalist Nicole Pasternak as his special guest in his ongoing Friends Series at 6:00 pm on Thursday, August 14, at Casa Mia on the Green at 600 Cold Spring Road in Rocky Hill. Admission is free. Information: (860) 563-7000.
Trombonist Mike Pallas leads his quartet at 8:00 pm on Monday, August 18, at the Jazz Mondays series at Black-eyed Sally’s at 350 Asylum Street in Hartford. Information: (860) 278-7427.
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