Philly Jazz Guide: Top picks for live jazz in December

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Mark Kramer and Eddie Gomez | photo courtesy of the artists

I’m not going to make things easy on you this month. Maybe it’s because the latter part of the month is swallowed by the holidays, or maybe it’s just sheer coincidence, but most of this month’s jazz highlights are crammed into a single weekend right at the outset. It’s possible to make several of these with some careful planning, but a couple of them may come down to coin tosses – but it’s worth catching as many as possible.

The weekend kicks off with a First Friday performance by the Mark Kramer / Eddie Gómez Trio at the Barnes Foundation. Philly-based pianist Kramer and renowned bassist Gómez, best known for his decade-long tenure in the iconic Bill Evans Trio, have been co-leading this trio for 20 years. They’re joined by the great drummer Billy Drummond, a veteran who has worked with most of the greatest names in jazz, from Sonny Rollins to Andrew Hill to Sheila Jordan. They’ll perform pieces from Jazz Fiddler on the Roof, one of Kramer’s series of transformations of Broadway shows. But more importantly, it’s a chance to see a rhythm section of the highest order in action.

That same night, Norah Jones will play the Academy of Music in support of her new release, Day Breaks. While Jones’ career has often led her far afield from her jazz roots, Day Breaks is a compelling return, featuring an ensemble of Blue Note labelmates including organ great Dr. Lonnie Smith, drummer Brian Blade and the mighty saxophonist Wayne Shorter, playing her own songs as well as classics by Horace Silver, Duke Ellington and – well, she can’t help but fold in the full breadth of her influences – Neil Young.

Philly is rightly renowned as an incubator of jazz talent – even a partial list of jazz greats who’ve hailed from the city spans the music’s history, from John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner and the Heath Brothers through Benny Golson, Lee Morgan and Bootsie Barnes to Christian McBride, Kurt Rosenwinkel and the Eubanks brothers, just to name a few. Inevitably a talent pool that size will contribute its share to the music’s literature, but not until local pianist David Dzubinski took the initiative did anyone compile the best Philly jazz compositions in one place. Beginning on Saturday the 3rd, Jazz Bridge will celebrate the publication of the Philadelphia Real Book with a series of concerts featuring hometown jazz heroes playing the music of their fellow Philadelphians. Running through April, the series kicks off this weekend at UArts’ Terra Hall with guitarist Pat Martino’s trio along with pianist Uri Caine, as well as a panel sponsored by UPenn on the neuroscience of music and improvisation.

At the same time over at the Kimmel Center, one of those jazz greats will be celebrated during a performance that’s become a holiday tradition. The Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia, led by trumpeter and Temple music honcho Terell Stafford, makes its yearly return to the Perelman Theater stage with a program they’re calling “Trane-ing Day” – a salute to the music of John Coltrane, not an initiation into the seedier aspects of police work. Also on the bill, a reprise of the Orchestra’s swinging rendition of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s “Harlem Nutcracker.”

Also on the same night at the Painted Bride, the raucously irreverent quartet Sex Mob will provide a live soundtrack for the bizarre 1925 Italian silent film Maciste All’Inferno. Having recently celebrated their 20th anniversary, Sex Mob – slide trumpeter and all-around musical mastermind Steven Bernstein, saxophonist Briggan Krauss, bassist Tony Scher and drummer Kenny Wollesen – have spent their two decades manically but virtuosically juggling pretty much any genre or style of music that captures their mischievous fancy. They’ve delved into James Bond themes and pop songs, space age exotic and Nino Rota’s scores for Federico Fellini’s film – that last being especially apt here as Maciste All’Inferno is reportedly the movie that got Fellini interested in directing. The legendary filmmaker is also something of a touchstone for Bernstein’s crew in his carnivalesque atmospheres and Dionysian revels in excess, which, if they could be expressed in jazz form, would sound a lot like Sex Mob.

Finally, on Sunday, December 4th the mighty saxophonist Charles Lloyd plays an early show at Montgomery County Community College, allowing those who’ve already had a frantic weekend to call it an early night. A tireless seeker who combines ‘60s-era jazz spiritualism with blues roots gleaned from his youth in Memphis, Lloyd will lead (most of) the jaw-dropping band from his latest CD, I Long To See You – guitar great Bill Frisell, bassist Reuben Rogers, and drummer Eric Harland. Always one eager to explore other forms of music, with the Americana-leaning Frisell by his side Lloyd explores the work of songwriters like Bob Dylan and traditional folk tunes with this band, whose Blue Note debut features vocal contributions from Norah Jones and Willie Nelson.

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