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Norman David and the Eleventet will celebrate 100 shows, two new records at Plays & Players

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Norman David and the Eleventet | photo via Facebook

Near the beginning of a performance by his Eleventet earlier this month at the band’s longtime home base upstairs at Plays and Players, Norman David made a (mostly) solemn pledge. “Whether there’s two or 2,000 of you,” he proclaimed, “we’ll blow your faces off.”

At the moment that David made that vow, the audience was closer in number (maybe even spot on) to the lower limit of that estimate, but David was as good as his word while his band outnumbered the crowd five-to-one and as the room filled in over the course of the evening’s two sets. The Eleventet has faced varying situations over its seven-year tenure at Plays and Players, but David insists that the run has provided an invaluable opportunity to hear his music realized on a regular basis by some of the city’s most talented players.

“The ups and downs are worth it,” he says, “and most often it’s ups.”

Expect the room to be packed on Monday, February 27th, which will be a celebration for David and The Eleventet for several reasons. It will be the 100th performance for the band in its third-floor headquarters, and will mark the release of two new CDs – the studio recording Please Call and the live album Crazy in Philly! – only the second and third releases in the ensembles 35-plus year history.

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Philly Jazz Guide: Top picks for live jazz around town in February

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Uri Caine | photo courtesy of the artist

I know, I know – you’d like to click one link, read one piece about something, anything, that doesn’t mention Donald Trump. I understand completely. So I’ll make it short, because let’s face it, less than two weeks into his presidency and after an exhausting –what, eighteen months, two years? Eternity? – his administration has been the lens through which everything has to be viewed right now. As I write this, it’s been 24 hours since a crowd of 5,000 gave the President and his party a proper Philadelphia welcome, pressed up against the on-the-nose symbolism of garbage truck barriers blocking out the masses. Given Trump’s mantra of a return to lost greatness and the mood of fear/hope for to be found in that crowd and in the general response lately, thoughts of revisiting the past and reimagining the future are inevitable, and jazz is an ideal medium for that. Outside of that political context, plenty of shows this month that look simultaneously backwards and forwards.

Philly native Uri Caine has long done just that. Throughout a wide-ranging career that started out with bebop gigs with Bootsie Barnes in local clubs and grew to embrace every style of jazz from straightahead to the far edges of the avant-garde, the pianist is still best known for his inventive and eclectic transformations of classical repertoire. As part of his residency at Swarthmore College, on February 4th Caine will perform his genre-leaping interpretations of music by Mozart and Mahler, and invite equally all-embracing vocalist Theo Bleckmann to join him for songs by either Schubert or Schumann. More information here.

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Philly Jazz Guide: Top picks for live jazz around town in January

Sumi Tonooka | photo courtesy of the artist
Sumi Tonooka | photo courtesy of the artist

Sure, a calendar year is just an arbitrarily designated indicator spanning a single trip around the sun, but 2016 nonetheless felt like a series of kicks to the gut with evil intent. Even the holiday season, which should have been a time for putting political rancor to (at least temporary) rest, enjoying friends, family and food, and recalibrating for the next orbit, pulled the rug out with the mother-daughter departure of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. Good riddance, 2016.

Now, if music is indeed, as the late great Albert Ayler would have it, the healing force of the universe, the sounds of 2017 carry a pretty heavy burden on their shoulders. January’s local jazz offerings provide several occasions to celebrate the congregating of like-minded artists to heal, create, and hopefully make a fresh start. Continue reading →

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Elizabeth Huston presents an interactive exploration of classical compositions with 10 Synchronisms

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Church of the Holy Apostles and the Mediator, venue for 10 Synchronisms | photo courtesy of Elizabeth Huston

Two years ago, harpist Elizabeth Huston invited audiences to wander through a musical performance rather than to just sit and watch one. Presenting Luciano Berio’s 14 Sequenzas – a career-spanning set of pieces for solo instruments or voice – Huston decided to mount each Sequenza in discrete spaces through the First Unitarian Church, presenting each one in a contextually appropriate, immersive setting from a circus scene to a 1960s bedroom.

Arriving in Philadelphia from her native Seattle a few years ago, Huston quickly became intrigued by the city’s diverse arts scene – and disappointed that the kinds of imaginative staging and performance that she saw in the Fringe Festival didn’t seem to translate into the classical music world.

“Seattle isn’t quite as culturally active as Philadelphia,” she says. “So the Fringe Festival completely changed the way I saw the idea of performance. I saw dance pieces that were site-specific and theater pieces where there was a lot of audience interaction, and I was really curious why I’d never seen that in music. It’s odd that all the other art forms are very interested in how they can innovate in the way they frame a piece, so I started thinking about how you could do that in music.”

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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.

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Philly Jazz Guide: Top picks for live jazz in November

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Omar Sosa | photo courtesy of the artist

Thanks to an unexpected confluence of shuffled schedules, pet health scares, and weather-defiant vacation planning, it seems my wife and I will be heading up to New England the day after Thanksgiving. We’ve decided to fully embrace the coincidence, so that Saturday we’ll be sitting down for a second, (relatively) period-accurate holiday supper at Plimoth Plantation, the Williamsburg-like “living history” recreation of the Pilgrims’ first settlement, presumably surrounded by buckle-shoed and feather-headdressed reenactors.

That of course means that I’ll be missing out on the Philly jazz scene’s own venerable Thanksgiving tradition, guitar great Pat Martino’s weekend-long stint at Chris’ Jazz Café. This year he’ll lead his quintet, with his regular triomates, organist Pat Bianchi and drummer Carmen Intorre, supplemented by tenor saxophonist Adam Niewood and trumpeter Alex Norris. In the spirit of the season, Martino’s guitarist wife Ayako has been known to sit in as well.

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Why Philly pianist George Burton waited 15 years to make his debut

George Burton | photo by Zoran Jelenic | courtesy of the artist
George Burton | photo by Zoran Jelenic | courtesy of the artist

George Burton’s résumé is indisputably impressive: he’s worked with jazz notables including Michael Brecker, Joe Lovano, Wallace Roney, and James Carter; accompanied pop artists including Meshell Ndegeocello and Patti LaBelle; he’s been the pianist for Odean Pope’s Saxophone Choir and the Sun Ra Arkestra and soloed with the Philly Pops and in Leslie Burrs’ opera “Vanqui.”

One thing the Philly native hadn’t done until now is record an album under his own name. That’s usually the first order of business for a musician leaving college for the competitive jazz scene, hoping to establish their reputation or least create a handy calling card to help land gigs. Since leaving Temple University in 2000, though, Burton has never lacked for work. Whether through the connections he made in the hothouse Ortlieb’s environment of the late ‘90s, where he was a regular, or simply through his own hard-won reputation for invention and adaptability, he simply hasn’t felt the need to record for recording’s sake. Continue reading →

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Philly Jazz Guide: Top picks for live jazz in October

Jason Stein | photo courtesy of the artist
Jason Stein | photo courtesy of the artist

The jazz offerings in the city this month offer the opportunity to explore the music from a number of different perspectives. For a historical one, the ICA is hosting The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now through next March. The exhibition, which opened last year at the MCA in Chicago, tells the story of the influential Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and its intersections with the visual art and culture of the era. It’s a must-see, and also features a number of performances to coincide with the show. But aside from that, this month’s standout concerts provide a number of different angles.

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Coltrane at 90: Looking back at the jazz legend’s Philly years with weeklong celebration

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Sonic Liberation 8, one of the bands taking part in Coltrane at 90 | photo courtesy of the artist

Next Friday, September 23, would have marked the 90th birthday of iconic saxophonist John Coltrane. Though he passed away nearly half a century ago at only 40 years old, Trane’s legacy continues to cast an enormous shadow over the jazz landscape, influencing generations of musicians not only through his playing but also in his restless experimentation, never-ceasing evolution and spiritual quest.

Coltrane only lived in Philadelphia for about a decade, spending most of the 1950s in the Strawberry Mansion rowhome that is now a National Historic Landmark, but Philadelphia Jazz Project director Homer Jackson says that they were formative enough years that Philly has a valid claim on the jazz legend. “It’s important that we, as Philadelphians, recognize that John Coltrane was our neighbor,” Jackson says. “He was a person that lived in these streets, walked through this community, became a man and shaped his destiny here.”

More importantly, Jackson continues, Coltrane forged his groundbreaking sound in connection with a number of other Philly musicians at the time, only some of whom have gone on to find fame outside the city, an impressive list that includes Jymie Merritt, Jimmy Heath, Benny Golson, and Odean Pope. “He was part of a community of forward-thinking artists that helped shape his ideas,” Jackson says. “These folks were pushing the boundaries of what was going to happen after bebop. We think of John Coltrane as this individual voice, which is true, but he’s also the epitome of what that community was about.”

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Philly Jazz Guide: Top picks for live jazz around town in September

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Arpeggio Jazz Ensemble | photo by Chet Miles

With the onset of fall comes the beginning of new artistic seasons, and several strong line-ups will kick off over the next month or two. That includes an especially thrilling Lively Arts series at Montgomery County Community College, a run of heavy-hitters at the Kimmel and Annenberg Centers, and a typically exciting run of boundary-stretching artists from Ars Nova Workshop, including a slew of AACM-related shows in conjunction with the ICA’s must-see exhibition “The Freedom Principle.”

But whether summer travels have locals settling back at home or just sheer coincidence, September is a particularly strong month for local artists and projects with local roots. Of course there’s the 90th birthday celebrations for former Strawberry Mansion resident John Coltrane, which I’ll cover at length in a later piece, but also the following string of Philly-centric shows.

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