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.
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.
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 →
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.
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.”
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.
When the Fresh Cut Orchestra returns to the Painted Bride, the venue that started it all, the occasion was always planned to be both homecoming and celebration, falling just one day after the release of the ten-piece ensemble’s second CD, Mind Behind Closed Eyes on Ropeadope Records. As it turns out, though, the show has also become a farewell, as trumpeter and co-leader Josh Lawrence made the move to New York City earlier this week.
On the phone from his rapidly emptying Philly place a few days ago, occasionally interrupted by movers pushing past on their way out the door, Lawrence insisted that the move wouldn’t cause any drastic changes for the FCO. “It basically means the mail’s gonna go to Jason instead of me now,” he shrugged, referring to bassist Jason Fraticelli, “but that’s really the only difference.”
Given the challenges of keeping a large ensemble together in today’s financial and musical climate, an extra couple hours’ commute is hardly the biggest hurdle that Lawrence, Fraticelli, and co-leader Anwar Marshall face in maintain the adventurous orchestra. The fact that they’ve kept the band active for nearly four years now is all the more remarkable given the fact that they were put together by Painted Bride music curator Lenny Seidman to celebrate the Vine Street venue’s 40th anniversary of presenting jazz in 2012, not by their own initiative.
Who says jazz isn’t summertime music? Sure, the pickings are generally slim with most of the institutions that present the music in off-season hibernation until next month, but the August calendar is surprisingly loaded with enticing options. And while the genre can lean towards dark, formerly smoke-filled (still so in spirit) nightclub swing or cerebral avant-garde complexity, much of what’s happening this month is seasonally appropriate – maybe not quite the musical equivalent of beach reading (we can’t quite compete with the pop world for that), but still a bit breezier than the norm.
Duke Ellington wrote “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” in 1931, heralding the dawn of the swing era a few years later. The days of the big band as popular music had long passed by the time Wycliffe Gordon was born in 1967, but the versatile trombonist has spent much of his career revisiting the music of the swing era, both as a former member of Wynton Marsalis’ Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and fronting his own bands, which have recorded tribute albums to Ellington and Gordon’s idol, Louis Armstrong.
On Thursday, Gordon will pay yet another homage to the swing era with two shows at Mt. Airy’s Alma Mater, the second installment in the Modern Renaissance Jazz summer concert series that kicked off last month with James Carter playing boisterous tribute to Philly’s own jazz heritage, and continues in August with Living Colour drummer Will Calhoun.
July’s typically a slow month for jazz in the city, as most of the venues and presenters have closed their seasons and audiences are skipping town for the summer months. That includes jazz writers, which means that I’m putting together the first installment of this to-be-monthly jazz roundup with one eye on the beckoning road. Despite all that, there are still quite a few shows worth catching between jaunts to the Shore, including local favorites, returning hometown heroes, intriguing experiments and a community-focused entry in the city’s festival season. Watch this space in the coming months for regular highlights of the Philly jazz scene; for now, here’s a few quick tips while I pack my bags to join the temporary exodus. Continue reading →