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Metropolitan Room / Hot House Jazz magazine 2016 award ceremony.

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Rossano Sportiello

Winning Spins by George Kanzler

The story of jazz piano stretches back to the music’s earliest days and has been parallel but somewhat independent of jazz history as a whole. Pianists, especially when playing solo, belong to a jazz piano tradition that encompasses a much larger piano heritage including the instrument’s European classical and folk traditions.

Two pianists who take different approaches to solo piano jazz, Rossano Sportiello and Fred Hersch, have new albums that comprise this Winning Spins. While Rossano emphasizes the song or the melody, Fred approaches the music from a more personal, emotional and impressionistic level.

Pastel: Solo Piano, Rossano Sportiello (Arbors Records), is a lively recital of 13 tracks, including three medleys, from the Italian-born, 40-something pianist who has become a champion of the mainstream jazz piano tradition. Avoiding barn burner tempos on this CD, Rossano grounds his playing in melody, unequivocally stating the tune, often with relaxed swing, before venturing into improvising, usually over a buoyantly striding left hand.

He tosses in Art Tatum-like runs and flourishes on Cole Porter’s “All Through the Night;” is off and running with allusions to the melody on Jerome Kern’s “Nobody Else but Me” and manages to play both Erroll Garner’s “That’s My Kick” and its inspiration, “I Get a Kick Out of You,” almost simultaneously while bouncing a stride beat reminiscent of Garner. Another effective tribute is Rossano’s own “Dedicated to George Shearing,” recognizable to anyone who heard the late pianist.

Two medleys demonstrate creative use of the classical piano repertoire in a jazz context. One combines quite seamlessly Edvard Grieg’s “Arietta Op. 21,” with its echoes of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” with the Jimmy VanHeusen-Johnny Burke standard “Like Someone in Love.” Another finds a close empathy between Debussy’s “Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum” and Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life.” He also essays Aram Khachaturian’s “Waltz from Masquerade,” romping off on a 3/4 time improvisation after sumptuously delivering the original melody.

Rossano’s own “Hymn” also borrows from the classical tradition, while the Italian song “Voglia ’E Turna” references more popular, deeply romantic Euro-pop roots. Other familiar melodies Rossano warmly presents here include “Dancing in the Dark,” “When I Fall in Love” and a medley of Johnny Mandel’s “A Time for Love/Close Enough for Love” enlivened with a stride improvisation. The album’s title song is a rare gem from bassist Red Callender, presented with lush romantic flourishes.

Rossano Sportiello is at Mezzrow leading a trio with bassist Frank Tate and drummer Dennis Mackrel, Sept. 22-23.

Photo Credit:  Fran Kaufman

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Matt Wilson

Matt Wilson: Poetry in Music and Motion

By George Kanzler

Matt Wilson was the drummer in the New York Jazz Composers Collective’s Herbie Nichols Project the first time I saw him in the early 1990s in the basement cafeteria of the Museum of Modern Art. When Matt’s turn came to solo, he abandoned his drum kit to apply his sticks to a cafeteria chair, fashioning a compelling solo by playing on the chair’s metal frame and molded plastic seat. It succinctly highlighted what is appealing about Matt: his out-of-the-box creativity and his wry, antic wit and sense of humor. Those qualities are on display, as well as his leadership and conceptual abilities, on his latest project, Matt Wilson’s Honey and Salt, Music Inspired by the Poetry of Carl Sandburg.        

Matt has had a fondness for Sandburg’s poetry since his childhood, sharing a geographical and familial connection. Matt, like the poet, grew up of Swedish heritage in the prairie lands of Knox County, Ill.; the poet’s first cousin and close friend, Charlie Krans, was married to Matt’s great-grandaunt Emma. In fact, Charlie is referenced in “Prairie Barn,” one of the tracks on the album. Matt has been incorporating Sandburg poems into his gigs for years; back in the late 1990s when he was the guest artist with Diane Moser’s Composers Big Band, he read “Jazz Fantasia” on the bandstand.

“I find with Carl Sandburg people are totally immersed in his work or just lukewarm—there’s no middle ground,” Matt says from his Long Island home. “I don’t think he gets nearly the recognition as an American poet as other 20th Century giants; scholars didn’t consider him as serious. But he was one of our first celebrity poets on TV. Johnny Carson said he was one of his very favorite guests on The Tonight Show, and he wrote a poem for Gene Kelly to dance to, with music by Nelson Riddle. He was on ‘What’s My Line?’ and won a Grammy for his narration of Aaron Copeland’s Lincoln Portrait. And he dug jazz.”

In 2001, Matt received a grant from Chamber Music America for his Sandburg poetry and jazz project. “That’s when I wrote much of it. I didn’t want just that one kind of jazz poetry, you know, the beatnik thing,” he says.  “I wanted lots of collision and grit, not just all Americana. The thing is not to have it all fall into one category or feeling but to express the diversity of Sandburg’s poetry in the music, too.”

Matt says it liberated him to make copies of poems and notes and carry them around while thinking about ways to express them in music. He decided that for the children’s poem, “We Must Be Polite,” a Bo Diddley beat would be perfect, so on the track he lays down an exuberant Bo beat under John Scofield’s reading and Jeff Lederer’s honking tenor sax solo. John, Jeff and Matt are three of the ten readers on the album. Matt just made a list of musicians he admired to pick the readers.

“I was intrigued how hip-hop artists will have guests on records just to sing a verse, you don’t have to have them on the whole track” to document their voices reading poetry. One of his favorites is Jack Black’s dramatizing of “Snatch of Sliphorn Jazz.” “I had a full arrangement for that but we had a blackout at the studio that day so Jeff [soprano sax] and I improvised a duet around it.”

Most of the bands Matt has led, currently the Matt Wilson Quartet and Arts and Crafts, are quartets (Christmas Tree-O is a trio); but for Honey and Salt he convened a quintet. Dawn Thomson sings and plays guitar; Jeff, a longtime Quartet member, is on reeds and harmonium; Martin Wind, another longtime associate, plays acoustic bass guitar here for the first time on record providing, Matt says, “a different shape of the sound coming at you;” and cornetist Ron Miles is new to Matt’s orbit and, according to Matt, “perfect for this project.”

The songs with Dawn range from country-folk to soul to jazz-like standards, while the settings for the poem readings span the scale from trad and swing to jazz-rock and blues. The poet’s recording of “Fog” becomes a repeated incantation over a kinetic drum solo. It all makes for one of the very best jazz and poetry projects ever.

Matt Wilson’s Honey and Salt presents the music and poetry from the new CD at Jazz Standard on Sept. 19-20. They are also at The Side Door Jazz Club in Old Lyme on Sept. 22.

Photo Credit:  John Abbott

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Cecile McLorin Salvant

Cécile McLorin Salvant: Song Central Station

By Elzy Kolb

Cécile McLorin Salvant laughs as she describes herself as a complainer, as someone who can usually find a problem. That characteristic doesn’t come across as she chats about topics from her new recording to upcoming gigs to how she listens to music and picks material to the current state of musical theater. The singer, who just turned 28 on Aug. 28, has opinions, yes. Observations, certainly. Complaints, not so much.

The critically acclaimed vocalist has a new double album coming out this month, Dreams and Daggers, her third Mack Avenue release and her fourth overall. The mix of almost two dozen songs spans decades and genres, from the blues to Broadway to Bob Dorough, from standards to originals. It also combines studio tracks that include trio augmented by a string quartet with trio material recorded live last year at the Village Vanguard and the DiMenna Center.

“I wanted an element of sonic contrast,” Cécile notes. “I had played with the Catalyst Quartet before, and in brainstorming about the album it seemed like that would be a good difference in texture that would carry us in certain songs, like bridges.”

Most of the live portions of the album came from the final set of 2016’s three-night Vanguard run. Going into that set, Cecile was concerned that she and her trio—pianist Aaron Diehl, bassist Paul Sikivie and drummer Lawrence Leathers—hadn’t quite hit their stride. “We were not quite getting to our sound, our vibe, it felt bland, like we knew we were being recorded.”

Cecile credits a pre-set pep talk from Lawrence as among the elements firing them up for the last set, along with the fact that the club was full of family, friends and fellow musicians. “There was a certain atmosphere in the club,” she explains. “People we loved were there, it felt like magic; it felt like our only shot. I was happy to be able to record it. When you have moments like that, you want to keep them.” From the abundant and enthusiastic audience response audible on the recording, the magic was felt throughout the room.

The singer is back at the Vanguard at the end of the month in a duo setting with her frequent musical partner, pianist Sullivan Fortner. Despite the timing, their run at the fabled club is not a CD release celebration—the gig was booked before the release date was set, in what the singer refers to as a kind of “Twilight Zone,” “Twin Peaks” weirdness. Cecile and Sullivan have toured together and made a so-far unreleased record earlier this year; she anticipates minimal overlap with Dreams and Daggers material at the Vanguard this time around. Their repertoire includes tunes by Cole Porter, Stevie Wonder and Cy Coleman, among others.

Listening to music is a daily pleasure for Cecile, for whom choosing material is something that comes from “an instinctive, unexplainable place.” Lyrics are often the attraction, plus a strong connection to a song and the feeling that she can do something with it. She’s noticed a difference in listening for fun versus work.

“When I’m digging, knowing that I’m digging, I rarely hit on something to connect with—it can feel academic and I hate that feeling. It becomes contrived and I hate that I got to that place.”

When listening for fun, flamenco has been in Cecile’s rotation, including the duo Lole y Manuel, and La Marelu. “She’s from a place near Portugal, so La Marelu’s flamenco is different from what we’re used to. Her videos make me crazy!” She also cites Thundercat, D’Angelo, Kendrick Lamar, R&B, and neo-soul on her playlist: “Something I can loll to.”

In addition to music, Cecile has a broad array of interests, from the visual arts to the history of law. It should come as no surprise to anyone who has heard Cecile’s ability to convey emotion and tell a story with a lyric, that she’s always wanted to act. She’d welcome the opportunity to play a dramatic role, but has reservations about the current state of musical theater.

“Everything is so clean, so devoid of emotion, and so loud,” she says of the current state of Broadway musicals. “That’s a general trend in the performing arts: perfect, virtuosic and loud, lacking the grit and humanity in singers like Elaine Stritch. I don’t want to sound arrogant. But when I’m part of something, I want to feel excited, like it could push me, challenge me.”

The vocalist brings an attitude of gratitude to her current career. “This is better than anything I could imagine. I’m realistic: I know things can go south at any time. I appreciate things as they are now.”

Cecile McLorin Salvant and pianist Sullivan Fortner play the Village Vanguard Sept. 26 through Oct. 1.

Photo Credit:  Fran Kaufman

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Tomas Fujiwara

Another Reason to Celebrate by Elzy Kolb

Present history

Tomas Fujiwara was just 10 when he began studying drums with Alan Dawson. His late teacher had a lot of jazz history under his sticks, having played with greats Dexter Gordon, Booker Ervin, Dave Brubeck, Gerry Mulligan and scores of others. Tomas taped the lessons and has recently begun revisiting those sessions while digitizing and archiving the cassettes. “I had a lot of feelings listening back to the 10-year-old me, all these years later. Even when I’m not hearing the voice on tape, I remember what I was hearing, feeling, thinking,” Tomas muses.

While growing up, Tomas heard his teacher in action in clubs around Boston many times. Even when Alan was sharing a bandstand with legends, “He’d always introduce us as equals, ‘Tomas Fujiwara, Bobby Hutcherson.’ Very matter of fact, no irony. That’s him as a person and as a musician, graceful and effortless; he played with great beauty and elegance.

“Going through the tapes, hearing his voice, hearing my voice, reflecting on the time spent with him, I heard our voices as part of a project, but I didn’t know how.” In the process of making his soon-to-be-released album, Triple Double (Firehouse 12), some soundbites from the lessons found their way into a duet Tomas plays with fellow drummer Gerald Cleaver, titled “For Alan.”

 “Everything you’re dealing with at the same time works its way in to a project,” Tomas notes. “We played around with different ideas until it clicked.”

Joining Tomas and Gerald on Triple Double are guitarists Mary Halvorson and Brandon Seabrook, cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum and trumpeter Ralph Alessi, playing ten Fujiwara originals. In planning who to record with, “Number one for me is musical personalities and involvement in the music I want to play, plus musicians I want to write for,” Tomas explains. “A sense of community creates an environment where we’re free to take risks, because there is trust and support, and interest in adventurous, creative music. From the time of the first rehearsal for Triple Double, there were unique moments that I cherish, the kind of moments we live for as artists.”

Tomas and his Triple Double cohort will assemble at the Jazz Gallery Sept. 22 for a pre-release celebration. While they’ll focus on the compositions from the upcoming album, he expects the tunes to differ from the studio versions. “Every time we come together as people and artists, we have more to talk about, more chances to take,” he says. “No one in this group is about playing it safe and retracing old paths. We’ll have something fresh to say at the Jazz Gallery.

“Community is integral to the album and to the music we’ll play at the Jazz Gallery—it’s music coming from a community band process.” Perhaps the sense of community Tomas feels with his musical colleagues is a lasting legacy of those early lessons with his graceful mentor.

Photo Credit:  Amy Touchette

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Corcoran Holt

Fresh Takes by Nick Dunston

When he’s not on tour, bassist Corcoran Holt seems to be everywhere at once in the New York scene of jazz and improvised music. One of the many things that set him apart from his peers is his roots in West African music. “Djembe was my first instrument, which I started when I was 4 years old,” he recalls. “I started bass after that, but I was influenced on the instrument coming out of the djembe. To me, the bass is a drum, a percussive instrument.”

Corcoran’s values as a leader have been largely influenced by some of the legends in jazz he’s played with over the years, such as Kenny Garrett, the Heath Brothers, Wycliffe Gordon, and Steve Turre, to name a few.

“One of the things I’ve learned is how to get inside of the music right away, and how to quickly tap into the spiritual side,” he says. “I always select people who have that same state of mind, the people who have great technical ability but who also know that it comes from a spiritual place.”

Corcoran Holt performs music from his upcoming record, The Mecca, at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola on Sept. 19.

Photo Credit:  John Herr

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Arturo O Farrill

The Latin Side Of Hot House by Emilie Pons

Celebrating Dizzy’s 100th

Trumpet icon and composer Dizzy Gillespie would have turned 100 this year and pianist Arturo O’Farrill is celebrating the occasion. “Dizzy was an incredibly gracious human being,” Arturo says. “He was always fun; always hanging out. I’ll never forget the fact that he didn’t hide behind a suit, he didn’t hide behind his position. He was really cool.”

In the same approachable manner and spirit as Dizzy, Arturo will pay tribute to jazz, Latin jazz and Dizzy with saxophonist George Coleman at the Bogardus Mansion, the house of jazz aficionado George Aprile, in Tribeca. “The difference between Latin jazz and jazz is in the interpretation,” Arturo says. “When Chano Pozo and Dizzy started playing together, they realized that both of them were playing African music.

“It’s always interesting to me because I knew Dizzy,” he says of the tribute. “I played with him when I was a kid and he was my father’s friend.” But, Arturo doesn’t want his concert to be melancholy. “I believe in the spirit of Dizzy as much as I believe in Dizzy,” he says. “It’s not about nostalgia. It’s much more important to recognize that Dizzy was a great experimenter with Brazilian music, Pan American music. He was one of the first readily open musicians in jazz. He didn’t think of Latin jazz as a sub-chapter.”

The pianist finds divisions between jazz and Latin music “silly.” “The real truth,” he says, “is that jazz is an African gift to the entire new world and a version of what we call jazz exists in every single nation where slaves were brought. The rhythms of jazz also exist in samba.”

This concert will draw on two major influences: Both Dizzy and George Coleman have been part of Arturo’s musical journey since the beginning. Miles Davis’s album Seven Steps to Heaven, which features George, is “the very first record that turned me into a jazz aficionado,” says Arturo. “It’s the key to my entire life.”

Entire lives dedicated to jazz are what the Wilbur Ware Institute, which is organizing the concert, is all about. Since the 1980s, the institute has aimed at “bringing jazz to people,” says vice president, bassist John Webber. Dizzy, a major supporter of the Jazz Foundation of America, would have certainly appreciated a concert put together by another jazz-loving team. The institute’s vision, says Gloria Ware, the president, was always to “put musicians in a place where they could mentor young people, but also play and record and share their history and their music with everybody.” Gloria’s deep regret is that “in America, the music is not acknowledged and celebrated.”

But thankfully, George Aprile allows the institute to use the Bogardus Mansion, a historic landmark, for free. “That was his dream to have jazz at his place,” John says. “So, he restored the building over time and kept a lot of the original details. As the neighborhood changed, he realized what he had—he actually had a jazz club there.”

The Tribeca concert will be an uncompromising celebration of music trailblazers put together by music lovers.

Arturo O’Farrill and George Coleman perform at the Bogardus Mansion on Sept. 23.

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Dave Kikoski

Bridge Crossings by Cary Tone

Jersey boy, Dave Kikoski, is a pianist for all seasons. If he'd done nothing else but play with Roy Haynes and the Brecker Brothers, his place in the jazz piano pantheon would be secure.

But that hardly tells the whole story. He's a sparkling player who can play everything.

Q- You've performed with so many great band leaders. Your longest association was probably with Roy Haynes. How did you meet Roy and how does that musical and personal association impact your life and music? 

A- I was playing with drummer Les DeMerle out in Long Island not far from where Roy lived and met him there. I feel very lucky to be a part of his legacy. He’s like a father to me. We started touring and recording back in 1986 and have made so much music since then with many different configurations. Roy impacted my life so much and in so many ways by showing me how to play a melody with conviction and always swinging hard. He also brought me on my first tour and showed me how to handle myself on the road in a professional manner. Sometimes we would take a flight, a train, and a car all day and then that night, we would get on the stage and hit. He told me how to conserve energy and summon it right on the first tune until the end of the gig. He is the master.

Q- I'll toss out a few other long-term musical associates. Say a few words about your engagement with the music of: Mingus Big Band, Michael and Randy Brecker, Chick Corea, Joe Henderson, Chris Potter, Jeff "Tain" Watts.

A- Mingus Big Band: It’s really fun playing with the Mingus Big Band because a lot of the song forms are unusual and challenging and the big band has been going strong for many years with Sue Mingus’ help. We won the Grammy for 2011 Live at Jazz Standard. I also ended up playing with many of the individual member’s own projects as well. 

Randy Brecker: Randy Brecker’s In the Idiom was my first CD with Joe Henderson, Ron Carter and Al Foster. I’m thankful to Randy for having faith in me. 

Chris Potter: Chris Potter and I started playing together with Red Rodney in 1991 when he was only about 19 and later did recordings and gigs with Al Foster and around the same time with Billy Hart. He mastered my tune “Shadow” in about two seconds. Recently, Chris, Billy, and I were reunited on the West coast to play at Billy Hart’s festival.  Chris is amazing.

Michael Brecker: I first met Michael when I was on tour with the Randy Brecker/Bob Berg Group in the 1980s. We would work opposite Mike’s band on a lot of shows. I was a big fan of the Brecker Brothers and toured with The Brecker Brothers Acoustic Band in 2001. He was the one of the all-time greats and a beautiful soul.

Chick Corea: Chick has been a huge influence and we met up with him on the road when I was playing with Bob Berg, Dennis Chambers and James Genus. He invited us to join him for a couple nights of big fun jamming. I also recorded on his label Stretch Records with Bob Berg and later with Roy Haynes who plays many of his tunes. I was doing a trio tour with Roy and John Patitucci opposite Chick playing solo. At the end of the night, Chick would come back to the stage and played with us doing four hands on the piano. It was a real honor.

Jeff "Tain” Watts: Tain is one of my oldest friends from Berklee. I’m proud to say that he’s on many of my records and I’m on many of his. We’ve traveled the world together and also play together with a lot of other groups, too. He’s a metric genius!

Q- You had a cooperative band in the 1990s and early 2000s playing what you called BeatleJazz. Did that come about from your interest in exploring Lennon/McCartney music? 

A- Brian Melvin and I put together BeatleJazz because we are both Beatle freaks and thought it would be interesting. There are so many great songs to explore and, so far, we have four CDs. On With a Little Help from Our Friends, we got a lot of help from special guests Mike and Randy Brecker, John Scofield, Mike Stern and others. We also do tunes from the Beatles solo records.

Q- You recorded a CD back in 1994, Epic, and on "Giant Steps" there's a stride piano break that is simply dazzling. How have you learned to incorporate so many different aspects of jazz music, especially jazz piano music into your playing?
A- I listen to a lot of different piano music after starting with my father who liked stride piano as well as classical piano. I try to study all kinds of piano styles (not only jazz). 

Q- Another recording of yours I've recently listened to again, Surf's Up, includes a piece by Frank Zappa, and the title tune is one of my very favorite Brian Wilson gems. What attracts you to composerslike these two icons or other composers for that matter? 

A- Composition is something I am very interested in developing and Frank Zappa is one of my favorites as well as Brian Wilson, both I enjoy arranging and improvising over. The way the songs are structured have a fascinating twist to them in different ways.

Q- Your latest album is Kayemode. What does that word mean and tell us a bit about the recording? 
A- People call me K as a nickname and it became “Kayemode.” That is why I called the new CD that. I guess I’m looking for my own “mode.” I did a gig a while back with Branford Marsalis and felt an amazing vibe with Justin Falkner and Joe Martin is a great bassist. We did a trio version of Chick Corea’s song “Mirror Mirror” which I used to play with Roy. I also did some Bird, Monk, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and some new originals. “Binge Watching” came about from some experimenting I’ve been doing with odd intervals such as flat 9s and major 7th which were utilized in the early 20th century. It ended up sounding a bit Monk-ish. Joe plays a great solo over the changes, and then it gets very free. “Morning Glory” is my newest waltz and even though it gets intense on the out bump, I tried to write something simple and pretty. I wrote “Switching Roles” after working on some Chopin pieces where the hands cross over each other at certain times. In the middle, Joe drops out and Justin and I get into a free duet where our meters overwrap at will. I’m very happy they could do it with me.

Q- Tell us a few of your favorite piano trios or trio recordings led by other pianists? 
A- Keith Jarrett Trio, Herbie, Ron and Tony, Wynton Kelly, Red Garland, Bill Evans, Bud Powell. The list goes on and on!

Q- What do you know today about music and a life in music that you didn't know 20 years ago?   
A- I feel my playing is getting more seasoned and personal. I was born in the 1960s when rock, soul, jazz, classical and music from all cultures started blending and categories started becoming blurred. I started doing that in my music even back then. I will continue to try and develop that in my own way.

Q- What do you struggle with in your creative life?   

A- Sometimes it’s a challenge to book more of my own tours but at this point in my life I am trying to struggle less and create more.

Q- If there's an afterlife, one piece of music you heard here that you'll remember there?     

A- Bach St. Anne Prelude and Fugue in E-flat Major.

Q- You’re having a dinner party and can invite three musicians. Who would they be?

A- Living: Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock. Not Living: Bach, Charlie Parker, Frank Zappa

Dave Kikoski brings a trio at Maureen’s Sept. 9—bassist Ed Howard and drummer Mark Ferber, and at Smalls Sept. 29-30—Rick Rosato, bass and Colin Stranahan, drums; with Mark replacing Colin the 30th.

Photo Credit:  Brian Friedman

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