My JazzTimes interview with singer/trumpeter Bria Skonberg explores how a blonde-haired, blue-eyed farm girl from Chilliwack, B.C. managed to become a singing, trumpet-playing hot jazz icon in New York City – and how she refuses to be pigeonholed.
New York vibraphonist/percussionist Erik Charlston is one of the busiest session musicians in New York, playing everything from Latin jazz to Broadway shows to opera. His latest album with his JazzBrasil group is inspired by the great Brazilian composer Hermeto Pascoal. But, despite all his musical genre-hopping, it’s Charlston‘s ability to dance a mean mambo that might lead to his most visible role yet: a part in Steven Spielberg’s upcoming remake of West Side Story. Read my article from the December DownBeat here.
Local musicians met jazz promoters from around the globe and bridges were built at the third annual Jazz Across Borders conference in St. Petersburg, Russia, which I was honored to attend November 15-16, 2019. Here’s my review from DownBeat.com.
It was a total joy to revisit these great sides in my review of the new vinyl box set for DownBeat.
If you love Bernstein’s music from West Side Story (and, really, if you don’t, what’s wrong with you?) you must hear it played by saxophonist @tednash in his trio with guitarist Steve Cardenas and bassist @benallisonmusic. Somewhere Else is an easy add to my 10 best list for 2019. I gave it five stars in a review just published at DownBeat.
Six albums of Brazilian jazz and música popular brasileira illustrate more than the country’s musical diversity: They demonstrate how Brazil’s best songwriters and musicians—marinated in older forms like samba, choro, and bossa nova—are finding new ways to use that heritage to create fresh pop, rock and jazz. Read about Delia Fischer, Marcos Valle, Banda Black Rio, Antonio Adolfo, and two others here.
This piece appeared in the November 2019 issue of DownBeat in slightly abbreviated form. (http://downbeat.com/news/detail/new-york-voices-reminisces-in-celebration-of-30th-anniversary). The full version is below.
The title track of The New York Voices’ latest album, Reminiscing in Tempo (Origin Records), was one of Duke Ellington’s first long-form compositions in the 1930s; Mel Tormé added the poignant lyrics in 1962. As they celebrate their 30th anniversary as a recording group, The Voices have plenty about which to reminisce, after decades of international touring and working alongside some of the biggest names in jazz including Bobby McFerrin, Paquito D’Rivera, Ray Brown, Jim Hall and the Count Basie Orchestra.
Founded in the mid-1980s at Ithaca College in upstate New York, they remain one of the world’s foremost jazz vocal groups. Originally a quintet, they became a quartet with the current lineup in 1994: tenor and saxophonist Darmon Meader, the group’s main arranger; baritone Peter Eldridge; and sopranos Lauren Kinhan and Kim Nazarian.
Their longevity is all the more remarkable considering that the four maintain separate careers as artists and jazz educators, and live far apart: Kim in Ohio, Darmon in upstate New York, Lauren on the East End of Long Island, and Peter in New Hampshire.
“We’re really the Eastern Time Zone Voices now,” Meader joked during a recent FaceTime chat with DownBeat. “But that doesn’t quite have a ring to it.”
Nazarian, speaking from her farm near Oberlin University (her husband, trombonist/producer Jay Ashby, teaches there), said, “The key word in our lives is balance, juggling… our personal and professional lives. Even though the Voices is not our primary money maker, it’s our priority job. No one wants to give up the legacy we’ve established as a group. We respect and love each other enough to make it work.”
They all have active careers in music education. Meader is an artist-in-residence at Indiana University; Eldridge teaches full-time at Berklee; Kinhan teaches at New York University; and Nazarian teaches at Ithaca College, often conducting voice lessons over Skype. In addition, the group leads two, week-long vocal jazz camps, at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, and at the Bavarian Music Academy in Marktoberdorf, Germany.
The group has become like an extended family over the last 30 years. “There have been more ups than downs,” Nazarian recalled. “We’ve never canceled a show, despite illnesses. Once, in Indonesia, Peter was so ill for a concert that he sat on a stool, and Lauren and I held him up. Also, I delivered my son the day after a concert in Utica, NY.”
Meader’s favorite memories include “the chance to work with people we respect so much, like Count Basie, Ivan [Lins], Paquito. I once had something like an out-of-body experience going over our charts with Ray Brown… And just the other day [at an August all-star Brazilian concert at] the Hollywood Bowl, Quincy Jones came back stage after the show. He asked us, “Who does your arrangements?” And he gave me a fist bump. Moments like that!
“The Voices takes up a smaller percentage of our time than in the past,” Meader said. “But our longevity means we have a big repertoire to choose from. And, when we get together, we’re like dance partners who have worked together for years. There’s a fair amount of practicing in hotel rooms. Sometimes we fly into gig a day early just to have some time together.”
The new album displays the group’s restless eclecticism. Co-produced by Grammy-winning engineer and longtime friend Elliot Scheiner, it includes vocal arrangements of jazz standards by Ellington, Dave Brubeck and Chick Corea; tunes by Fred Hersch (“A Dance For Me”), the Beatles (“In My Life”), Ivan Lins (“Answered Prayers” [É De Deus]), and even two vocal settings of works by Cuban classical composer Ignacio Cervantes. The stunning opening track, “Round, Round, Round (Blue Rondo à la Turk)” is a version of the Brubeck classic with lyrics by Al Jarreau, with additional vocalese lyrics by soprano Kinhan.
“We like to pick more obscure things, or incredibly challenging things, like ‘Blue Rondo,’” Nazarian said. “In 30 years, I think it is one of the hardest things we ever recorded. Memorizing those lyrics is mind-boggling – I don’t how Al Jarreau did it. But, after three decades, we’re still challenging ourselves. We’re not lowering keys, not slowing down tempos, not taking the easy road… We do what we teach. We try to set the bar and be the example of what we ask our students to do.”
The essence of New York Voices, Nazarian said, is that “we can sing what we record. Our performances often are better than the record. Our original goal, our career goal, is to bridge the gap between instrumental and vocal jazz. We are always referencing instrumental influences in our arrangements, in our performances and in our teaching.”
If, at 25, Veronica Swift sounds like a veteran jazz singer, that’s because she’s been singing jazz professionally since the age of 9. Her mom, the terrific jazz singer Stephanie Nakasian, once took Veronica, then 12, to see bebop singer Annie Ross perform in New York, and the youngster sat in on a number. Afterward, Ross said to her, “My goodness, Veronica, that was amazing … but don’t come back too often!” Here’s my profile of Veronica from the October 2019 DownBeat.
My recent conversation in DownBeat with Don Was, president of Blue Note, about the label’s 80th and how it is doubling down on vinyl for both reissues and current artists.
Despite being one of the world’s most celebrated jazz bassists,
@JohnJPatitucci says that it took him 40 years “to get up the courage” to do his recent one-man show in NYC. He explains why, reflects on his life and music, and discusses the future of the Wayne Shorter Quartet in my new interview with him.
Here’s my JazzTimes interview with Wynton Marsalis about channeling legendary cornetist Buddy Bolden, known as “the man who invented jazz,” for the film Bolden, which opens nationwide today (May 3, 2019). I recommend that everyone who cares about jazz see the film and check out the soundtrack. Wynton and colleagues did a brilliant job imagining what Bolden’s group sounded like – there are no existing recordings of them. He also recreated the excitement of a 1930s-era concert by Louis Armstrong & his Orchestra, with the help of the gifted actor-singer Reno Wilson as Pops.
What a joy to learn at the feet of Dr. Barry Harris, 89, one of the original bebop piano masters. I visited his regular Tuesday night workshop in Manhattan recently to interview him and join about 50 other eager students in learning how this sage approaches the art of bebop.
It was quite a night: Harry Connick, Jr., Jon Batiste, Catherine Russell, Sullivan Fortner, Wynton, Branford and Jason Marsalis, among others, in “The Birth of Jazz: From Bolden to Armstrong” at the annual Jazz at Lincoln Center gala on April 17. My review for DownBeat.com.
Bassist Chuck Israels is 82, pianist Aaron Diehl is 33, but they have much in common, as they proved last week at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Last week I did a joint interview with them for DownBeat, then reviewed their show. It was, for me, a personal reunion with both. I had previously profiled Aaron, whom I admire greatly, in Downbeat. The last time I saw Chuck was circa 1976, when, as a scruffy 21-year-old, I took his jazz workshop at SUNY Purchase.
For the lead story on New York City in @DownbeatMag’s 25 Greatest Jazz Cities package (Feb. 2019), I spoke with musicians who run jazz clubs, like Spike Wilner and Matt Garrison (Shapeshifter Lab); other musicians who live here (Anat Cohen, Kurt Elling); and jazz label execs Don Was (Blue Note), Barney Fields (HighNote/Savant), Seth Rosner and Yulun Wang (Pi). Read it here.
For the December 2018 issue of JazzTimes, I had the enjoyable task of creating a “Before & After” playlist for the multi-talented singer/guitarist/songwriter Raul Midón. Raul and I listened together in a Manhattan recording studio, and he gave me his impressions of the music before and after I identified artists and albums (he guessed the majority of artists pretty quickly). The article at JazzTimes.com includes a Spotify playlist, so you can listen along with us as you read his comments. Raul just earned his second Grammy nomination for his latest album, If You Really Want, a soulful collaboration with arranger/composer Vince Mendoza and the Metropole Orkest, the Dutch jazz orchestra.
At 11 o’clock till “stupid late” every Tuesday night, a little dive bar on the Lower East Side called Mona’s becomes ground zero for New York City’s Hot Jazz revival. It’s all thanks to a marvelous 34-year-old clarinet player from Newton, Mass. named Dennis Lichtman, who started the Tuesday jam back in 2007. Why does he choose to play vintage jazz from the 20s and 30s? See the article from the December 2018 DownBeat here or read the unedited version below.
A decade before he became one of the instigators of New York City’s traditionaljazz revival, Dennis Lichtman was studying music business and clarinet at theHartt School of Music in Hartford and thinking about the future.
“They didn’t teach me to go play at a little dive bar on the Lower East Side that isn’t really a music venue, and to make no money for the first couple of years, and to just have fun, and maybe a scene will coalesce around it that you’ll become known for 10 years later,” he said recently over coffee in his Long Island City, Queens apartment. “But that’s what happened.”
The little dive bar is called Mona’s, where, since June 2007, Lichtman has been packing them in, leading “Mona’s Hot 4” every Tuesday night between 11 p.m. and “stupid late,” as his website says. The “hot jazz” scene at Mona’s attracts many of the city’s top musicians, who often drop by after their regular gigs. In recent months they have included stars like Cecile McLorin Salvant, Anat Cohen, Chris Thile and Jon Batiste. He has made two live albums there. The most recent of them, 2012’s Tuesdays at Mona’s (www.dennislichtman.com), includes 19 guest musicians and a DVD including a documentary film.
Meanwhile, Lichtman, now 38, has become one of the busiest multi-instrumentalists in town. In addition to his clarinet acumen, he plays fiddle and mandolin in a variety of outfits including The Brain Cloud, a Western Swing band featuring singer Tamar Korn, with whom he has made three albums, and a new old-timey quintet called the Lovestruck Balladeers. In the fall he will tour China (with banjoist Cynthia Sayer) and Israel with his own quintet.
He is also a long-time member (on clarinet) of trumpeter/composer Brian Carpenter’s 11-piece “Ghost Train Orchestra,” which plays “chamber jazz” from the 1930s with crisp, period arrangements but forward-looking soloists. “I’ve been playing with Dennis for 10 years,” Carpenter said. “He has one of the most stunningly beautiful clarinet sounds in jazz today. And then you find out how old he is and how many other instruments he plays – it’s unbelievable.”
Lichtman’s latest album, Just Cross the River, pays tribute to the “unglamorous” borough of Queens, which, because of its affordability and convenience to Manhattan, was home to more giants of jazz than just about any other place in the country, including Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Bix Beiderbecke, Fats Waller and Billie Holiday. In August 2018, Lichtman debuted the album with two sold-out shows at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola at Jazz At Lincoln Center. “Madonna came to the first show!” he said, still marveling at the memory.
Unlike most jazz musicians, who want to sound as contemporary as humanly possible, Lichtman is an articulate advocate for earlier styles. Asked why he chooses to play this music, his response is immediate: “I love it. That’s the short answer. The longer answer is that there’s something communal about music from the earlier era of jazz… For me it’s the jazz version of three chords and the truth… the perfect combination of broad appeal and deep sophistication. You can get as nerdy and intricate as you want. But if the rhythm section is thumping, any shmo can walk in off the street and be moved by it.”
And there are plenty of gigs, he said. “In some ways, it might be easier than it is for modern jazz players. Lots of restaurants in New York are interested in having trad jazz. It’s lively and fun, acoustic, not too loud. The standard pay may even be a little higher than for other types of jazz.”
Other musicians occasionally ask him, “with a degree of condescension, ‘Why would you play that stuff that’s 80 years old,’” he said. “When they’re playing something that sounds like Coltrane in 1965. It’s all vintage. It’s America; it’s history, but it’s also part of an ongoing evolution. Pick your starting point and go from there.”