Fats Waller Tribute Comes to Deep River

Feb 26, 2014

From left, Kevin Dorn, Bob Barta, and Dan Levinson of the sextet Jeff Barnhart and His Hot Rhythm.
Credit Jeff Barnhart

Countless musicians and band leaders over the decades have saluted Fats Waller, the legendary jazz pianist/composer/singer and comic showman whose exuberantly high-living lifestyle and robust artistry were cut short when he died from pneumonia at only 39 in 1943. 

More than likely, only a few Waller worshipers have paid homage to Fats with the authenticity and joyful flair of Connecticut’s Jeff Barnhart, a globe-trotting pianist/composer/singer who is both a serious scholar and swinging practitioner of all things Waller. 

Barnhart and his handpicked combo of fellow Waller devotées celebrate the rollicking style and melodic, inventive substance of the master musician/entertainer at 3:00 pm on Sunday, March 2, in the Essex Winter Series, at the John Winthrop Middle School in Deep River.

Jeff Barnhart, at left, is a pianist and vocalist. Vince Giordano, at right, plays string bass, tuba, and bass saxophone, and is a vocalist in Barnhart's band.
Credit Jeff Barnhart

Called Jeff Barnhart and His Hot Rhythm, the all-star sextet features Barnhart on piano and vocals; Gordon Au, trumpet; Dan Levinson, clarinet, saxophone; Bob Barta, banjo, guitar, vocals; Vince Giordano, the celebrated traditional band leader on string bass, tuba, bass saxophone, vocals; and Kevin Dorn, drums.

“This concert is very well researched, cataloged and categorized. It won’t just be a string of Waller tunes. It will be a really representative concert celebrating who Waller was as a composer, as well as the great musician that we all know he was,” Barnhart said by phone from his music studio in Mystic.

“We’re doing a lot of tunes, some of which have never even been recorded before. And I picked guys who really understand the idiom and really love the music, which is essentially 1930s small group swing, à la Fats.

“It will be heavy on tunes, heavy on vocals,” Barnhart said, “heavy on even the humor that Fats brought to the table. There’ll be well-known tunes, of course. So anybody who’s looking to hear classics like ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’’ and ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ is going to hear them. But there will be other tunes that haven’t seen the light of day in decades, if they ever have.”

The Fats fest, Barnhart said, will be a full-scale celebration in swing that goes way beyond the usual stroll through the well-worn litany of Waller songs. The tunes will be performed by musicians so well-schooled in and so totally empathetic with Waller’s ebullient spirit, and the zeitgeist of the Swing Era, that they would have been right at home grooving in the original Fats Waller and his fabled hot combos. 

Barnhart’s most famous sideman for his tribute combo is Giordano, a friend he has worked with many times over the past 20 years or so. Giordano has frequently traveled from his home in the Big Apple to Connecticut to work as a sideman with Barnhart at such events as the old Great Connecticut Traditional Jazz Festival and the new, highly popular Jeff & Joel’s House Party. A 1920s-like rent party with music, food, drink and camaraderie, Jeff and Joel’s bash is presented in the packed living room of trad jazz booster and Banjo Hall of Famer Joel Schiavone’s historic home in Guilford. 

Founder, leader, multi-instrumentalist and arranger for his  celebrated vintage jazz orchestra, The Nighthawks, Giordano is one of America’s premier specialists in the jazz styles of the 1920s and ‘30s, most famous, perhaps, for the classy, old-time music he and his band have provided for the award-winning HBO series, "Boardwalk Empire."

Giordano’s musical empire, with himself at the helm of his high-flying Nighhawks, has ranged over countless musical festivals, concert dates and appearances on the soundtracks for dozens of top films and TV projects. As busy as he is, the bandleader, whose motto should be, “Have string bass, tuba and bass saxophone, will travel,” loves to sit-in any time he can with simpatico swingers who dig the music and know the history.

With an invaluable boost from his wife and frequent collaborator, Anne, Barnhart has transformed himself into a one-man swing industry. Besides running his own label, Jazz Alive Records, he appears on more than 100 recordings, including 30 under his own name, and is on the road 40 weeks a year appearing as a soloist, guest artist and pianist at jazz house parties, national and international festivals, clubs and cruises throughout the world. In a rapidly-escalating side of the family business, the industrious pianist performs as a co-leader with his wife Anne, a classically trained flutist, in their duo, Ivory & Gold, which has appeared at numerous jazz and ragtime festivals throughout the United States and England.

"We’ve played six of the seven continents," Barnhart said. "The only one we haven’t played yet is Antarctica. Those penguins in tuxedos only like the longhair stuff. They’re dressed for serious music." Conjuring up classical music-loving penguins in tuxedos is typical of the freewheeling humor Barnhart infuses into his performances dedicated to Waller, who himself always served mad ad libs along with his rocking riffs.

Fats Waller.
Credit Creative Commons

In addition to being a music educator, Barnhart, who majored in English and music at Connecticut College, is also a songwriter and innovative, inventive liner note writer who combines fact, literary fiction and amusing anecdotal material. As part of his international jazz franchise, the Connecticut Yankee leads two bands in the United Kingdom: the Fryer-Barnhart International Jazz Band, which concentrates on hot music of the 1920s, and Jeff Barnhart’s British Band, which plays small group swing of the '30s.

An explosive soloist and sensitive accompanist, Barnhart deliberately avoids doing note-for-note recreations of Waller solos, but, instead, seeks to capture the essence of the Old Master’s style. It’s a strategy that avoids the museum or mausoleum-like ambiance that can enshroud reverent, literal transcriptions of celebrated choruses, an academic rigor that can accidentally induce rigor mortis into a live performance.

In the exuberant spirit and swinging manner of Waller, Barnhart and his bandmates will see to it that the joint is jumpin’. The Essex Winter Series presents The 2014 Stu Ingersoll Jazz Concert celebrating Fats Waller with Jeff Barnhart and His Hot Rhythm at 3:00 pm on Sunday, March 2, at the Winthrop Middle School, 1 Winthrop Road in Deep River. Tickets: $30.00; $12.00 students at essexwinterseries.com and (860) 272-4572.

The Side Door jazz club in Old Lyme.
Credit The Side Door

Side Door Swings Wide Open

Featuring individual performances by drummer Ralph Peterson and saxophonist Wayne Escoffery, Old Lyme’s Side Door jazz club swings wide open this weekend. once again letting in more hard-driving, easy to handle fare. Peterson, who excels in any one of the diverse configurations he chooses to lead, will be joined in his Tri-Angular format at 8:30 pm on Friday, February 28, by Hartford’s Curtis Brothers, the splendid sibling alliance of pianist Zaccai Curtis and bassist Luques Curtis. The percussionist/bandleader’s latest CD—a showcase for his Unity Project—is ALIVE at Firehouse 12: Volume 1, recorded at New Haven’s Firehouse 12, an unusual venue that is both a premier performance space and a state-of-the-art recording center. Tickets: $35.00.

Escoffery, who was born in London and raised in New Haven, is not only a much in- demand sideman with the finest big bands and combos, but also an increasingly prolific, boundary-stretching leader of his own critically acclaimed recordings. Lion-like, the formidable saxophonist ushers in the new month at the jazz club as he leads his quartet at 8:30 pm on Saturday, March 1. Tickets: $25.00 at thesidedoorjazz.com and (860) 434-0886. Doors open at 7:30 pm. The club is at 85 Lyme Street in Old Lyme.

Pre-Mardi Gras Dance/Funkfest at UConn

Big Sam's Funky Nation.
Credit Big Sam's Funky Nation

Led by New Orleans powerhouse trombonist Big Sam Williams, Big Sam’s Funky Nation presides over a pre-Mardi Gras dance party at 8:00 pm on Friday, February 28, in the award-winning cabaret series at the University of Connecticut’s Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts on the Storrs campus.

A former trombonist for the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Williams has appeared regularly on the HBO series “Treme,” the acclaimed, post-Katrina character study of New Orleans. In 2006, the flamboyant funkmeister played with Elvis Costello and Crescent City music master Allen Toussaint on the Grammy-nominated The River in Reverse album and on the subsequent international tour.

In recent years, Big Sam’s Funky Nation has been Williams’ main band, touring the United States and aboard, appearing  at numerous major  festivals, including Gathering of the Vibes and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.

A funk and rock-based gumbo, the band’s ingredients include spicy chunks of traditional and contemporary jazz, hard rock, punk and a dance party vibe, all seasoned by Big Sam’s saucy trombone riffs, plus the merry maestro’s signature dance moves. Big Sam, who boasts that he’s as much about dance as he is about music, loves to urge audience members to get up on their feet and dance to the music.

The concert is co-sponsored by UConn’s H. Fred Simon African American Cultural Center. Doors open at 7:00 pm. Sandwiches, dessert, alcohol and other beverages can be purchased before the show (cash only). Pre-orders can be placed at jorgensen.uconn.edu. Tickets: $35.00 for table seating; $30.00 orchestra; $27.00 mezzanine and $25.00 balcony, with some discounts. Tickets and information: box office at (860) 486-4226 or online at jorgensen.uconn.edu. Free parking is available across the street in the North Garage. Jorgensen is at 2132 Hillside Road on the Storrs campus.

Top Grade Trumpeter/Teacher

Trumpeter William Fluker presents his well-honed, fluent style at 3 pm Sunday, March 2, at the free Baby Grand Jazz Series at the Hartford Public Library, 500 Main Street. Besides the accolades he earns as a performer, the North Haven resident also scores top grades for his devotion as a music teacher in the New Haven public school system. Information: hplct.org and (860) 695-6295.

Free Matinee at Integrity

Pianist/vocalist Orice Jenkins leads his trio at 2:00 pm on Saturday, March 1, at Ed Krech’s ongoing free jazz series in his record shop, Integrity ’n Music, 506 Silas Deane Highway in Wethersfield. Jenkins’s collaborators are guitarist Dan Lipparini and bassist Tom Sullivan. Information: (860) 563-4005.

Other Free Concerts

Besides the series at  the Hartford Public Library and Integrity ‘n Music, admission- free jazz events are also offered at Hartford’s Black-eyed Sally’s on Monday night,  and at Middletown’s Wesleyan University, which serves a Wednesday night special featuring cornetist/composer Taylor Ho Bynum.

Guitarist/vocalist Randy Johnston and friends are the headliners at 8:00 pm on Monday, March 3, at the Jazz Mondays series at Black-eyed Sally’s, 350 Asylum Street. Johnston is joined by guitarist Rich Goldstein and bassist Nat Reeves. Information: (860) 278-7427.

In the freebie at Wesleyan, Taylor Ho Bynum unites with the Wesleyan Creative Music Ensemble at 8 pm Wednesday, March 5, at the university’s World Music Hall. They’ll present a concert of post 1960s repertory and original music exploring various strategies for the integration of composition and improvisation. Information: (860) 685-3355.

Please submit press releases on upcoming jazz events at least two weeks before the publication date to omac28@gmail.com. Comments and suggestions left below are also most welcome.