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Free “Jazz Up Close” Series Offers Concert and Dialogue at Middletown’s Russell Library

May 13, 2015

At Jazz Up Close, audience and performers interact with each other in open dialogue.

As a child prodigy, the now adult, prodigious drummer Johnathan Blake made an appearance on “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood,” the legendary children’s series on PBS created and hosted by Fred Rogers.

Johnathan Blake with his father, John Blake, and Fred Rogers.
Credit johnathanblake.com

Since that visit, Blake, who is the son of the great, category-defying violinist John Blake, has explored a wide variety of upscale jazz neighborhoods, both as the maker of his acclaimed albums, Eleventh Hour and Gone But Not Forgotten, and as a hard-swinging, nuanced, forward-thinking drummer.

A Philadelphia native born in the bicentennial year of 1976, Blake has a banner resume that is a declaration of his independence and revolutionary ability to play in many challenging styles exemplified by the excellence he has displayed with the Mingus Big Band, Tom Harrrell, Russell Malone, Oliver Lake, Donny McCaslin and Kenny Barron, among others.

Blake’s latest jazz venture takes him to Middletown’s downtown neighborhood and the venerable Russell Library where he’ll participate at 6:30 pm on Thursday May 14.

It's the second installment of pianist/composer Noah Baerman’s free Jazz Up Close series.

Blake will perform in a trio featuring Baerman, the series founder and curator on piano, and Baerman’s longtime collaborator Henry Lugo on bass.

Interaction is a key concept for this hip hybrid of first-class concert and classy colloquy.

What makes Jazz Up Close special -- even aside from what is sure to be an exciting, high-quality jazz chamber music session featuring this splendid threesome -- is that the audience and the performers actually interact with each other in open dialogue, with listeners having the opportunity to ask the musicians about everything you always wanted to know about jazz but were too afraid to ask. Basic questions like: Where do your inspirational energies come from? What is the nature of the creative process going on here? What in the world is improvisation? And, above all, what the hell is jazz anyway, and will I ever understand it, much less get to love it?

Quite simply, one of the core missions of Jazz Up Close, according to Baerman, its creator, is simply “to demystify jazz.” As he wrote, its purpose is “to give people real access to the soul and beauty of jazz music. I say ‘real’ access because often simply having a concert occur in a particular community isn’t enough (though it is certainly an important component).”

Noah Baerman
Credit Noah Baerman

“Jazz, and especially instrumental jazz, has a layer of abstraction that can initially be off-putting to some would-be listeners. But, I have found over and over and over that this can often be overcome just by giving those folks a bit of understanding—what’s going on in the music, what’s the inspiration behind it and who are the real humans who create it,” he said of the power of dispelling any intimidating mystery about the music.

“This is not,” he said, “an academically hoity-toity question of deeply understanding history and theory (though for those motivated accordingly, those are exceptional stimulating areas). This is a much simpler matter of giving people who have ears and emotions a few basic tools with which they can connect those things—to feel the depth of emotions evoked by these sounds.”

Interaction is a key concept for this hip hybrid of first-class concert and classy colloquy.

It’s not only the tight musical interaction within the trio itself, but also, through the open-ended, dialogue that occurs between the players and the audience, a Q.&A. that breaks down that traditional, imaginary fourth wall separating the actors on stage from the viewers in their seats.

“If you have musical training, great,” Baerman said of the exchanges in the informal back-and-forth dialogue. 

“If you have none whatsoever, great,” he said of the combination concert and congenial confab’s ecumenical embrace of both novice and aficionado.

“This access,” he said, “requires nothing more than attentiveness and curiosity.”

Baerman does acknowledge that the public image of jazz today may be a bit dim for some, even perhaps clouded by false, misleading images.

“We’re in an era when jazz has taken a further backseat in people’s consciousness…or else they’re viewing it as the domain of joyless, young automatons and cruel miscreants as in the recent film “Whiplash.”

“I assure you that if it were truly a matter of an irrelevant art form dying a slow death, I would get out of the way and find another career (bank teller? lion tamer? pastry chef? exotic dancer?” he said, striking a Woody Allen-like note. 

“It just isn’t so, however,” he said of rumors of jazz’s social irrelevance and supposedly moribund state.

All that negativity can be refuted simply by experiencing the music first-hand.

“The transcendent depth of experience available when open-minded and open-hearted audiences meet accomplished and tuned-in musicians,” he said, “is something that is simply unique and as relevant now as ever. Jazz Up Close seeks to help remind folks of this.”  

After a summer hiatus, the admission-free series returns later this year to the Russell Library’s welcoming Hubbard Room with performances by Sharel Cassity, a rising young alto saxophonist, and the legendary drummer, Victor Lewis.

Just as the Hartford Public Library has set aside its atrium for its Baby Grand Jazz Series, so has the Russell Library provided its Hubbard Room for Jazz Up Close. These two cozy, top-shelf settings illustrate the compatibility of jazz, because of its rich history of diverse, shared expression, with such communal cultural centers as libraries, which are dedicated to preserving and making available to all their patrons the best that has been thought and known in the world.

The series is co-sponsored by the Russell Library and Resonant Motion Inc. (RMI), a non-profit, and is funded with a grant given to RMI by the Middletown Commission on the Arts.

Monheit’s Mellow Mood Musings 

Since emerging as a finalist in the Thelonious Monk Institute’s vocal competition in 1998, vocalist Jane Monheit has set the highest standards in both the jazz and cabaret worlds with her warm, classic interpretations of romantic ballads, mellow mood pieces that her rich voice and sure technique suffuse with much drama and feeling.

Jane Monheit
Credit Timothy Saccenti

So much feeling, in fact, that the Grammy-nominated singer’s ability and agility with everything from bebop standards to Brazilian numbers sometimes get overshadowed a bit. At least until you hear her dig into numbers outside the beautiful and heartfelt forms of expression that have become her signature turf. 

Monheit, who made an indelible impression on regional fans early in her career with striking appearances in Connecticut, returns once again to the area to perform at 8:00 pm on Saturday, May 16, at Infinity Music Hall Norfolk, 20 Greenwoods Road in Norfolk.

While her emotive interpretation of Somewhere Over the Rainbow has, quite literally, brought fervent fans to tears (handy tissue packs are de rigueur for devout Monheitphiles), the skillful singer can also shift into an Ella Fitzgerald-like mode, grooving on chord changes, or morph from moonbeam romanticism to landing right on the rhythmic beam with Jobim, swinging gracefully to samba rhythms. She can even sing lyrics in Portuguese with such flair and fluency that you might well think it’s this Long Island native’s first language. Her convincing way with lyrics in Portuguese has, in fact, even won approval at her performances in Brazil.

Infinity Hall Norfolk
Credit infinityhall.com

Perhaps her facility with Portuguese lyrics came to her naturally because her sensitivity for the pure sound of words had been heightened early on when she was immersing herself in the meaning and feeling of classic lyrics written by such American masters as Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hart and E.Y. “Yip” Harburg. Tickets: $45.00/$65.00. Information: (866) 666-6306

By the way, the May/June issue of Yankee Magazine has named Infinity Music Hall in Norfolk the older sister to the recently born Infinity Hall in downtown Hartford, as the Best Concert Venue in its selections for Best of New England categories for 2015.

“Architecturally fabulous and acoustically superb,” the magazine said, “the venue is so intimate, it feels as though living legends are performing just for you.”

Jazz Brunch with Karrin Allyson

Karrin Allyson, one of the savviest singers around, performs at 1:00 pm on Sunday, May 17, at a jazz brunch at The Ridgefield Playhouse, 80 East Ridge, Ridgefield. Multi-talented, Allyson is not only an expressive vocalist graced with wit, consummate taste and a vital sense of swing, but also a songwriter, pianist and bandleader who covers a wide range of styles, including the four basic B’s, ballads, bossa nova, blues and bebop, all done with A+ authority. 

A master of diversity, she sings in English, French, Portuguese, Italian, and Spanish, and has recorded vocal adaptations of instrumental jazz pieces, using, but never abusing, both scat and vocalese techniques. As well-honed as her technique is, it never takes precedence over warm expressiveness. It’s just a tool of expression, not an end in and of itself. Four of her albums, Ballads: Remembering John ColtraneFootprintsImagina: Songs of Brasil, and 'Round Midnight, have received Grammy nominations for Best Jazz Vocal Album. Admission: $35.00/$25.00 students. Information: ridgefieldplayhouse.org and (203) 438-5795.

Berne’s Return in Duo Matchup

Saxophonist/composer Tim Berne, a Firehouse 12 favorite, returns once again to New Haven’s avant-garde bastion to perform at 8:30 and 10:00 pm on Friday, May 15, in a dynamic duo collaboration with Matt Mitchell on piano and keyboards. 

Credit Robert Lewis / mattmitchell.us

Mitchell performs in Berne’s group, Snakeoil, which recently released a CD on ECM records called You’ve Been Watching Me. The pair brings bold, slashing, swift-moving improvisation to the original repertoire they’ve developed over their six-year association.

Look for far more exciting surprises, brilliant flurries, swift counterpunches, flashy feints and deft feats of improvisation from this championship matchup’s opening round than there were in all 12 rounds of the Mayweather vs Pacquiao Greatest Fight of the Century. Tickets: $20 first set; $15 second set. Information: firehouse12.com and (203) 785-0468.

Pavone in Chamber Setting

Bandmaster Mario Pavone, the celebrated cutting-edge bassist/composer, sculpts his original works in a quartet setting as he performs at 7:30 pm on Saturday, May 23, in a Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares concert at Gateway City Arts, 92 Race Street, Holyoke, Massachusetts.

Pavone’s frequent sidekicks for this intimate, chamber-size venture are trumpeter Dave Ballou, trombonist Peter McEachern and drummer Gerald Cleaver.

Besides his nine releases as a leader or co-leader, Ballou has performed or recorded with many luminaries ranging from Maria Schneider and Andrew Hill to Oliver Lake and Joe Lovano.

Mario Pavone
Credit Steven laschever / mariopavone.com

McEachern, a noted trombonist with deep Connecticut roots, plays fluently in all genres from earthy to experimental. As a sign of his verve and versatility, he has toured and recorded with blues legend Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, worked and recorded with the celebrated avant-garde, minimalist composer La Monte Young, and been featured on such acclaimed CDs as Insomnia with the Thomas Chapin Trio and Song for Septet with the Mario Pavone Septet.

Cleaver, a much sought-after drummer with the keenest surname for a cutting-edge artist, has performed and recorded with Roscoe Mitchell and Matthew Shipp, among others. His Trio, Farmers by Nature, which features pianist Craig Taborn and bassist William Parker, has released four CDs. Tickets: $15.00, available at jazzshares.org and at the door.

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