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Hartford Jazz Society's Riverboat Cruise Prepares to Weigh Anchor

Sep 2, 2015

Sailing into its mid-50s, the cruise shows no symptoms of middle-age malaise.

More than a half-century ago, a small, devout band of jazz-loving members of a then obscure, but courageous group called The Hartford Jazz Society launched HJS’s first riverboat jazz cruise on the Connecticut River.

No one back then -- not even HJS’s original prophetic founders and their newly converted apostles -- were absolutely certain that a jazz cruise would ever catch on in the early 1960s. Or, for that matter, just how long a non-profit jazz society could stay afloat facing the inevitability of the rising tide of funding challenges and the impending tsunami of rock ‘n roll about to sweep aside all competition.

Nonetheless, the founders’ faith has been redeemed many fold, since both the HJS and its boat cruise are still, after all these years, not merely afloat but going full speed ahead. The Jazz Society, which started out initially as not much more than a glorious but risky pipe dream back when it was founded in 1960, is now billed as the nation’s oldest jazz society in continuous operation. And it’s still avidly pursuing its original mission to keep jazz alive in Hartford, not always the easiest of tasks. Particularly when defending an endangered art form like jazz whose imminent demise has for many decades been predicted countless times by pundits prognosticating that doom is just around the corner.

As for the HJS’s boat cruise, which has become the unofficial grand opener of the fall/winter jazz season in Connecticut, it turns 54 as it weighs anchor on Sunday, September 13, at 11:30 am from the State Pier on the Connecticut River at Haddam.

Ed Fast.
Credit Courtesy Ed Fast

Although sailing into its mid-50s, the cruise shows no symptoms of middle-age malaise. Most certainly not with its robust musical selection for this season’s jaunt featuring shipshape bands led by the superb tenor saxophonist Jimmy Greene and the noted percussionist/composer Ed Fast, who has led his premier band, Conga Bop, in top venues everywhere from libraries to clubs and festivals throughout the region.

Besides being the longest running, biggest floating jazz concert in Connecticut, the event is also a party, a picnic and, on a sunny day, a great way to view the scenic Connecticut River during the seven-and-a-half hour round trip from Haddam out to Long Island Sound and back.

As part of the floating festival’s easygoing, amiable ambience and its shipboard traditions that are free of all stiff, concert hall formality, musicians and fans often mingle, chatting, sharing a drink or noshing on the richly varied cuisine packed in omnipresent picnic baskets and well-stocked coolers.

Many years ago, I remember sitting on the top deck on a bright, balmy day with several other voyagers listening raptly to the great, virtuoso pianist Harold Mabern, on a band break, casually but brilliantly explaining the elements of technique and expression that made Art Tatum and McCoy Tyner such piano geniuses.

You might not get an extemporaneous master class in the sun quite like this, but with Greene, as the headliner and the ship’s jazz commodore, you’ll get more than a boatload's worth of richly expressive, hard-swinging jazz on a late summer’s day.

Jimmy Greene.
Credit jimmygreene.com

Greene’s yeomen crew includes pianist David Bryant, bassist Luke Sellig and drummer Jimmy Macbride, a rising young musician who grew up in West Hartford. Fast’s band features the noted trombonist Steve Davis; Jorge Fuentes, congas; the seemingly omnipresent Matt Dwonszyk, bass; Sam Parker, keyboards; Jim Hunt, trumpet; Frank Kozyra, saxophone; and Linda Ransom, vocals.

With the two bands playing alternating sets, the music is continuous, and is piped from the bandstand and dance area below up on to the top deck. Jazz pilgrims camp down on deck with their coolers and picnic baskets -- especially cozy on lawn chairs and blankets when the cruise is blessed by the jazz and river gods with a sunny day.

Boarding time is 10:00 am, with the return set for 7:00 pm. There’s a large parking lot near the pier. The HJS recommends that you bring picnic baskets, drinks and a cooler. Hot dogs are available on board. Ice and cold drinks are available for free on the lower deck.

Tickets: $65.00 per person; $70.00 for individual reserved table seating. All bottom deck tables reserved. Tables of ten seats on the bottom deck, $600; $100 non-refundable deposit per table required at the time of reservation. Balance due in full by September 5. Reserved tables, $700 after September 5. For additional information: hartfordjazzsociety.com and (860) 242-6688.

Jazz Fest in Northampton

Vocalist Gretchen Parlato in a duo with West African guitarist/vocalist Lionel Loueke, Colombian harpist Edmar Castaneda and the celebrated Hartford-born pianist/composer Zaccai Curtis are among the headliners at The Northampton Jazz Festival’s free, daylong concert on Saturday, September 12, in downtown Northampton.

Gretchen Parlato,
Credit gretchenparlato.com

Prior to this main stage finale, the ambitious, nearly weeklong festival presents a diverse array of performances scattered throughout various area venues from Tuesday, September 8, through Friday, September 11. (For complete information on these multiple events and the festival’s premier, concluding concert see njfest.org.)

Parlato and Loueke are distinctive stylists who have often collaborated together, including on one another’s acclaimed recordings. Their positive, interactive chemistry creates a mesmerizing mix whose catalytic elements include his percussive guitar lines and vocal pops and her ethereal voice and syncopated hand claps.

With Castaneda’s dazzling virtuosity, including his flood of fluent cross-rhythms and cascading layers of nuanced chords, he has cast the harp in a whole new light as a virtual orchestra under his fingertips.

Curtis, a savvy bandleader who has worked with such figures as Brian Lynch and Papo Vazquez, leads his quintet, which features the renowned Latin jazz trumpeter Ray Vega and the fine, much sought-after drummer Richie Barshay, who grew up in West Hartford.

Also headlining is the vocalist/trombonist Pete McGuinness, a well-established New York City-based musician, busy sideman, bandleader and Grammy-nominated composer/arranger, who’s also originally from West Hartford.

Jeff Holmes Quartet.
Credit njfest.org

Pianist Jeff Holmes, who’s a composer, trumpeter and professor of music and director of jazz and African-American Music Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, performs with his quartet. His sidekicks are reedman Adam Kolker, bassist James Cammack and drummer Steve Johns.

The Franz Robert/Benny Woodard Trio with Conner Duke, three budding teenage talents and Massachusetts natives, are the opening act at 11:00 am for the marathon show presented on the main stage on Hampton Avenue, behind Thorne’s Market Place.

The concert will be emceed by WFCR’s Tom Reney, who hosts the radio station’s Jazz a la Mode, and Kari Njiiri, host of Jazz Safari.

Django Joy Rocks The Buttonwood

Ameranouche, a red-hot, acoustic string trio, serves a steaming brew of gypsy-inspired music, flamenco, bebop and swing as it celebrates the spirit of the genius gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt on Saturday, September 5, at 8:00 pm at Middletown’s Buttonwood Tree,

Ameranouche (pronounced uh-MARE-uh-noosh) is a made-up name derived from two words: American and manouche, French for gypsy.

Ameranouche.
Credit Courtesy Ameranouche
Ameranouche creates an ebullience all its own.

With just two guitarists, Richard “Shepp” Sheppard and Jack Soref, and one standup bassist, Michael K. Harrist, the trio generates a big, billowing, vibrant sound, crackling with bright rhythms and abundant joie de vivre.

Solos take flight buoyed by brisk rhythm guitar backup, which is simultaneously underpinned by a booming bass that anchors the uptempo swing pieces, or adds extra emotional depth and resonating texture to warm ballads.

On an atmospheric original like "Andalusian Dream," the jazz chamber group builds up the rhythmic tension, then saunters through a sun-dappled reverie graced with fleet, well-articulated, individual solo lines and a collective celebratory feeling that never quits.

On a Reinhardt tune like "Swing 48," the interactive musicians emulate the master’s swinging, celebratory spirit, but these are no Django clones. You can hear other influences, including, perhaps, Pat Martino or even Wes Montgomery.

But Ameranouche, for all its use of the great traditions and its devotion to Djangology, does create an ebullience all its own. At the same time, it stays totally true to Reinhardt’s dedication to spreading joy through music performed with great proficiency, flair, and irrepressible delight.

Sheppard, who has studied guitar with Martino and Attila Zoller, has played with luminaries ranging from John Jorgenson and Taj Mahal to Hot Tuna and Vassar Clements. Soref, a devout Djangologist, has studied the music of Reinhardt at its source in Paris where he jammed with virtuoso guitarist Boulou Ferre, a grand master of gypsy, or manouche jazz, and with the Romanian violin king of gypsy jazz, Florin Niculescu.

Harrist, who has studied with bassists Ralph Alessi and John Hebert, is also a deeply committed student of Hindustani music and late Romantic harmony, as well as classical Ottoman/Mevlevi music.

Tickets $12.00, available at the door. Information: buttonwood.org and (860) 347-4957. The Buttonwood is at 605 Main Street in Middletown.

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.