International Jazz Treats Around the State This Weekend

Jan 29, 2014

Ignacio Berroa
Credit Ignacio Berroa

While jazz is the great American art form, it has long been graced by the welcome presence of many gifted practitioners from around the world, a sign of its universal appeal and global evolution into the hippest kind of Esperanto: a universal musical language understood by all.

Pleasant reminders of the music’s international scope pop up this weekend as three eminent émigré artists, drummer Ignacio Berroa, and pianists Laszlo Gardony and Amina Figarova -- who, respectively, are originally from Cuba, Hungary and Azerbaijan -- perform individually in Connecticut venues from Old Lyme to Middletown.

A native of Havana, Cuba, Berroa leads his hard-swinging trio at 8:00 pm on Saturday, February 1, at Wesleyan University’s Crowell Concert Hall on the Middletown campus at 50 Wyllys Street. 

Dizzy Gillespie and Ignacio Berroa flying From Seattle to Vancouver in 1982.
Credit Ignacio Berroa

Berroa is a top-ranked drummer who soared into prominence during his brilliant, career-shaping stint with his boyhood idol Dizzy Gillespie. A master blender of Afro-Cuban and American jazz traditions, the drummer/bandleader is joined by pianist Luis Perdomo, who was born in Caracas, Venezuela; and bassist Ricardo Rodriguez, a native of Ponce, Puerto Rico.

Among Perdomo’s  impressive career credits, he has been a long-standing member of quartets led individually by the cerebral saxophonist Miguel Zenon, a native of San Juan, Puerto Rico and a Guggenheim and MacArthur fellow, and the noted Long Island-born, LA-raised saxophonist Ravi Coltrane. Rodriguez’s resume includes work with such luminaries as the great Panamanian pianist Danilo Perez, the brilliant, Puerto Rican-born, Rutgers-educated saxophonist David Sanchez and the celebrated New Orleans-born saxophonist Branford Marsalis.

Born in 1953 in Havana into a musical family, Berroa originally studied classical violin, an instrument played by his father. Luckily for jazz, he soon got hooked on drums, inspired by a Nat “King” Cole album his father had brought home. 

Ignacio Berroa at the drums as a boy in Havana, Cuba in 1964.
Credit Ignacio Berroa

Later, he studied percussion in Havana at the National School of Arts and at the National Conservatory, which sanctioned only classical music. But jazz was Berroa’s passion, even though it was labeled as a subversive, politically incorrect brand of Yankee music by the Cuban government, a severe downer for the gifted, young drummer dreaming of someday playing with giants  in New York City, the world capital of jazz.

During the Fidel Castro-approved Mariel Boatlift, a mass migration of thousands of Cubans from Cuba’s Mariel Harbor to the United States in 1980, Berroa struck a personal blow for freedom, catching the next boat out of Cuba. Literally pulling up all his roots, he abandoned even his status as one of Cuba’s most sought-after drummers.

Following his dream, he eventually made his way to New York City, which seemed to him like discovering the magical El Dorado of all jazz cities. There he made his bones by impressing such Havana-born, Latin jazz heavyweights as Chico O’Farrill and Mario Bauza. Bauza even recommended him to his close friend and musical colleague, Dizzy Gillespie. As luck would have it, Gillespie needed a drummer for his quartet.

Berroa couldn’t speak much English, but was fluent in jazz when he connected with Gillespie’s quartet in 1981. Dizzy, his lifelong hero, became not just his boss, but also his mentor and friend until the great trumpeter/bandleader’s death in 1993.

Gillespie’s imprimatur helped open the doors to success for the Cuban drummer, perhaps far beyond his wildest boyhood dreams of finding jazz glory in America. Winding up under Gillespie’s wide, protective wing, was, of course, an enormous stroke of good fortune, one of those life-changing, once in-a-lifetime opportunities. But had Berroa never put aside his classical violin for jazz drums when he was a kid, or had he failed, as a young man, to take advantage of the Mariel Boatlift—a fortuitous sea-change for his jazz karma—he could only have dreamed away his life, fantasizing about jamming with the many real-life jazz giants that he has actually performed and recorded with over his decades here in America.

A versatile musician, Berroa has been the drummer of choice for many big-name performers  ranging from Tito Puente to Chick Corea. Again soaring beyond his boyhood dreams of jazz glory, he made his first solo album in 2006, a Grammy nominated release called Codes.

By then, the maestro mastered not just English but also all the international jazz codes so thoroughly that he has even conducted clinics and master classes all over the world.

Wesleyan’s Nestor Prieto will give a pre-concert talk at 7:15 pm, a warm up for the performance that marks the Connecticut debut for the Berroa Trio. Tickets: $25.00, general public; $21.00, senior citizens, Wesleyan faculty/staff, non-Wesleyan students; $6.00, Wesleyan students. Information: (860) 685-3355.

Laszlo Gardony
Credit Richard_Conde

Hungary’s Rhapsodic Gift to Jazz

Laszlo Gardony, Hungary’s gift to the jazz world, unfurls his eclectic, piano prowess as he leads his quartet at 8:00 pm on Saturday, February 1, in an encore engagement at The Buttonwood Tree Performing Arts and Cultural Center, 605 Main Street in Middletown.

A native of Budapest and graduate of Budapest’s Bela Bartok Conservatory and Boston’s Berklee College of Music, the pianist/composer uses his formidable formal training to forge rhapsodically resilient, thickly textured sound sculptures inspired by his ecumenical embrace of a wide-range of genres, including jazz, gospel, funk, rock, hip-hop, world music and contemporary classical music. For all his music’s layered configurations, kaleidoscopic colors and cerebral/virtuosos elements, he fuels his playing with much hot emotion, his emotive key to connecting in a deep way with his listeners.

The Boston-based pianist,  who’s as much at home as a solo performer as he is when collaborating with a combo or a symphony orchestra, will be joined  by Stan Strickland, vocals, saxophone, flute, bass clarinet and percussion; Yoron Israel, drums; and John Lockwood, bass.

Gardony, who’s a professor of piano at Berklee College of Music, is still celebrating the release of his recent, widely acclaimed solo piano CD, Clarity, on Sunnyside Records. Perhaps he’ll share his celebratory mood with his Buttonwood fans by digging into Clarity. A powerfully moving, illuminating musical memoir, the CD is described by Jazz Times as like “hearing a great pianist’s most private musings” in “a cathartic but celebratory” blending of  his European roots and American jazz.    

Admission: $12.00. Doors and the Buttonwood’s café/bookstore open at 7:30 pm, a half hour before downbeat time. Information: (860) 347-4957.

Amina Figarova
Credit Amina_Figarova

Baku’s Bounteous Gift

New York-based pianist/composer Amina Figarova, who was born and raised in Baku, Azerbaijan, displays her international style as she leads her sextet at 8:30 pm on Friday, January 31, at The Side Door at 85 Lyme Street in Old Lyme. 

As with Gardony, her training is geographically and stylistically diverse, beginning with her studies as a classical concert pianist while a young student at Baku Conservatory. Later she shifted her focus to jazz performance at the Rotterdam Conservatory, eventually completing her jazz studies in the States at Berkley College of Music. Her 12th album and first release on the independent German label, In + Out, is titled Twelve. As a leader of her tightly-knit combo, she’s triumphed at such hallowed American cultural rituals as the Newport Jazz Festival and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Tickets: $25.00. Doors open at 7:30 pm. Information: (860) 434-0886.

Jazz festivities continue at The Side Door the next night as the blues-drenched guitarist Ed Cherry leads his trio at 8:30 pm on Saturday, February 1, joined by Pat Bianchi on organ and Chris Beck on drums. A New Haven native, Cherry enjoyed a rewarding run with Dizzy Gillespie from 1978 to 1992 prior to releasing his debut album as a leader in 1993. As a versatile sideman, the smart, soulful guitarist has played with such figures as Latin jazz master Paquito D’Rivera and the cutting-edge artist Henry Threadgill. Tickets: $30.00. See information above.    

Andre Balazs.
Credit Andre Balazs

Bipolar Jukebox Opens Series

Impresario Dan Blow launches his winter/spring Music@Japanalia Eiko series with a performance by the flamboyant singer/songwriter/pianist Andre Balazs and his genre-bending, all-star band, Bipolar Jukebox, at 8:00 pm on Friday, January 31, at Japanalia Eiko, 11 Whitney Street, Hartford.

As the season’s leadoff batter, Balazs captains a team featuring saxophonist Eric DellaVecchia, violinist Alan Grubner, bassist David Shuman, and drummer Charlie Dye. In a delightful bonus, Kate Callahan, the celebrated folk music singer/songwriter and acoustic guitarist from West Hartford, will be featured on vocals.

It would, indeed, strike a mighty blow for fans of folk and all fine music if Blow, a most open-minded producer who presents everything from jazz and blues to cabaret and Broadway, dedicated an entire evening in his popular series to Callahan’s warm, exquisitely expressive art, graced with lyrics that are genuinely lyrical and songs that are actually movingly melodic. Tickets: $25.00, stage-side table seating; $20.00, general row seating. Reservations: (860) 232-4677.

Ranging stylistically from the young, acclaimed jazz singer Sara Gazarek to the celebrated cabaret singer/songwriter Baby Jane Dexter, Japanalia’s season lineup features: Sara Gazarek and Josh Nelson Duo, February 7; singer/pianist Jimmy Roberts and his cabaret performance, Songs of Love & Lust, February 14; vocalist Atla DeChamplain and the Ben Bilello/Laurence Hobgood/Henry Lugo Trio, February 21.

Also, singer/guitarist King Solomon Hicks, a fiery teen wizard of the blues, jazz and classic rock, March 1; vocalist Antoinette Montague Group  featuring percussionist Bobby Sanabria, March 8; Baby Jane Dexter, April 12; and vocalist Marianne Solivan & Trio, April 19. Information: japanalia.com and (860) 232-4677.

Craig Hartley
Credit Craig Hartley

Duo Speaks Volumes at Library

Pianist/composer Craig Hartley teams up with his colleague, bassist Henry Lugo, as the headliner in the free Baby Grand Jazz Series at 3:00 pm on Sunday, February 2, at the Hartford Public Library, 500 Main Street. A graduate of the Manhattan School of Music, the highly-regarded pianist has performed or recorded with such notables as Anthony Braxton, Eddie Henderson, and Steve Davis, and studied with such jazz masters as Jackie McLean and Andy Laverne.

Besides touring internationally, Hartley has played stateside from coast to coast, including at top Big Apple jazz spots, as well as at jazz festivals from Connecticut to Veneto, Italy. Lugo, his simpatico sidekick, is a member of the noted Noah Baerman Trio, and has performed as a sideman with such luminaries as saxophonist Jimmy Greene and pianist Ted Rosenthal.

As a fluent, articulate, interactive duo, Hartley and Lugo should speak volumes to the devout congregation gathered in the library’s atrium, Hartford’s Sunday sanctum sanatorium for jazz. Information: hplct.org and (860) 695-6295.

SKETCHES Stretches Collaborative Creativity

SKETCHES, a Brooklyn-based collective in which all five musicians write original, full-bodied compositions based on musical sketches written by fellow members, will demonstrate what they’re up to as they perform at 7:00 pm on Thursday, January 30, at the Iron Horse Music Hall, 20 Center Street in Northampton, Massachusetts. When not doing their collaborative, compositional sketches with SKETCHES, members lead their own bands, work as sidemen with big-name players and, as award-winning composers, write pieces entirely on their own.       

As trumpeter Matt Holman explains, SKETCHES is a band with a unique approach because it is so rooted in “truly collaborative composition.”

“Before rehearsal,” he said, explaining the group’s fundamental premise, “each member shares a sketch from his notebook and another member uses that as the basis for a new composition. The band then rehearses and develops the piece further, making each musical choice together in a completely democratic way.”

Collaborating with Holman in the making of these communally created compositions are his fellow composer/instrumentalists: saxophonist Jeremy Udden, pianist Jarrett Cherner, bassist Martin Nevin and drummer Ziv Ravitz. The quintet’s debut album, Volume One, was released last November on BaldHillRecords. Tickets: $10.00 in advance; $15.00 at the door. Information: iheg.com and (413) 586-8686.

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