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Litchfield Jazz Festival Mixes Rising Talent With Venerable Veterans

Aug 3, 2016

Generations of Jazz features Connecticut-born and bred heavyweight champions.

Few, if any, sane gamblers back in 1996 would have bet that the Litchfield Jazz Festival (LJF) -- a then at-risk brainchild of the fearless cultural crusader Vita Muir -- would survive its infancy to become an annual crown jewel among Connecticut’s premier summer arts and entertainment events.

For that matter, who back then would have bet that what seemed like Muir’s noble but precarious pipe dream would still be alive and well in 2016, about to launch its 21st season this weekend on its historic stomping grounds at the Goshen Fairgrounds in Goshen?

To celebrate the festival’s success as well as that of its educational arm, the 20-year-old Litchfield Jazz Camp, the LJF presents a themed program on Saturday, August 6, and Sunday, August 7, called Generations of Jazz.

Its cross-generational motif focuses on young, rising stars, such as vocalist Nicole Zuraitis and baritone saxophonist Andrew Hadro, and such esteemed, established figures as drummer Matt Wilson and legendary saxophonist Jimmy Heath. A recurring theme mixes and matches protégés with mentors, many of whom share strong, almost familial bonds with the festival or the camp, or both.

So, in some sense this weekend marks the occasion for Muir’s dual Litchfield concepts, both the famous festival and its less widely known but also invaluable jazz camp, to sing a well-deserved, Whitmanesque song of itself. It’s an opportunity to beat its own drum and blow its own horn on behalf of its many accomplishments.

Prime among these is Litchfield’s triumph in the survival of the fittest struggle in the jazz world’s fierce financial jungle, where the natural law of bloody tooth and claw prevails without mercy.

More than just a thematic gimmick, Generations of Jazz features a lineup that packs a punch, one often delivered by Connecticut-born and bred heavyweight champions.

Saturday’s day-long fare, for example, features a splendid summit meeting between the remarkably inventive, versatile percussionist Richie Barshay and the saxophone colossus Jimmy Greene. Both have deep links with Litchfield that stretch back for years.

An art admirer at the Litchfield Jazz Festival.
Credit Steven Sussman

Barshay, who grew up in West Hartford, has been the percussionist of choice for a galaxy of diverse stars ranging from Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Fred Hersch to Esperanza Spalding, the Klezmatics and Natalie Merchant.  

A prodigious tenor and soprano saxophonist, and a prolific recording and performance artist, Greene, who’s originally from Bloomfield, is renowned for his deep expressiveness, resonant tone and clarity, as well as his robust, soulful sense of swing, invention and lyrical sensitivity.

Celebrated as a gentle giant and known for his modesty, decency and compassion, Greene has tapped into the deep well of his artistry and spirituality as a means to deal with the unimaginable horror and soul-shattering sadness of the senseless shooting death of his beautiful six-year-old daughter, Ana Marquez-Greene. Ana was murdered, along with 19 other children and six educators, in the mass shooting on December 14, 2012, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.

In response to the unfathomable enormity of this unthinkable tragedy, Greene created an eloquent, profoundly moving memorial album, Beautiful Life. More than elegant elegies, the grieving father’s loving reflections are a celebration of the life of his sweet, musically gifted, joyful daughter. A heartbreakingly sad yet supremely life-affirming, light-filled work of transcendent inspiration, Beautiful Life was nominated for a Grammy Award.

Greene, who’s back for his ninth appearance at Litchfield, is also an educator with a special gift for teaching, currently sharing his knowledge as an assistant professor of music and coordinator of jazz studies at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury.

Barshay and Greene are joined by the noted Peruvian-born bassist Jorge Roeder.

Muir’s daylong Sunday offerings include a sure-to-be grand grand finale featuring Hartford’s phenomenal Curtis Brothers -- Zaccai on piano and Luques on bass. Former child prodigies, they transitioned with amazing grace into prodigious adults exploring infinite open-ended possibilities. The brothers, who have studied and taught at the Litchfield Jazz Camp, are joined by their mentor, the celebrated New Orleans saxophonist Donald Harrison.

The Litchfield Jazz Festival also features arts and crafts exhibitors.
Credit Antonio Monteiro

Among  Saturday’s highlights are:  Andrew Hadro’s Quartet with saxophonist Tony Malaby and bassist/composer Mario Pavone, a longtime Litchfield pillar to whom the 2016 festival is dedicated; saxophonist Albert Rivera and his Back at It Band with his mentor, guitarist Paul Bollenback; Nicole Zuraitis’s Quintet with the rising diva’s mentor, guitarist Dave Stryker; bassist Daryl Johns’ Trio with pianist Orrin Evans and Daryl’s dad, noted drummer Steve Johns, saluting Erroll Garner’s classic album, Concert by the Sea.

Sunday’s highlights include: Big Bass Blowout featuring Springfield-based bassist Avery Sharpe and the rhythmic wit and wizardry of drummer and festival regular, Matt Wilson; The Litchfield Jazz Orchestra with saxophonist and Jazz Camp Director Don Braden presenting Earth Wind and Wonder; pianist Emmet Cohen’s trio, with saxophonist Jimmy Heath, the 89-year-old, forever young, musical Methuselah who still plays with Biblical authority.

Special festival events include: Saturday Night After Party and Jam at the Crowne Plaza in Southbury, and, on Sunday, Friends of the Festival Scat and Scramble Jazz Brunch.

For information on the schedule, tickets and the musicians’ many deep ties with the festival and its jazz camp: litchfieldjazzfest.com and (860) 361-6285.

Norman Gage on baritone sax.
Credit Steven Sussman

Grooves That Never Snooze

If jazz existed in the best of all possible worlds, the Norman Gage/Kenny Reed Quintet -- an excellent band blessed with smart charts and grooves that never snooze -- would have more gigs than it could possibly handle. It would be playing everywhere in the region from the Hartford Public Library to other downtown and suburban nightspots, museums, libraries and outdoor celebrations.

Since that’s obviously not the case, you have to catch this worthy alliance, with Gage on baritone saxophone and Reed on trumpet and flugelhorn -- whenever the quintet gets a far-too-rare opportunity to exhibit its quintessence.

Joined by pianist Kent Hewitt, bassist Matt Dwonszyk and drummer Jay Williams, Gage and Reed are welcomed in a cozy, congenial roost as they play on Friday, August 5, at 8:00 pm at Middletown’s all-embracing Buttonwood Tree. Admission: $15.00. Information: buttonwood.org and (860) 347-4957.

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