Two Modern Jazz Powerhouses Generate Merry May Mayhem

Apr 30, 2014

No intimidating, off-putting cult aura surrounds either The Cookers or The Communicators.

Thanks to The Side Door Jazz Club, one of Connecticut’s newest and hottest venues, and the Hartford Jazz Society, the nation’s oldest jazz society in continuous operation, May gets off to an explosive start with performances by two powerhouse modern mainstream ensembles that believe in the aesthetic primacy of unabashedly hard-swinging jazz crackling with unashamedly soulful feeling. 

The musical TNT is joyfully furnished by The Cookers, with Billy Harper as one of that swat team’s prime dynamiters, and drummer Louis Hayes’ combat-ready Jazz Communicators, two crack demolition units that are both artful and, yes, accessible. 

They’re even accessible to listeners who might have always thought of jazz as an arcane mystery meant only for a small elite of high priest practitioners, a handful of disciples and smug, self-anointed exegetes who claim only they, and they alone, can comprehend and explicate the music’s inscrutable, transcendental messages, unfathomable to all lesser, ordinary folk. 

None of that intimidating, off-putting cult or occult-like aura surrounds either The Cookers or The Communicators.

The Cookers are a fiercely sizzling septet bristling with a frontline murderers’ row featuring Harper on tenor saxophone; alto saxophonist Craig Handy and trumpeters Eddie Henderson and David Weiss. They will unleash their post-bop pyrotechnics and searing passion at 8:30 pm on Friday, May 2, at The Side Door Jazz Club, 85 Lyme Street in Old Lyme.

It should be well worth the trip to the shoreline jazz spa even if just for the opportunity to hear Harper live in the setting of a vibrant jazz club with a Big Apple ambience. Although a great heavyweight champion, Harper never seems to get his due despite having a superb knockout punch and an Ali-like ability to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.

Add to The Cookers’ mega-horn tower of power an all-star rhythm section featuring pianist George Cables, bassist Cecil McBee, and drummer Billy Hart, and you’ve got a highly-charged mix. The band will be right at home blowing the doors off The Side Door Jazz Club, owner Ken Kitchings’ brainchild that has been rocking on for nearly a year now with its unending parade of legions of top talent marching under the banners of a wide-diversity of styles. Tickets: $40.00, available at thesidedoorjazz.com and (860) 434-0886. Doors open at 7:30 pm.

HJS Keeps the Groove Rolling

Drummer Louis Hayes.
Credit louishayes.net

A week later, the venerable HJS, which has been rocking on since 1960, keeps May’s power groove merrily rolling along full-speed ahead as it presents the Louis Hayes Jazz Communicators, as the legendary drummer leads his quartet at 8:00 pm on Friday, May 9, at the Polish National Home, 60 Charter Oak Avenue in Hartford.

Abraham Burton, a dynamic, irrepressible voice on saxophone who honed his formidable chops early on in Hartford, is featured, along with bassist Gerald Cannon, and pianist David Bryant. 

The concert’s opening group, which hits at 7:00 pm, is the Greater Hartford Arts Academy Jazz Ensemble under the direction of pianist/educator Alex Nakhimovsky.

A free student workshop will be held from 4:30 to 6:00 pm at the venue. Concert tickets: $15.00 in advance/$20.00 at the door; $10.00 HJS members at the door; $5.00 students. Tickets available at the Polish National Home, Integrity 'n Music in Wethersfield; and via PayPal at hartfordjazzsociety.com.

Information and tickets also at (860) 242-6688.  The concert is presented with financial support from The Greater Hartford Arts Council.

Jazz Hero Has the Right Stuff

One of the most triumphant stories in the long history of jazz in Connecticut is how Vita West Muir, against all odds, single-handedly created and directed The Litchfield Jazz Festival, which, since its dramatic launching in 1996, has soared to national renown for its world-class quality, exquisitely balanced fare and efficient manner in which it has been run.

Vita Muir.
Credit Litchfield Performing Arts

Last weekend, Muir’s much merited status as an acclaimed shaker-and-doer on the state and national jazz scene was formally recognized as she was presented with the prestigious Jazz Journalists Association’s Jazz Hero Award at the Litchfield Jazz Festival Gala held at Metro Bis Restaurant in Simsbury. JJA’s imprimatur puts the official seal of approval on Muir’s heroic jazz impresario stature that she has long embodied for her conduct above and beyond the call of duty in the volatile, financially hazardous jazz world where venues, festivals and even reputations have a high mortality rate. She was one of two dozen, 2014 national jazz heroes named by the JJA, ranging from musicians to producers.

Even before founding the LJF and establishing the festival’s educational arm, the successful Litchfield Jazz Camp, Muir was busily nurturing a variety of local cultural activities as executive and artistic director of Litchfield Performing Arts.

Vita West Muir has been awarded what would amount to a trophy case full of accolades.

Founded by her in 1981, the organization’s mission has been to change lives positively through the dissemination of the arts. Its programs include, among others, the LJF, the LJF Jazz Camp and Project Poetry Live!, which, under Muir’s watchful, artful and savvy eye, has brought poetry, music, dance and visual art together for high school age students.

An industrious, indefatigable advocate for the arts, Muir has worked to secure scores of grants from local, state and federal sources to support LPA’s ambitious cultural missions. As a happy warrior for the arts, she has been awarded what would amount to a trophy case full of accolades. Among these are such prizes as the Inge Morath Award, the 2008 Connecticut Governor’s Award for Excellence in Culture and Tourism and one of two 2011 Chamber Music America CMAcclaim Awards for outstanding service and cultural contributions to the community. As part of her pro-arts curriculum vitae, Muir has served on the boards of Young Audiences, the Connecticut Commission on the Arts and as an NEA panelist. 

Muir's love for music and art—a passion for hands-on knowledge demonstrated by her practice of not booking acts until she’s actually heard them in live performances—seems to have taken her pretty far afield from her college training, which earned her  a BS in biology from Fordham University. Before she received her calling to go forth and do missionary work in the world of arts and culture, she had enjoyed a long career as a writer, specializing in medical science. She was managing editor of The Bioastronautics Data and Biomedical Results of the Apollo project for NASA, and has written for Reader's Digest, Family Health Magazine, and other publications. 

How beneficial for the biomedical health of jazz that Muir ultimately embraced a second career path that focused her creative energies and resilient determination on nurturing arts and culture. Clearly, the arts visionary demonstrated the right stuff when nearly two decades ago she launched one of her greatest research projects ever, the still ascending and boldly exploratory LJF. 

In retrospect, Muir seems more jazz miracle worker than jazz hero, especially since her cause, against all odds and in defiance of pure, cold logic, succeeded  and continues to succeed with even more triumphs and perhaps even more miracles looming in the future.

Taylor Ho Bynum and his sextet and 7-tette.
Credit Scott Friedlander / taylorhobynum.com

Bynum Navigates the Suite Life

Cornetist/composer Taylor Ho Bynum leads his sextet in their ongoing exploration of his extended, concert-length suite, Navigation, as they perform at 8:30 and 10:00 pm on Friday, May 2, at New Haven’s Firehouse 12, the cutting-edge performance and recording center at 45 Crown Street. The recordings from the group’s last Firehouse 12 visit have been released on Firehouse 12 Records as Navigation (The Complete Firehouse 12 Recordings). Bynum’s band also features Jim Hobbs, alto saxophone; Bill Lowe, tuba and bass trombone; Mary Halvorson, guitar; Ken Filiano, bass; and Tomas Fujiwara, drums.

A leader and co-leader of a number of ensembles with diverse artistic goals, Bynum, a Firehouse favorite, has long collaborated with multi-instrumentalist/composer Anthony Braxton, the Connecticut-based avant-garde icon, as well as with such demi-gods of  the cutting-edge pantheon as Cecil Taylor, Bill Dixon and Wadada Leo Smith. Besides being an intrepid, witty, never ponderous explorer of new musical frontiers, Bynum is also a founding partner of Firehouse 12 Records, and is the executive director of Braxton’s Tri-Centric Foundation. Tickets: $18.00, first set; $12.00, second set. Information: firehouse12.com and (203) 785-0468.

Marcus Simeone and Tanya Holt.
Credit Steve Bernbach / thefrontrowcenter.com

Quiet Storm Forecast for Japanalia

Duetting on pop, soul and jazz songs, vocalists Marcus Simeone and Tanya Holt present their "Quiet Storm" show at 7:30 pm on Saturday, May 3, at Japanalia Eiko, 11 Whitney Street in Hartford. Backed by pianist Tracy Stark and bassist Marco Brehm, the duo revels in the contrast between Simeone’s multi-octave range and vocal athleticism and Holt’s subtle, smoky, playful yet edgy approach. Simeone’s new CD, The Truth About…, has drawn comparisons with such celebrated interpretive, pop-oriented singers as Al Jarreau and Johnny Mathis. Tickets: $48.00 stage-side table seating; $28.00 general row seating.

UMOJA’s Festive Fundraiser

UMOJA Music.
Credit umojamusic.com

UMOJA Music, which is dedicated to celebrating music and community through the principles of Kwanzaa, holds a fundraiser concert and auction at 2:00 pm on Saturday, May 3, at Black-eyed Sally’s, 350 Asylum Street in Hartford, to support its third annual UMOJA Music Series. Formed by alto saxophonist Yunie Mojica and trombonist Raynel Frazier, two rising, young talents from Hartford, UMOJA Music presents a seven-part concert series representing the seven principles of Kwanzaa, a week-long celebration honoring the African heritage of African-American culture. UMOJA’s announced guests at the pre-series fundraiser include such Connecticut-based notables as vibraphonist Jay Hoggard, trumpeter Josh Evans, pianist Jen Allen, bassist Stephen “King” Porter, drummer Jonathan Barber and the jazz-inspired, expressionist painter and Hartford jazz activist, Andres Chaparro. Tickets: $20.00 at the door, $15.00 online at umojamusic.com.

Musical Brews on Tap at Buttonwood    

The Buttonwood Tree Performing Arts and Cultural Center in Middletown.
Credit buttonwood.org

Mike Lorenz, an up-and-coming musician from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and his sidemen from the Philadelphia area play weekly but never weakly at the famous Tired Hands brewing company in Ardmore. For an upcoming Connecticut date, Lorenz and his combo promise to serve a heady, blue-ribbon brew of original music, jazz standards and  quirky covers of rock tunes by the likes of Nirvana and Black Sabbath as they perform at 3:00 pm on Sunday, May 4, at The Buttonwood Tree, 605 Main Street in Middletown. Admission: $10.00 at the door. Information: (860) 347-4957. Guitarist/composer Sinan Bakir returns to the Buttonwood for a much deserved encore at 8:00 pm on Saturday, May 3, presenting his original, deliciously fluent jazz style sagely seasoned with delectable sonic flavors from his native country, Turkey. Admission: $10.00.

Chef Casey Serves Musical Desserts

Saxophonist Mike Casey serves tasty jazz confections as he performs with the his trio at 8:00 pm on Saturday, May 3, in the monthly Jazz Night series at La Petite France bakery and cafe, 967 Farmington Avenue in West Hartford. Chef Casey’s sous chefs of swing are bassist Leo Catricala and drummer Mike Dick. Admission only, $5.00; $23.00 includes admission, sandwich, drink, and dessert. Information: lpfcafe.com and (860) 231-9255.    

Jazz Maestro Plays at Cabaret Fundraiser

Noted percussionist and Latin jazz maestro Ed Fast is a special guest performer at Northwest Catholic’s annual Jazz Cabaret Night that features Northwest’s Jazz Ensemble, Jazz Singers and Big Band at 7:00 pm on Saturday, May 3, at the school, 29 Wampanoag Drive in West Hartford. Proceeds will benefit all students in the music department, and will be used to help refurbish the school’s Steinway piano, pay for new instruments and cover music festival fees and costs for bus travel. Tickets, which must be reserved in advance, are: $20.00 adults; $10.00 students and senior citizens. Information: NorthwestCatholic.org/JazzNight or contact Instrumental Music Director Daniel Luddy at dluddy@nwcath.org. Reservations: (860) 232-4677.

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