Hartford’s Bushnell Park Alive with the Sound of Jazz

Jul 2, 2014

Hartford assumes its traditional summer role as the Connecticut state capital of free, high quality, mega-outdoor jazz festivals this month as Monday Night Jazz in Bushnell Park and The Greater Hartford Festival of Jazz camp down once again on their scenic stomping grounds on the city’s historic Bushnell Park.

Yoron Israel and the High Standards
Credit http://hartfordmondaynightjazz.com/

Marking its 47th season, Monday Night Jazz shows no signs of incipient middle-age malaise as it flexes its muscles Monday, July 7, with a double bill featuring the rising, young drummer and Hartford native, Jonathan Barber, leading his quartet as the opening act, and the veteran drum master Yoron Israel and his band, High Standards, as the headliner.     

Barber, a blue-chip, Connecticut-made product who began playing drums at age five, was first introduced to the instrument by his father, taking the earliest steps in his career playing at his family’s church. 

In his senior year in high school, the already promising percussionist began studying at Hartford’s Artists Collective with the noted multi-instrumentalist, composer, and educator, Rene McLean, who is the son of the Collective’s founder, the legendary alto saxophonist, composer, and groundbreaking jazz educator, Jackie McLean. 

Jonathan Barber and his drums
Credit Jonathanbarbermusic.com

Later, at the University of Hartford’s Hartt School, Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz, the percussion prodigy studied with and was mentored by the dynamic drummer Eric McPherson, graduating from Hartt cum laude in 2011.

Early on, Barber was a much-in-demand drummer on the Hartford scene who has since taken giant steps into the national and international scene, touring throughout Europe with Jeremy Pelt and performing with such luminaries as Wallace Roney, Steve Davis, Wayne Escoffery and Abraham Burton, among many others. In the latest addition to his expanding resume, Barber performs along with pianist Orrin Evans and bassist Alexander Claffy on tenor saxophonist JD Allen’s just released recording, Bloom.

A venerable veteran of the jazz scene, Israel sports a thick resume studded with numerous performances at prestigious clubs and festivals and appearances on more than 100 recordings, plus work with a legion of top, diverse performers ranging from Sonny Rollins and Joe Lovanoto Shirley Caesar and Tony Bennett. With High Standards, his latest recording is "VISIONS: The Music of Stevie Wonder." Currently, he plays regularly with such notables and frequent players in the region as bassist Avery Sharpe and vibraphonist Jay Hoggard.

Produced by the Hartford Jazz Society, the oldest continuously-operating jazz society in the United States, Monday Night Jazz also features such marquee performers as the pianists Renee Rosnes and Marc Cary, and the 80-year-old percussionist/bandleader Ray Mantilla leading his ensemble, plus a host of top area performers and bands as opening acts.

Here’s the complete season lineup with the opening act listed first:

Jonathan Barber Quartet and Yoron Israel & High Standards, July 7
Peter Greenfogel Quintet and Marc Cary Focus Trio, July 14
Frank Kozyra/Andrew Renfroe/Matt Dwonszyk/Curtis Torian and the Ralph Peterson Fo’tet—Fo’n Mo’, July 21
Espada Jazz Ensemble and Ray Mantilla Ensemble, July 28
N’dea Lloyd and Renee Rosnes Quartet, August 4
Michael Pallas Quintet and Stephen “King” Porter and The Legacy Band, August 11

Opening bands hit at 6:00 pm, with headliners taking the stage at the downtown park’s performance pavilion at 7:30 pm. In case of rain, the concert takes sanctuary indoors at Asylum Hill Congreational Church, 814 Asylum Avenue in Hartford. As it has for many years, WWUH 91.3 FM broadcasts the concerts live from the park. To check on whether a concert is being moved to the rain site, call WWUH at (860) 768-4701.

Weekend Bushnell Bash

The Greater Hartford Festival of Jazz, a weekend bash that draws many thousands of festive fans to downtown Hartford, pitches down in Bushnell Park at its 23rd annual, admission-free extravaganza from July 18 through July 20 for what it calls “three nights and two days of hot and cool jazz.” 

To attract its regularly large turnouts, the festival mixes and matches multiple styles including fusion, Latin, mainstream jazz, smooth jazz, hard bop, mellow pop, danceable grooves. It’s an all-embracing musical menu, featuring name artists as well as young and up-and-coming performers from throughout the region. Variety has been one of its secrets to success and large turnouts.

Opening night, for example, presents the young Cuban-born, wizard pianist Manuel Valera sharing the bill with the famously smooth but sometimes saucily soulful saxophonist David Sanborn.

Javon Jackson
Credit javonjackson.com

Closing night concludes with dramatic back-to-back appearances by two mighty modern mainstream saxophonists, Javon Jackson and Azar Lawrence. Between opening and closing nights, there’s plenty of sometimes spicy, sometimes smooth variety sandwiched in between, including servings of late night tastes featuring Motown and R&B flavors, plus an appearance by the New Haven-born Marion Meadows, the Sultan of Smooth Saxophone.

It’s a festival that aims at being all things to all listeners. If you’re looking for the ideal soundtrack for socializing, schmoozing, and noshing on a summer’s day or evening amid the picturesque setting of Bushnell Park with its dramatic backdrop of the city’s skyline and the gold-domed State Capitol, this is it. Or, if you’re a jazz connoisseur and you just want to sit on your blanket or lawn chair and focus intently on consuming every serious, substantial single note spun by Javon Jackson or Azar Lawrence, this too is your place in the sun or under the stars.     

Here’s the lineup for the pavilion stage:

7:00 pm Manuel Valera
8:30 pm David Sanborn

4:30 pm David Davis
6:00 pm La Orquesta Espada
7:30 pm Urban Jazz Coalition
9:00 pm Jazz All Stars—Marion Meadows, Brian Simpson, and Kim Waters
11:00 pm Side Street “New England’s Premier Dance Crew”
11:10 pm Jus…Us—Old School/Motown/R&B

10:00 am Hot Cat Jazz Band, Jazz Mass at Christ Church Cathedral, 45 Church Street, Hartford (only festival event not held in the park)
4:30 pm Sherry Winston
6:00 pm Javon Jackson
7:30 pm Azar Lawrence

On its website, the festival notes, “it has grown to be the largest free jazz event in New England, with an average attendance of over 45,000, attracting more than 50,000 fans during the three-day festival in 2013!” Information: hartfordjazz.com.

More Free Park Perks

Yet another source of high-quality, free, outdoor concerts in Bushnell Park is the ongoing UMOJA Music Series that has two more  concerts left this month, both held at 6:00 pm in the park at the Pump House Gallery at 60 Elm Street.

Rene McLean
Credit http://harttweb.hartford.edu/

On July 11, the Elm Street end of the park resounds to the sounds of the great multi-instrumentalist Rene McLean leading the Cosmic Brotherhood, with the young, promising vocalist Shenel Johns as the opening act.  In the series finale on July 18, the noted saxophonist Kris Allen leads his quartet, with bassist Alex Tremblay, yet another rising young talent, heading the opening act. Rain site: Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts at 15 Vernon Street in Hartford.

Founded by two Hartford musicians, trombonist Raynel Frazier and saxophonist Yunie Mojica, the series celebrates the seven principles of Kwanza and features a mix of established and rising musicians with special ties to Hartford.

Fiber Arts Groove on the Art of Jazz

With jazz as the city’s unofficial sound of music for the month of July, “Jazz Tones,” an exhibit that beautifully integrates jazz music and fiber art through artworks created by the Connecticut Fiber Arts Collective, is on display through August 23 at the 100 Pearl Street Gallery in downtown Hartford.

The exhibit features vibrant jazz-inspired works by Collective artists as well as by the internationally celebrated fiber artist, Ed Johnetta Miller, a Hartford-based quilter, teacher, curator and lecturer who is widely acknowledged as one of the most creative and colorful improvisational quilt makers in the United States.

Ed Johnetta Miller
Credit Ed Johnetta Miller

A visual artist totally in tune with and inspired by the inventive spirit of jazz, Miller grew up in a household saturated with the sound of jazz, and has been friends with such jazz giants as Archie Shepp and Jackie McLean, her longtime neighbor before his death in 2006. One of her works in the Hartford exhibition, “And All That Amazing Jazz,” has been shown at the Smithsonian.

Miller’s quilts can be found in many premier museums, corporate and private collections including, The National Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.; Nelson Mandela's National Museum in Capetown, South Africa; the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, and the Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum in Golden, Colorado.

Managed by the Greater Hartford Arts Council as part of its commitment to supporting and promoting the work of local artists, the gallery presents a wide range of artistic styles, from paintings to photography, sculpture and site-specific installations. Sometimes called one of downtown Hartford’s “best kept secrets,” the gallery bills itself as “a one-of-kind exhibition hall hiding behind a corporate façade.”

Now it’s alive with swinging fiber art celebrating the non-corporate art of jazz, its colors, textures, rhythms, feelings and forms, sometimes figurative, sometimes abstract, always spontaneous and in the moment. Gallery hours: Monday-Friday, 8:00 am to 7:00 pm and Saturday 8:00 am to noon. Admission: free. Information: LetsGoArts.org/Gallery

July Fourth Fireworks

Credit Amani Hasan / Creative Commons

Explosive reed master Myron Walden sets-off an exciting sonic fireworks display on the Fourth of July as he performs with his fiery band, Momentum, at the Side Door Jazz Club in Old Lyme. Walden, who brings an emotional edge to his star-spangled musicianship, will be aided at 8:30 p.m. Friday, July 4, by his rocketing, pyrotechnical pals, trumpeter Darren Barrett, pianist Eden Laden, bassist Yasushi Nakamura and drummer Mark Whitfield. Tickets: $28.00.

Walden returns the next night, Friday, July 5, at 8:30 pm, to the shoreline club to play with the David Weiss Sextet, which is celebrating the release of its new CD, When Words Fail (Motema Music). Along with Weiss, the noted trumpeter/composer/arranger/bandleader and Walden on alto saxophone, the sextet features tenor saxophonist Dayna Stephens, pianist David Bryant, bassist Yasushi Nakamura and Hartford’s Jonathan Barber on drums.

Music Transcends Words

Weiss’s new album uses music as an artistic and humanitarian force to cope with and express the sense of loss that is beyond words but not beyond hope. Its title, When Words Fail, was inspired by a quote from the Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen: “Where words fail, music speaks.”

On pieces like "Loss" and "Lullaby for a Lonely Child," Weiss uses music to portray his feelings for the suffering friends have gone through and losses of his own endured in the past year. Tragically, he notes, the CD marks the final recording of the late, influential bassist Dwayne Burno, who died at only 43 just a week after finishing the album.

Perhaps When Words Fail can be embraced, Weiss explains, as an elegy of sorts. It’s a lament that is about the pain, desolation and hopelessness of loss, felt through the jazz community last year, but tempered, at the same time, he stresses, with a robust strain of hope intertwined in the compositions.

"The last year or so has been a time of profound loss for me and a lot of my close friends and acquaintances," Weiss said. "Some of these losses have been very public and horrific. These were the themes that were swimming through my head as I put the finishing touches on the music. ...Ideally, it’s also about lifting one out of that world, so it should also be about rebirth, hope and finding your way back. The music on When Words Fail is about acknowledging your pain, but also about finding a way out, or at the very least, providing a temporary escape."

The album’s closing composition, “Passage into Eternity,” is dedicated to the great saxophonist Jimmy Greene, his wife Nelba and their son, Isaiah, who suffered the most grievous loss of a beloved, beautiful daughter and sister, Ana Grace, in the horrific Sandy Hook shooting.

“They have suffered one of the most horrible losses imaginable,” Weiss says, “and there is no way possible for me to have even the slightest clue as to what they must be going through. The Greenes are incredibly strong and brave people of faith who are making a difference in this world… ‘Passage into Eternity’ is a phrase I borrowed from something they wrote soon after their daughter’s death.” Tickets: $30.00 at thesidedoorjazz.com and (860) 434-0886.

Brighenti’s Bright Buddies

Pianist John Brighenti, a seasoned big band veteran and lifetime scholar of the Great American Songbook, bonds with two young, rising stylists at 6:00 pm on Thursday, July 3, in the latest chapter in the free John Brighenti and Friends Series at Casa Mia On the Green at 600 Cold Spring Road in Rocky Hill. Brighenti’s bright buddies are vocalist Dana Lauren and bassist Matt Dwonszyk. Information: (860) 653-7000.

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