Miguel Zenon’s Identities are Changeable Big Band

Thursday, February 11 at 7:30 p.m., Fine Arts Center Concert Hall, Chamber Seating

$40, $35, $20; Five College, GCC and 17 & under $10

Saxophonist Miguel Zenón offers his most ambitious project yet with a song cycle for his quartet augmented by a 12-piece big band. The evening-length work explores the experience of Puerto Ricans who have moved to the mainland, particularly New York City. Zenón is the most celebrated altoist of his generation, a multi-Grammy nominee and Guggenheim and MacArthur “Genius” Fellow who has extended jazz’s conceptual reach with a series of albums exploring the music of Puerto Rico, where he was born.

William Parker

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Queen Esther Duo Celebrates Billie Holiday in Springfield

by Glenn Siegel

The vocalist Queen Esther, decked out in a diaphanous, fur-themed dress, made the ornate Robyn Newhouse Hall at the Community Music School of Springfield, seem even more elegant. Accompanied by pianist Jeremy Bacon, resplendent in a deep red, velvet jacket, the Queen Esther Duo performed the rare sides that Billie Holiday sang in the 1930s and 40s. Friday’s concert was produced by Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares.

Queen Esther’s voice is round and supple. She would slowly roll into words or attack them with well-articulated emphasis. Her phrasing was right on and she expressed these songs of love and love lost with perfect period sentiment.

Over the course of two sets of music, Queen Esther established a wonderful rapport with the 80 intrepid souls who braved a morning snowstorm to hear her sing. A self-described “library nerd” who spent considerable time researching Holiday and her work, Queen Esther gave just the right amount of anecdote and context throughout the evening.

We learned that Holiday spent a good part of 1948 in prison (the same facility where Martha Stewart did time), and despite entreaties from the warden, refused to sing a note while incarcerated. Because of her conviction, she couldn’t work in New York nightclubs, so upon her release, and despite having been off the scene and rusty, Holiday sold out Carnegie Hall. Soon afterwards she premiered “Holiday on Broadway” and began each night with “Easy to Love.” Queen Esther delivered her version with sass and easy swing.

Describing “Some Other Spring” as Holiday’s favorite, Queen Esther gave us a thumbnail sketch of the song’s composer, Irene Kitchings, a brilliant, classically trained pianist and arranger who was leading bands of adult male professionals in Chicago at age 16! She put her own career on hold after marrying pianist Teddy Wilson, expanding his musical horizons and raising their family. Queen Esther’s raised eyebrows and comments about gender inequality were seconded by the assembled.

The duo closed the first set with “Big Stuff,” penned by a young Leonard Bernstein from the musical “Fancy Free.” It was a critical time in Bernstein’s budding career and he created a controversy by using “Negro slang” in his lyrics. Bernstein wrote the song with Billie in mind, but lacking clout and cash could not afford to have her sing it in the original production.

Queen Esther counted off the rhythm then had a brain freeze; she forgot the words. It was a moment of high, unscripted drama. Her witty repartee, spot on all night, was tested, until a smartphone-wielding member of the audience handed her the three opening words: “So you cry”. With the lyrics unlocked, Queen Esther sailed through the song. In that moment she won over audience members, many of who undoubtedly have had their own experiences with the vagaries of memory.

The role of accompanist requires special skills: blending the sound, leaving space, lack of ego. Pianist Jeremy Bacon acquitted himself beautifully. It was a nice touch to have Bacon begin each set with a solo piece, giving us a chance to see his spread wings.

Queen Esther came highly recommended by acclaimed dramaturg and good friend, Talvin Wilks, who helped develop her Billie Holiday project at Minton’s in New York last year. Thanks Talvin, good call.

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Tao: Seventeen Samurai

Wednesday, February 3 at 7:30 p.m., Fine Arts Center Concert Hall
$40, $35, $20; Five College, GCC and 17 & under $15, $12, $10

Following a successful, sold-out world premiere run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, TAO’s brand new production, Seventeen Samurai, takes you on a journey to ancient times. Evoking the traditional disciplines of strength, pureness of mind and the spirit of the fearless Samurai warrior, athletic bodies combine with explosive Japanese drumming in a new and innovative choreography. With TAO’s extraordinary precision, energy and stamina, it’s no wonder they consistently perform at hundreds of sold-out shows. TAO has proven that modern entertainment based on the timeless, traditional art of Taiko drumming entertains international audiences again and again.

Tao: Seventeen Samurai

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ROVA Saxophone Quartet does Eastworks

by Glenn Siegel

When I asked Larry Ochs, one of the founders of the ROVA Saxophone Quartet, how they decided what repertoire to play during Tuesday’s Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares concert, he told me they chose pieces they played during the previous week that didn’t require much rehearsal.

Founded in 1977 in the Bay Area, where they still reside, ROVA had just completed a weeklong residency at The Stone (John Zorn’s small, but influential Lower East side music room.) While in New York, ROVA (Jon Raskin, Bruce Ackley, Steve Adams and Ochs), plus eight all stars, also gave a monumental performance of John Coltrane’s “Ascension” at Le Poisson Rouge.

The capacity crowd at 121 Club in Eastworks, Easthampton, Massachusetts was treated to two transcendent sets of knotty virtuosity, played with wit and panache. The written parts were intricate and executed without so much as a bead of sweat, although on the car ride home the musicians immediately launched into a self-critique of missed cues and opportunities. The improvised sections were equally evocative, distinguished from the written material by a series of various homemade hand signals that dictated the flow.

Shareholder John Sinton (father of the wonderful baritone saxophonist/bass clarinetist Josh Sinton) described ROVA’s music as “thick”. Indeed the harmonies and textures were layered in surprising, and at times unsettling ways. Shareholder Frank Ward, who was sitting in the front row, talked about the “cleansing” experience of being so close to that much sound. Shareholder Tony Stavely’s reaction: “Quacking conversations among demented ducks and harmonious honking of glad geese. Not the whole story.”

Writer and poet Byron Coley was in the house, as was Hal March, who has run the valuable Toonerville Trolley Records in Williamstown, for many years. There were a number of saxophonists present, including Dave Barrett, now a Great Barrington resident, but a friend of the band since his San Francisco days with the Splatter Trio, and Valley stalwarts Jason Robinson and Carl Clements, who had brought a handful of unsuspecting Amherst College students; UMass professor Felipe Salles and Ron Freshley were in attendance. John Voci, now Program Director of NEPR, who was part of the technical crew when ROVA made an historic trip to the Soviet Union in the 1980s, showed up. As did Bex Taylor of the Jazz a la Mode family. Cliff Peterson made the trip from Albany; Ronald Lyles, Richard Williams and Chris Carville came from various Connecticut points. Alex Lemski was representing Boston.

The opportunity to hear ROVA in western Massachusetts was special; their only other appearance was a 2011 UMass Magic Triangle Series performance of the Celestial Septet: ROVA + the Nels Cline Singers. The scarce chance to hear today’s premiere working saxophone quartet brought over 100 people to Will Bundy’s bustling venue.

In “Space is the Place”, John Szwed’s wonderful biography of Sun Ra, the author reminds us that musicians in the 1960s, “moved pitch away from the convention of playing in or out of ‘tune’, and made tonality a conscious choice, just as time keeping or swing were turned into resources to be drawn on, rather than laws to be obeyed.” But even as the sound swirled, at least one of the saxophonists provided a rhythmic backbone, playing a vamp or repeated figure that gave shape to the music. And sometimes not.

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Dada Masilo|Swan Lake

Tuesday, January 26 at 7:30 p.m., Fine Arts Center Concert Hall, Chamber Seating
$40, $35, $20; Five College, GCC and 17 & under $15, $12, $10

Dada Masilo has become one of the most celebrated choreographers in South Africa, renowned for her reworking of classical ballets. In this creation of Swan Lake, her company of male and female African dancers revisit this great classic with a modern scope, keeping Tchaikovsky’s music, themes, tutus and pointes intact but weaving high-energy, down-to-earth South African pantsula and gumboot into the mix. Re-imagining this ballet through a South African lens, Masilo tackles the issues of sex, gender and homophobia in a country confronting the impact of AIDS on its people. Partial nudity. Recommended for ages 14 and up.
Audience members are invited for a pre-concert talk at 6:30 p.m. in the Concert Hall lobby, and to stay for a post-performance talk with the company immediately following the performance.

Dada Masilo: Swan Lake

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Jorge Sylvester’s ACE Collective plays the Parlor Room

by Glenn Siegel

My jazz loving friends and I often play the “whatever happened to?” game, where we trade information about musicians whom we haven’t heard from in some time. Where is Anthony Cox, for instance? (Marty Ehrlich informs me that the great bassist moved back to Detroit, has his real estate license and still plays locally.) Until he resurfaced in 2003 after a 35-year hiatus, Henry Grimes was a popular “whatever happened to?” subject. Does anyone know the whereabouts of the outstanding cellist, Abdul Wadud?

Matt Merewitz, the well-respected jazz publicist, asked me what happened to Jorge Sylvester. I’m here to report the alto saxophonist and composer is alive, well and playing at a very high level. His ACE (Afro-Caribbean Experimental) Collective performed a two-hour concert at a sold out Parlor Room in Northampton on December 11 as part of Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares.

Since moving to the States from Panama in 1980, the 61-year old Sylvester has released four recordings under his own name, been a member of the World Saxophone Quartet, Joe Bowie’s Defunkt Big Band, Frank Lacy’s Vibe Tribe and worked with poet Sekou Sundiata, Karl Berger, and David Murray, among others. But the creative music business being what it is, those high profile gigs are often not enough to keep one in the public eye. There is very little room on the head of the jazz pin. So highly skilled musicians like Sylvester keep plugging away, keeping faith that the music will provide.

That positivity was on full display on Friday as the Collective played many of the selections found on the band’s most recent release, “Spirit Driven.” The lyrics, written and sung by the evocative, highly musical vocalist Nora McCarthy, spoke often about truth, justice and beauty. Her dynamics, stage presence and varied vocal techniques (including some very inventive scatting), kept our attention despite the program’s length.

The electric bassist Gene Torres, a regular sub for Donald Nicks, was wonderful, easily negotiating the tricky contours of Sylvester’s shifting originals and soloing with a relaxed virtuosity. Torres, a long-time colleague of the Valley’s Terry Jenoure, appeared with Craig Harris’ 10-piece ensemble in the 2013 Magic Triangle Series at UMASS Amherst. Much of the music Torres makes these days tends towards funk, soul and other commercial music. He was thrilled to be able to stretch his skills playing music that demanded a different kind of attention.

Drummer Kenny Grohowski, a full generation younger than his bandmates, can be found making music with John Zorn, Andy Milne’s Dapp Theory, Haitian singer Emeline Michel, the black metal band Imperial Triumphant and the avant rock band, Secret Chiefs 3. That one instrumentalist can be effective in such varied settings shows that the industry’s tendency to box, label and compartmentalize, is irrelevant to creative musicians. His riveting drum solo closed the show and made me wish for more.

Sylvester was masterful throughout, judiciously using extended techniques to ratchet up the intensity, while wowing with fluid runs and stop-on-a-dime precision. His gorgeous tone at all registers was remarkable given that during sound check he had to replace the cork seal on one of his saxophone keys with rolled paper.

Here’s to indomitable, spirit driven musicians who uplift and provoke, even when the material rewards are meager and uncertain.

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Cherish the Ladies | Celtic Christmas

Thursday, December 10 at 7:30 p.m., Fine Arts Center Concert Hall
$35, $30, $15; Five College, GCC and 17 & under $15, $12 and $10

One of the most engaging and successful ensembles in the history of Celtic music, Cherish the Ladies have shared timeless Irish traditions with audiences worldwide for over twenty-five years. In their Celtic Christmas program, the Ladies put their signature mark on classic carols, in arrangements that highlight the group’s unique Celtic instrumentation, beautiful harmonies and spectacular step dancing. “Passionate, tender and rambunctious.” – The New York Times

Cherish The Ladies

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Multiplicity (Harrison, Shobhakar, Takeishi) perform in Greenfield

by Glenn Siegel

It seems entirely appropriate that the recording by Multiplicity, the project of Joel Harrison and Anupam Shobhakar, is on a label called Whirlwind. Both of them, plus Satoshi Takeishi, piled in a car and made the trip from New York to Greenfield, Massachusetts to perform the third concert in Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares’ fourth season on Sunday, November 29. The trio not only braved the Thanksgiving traffic (a three-and-a-half hour trip turned into a five hour grind), but after the concert the group turned around and made the return trip to the Big Apple.

Harrison had to rehearse his 18-piece ensemble, which premiered two of his compositions at Roulette on December 1, Shobhakar was leaving early Tuesday for India and Takeishi had to deal with his car in the shop. Such is the life of working musicians.

The payoff for the band’s endured hardship was an appreciative audience that filled the Arts Block with love and rapt attention during a wonderful 75-minute performance.

I imagine most concertgoers were seeing and hearing the sarod for the first time. A large and beautiful, four-string fretless lute, the instrument was in a setting very different from the Hindustani classical music tradition for which it was originally intended. The 36 year-old Shobhakar, raised on both intense classical Indian studies and Megadeth, seemed equally at home performing original tunes based on raga cycles, and American blues. One of the evening’s highlights was a performance of “Devil Mountain Blues” (a piece that emerged from their initial musical encounter and cemented their musical friendship.) Harrison played it, and Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful”, on steel-bodied national guitar, joking (?) that his guitar and the sarod (which has a metal fingerboard) were distant cousins. Shobhakar’s slide technique (called meend) and the sound of Harrison’s slides did, in fact, feel like a deep conversation between strangely familiar strangers.

Shobhakar talks of years of doing music exercises, an intense training process known as “tayarri”, literally ‘technically great’. But its real meaning is ‘to be ready’, putting in the work so your fingers, your mind and your soul are ready when creativity strikes.

Percussionist Satoshi Takeishi, who has obviously undergone an intense training process of his own, filled in for Dan Weiss, who is featured on Multiplicity’s recording, “Leave the Door Open”. On April 2, Takeishi sat in for Samir Chatterjee in Ned Rothenberg’s “Inner Diaspora” ensemble at the UMass Magic Triangle Series. On both occasions, Takeishi showed how ready he was. Playing frame drum and other hand percussion, snare, and a varied assortment of cymbals and bells, Takeishi provided an evening’s worth of texture, color and drive. For him to be able to nail the complicated rhythms of the more overt Indian pieces is a testament to the massive technique he has at his disposal. In fact, I marveled at that very phenomenon when Dan Weiss sat in for Nasheet Waits for the first time in Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble at the September Jazz Shares offering.

How do they do it? Fit in so seamlessly? Give the music just what it needs? They make it look easy; it’s anything but. It’s the result of years of rigorous study and years of demanding performing experience. And, we are the beneficiaries.

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Berit Strong, Classical Guitar

Saturday, November 21 at 7 p.m., Eric Carle Museum, Amherst
$15 General Admission

Audiences and critics alike praise Berit Strong’s distinctive and thoughtful approach to classical music. The Boston Globe called her “a colorful and commanding interpreter,” and Soundboard magazine described her as “an intense and original musical personality.” Strong won a Top Prize in the Guitar Foundation of America International Competition in 1998, launching her international performing career, which now spans Europe and the US.

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Angelica Sanchez and Omar Tamez perform at UMass

by Glenn Siegel

Three years ago, when pianist Angelica Sanchez and guitarist Omar Tamez inaugurated Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares with a concert at the Congregational Church in Holyoke, the considerable acoustics of Skinner Chapel allowed the notes to ring and linger. (Parts of that concert can be found on their recording, Dias del Sol.) At their Solos & Duos Series concert at Bezanson Recital Hall on November 18, the ring and linger was the result of Tamez’ deft manipulation of electronic sounds.

With very little gear, Tamez created sound worlds that eddied and flowed with full dynamic range. Sanchez’ unadorned piano sounded breathtaking next to it. Over the 70-minute concert, the duo mesmerized with an open-hearted performance of compositions by Chico Burque, Gustavo “Cuchi” Leguizamón, Mario Ruiz Armengol and the performers.

Speaking of open-hearted, Omar Tamez is one of the most humble, love-filled and accomplished people I have met. His easy smile and delicate mastery of the guitar are merely the most visible aspect of a brilliant, well-read, well-traveled musician. His fascination with electronics were fueled by studies with Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen; he has won classical guitar competitions all over the world; his photographic memory allows him to store vast amounts of information, including a deep knowledge of many types of music. As we lingered in Amherst after the workshop (a delicious lunch at Miss Saigon and a productive visit to Amherst Books), he was digesting “Virgin Island Suite,” an amazing, little-known Ellington recording from the mid-sixties.

His laser focus and generosity of spirit was on full display at a wonderful workshop he and Sanchez did for Jason Robinson’s Amherst College students the day after their UMass concert. Among other suggestions, Tamez recommended students should play their instruments for 24 hours straight, something he has done on multiple occasions in the wilderness of his home country of Mexico. “Your relationship to your instrument will change forever,” Tamez told students.

Some sixty years ago Whitney Balliett defined jazz as “the sound of surprise.” But with most music, the surprises happen within a pretty circumscribed area. Pianist Angelica Sanchez’ career, which includes long-term relationships with Wadada Leo Smith, Rob Mazurek, Tony Malaby and Harris Eisenstadt, takes Balliett’s definition to heart. The surprises at the core of her music are not meant to shock or confound expectations for its own sake, but result from her search for the essential in each musical experience. At every moment Sanchez eschews breezy virtuosity for an honest appraisal of what the music requires. Her clear-eyed career, which she currently balances with being a single mom and a graduate student, is worth attention. Her pursuit of a Masters degree in arranging from William Paterson College has brought her into closer contact with one of her heroes: Carla Bley, and she’s poised to delve deeper into the work of George Russell. Like Tamez, Sanchez is a seeker.

It is inspiring to be around musicians with such awesome facility, such vast knowledge of, and reverence for music, and a desire to spread joy through sound.

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