The best of Boston was on parade as hundreds of music lovers descended upon the streets of Boston’s South End for the 2016 Berklee Beantown Jazz Festival, (“Festival”) held on September 24th (www.berklee.edu). Here was a celebration of Boston’s ethnic and racial diversity as throngs strolled together in the sunshine along Columbus Avenue with food stalls and vendors lining the street and the world’s languages cascading through the air. And, as rich and diverse as the people and languages were, so was the music: blaring forth in all of its own multifarious, genre-morphing sounds.
In the early afternoon, on the “Berklee Stage,” dynamic pianist and composer Laszlo Gardony led his sextet in a vivid performance. The group opened with Gardony’s original, “Bourbon Street Boogie” taken from his vivacious 2015 live recording Life In Real Time [Sunnyside Records; www.sunnysiderecords.com; www.lgjazz.com].
Saxophonist Bill Pierce ignited the infectious dance with his dexterous phrasing (curling around some low notes and trills) while Gardony took off on a piano solo that highlighted his fluid athleticism and light percussive touch. Gardony displays an inventive force in his piano styling with a great feel for metric and dynamic vitality that always leaps forward in creative ways, with a clarity of line and a dancing purpose.
On their version of Gardony’s “Gemstones” (which also appears in full-throttled momentum on Life in Real Time), the band swelled forth with huge waves of sounds from its front line of three saxophonists: Bill Pierce, Stan Strickland and Lance Bryant. Here, Bryant took an extended solo filled with expressive calls, fluid tumbling and urgent honks down low. Gardony took up Bryant’s inspiration in his own solo by combining hard hitting chords with lacy dynamic touches (at one point leaving questions unanswered by twinkling and repeating a few high simple runs that remained at their apex hanging in brief silence) then caroused into the full blast of the saxes’ blares and Yoron Israel’s big drum hits.
The band also showed their tender side on Gardony’s radiant arrangement of a Spiritual entitled “Motherless Child” (also played with glowing refinement on Life In Real Time) with Strickland soloing on his bass clarinet (moving with a magisterial force down deep and vibrant) to the companionship of bassist John Lockwood’s pungent and simmering plucks and falling notes.
Another pianist with local Boston roots (he a graduate of The New England Conservatory “NEC; www.necmusic.edu) is Kevin Harris, who brought his Kevin Harris Project (www.kevinharrisproject.com) to the “Berklee Stage” and delivered his own glowing ruminations on keyboard. Harris and his simpatico bandmates, (Steve Langione on drums, Fernando Huergo on electric bass, Jason Palmer on trumpet and Rick DiMuzio on sax) performed a series of Harris’ original compositions inspired by a Victorian poem, “Invictus,” by W.E. Henley (1849-1903). The first of these involved Jason Palmer, (one of my favorite young trumpet players), taking up the slow brewing melodic phrase with an intense solo: his clear and crisp tones bursting forth into the sunshine with a roistering purpose up and down his fluid registers.
D’iMuzio followed with his own solo on his sax, softly evolving into hearty runs and a brawny, bighearted tone. On “Lullaby For A Yellow Bird,” Harris brought his supremely assured piano style to this tranquil original: his touch was understated and subtle; he preferred a light swinging facility to heavier (percussive and tension) styles, with a beautiful, fragile liquidity to his playing.
Harris has a great partner in drummer Langone, with whom he co-wrote the swashbuckling original, “The Americas”, that the band performed with grooving action. The piece traversed the country from Preservation Hall to Broadway, all in the glint of Harris’ incandescent stride piano rifts and Langone’s big snare and cymbal surges.
And, speaking of drummers with surge in their veins, there is no one more volcanic and slyly groove-oriented than the old Master, Billy Hart.
Hart (who is on the adjunct faculty of NEC), brought his adventurous Trio (pianist Ethan Iverson and bassist Ben Street) to the Festival. On their opening tribute to pianist Hampton Hawes, Hart displayed his mastery of the hi-hat (moving his hand in rapid circular motions to feather the hi-hat with his stick to create a rolling shimmering wash of metallic colors) while Iverson reacted with gauzy, slow blues-based phrases.
The band was all about taking their time and finding the dynamic space and pauses to linger together and luxuriate in their collective unfurling of delicate sprays of notes or contrasting rhythms. Walking down a melodic bluesy lane (on a tune that Hart dedicated to “all the grandmothers out there”) Hart used his stick over snare to create a light crisp bounce while Street took up slippery spidery runs on his acoustic bass, brawny and deep. Iverson added his own solo creating a rolling brisk stew of notes and held chords (filled with pauses and jagged oblique notes) that somehow never lost sight of the basic ingredients of the original melodic quip in the conversation.
Billy Hart’s artistry can be heard in all of its quiet, yet powerful, presence on the superb new recording Some Other Time [Newvelle Records, (www.newvelle-records.com] with Hart joining Noah Preminger on sax, John Pattituci on bass and Ben Monder on guitar. The action and drama on this date is magnified by the intimacy of this gathering at the East Side Sound Studio in New York City (where all of Newvelle Recordings are created) in a recording of great tactile feel where each player’s facility and style is captured upfront and personal.
For example, on Preminger’s slyly entitled “Semenzato,” Pattituci roams creatively on his big-boned resonant bass solo; Preminger then takes off on a gallop through boisterous high held notes and his inventive use of trills and deep, breathy honks while Monder adds his undertow of beautiful, expansive guitar sounds. Keep an ear out for Hart through all this brewing drama: his cymbal and snare work is filled with grace and a sparkling wander and dash. He propels all of this unforced flow and collective action from its start to its last fade (left to decay on his final delicate cymbal lash). Like all of his shining compatriots on this date, Hart is primed for adventure and reciprocation at every turn.
Do take a listen too to Ben Monder’s latest recording, Amorphae [ECM Records; www.ecmrecords.com) for a challenging earful from this intrepid young guitarist. His thrilling version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oh, What A Beautiful Morning” (with another drum legend, the late Paul Motian, in Monder’s celestial pull), is a sonic and elemental blast of creative heat. (Do keep ears out as well for when Monder comes to town to join with Preminger and a rotating cast of stellar musicians in their spontaneous combustion sessions held at the intimate Lilypad in Cambridge, MA. See www.lilypadinman.com; www.noahpreminger.com).
Returning to the stages of the Festival, (as the sun was dipping below the horizon), the heat was turned up by two bands intent on making the day last longer. First, there were the big unfurling sounds of the Mark Zalesti Band, led by saxophonist Zalesti, who is another local gem of the Boston jazz scene, (last written about here as a member of the action-packed Berklee-based big band led by Ayn Inserto- www.ayninserto.com). Zaleski is a roving pioneer of the alto sax and at his performance at the Festival, he attacked his solos with great bravado and open-mindedness. On one tune he squealed and shook up high with great bluesy force (in combination with a slippery solo by pianist Glenn Zaleski) and on another cut he split duties with tenor saxophonist Jon Bean on a frenetic staccato-laced adventure over the entire range of his instrument that sent the crowd into a roar of approval.
The Festival’s carnival atmosphere was carried to the exits in the swivel and shake of merengue and salsa tunes blasted out with lyrical force by members of the Ricardo Monzon Orchestra (www.ricardomonzon.com). Monzon, an associate professor in Berklee’s Percussion Department, was on fire on his timbales. He sent out tight volcanic hits that propelled each vocal caress and pouncing brass ensemble stride to this glorious, uplifting music. On a Puerto Rican classic tune, the crowd danced and sang along as if they were in the middle of La Placita, (the little square in San Juan that is always packed with dancers flowing out of bars enlivened with live music). A celebration of community (and communion with music) that knows no bounds – that was the message sent forth as the Monzon Orchestra pelted its effortless and polished sound skyward.