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Back Roads Beat

Juneau Jazz And Classics

By Published: June 7, 2005
(Author's note: This is part of an occasional series featuring jazz from lesser-known festivals and countries. The summer of 2005 is focusing on North America and Europe.)

Arriving in Juneau by boat is no big deal - it's that or by air, since no roads connect Alaska's capital to the rest of the world. Arriving and spending a couple hundred dollars on tickets for the city's annual Jazz And Classics festival is another matter.

It might not seem unusual in a town of 30,000 that depends largely on a million tourists a year, mostly passengers on large cruise ships. But the 19-year-old festival is primarily aimed at locals, with one or two performances a day at widely spaced venues. There are few "name" performers and it doesn't focus primarily on jazz - or classical or blues - instead balancing each over nine days.

But when David and Juliet Fosh heard about it, they cut short their stay in Vancouver, B.C., so they could navigate their 42-foot Swedish sailing yacht up the Inside Passage in time for the festival. That was sufficiently unusual to attract the attention of organizers, who ensured the couple got to know plenty of locals by making on-stage requests for volunteers to transport them between their boat and the performances.

"We don't feel like we're tourists," said Juliet Fosh, who is attending numerous festivals as part of a worldwide tour with her husband. "We feel like we're part of the community."

Such are the quirks and charm of an event in a city with three times as much rain as Seattle that, at least in area, is the largest U.S. city at 3,081 square miles (nearly all wilderness and water). Venues can be simplistic and acoustics imperfect, but free parking is a few feet away, there's no long lines for Alaskan Ale and restrooms, and raffles may be conducted on a first-name basis by an MC who knows everyone in the room and has more prizes than audience members.



Featured jazz musicians were limited to guitarist Larry Coryell's mainstream/fusion trio and a traditional sextet led by saxophonist Roger Newmann. But they spent considerable time with students and other locals at workshops often small enough for individual instruction.

"There's such an incredible appreciation I see from people here," said Madeline Vergari, Newmann's wife and lead vocalist for the group, which also played at the festival five years ago. "Maybe it's because it's not here as often."

Alaska is home to some decent jazz performers (see separate multi-album review of artists from The Last Frontier), and a handful of Juneau residents play ragtime, traditional and fusion on a somewhat regular basis. But Pam Johansen, the festival's executive director, said the emphasis is performers from Outside (the common term for non- Alaskans).

"I think our mission has been to bring in world-class artists and artists who are very highly recognized in their fields," she said. "While there are probably some in Alaska we're looking to bring our patrons an experience they would not have otherwise."

The unique experiences often goes both ways as icefield flights in helicopters flights, whale-watching tours and other diversions are donated to the performers. Not everything is perfect - the salmon fishing was mediocre with three musicians on separate charters coming up empty. The Fosh couple abandoned their glacier sightseeing when excessive ice in a bay blocked their boat. But Coryell said he was driven to the much-hyped Mendenhall Glacier on the way to his gig and was "amazed to be so close" to the mile- wide frozen river of ice. A general informality also meant Tony Gulizia, Newmann's pianist, didn't have to worry about looking out of place when the luggage with his suit didn't arrive.

TAKING JAZZ BEYOND THE STAGE

The festival was book-ended by two R&B acts aimed largely at a dance crowd, opening with The Holmes Brothers and closing with Cyrus Neville And The Uptown All-Stars, but most of the performances in-between were more sedate.

Newmann's concert highlighted the second day of the show, featuring players from the big band he has fronted for more than 20 years. They played standards and swing/blues originals for a couple hundred people that filled a small downtown hotel banquet room, with Vergari joining for the latter third of each of the two sets.

Newmann's controlled tenor dabbled consistently just outside the predictable, trumpeter Kirk Garrison displayed a preference for tasty high-register phrasing and Vergari's alto cut a strong presence through arrangements well-designed to accommodate her. The arrangements much of the evening were a bit tight with limited solo space, but the audience also got a taste of what their kids experienced during a week of school workshops as aspects of jazz and instrumentation were discussed between songs. Topics ranged from basic - Newmann explaining he was playing a soprano sax, not a clarinet - to drummer Joey Gulizia demonstrating various tones, such as a whiny puppy, that can be coaxed from a Brazilian kawika hand drum.

Better bargains, albeit with inferior acoustics, may have been a free noon concert in the lobby of a government office building the following day and a midweek workshop in a rehearsal room at the University of Alaska Southeast. The workshop in particular proved fertile as the players took advantage of long solos and simple songs to demonstrate techniques during the first half, followed by an hour of individual work with the 20 audience members and a group jam session.

"I was feeling intimidated" at the thought of playing on-stage, said John Sanchez, who learned from bassist Andy Hall how to improvise over a blues scale on "Song For My Father." "I feel pretty comfortable now."

Middle and high school students, plus the community Thunder Mountain Big Band, got similar lessons, playing a series of half-hour concerts with Newmann in the university's library on the festival's final day. There was the expected range of local talent and a few hitches such as needing to hold microphones for soloists on quieter instrumentals, but most interviewed said they managed to learn something in a short time.

"As long as you play confidently it's OK if you screw up," said Rachel Stauffer, a sophomore at Juneau-Douglas High School who plays trombone.

The most accomplished jazz performance of the festival was Coryell's concert on the second to last night. At the very least it was a striking lesson in a sideman's ability to drastically alter a group's presentation as drummer Paul Wertico dominated much of the evening with intense and complex fusion tracks. With a more conventional drummer Coryell and bassist Mark Egan are a talented modern Wes Montgomery-like trio, but "it goes to 11" with Wertico's cutting-edge mixture of diverse sounds constantly reassembled into unexpected yet exact pacings.

Coryell cited Montgomery, Joe Pass, John Scofield and Pat Metheny as influences, and shades of all could be heard during the two-and-a-half hour performance. The opening "Bags" featured Coryell occupying most of the time with a mellow Pass-like blues and good chordal harmonies, stepping up the pace dramatically as Wertico built up the intensity culminating in a thick cymbal-roll texture. Coryell and Wertico traded shots toward the end, but the four-bar passages made Wertico's work feel like steam being released from a pressure cooker about to explode - a trait that persisted for much of the evening.

The lid came off on "Trinkle Tinkle" and again near the end of the concert on "Spaces Revisited," the latter opening with a rapid low bass drum rumble and hand-driven leads, with Wertico picking up his sticks after a couple of minutes and launching an all-out assault. He backed off for the meat of the tune before ending it with a second endurance run of cymbal bashing and rolls. Both songs ended with the only standing ovations from some or all of the audience, although crowd reaction to the trio in general was strong most of the evening. The biggest weakness was Egan, and Coryell to a lesser extent, at times saw their contributions overwhelmed by the drums.

Corywell and Wertico conducted separate free two-hour clinics at the university during the last morning of the festival, with the guitarist able to do more group and individual work with a classroom of players who brought their instruments. Wertico spent the morning discussing and demonstrating a wide variety of influences and technique to about 20 students and other locals who play a variety of instruments - plus a few guest artists like Newmann who unobtrusively mixed with the audience. Along with general concepts such as achieving speed through relaxation, Wertico spent considerable time discussing how the wide range of music he listened to from the 1960s influenced his style.

"The free music has a purpose back then," he said. "It was associated with a movement....people were breaking the rules back then and paying for it."

OTHER MOMENTS OF NOTE

Other performers probably had a stronger connection with Juneau's cultural leanings, including the folk duo Trout Fishing In America, which performed a "family concert" of often humorous and quirky originals and conducted a song-writing workshop for students. They were hailed as "the best group that I know" by Jeff Brown, perhaps Juneau's most-known musical presence as the host of the nationally syndicated public radio program "We Like Kids."

Among the classically oriented highlights was a midweek "Schumann to Showboat" concert by baritone vocalist Jubilant Sykes, accompanied by pianist Alan Chow. One of the festival's largest audiences filled most of 1,000-seat high school amphitheater, a reflection to some degree of the community's "high art" leanings. He delivered an even operetic/pops performance split between standards, gospel and classical compositions, but without getting into contemporary material such as Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan he performs in larger ensembles.

Last year's festival's attendance was about 6,000 (fewer actual people since many attend multiple events) and Artistic Director Linda Rosenthal said this year's appears comparable. She said this year's festival also tried to provide more separation of genres on different days - devoting certain evenings to jazz, for instance - and perform more in club-like settings - including a room at the Alaska Native Brotherhood hall where weekly bingo games are a community staple - so people could move about, even if acoustics suffered somewhat.

Getting performers to come to Alaska can be a challenge because many see it as a long, out-of-the-way trip, organizers said. But Coryell said Juneau's population is about the same as his hometown in Washington, and he's gained the same appreciation for Juneau that he discovered there.

"Even in the middle of nowhere there's still culture," he said, adding that when it comes to his Pacific Northwest ties "now I can really be proud of Alaska because I can see it's all connected."

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Alaskan Cool: Jazz from The Last Frontier



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