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Discovering Discover and Doing a Double-Header


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It took me only 27 years to discover the annual Discover Jazz Festival in Burlington, VT, but now, having attended part of the 28th, I must say it was about time! Burlington, where Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream was whipped up, is a charming college town. For 10 days in June, the festival dominates the community, featuring concerts by major artists and loads of free music performed outdoors at stages in the heart of town.

The main drag is a walking street replete with mostly local stores, rather than the national outlet branches so ubiquitous, alas, all over the country, and restaurants, most with al fresco seating, some with musical stages of their own.

There are a great many bands from area schools of all levels, but also many manned by local pros, and embracing a wide range of styles. Ticketed events are held in Flynn Center for the Performing Arts, a lovingly restored vintage movie palace with a 1,453- seat auditorium offering excellent acoustics, plus a downstairs, nightclub-like cabaret seating 180, a gallery with rotating exhibits of area artists, and two studios for lectures and panel discussions.

This year's major acts included Herbie Hancock, Bitches Brew Revisited, JD Allen, Bela Fleck, singers Sheila Jordan, Jay Clayton, Roberta Gambarini and Catherine Russell, Poncho Sanchez, Myra Melford, Matt Schofield, Ray Vega, Roy Hargrove, and the French quartet Les Doigts de L'Homme. And not to forget: A Dixieland Cruise with the Onion River Jazz Band. In addition, as hinted above, panels and lectures presided over by the festival's 11-year critic-in-residence, Bob Blumenthal.

Bob, my old buddy and a first-rate writer—his latest is Saxophone Colossus: A Portrait Of Sonny Rollins (Abrams, 2010)—took me in hand during my too-short stay of three days, moderated a panel with the members of Bitches Brew Revisited and yours truly, billed as "Sons of Bitches" (the panel was better than the concert, alas) and hosted my lecture, "Miles Smiles and Other Tales from a Life in Jazz." Bob also made sure we ate well, and that I didn't miss the Saturday green market, an emerald of its kind.

Hancock's concert was the musical highlight of my stay. A man who never stands still, his current quartet is an unusual combination of his own grand piano and keyboards, James Genus on electric bass, Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, and Kristina Train on vocals and (surprise!) violin. She played the instrument well, notably on a little "Irish Jig." Train has a pleasing voice, not heard on all selections, some of which were very long—as was the concert.

Hancock clearly enjoyed the response from the packed house in which, to my great pleasure, the young outnumbered the aging. Of course, Burlington is a college town, but I'm certain that the nearly three decades of a major jazz festival, with all that free music, has bred an audience for jazz that transcends generations. A notable example: I was introduced, by his father, to a teenager who plays alto saxophone. "Ask him who his favorite is," prompted Dad. I did, and the answer knocked me out: "Johnny Hodges," followed by, "Did you know him?" I related my Hodges experiences. The longest conversation we ever had was about tomatoes—Hodges grew his own and claimed that was the only way to get a good one—and the young man was delighted.

Hancock even offered an encore, and was generous with his time at the reception after the concert. As a fellow NEA Jazz Master, I had the pleasure of making a short speech about him, and he responded with some far too nice words about me. The reception provided an opportunity to meet some of the local backers of the festival, including the president of a bank that donates 10 percent of its annual profits to this cause. Clearly, this is an event that has put down strong community roots, and just as clearly has a truly dedicated, efficient and friendly staff. The artistic director is Arnie Matina, a Brooklyn import. Keep Burlington in mind for next year if you want to have a fine time with some great music. Needless to say, your reporter is delighted that he finally discovered Discover Jazz!

Double Header

Did a double-header on June 29, starting at Birdland with the second night of this year's Django Reinhardt New York Festival. A lot of happy music in a Gypsy swing mold, dominated by the highly energetic Samson Schmitt, a strong Django man with some of his own twists and turns. The other featured guitarist—on solid body, usually a no-no in this context—was Sweden's Andreas Oberg, a well-known jazzer who didn't adopt much of a Romany accent, except when trading eights and fours with Schmitt.

The essential rhythm guitar role was well played by Doudou Cuillerier, who rather late in the game got his innings as a scat singer—pretty hot! Pierre Blanchard, a Stephane Grappelli fan, was again the violin presence, adept both at sweet and hot, and there was some French accordion (Ludovic Beier) spice. The night's special guest was Anat Cohen, who held her own on clarinet with the always competitive Samson on "Sweet Georgia Brown" and on soprano saxophone, turned "Nuages" into a thing of beauty.

That first set ended in time for me to get cross-town to Feinstein's at the Regency for one of those special Late Night Jazz events, when the price tag turns quite reasonable. This one starred vocalist Daryl Sherman, with two frequent associates, tenor great Houston Person and bassist Jennifer Leitham. There was a good house, and Sherman was in fine fettle, doing what she does so very well: Establishing rapport with the audience from the first note (or cheerful welcome) and maintaining that special contact throughout. There was a happy, spontaneous interaction between this musical threesome of the kind so special to jazz. Nothing preplanned here, but everything worked just fine.

"Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me," part of Sherman's rich store of Ellingtonia, was a bright opener, Houston right at home. "Get Out Of Town" changed the mood. Sherman is also a Cole Porter expert—in fact, she has the Great American Songbook under her thumb, vocally and pianistically—Person again in there and the bassist providing firm support. We never missed drums, perhaps the most expendable of instruments and seldom employed by Sherman. "Too Late Now" was a vocal highlight.

Leitham was a convincing soloist on "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" and even more so on "This Can't Be Love," with a swinging piano bit as well. Person's special ballad warmth came to the fore on "Polka Dots and Moonbeams," while he proved himself a real trouper on this most entertaining and thoroughly musical evening's finale, Sherman's own special (she ought to feature her own things more), "Tropical Belt." This was clearly virgin territory to the veteran tenor man, but he has great ears, and by the time he felt ready, contributed a properly caloric solo. We should also mention Sherman's commentary, humorous but informative, and an additional ingredient in making this little recital a truly feel-good experience. If I owned a club, I'd install Daryl Sherman in a minute.

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