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Marching to a Jazz Tempo

Jack Bowers By

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March came in like a lion in Albuquerque with no less than four blue-chip jazz concerts in the first five days, three of which I attended, passing on the first (the Charlie Christian Project featuring guitarist Michael Anthony and trumpeter Bobby Shew at The Outpost Performance Space) because Betty and I had seen basically the same concert when it debuted last May. On March 2, I was at the Jazzbah nightclub in downtown Albuquerque to see and hear the superb alto saxophonist Bobby Watson and singer Lisa Henry, both from Kansas City, backed by a quintet of precocious teens from the New World School of the Arts in Miami, FL. Saturday evening was reserved for a performance at the acoustically friendly African-American Performing Arts Center by the University of New Mexico's Jazz Band 1 with guest trumpeter Tony Lujan, the following Monday, March 5, for a concert at Manzano High School by the spit-shined U.S. Army Jazz Ambassadors. Betty and I used the Sunday "day off" to drive to the Guild Theatre for an afternoon showing of the marvelous animated film from Cuba, Chico and Rita, whose impressive score (by Cuba's legendary pianist Bebo Valdes) incorporates music by jazz greats from Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk to Woody Herman, Tito Puente and Ben Webster.

Bobby Watson's performance marked the end of a week-long visit to Albuquerque and Santa Fe sponsored by the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz in Los Angeles during which Watson, Henry and their young companions presented a series of clinics and concerts at middle schools and high schools, accompanied by Dr. J.B. Dyas, vice president for education and curriculum development at the Monk Institute. The Institute sponsors a Jazz Combo program at the New World School of the Arts designed to help further the education of Miami's most gifted high school music students. At the Jazzbah, the NWSA quintet opened the program, appropriately enough, with Monk's "I Mean You" and continued with Lee Konitz's "Subconscious-Lee" before introducing Henry who delighted the capacity audience with "Desafinado," Body and Soul" and "Summertime" (the last two accompanied only by bassist Jose Albizu-Campos). Watson, who doubles as director of Jazz Studies at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, closed the first set (I couldn't stay for the second) with three of his own compositions ("Country Cornflakes," "Lemoncello," "ETA") and Duke Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood," showing clearly why he is one of the country's (and the world's) most celebrated alto saxophonists. Firmly concealing any sign of nerves, the students from NWSA more than held their own, backing Watson and Henry with poise and soloing capably when called upon. Besides Albizu-Campos (age 16), the group consisted of David Leon (18), alto and tenor sax; Harley Basadre (18), guitar; Antonio Madruga (17), piano; and Chris Edwards (18), drums. It was a memorable experience for them, and a splendid treat for those who came to see and hear them perform.

The UNM Jazz Band 1's concert Saturday evening marked the end of a day-long event in which high school and middle school bands presented mini-concerts at UNM and were evaluated by professionals who rated ensembles and individuals and offered suggestions designed to further improve their performances. This year's judges were saxophonists John Davis (University of Colorado), Pete Mills (Denison University) and and an old friend, trumpeter Rob Parton (Capital University). UNM's guest artist, trumpeter Lujan, was born in Albuquerque, where he learned to play trumpet at an early age before embarking on a long and successful career that has included time in big bands led by Clark Terry, Gerald Wilson, Bill Holman and Ray Charles; performances with such popular entertainers as Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Robert Goulet, Wayne Newton, Debbie Reynolds, Aretha Franklin and Bob Hope; lead trumpet in national tours of a number of Broadway musicals, and performances on many motion picture soundtracks. He has taught at several universities in California and elsewhere, served as director of the Cape Cod Youth Jazz Orchestra, and teaches jazz theory, composition, arranging and trumpet privately. On this evening, Lujan was preceded onstage by director Glenn Kostur's well-prepared UNM ensemble, which opened the concert with Bob Brookmeyer's lively "Boom Boom," the standard "Skylark" (arranged by Brookmeyer) and Steely Dan's "Bodhisattva," arranged by Fred Sturm. The soloists, each of whom was exemplary, included tenor Scott Jacobsen and trumpeter Elliot Kuzio ("Boom Boom"), pianist Sean Umstead and alto Sam Reid ("Skylark"), guitarist Brandon Chapman, trombonist Joe Schripsema and baritone Orlando Madrid ("Bodhisattva").

Lujan, who tends to make his home in the higher register, opened his half of the program with Wolf Kerschek's "The Main Theme" and his own "Bella Blue," sharing solo space on the former with Jacobsen, on the latter with Jacobsen, Reid, Umstead and the trumpet section. Following the late Peter Herbolzheimer's lovely "Ballad for a Friend," Lujan closed with a pair of his compositions, "Raw Silk" and "El Zapato" ("The Shoe"), named for and dedicated to trumpet hero and fellow Albuquerquean Bobby Shew, who was in the audience. He received solid support from the UNM band whose soloists (Jacobsen, Reid, Umstead, Schripsema, tenor Chris Ogden among them) were in splendid form, as was the rhythm section, spearheaded by drummer Alex Beamer and including Umstead, Chapman and bassist Diego Flores. As for Lujan, while I can appreciate his exceptional technique and virtuosity, I must confess that his solos didn't really grab me emotionally. In other words, more clinical than visceral. But you've gotta love a musician who brings his mother to the concert, as Lujan did.

It's not often that the Jazz Ambassadors, who work from a prearranged set list, make room for a guest artist but when you're in the hometown of one of the world's foremost jazz trumpeters, namely Mr. Shew, it presents an opportunity that is simply too enticing to let pass. The Ambassadors performed seven selections (the last three with vocalist Marva Lewis) before inviting Shew onstage to play three. Good as the Ambassadors are, these were, to me, the evening's unequivocal highlights, starting with Freddie Hubbard's buoyant "Up Jumped Spring" and including Billy Strayhorn's plaintive "Lush Life" (played on flugel with only the rhythm section) and Kurt Weill's "Speak Low," on which Shew traded choruses with the Ambassadors' impressive jazz trumpet soloist, Kevin Watt. Speaking of the rhythm section, pianist Tim Young, guitarist Jonathan Epley, bassist Jeff Lopez and drummer Todd Harrison were outstanding on every number.

The Army ensemble, which according to director William McCulloch spends about 100 days a year on the road and was starting a four-week tour covering New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma, raised the curtain with the Sinatra favorite "Come Fly with Me," swung into Mercer Ellington's "Jumpin' Pumpkins" and continued with Rick Margitza's "Widow's Walk" (featuring tenor saxophonist Pat Shook) and Dizzy Gillespie's "Ow!" before Lewis took center stage to sing "Do Nothin' Till You Hear from Me," "The Good Life" and "Ain't Nobody." After Shew's trio of tunes, the band graciously invited three members of the Manzano High School jazz ensemble—tenor saxophonist Samantha Sword-Fehlberg, trumpeter Kyle Bality and bass trombonist Jason Sullivan—to sit in on the Basie chart-topper "April in Paris." Before wrapping things up with the usual Armed Forces Salute, the ensemble made way for the Rio Grande Ramblers, a Dixieland septet from within the band who delighted the audience with spirited versions of "Avalon" and "I Found a New Baby." Lewis returned at the end of the concert to sing Irving Berlin's "God Bless America" and an encore, "The Birth of the Blues." In all, a pleasing performance with not many wasted moments.

Chico and Rita

Before moving on, a few words about Chico and Rita, which earned an Academy Award nomination as best animated feature but lost to an American film, Rango. Told mostly in flashback, it's the dramatic story of a young jazz pianist and his on-again, off-again romance with a talented and ambitious young singer whom he literally drives from his arms to the bright lights and glamour of New York City. In a way, it's a typical boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl scenario but more engaging than most, especially when it comes to the music. The story begins in Cuba in 1947, a time when jazz reigned supreme and a new twist on the theme, called bebop, was being pioneered by such giants as Parker and Gillespie. The film's score, written by Valdes, who is now in his 90s, incorporates music by the jazz luminaries named earlier as well as the brilliant but hot-tempered conguero, Chano Pozo, whom Chico and his manager befriend, only to see him shot to death in cold blood in a New York eatery (based loosely on fact, as Pozo was killed in a nightclub brawl at age thirty-three). The story has a happy ending of sorts as Chico is "re-discovered" by young American jazz buffs after years in obscurity and returns to the States where he is at last reunited with Rita, the love of his life. The hand-drawn animation is (relatively) rudimentary but highly effective, while the music is beyond reproach. Warmly recommended.

And the Winner Is . . .

In March, the city of Prescott, AZ, handed out its second annual Bucky Awards for outstanding arts events, and a surprise winner was the Prescott Jazz Summit whose director since its inception nearly a dozen years ago has been Mike Vax, who played lead trumpet with the Stan Kenton Orchestra in the early '70s. That's well-earned recognition for an event that has drawn world-class musicians to Prescott since it was launched to coincide with the new millennium. Among those who have performed there: Bob Florence, Bud Shank, Carl Saunders, Marvin Stamm, Bill Perkins, Lennie Niehaus, Scott Whitfield, Terry Gibbs, Pete Jolly, Buddy DeFranco, Ed Shaughnessy, Dennis Rowland, Rusty Higgins, Jack Petersen, Roy Wiegand, Reggie Thomas, Jeff Colella, Tony Vacca, Fred Radke, Bill Tole and even Toni Tennille (of The Captain and Tennille) who lives in Prescott and headlined a marvelous big-band concert a couple of years ago. Betty and I have journeyed to the Summit five or six times and plan to be there for No. 12, which is set for August 24-26. For information, go online to www.prescottjazz.com or www.mikevax.net

What's in a Name?

Perhaps more than we suspect, as Ken Poston has changed the name of the Los Angeles Jazz Institute's upcoming event, to be held May 24-27 at the L.A. Airport Marriott Hotel, from "Music for Moderns" to "Jivin' in Bebop." The four-day festival "is all big-band bebop," Poston explained, "so hopefully [the new title] is a little less vague." No matter the reason, a Poston event by any name is always captivating and worthwhile. For information, phone 562-200-5477 or go online to www.lajazzinstitte.org

New and Noteworthy...

1. Bob Curnow, The Music of Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays, Vol 2 (Sierra Music)

2. Christian McBride Big Band, The Good Feeling (Mack Avenue)

3. Dutch Jazz Orchestra, The Music of Rob Madna (5-CD) (Challenge)

4. Westchester Jazz Orchestra, Maiden Voyage Suite (WJO)

5. Skelton Skinner All-Star Big Band, Cookin' with the Lid On (Diving Duck)

6. Bob Lark Alumni Band, Reunion (Jazzed Media)

7. Baker's Dozen, Goes to Eleven (BJam Music)

8. UNT One O'Clock Lab Band, Lab 2011 (UNT Jazz)

9. Swingadelic, The Other Duke: Tribute to Duke Pearson (Zoho)

10. Gran Canaria Big Band, Straight Ahead (Summit)

11. Danny D'Imperio and the Bloviators, Alcohol! (V.S.O.P.)

12. Renolds Jazz Orchestra, Three Penny Opera: Live in Aarau (Shanti Records)

13. SAP Big Band, You're Up! (Personality Records)

14. U.S. Air Force Falconaires, Sharing the Freedom (USAF Academy)

15. University of Akron Jazz Ensemble, Reactions (UAkronJazz)

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