Suwanee Springfest (concert review)

(originally published at jambands.com)

Suwannee Springfest, Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park, Live Oak, FL- 3/20-23

For its 18th edition, Springfest, the annual cornucopia of Americana, bluegrass and roots music in woodsy, moss-fest

ooned Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park, seemed to attract a larger group of younger listeners than in previous years. At least, that’s what it felt like when festival favorites the Avett Brothers – who impressed Live Oak crowds long before Scott and Seth ascended to arena tours – packed the Amphitheater for two hours’ worth of stomping acoustic-electric music that had fans pushing to the front and singing along with every word of every song.

The North Carolina-born siblings and their four bandmates again demonstrated infectious high-energy joie de vivre, showcasing some material from the last two years’ “Magpie and the Dandelion” and “The Carpenter” releases. They also turned in stirring versions of the title track from “I and Love and You” and that 2009 album’s “Kick Drum Heart” and “Laundry Room,” as well as a moving “Amazing Grace.” There were also rowdy covers of Lefty Frizzell’s “If You’ve Got the Money I’ve Got the Time,” John Denver’s “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” and traditional mountain song “Old Joe Clark” – the last two with a little help from Sam Bush, on fiddle.

The old guard and the younger crowd, though, on stage and off, handily mixed and matched in nearly 70 performances spread across four stages, with some acts playing twice. The Punch Brothers, whose leader, singer and mandolin wizard Chris Thile, has played the fest with Nickel Creek, turned in another of the weekend’s most impressive performances. The quintet excelled with airtight multipart harmonies, imaginative arrangements and locked-in acoustic synchronicity on “This Girl,” “New York City,” Seldom Scene favorite “Through the Bottom of the Glass,” a Debussy piece and, on the encore, a stunning, extended a cappella version of Dominic Behan’s “The Auld Triangle.”

This year’s Springfest was rangier than in the past, with a program encompassing the top-shelf bluegrass of Steep Canyon Rangers; the stomping country rock of Willie Sugarcapps, featuring singers-songwriters-instrumentalists Will Kimbrough and Grayson Capps; the laidback grooves of fest favorites Donna the Buffalo; the jaw-dropping mandolin work of Sam Bush, and his covers of Stevie Wonder, the Rolling Stones, and Little Feat; and the songwriting brilliance and rugged twang-edged roots rock of Jason Isbell. Isbell’s bracing set included “Decoration Day,” “Traveling Alone,” “Stockholm,” and “Cover Me Up,” and shut down with a slamming “Super 8.”

Also making strong impressions were Tallahassee family group The New ‘76ers, featuring the Southern-fried soulful singing of Kelly Goddard; Asheville, N.C. newfangled string band Town Mountain, which dipped into jamgrass; Greensboro, N.C.’s Holy Ghost Tent Revival, its brass-edged rock ‘n’ roll played by young musicians perpetually in motion; prolific singer-songwriter Jim Lauderdale; and Beartoe, with the Central Florida group’s three female backup singers echoing and engaging in call-and-response with front man Beartoe Aguilar on swampy blues and gospel-tinted rave-ups.

Neville Brothers: Mardi Gras Mambo Tour

cpas_neville_brothers_11Still deeply funky after all these years, the Neville Brothers are now traveling around the U.S. on their “Mardi Gras Mambo” tour, a double-bill with Dr. John’s band.

Here’s the link to my Nevilles story, as published in the St. Petersburg Times. I spoke with saxophonist Charles Neville.

And below is the story:

Quint Davis, longtime producer and director of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, often calls the Neville Brothers “the heart and soul of New Orleans.”

Keyboardist Art “Poppa Funk”, saxophonist Charles, singer Aaron and percussionist Cyril indeed are often treated as their hometown’s official musical ambassadors. They regularly bring their infectious mix of New Orleans R&B, funk, jazz and African and Caribbean sounds, and socially conscious messages to festivals and concert halls around the world.

But the Nevilles, playing the “Mardi Gras Mambo” tour on a double bill with Dr. John, represent just one variety of the Crescent City’s musical gumbo, Charles said. The concert trek comes to the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall in Sarasota on Saturday.

“People ask, ‘Is what you’re doing New Orleans music?’ ” he said by telephone last week. “Well, New Orleans music is not just us. Fats Domino is New Orleans music. Satchmo (Louis Armstrong) is New Orleans music, and Harry Connick, and the Marsalis family, and Dr. John. When you listen to the brass bands – that’s New Orleans music. New Orleans music covers a broad spectrum of styles and genres.”

The Nevilles, together and separately, have played New Orleans rhythms and melodies and harmonies for more than five decades, beginning in 1954 when oldest sibling Art put together the Hawketts. That band’s “Mardi Gras Mambo” became a huge hometown hit.

Later, Art formed monstrously funky quartet the Meters, which eventually included Cyril, and Aaron in 1966 scored a national hit with gorgeous soul ballad “Tell It Like It Is.” The Nevilles’ first notable appearance together on record was with Mardi Gras Indians, on the classic Wild Tchoupitoulas in 1976, and the next year they teamed for the debut Neville Brothers album. Their most recent label-affiliated CD, Walkin’ in the Shadow of Life, was released in 2004.

Which Neville Brothers albums are among the band’s best? Charles’ names Yellow Moon, the popular 1989 album helmed by revered producer Daniel Lanois, and Live on Planet Earth, released in 1994.

“Lanois was able to, in the studio, capture the spirit and the feeling of the music, and capture what we do and what we mean with the music,” he said. “What we do — the spirit of New Orleans is in our music. It’s the spirit involved in those rhythms. Those rhythms are the ones handed down (from) voodoo.”

The Nevilles play tonight in Charlotte, N.C., and the final stop on their current round of tour dates is May 3, their traditional second-Sunday set closing out Jazz Fest (the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival).

2-25 Charlotte, NC Blumenthal Performing Arts Center More Info
2-26 Columbus, GA Rivercenter For the Performing More Info
2-28 Sarasota, FL Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall More Info
3-01 Tallahassee, FL The Moon More Info
3-02 Naples, FL Philharmonic Center For the Arts More Info
3-03 West Palm Beach, FL Kravis Center for the Performing Arts More Info
3-13 Las Vegas, NV Las Vegas Hilton Theater More Info
3-14 Las Vegas, NV Las Vegas Hilton Theater More Info
5-03 New Orleans, LA New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival M

Keith Jarrett – WSJ interview; at Carnegie Hall; and new Standards Trio CD

If I were in New York tonight, I would get myself to Carnegie Hall to catch what has to count as one of the winter season’s must-see musical events: Keith Jarrett is playing his first North American solo concert in three years. keith-jarrett-tokyo-11

The pianist’s concert, as per usual, will be completely improvised. That type of musical tightwire act, in Jarrett’s case, often is richly rewarding for listeners.

What approach does he take with his chosen instrument, particularly when it comes to playing unaccompanied?

He explains, in an interview with Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, published today in the Wall Street Journal.

“I’m never trying to get it to sound just like a piano,” he says during the interview, conducted at the veteran jazz musician’s 18th-century farmhouse in rural New Jersey. “I’m trying to find every possible way to make it either a voice or an instrument that is unlike a Western instrument.

“You know, it can’t be a guitar but I wish it was; it can’t be an orchestra but I wish it was. So the rebellion that I’m faced with immediately upon sitting down at a piano is that it is a piano. And I can turn cartwheels — it’s not going to make any difference. But what I can do is try to almost fool the instrument into becoming something else.”

Jarrett’s recordings with his Standards Trio — bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette — have been among my favorites: The three musicians, after more than 25 years of playing together, share an intimate knowledge of each other’s musical personae, and, as a result, often play at the highest peaks of musical creativity and communication.

Unfortunately, some of Jarrett’s solo and trio playing has been marred by his willingness to let loose with various guttural sounds and strange humming, referred to as “moans and groans” by the author of the WSJ story.

Jarrett, in the story, attributes those intrusive noises to the results of a struggle with the piano, and a “transformation of energy,” a kind of rearrangement of molecules, that takes place when he performs.

I’d hesitate to argue against that line of thought, no matter how highfalutin it sounds.

Why? Because I agree that, at its highest levels, musical creativity (and other types of creativity in the arts) can be informed by an almost mystical element, something that cannot be explained away by mere technique, or mastery of a form, or musical craftsmanship.

On the other hand, I’ve found it off putting, and more than a little bit ironic, that Jarrett make sounds that often mar his playing but at the same time he feels free to harangue concertgoers who commit minor noise infractions – say, involuntarily coughing.

Light flashes cause Jarrett to go into meltdown, too. Check it out this YouTube video of the pianist, spewing profanity, lambasting a crowd at the 2007 Umbria Jazz Festival in Italy, for the mere offense of snapping photos.  This was before the concert, mind you. That type of behavior falls in the category of bad, bad form.

Speaking of the pianist’s Standards Trio — that group’s new Yesterdays, is slated for release Jan. 27 on ECM. The CD, recorded in Tokyo in April 2001, includes “Stella By Starlight,” “Yesterdays” and Charlie Parker’s “Scrapple From the Apple.”

“What is most remarkable about this band is its sense of balance between eloquence, interplay, improvisational communication, and swing,” Thom Jurek writes in his review of the CD, posted at AllMusic.com. “This group is not only a solid link to the tradition Jarrett, Peacock, and DeJohnette all came up with, but it is a solid teaching pointer as to how to employ standards for the music in the future.

Seats are still available, as of this writing, to Jarrett’s concert at Carnegie Hall. For more information, click here.

The Keith Jarrett Trio plays concerts March 11 in Los Angeles and March 14 in Berkeley. Tickets, if still available, are on sale now. For more information on all things Keith Jarrett, see the fan-run KeithJarett.org.

Tampa Jazz Notes 1.21.09: Jon Metzger, Ira Sullivan, Jazz at Lenny’s, Gumbi Ortiz

metzgerThe Monday Night Jazz Series at USF (Tampa) kicks off this Monday, Jan. 26, with a performance by vibraphonist, composer and educator Jon Metzger. Also coming soon:

  • The Mindy Simmons Trio’s tribute to Peggy Lee, Friday at the Palladium (Side Door Jazz)
  • The USF Magic Marimba Festival/Conference, this Friday and Saturday on the Tampa campus
  • Big Sam’s Funky Nation, from NOLA, Friday at the Crowbar
  • Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, Tuesday at the Van Wezel.

For more details on the above, check out my concert calendar.

The Wednesday night jazz jam session at Lenny’s Latin Cafe in Temple Terrace is alive and well, and continuing tonight. Drummer Don Capone and pianist Chuck Berlin preside. 7 to 10 p.m. Free admission.

Ira Sullivan turned in a typically artful, warmly engaging performance during his Tampa Jazz Club concert, Jan. 11 at the Springs Theater, a former movie theater converted into a recording studio/concert space.

The longtime South Florida jazz giant, 76, mixed and matched instruments — tenor and soprano saxophones, trumpet, cornet, flute — on two long sets, backed by a top-rank trio of Florida-based musicians: pianist Michael Royal, bassist Richard Drexler and drummer Danny Gottlieb.

The quartet turned in plenty of gems that could very well see the light of day, if a CD of the concert indeed is released, as Sullivan mentioned at several points during the show. Sullivan also made a point of instructing listeners in recording-session etiquette.

The first set included “The Way You Look Tonight,” Wayne Shorter’s “Infant Eyes,” Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Mojave,” chestnut “Yesterday’s Gardenias,” Horace Silver’s “Song For My Father,” and Royal’s “Julie’s Lament.”

Set two: “The Toy Trumpet” (preceded by a piped-in tape of Shirley Temple singing that tune), “The Summer Knows,” Thelonious Monk’s “Straight, No Chaser,” “Some Other Time,” “The Song is You,” and Sullivan’s traditional closing piece, “Amazing Grace.”

Sullivan, talkative and friendly, had lots to say on varied subjects, including:

  • His Christian faith: “I don’t know why Jesus led me to play jazz, but he certainly did.”
  • The meaning of jazz: “Jazz is America and freedom. That’s what it stands for.”
  • Why jazz is seemingly cherished more abroad than in its home nation: “A prophet is not without honor, even in his own country” (a New Testament quote)
  • The future for jazz: “Lo and behold, the world is going back to bebop.”
  • Hearing Charlie Parker play one of Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts.
  • Playing with the likes of regulars Tony Castellano (piano) and Steve Bagby (drummer) and many others, including Jaco Pastorius and Michel Legrand, during 14 years of performances at a Unitarian Universalist Church.

It’s great to see that my old friend Gumbi Ortiz, a superb conga player based in St. Petersburg, is on the road again with RTF guitarist Al Di Meola’s World Sinfonia. The group, touring in support of the just-released live album La Melodia, Live in Milano, recently played a New York show that was given a glowing review in Relix. The tour, with the sextet emphasizing the music of tango master Astor Piazzolla, continues in the U.S. through February, and then continues in Europe and Israel. Sadly, no Florida dates are on the itinerary.