Essentially Ellington: High-School Jazz Band Finalists Announced

Jazz bands from two Florida high schools made the list of 15 finalists selected to play the 15th annual Essentially Ellington competition and festival in New York, May 8-10 at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

The Sunshine State bands headed to NYC are both from South Florida: Dillard Center of the Arts, in Fort Lauderdale; and New World School of the Arts, in Miami. Bands from those high schools and one other school in the Southeast — The Lovett School in Atlanta — will compete with a dozen others from Washington State (3), Wisconsin (2), Texas (2), Massachusetts (2), California (2) and New York City (1).

The bands will participate in a variety of jam sessions and workshops. The closing concert, May 10 at Avery Fisher Hall, will feature performances by the top three bands, with JALC head Wynton Marsalis sitting in as guest soloist; and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

Judges for the competition: Wynton Marsalis, David Berger, Ted Buehrer, Jimmy Heath, and Rodney Whitaker. Festival clinicians: Walter Blanding, Ronald Carter, Vincent Gardner, Wycliffe Gordon, Dana Hall, Sherman Irby, Loren Schoenberg, and Reginald Thomas.

The Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Program encompasses the competition and festival, as well as regional festivals, resources for jazz curriculum, a summer teaching session for band directors, and monthly newsletters.

For more information on “Essentially Ellington,”  click here.

Sax Men: John Ellis, Sherman Irby, Frank Macchia (CD reviews)

Quick reviews of new releases from three saxophonists – three varied approaches to the art of jazz.

John Ellis & Double-Wide, Puppet Mischief (Obliqsound)

The New York tenor saxophonist and bass clarinetist, a former Charlie Hunter sideman, honed his chops in New Orleans with the likes of pianist Ellis Marsalis and bassist Walter Payton and still spends time there; his Double-Wide band has turned in infectious performances at Jazz Fest, the Louisiana Music Factory (see below clip from the store, in 2008) and elsewhere around the Crescent City.

That NOLA vibe — street-born brass bands, Mardi Gras culture, a convivial intermingling of multi-ethnic cultures — reigns supreme on Puppet Mischief, on which Ellis is joined by sousaphonist Matt Perrine, drummer Jason Marsalis, new addition Brian Coogan on organ, and guests Gregoire Maret and Alan Ferber on harmonica and trombone, respectively. The funk is deep, the pleasure is steep, and the whole thing comes off as an irresistible rolling carnival, with musical cues variously taken from early and modern jazz, circus bands, soundtrack music, vaudeville, and even European folk music.

“Fauxfessor,” a nod to New Orleans’ piano professors (like Professor Longhair), hints at Crescent City rhythms, and the slowly flickering, almost mournful “Carousel,” with its wandering tuba, wah-muted bone and start-stop passages, wouldn’t have been out of place in a Fellini film. “Okra & Tomatoes” is swaggering and punchy, and highlighted by Ellis’s bluesy tenor turn, while instruments rise and fall on the moody “Dewey Dah”  and Maret’s soulful playing is showcased on the title track. The aptly titled “Dubinland Carnival” is a raucous-to-peaceful gem and “This Too Shall Pass” sounds like a vintage New Orleans funeral march, threatening to turn into a slo-mo gospel celebration. Feel it.

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Sherman Irby Quartet, Live at the Otto Club (Black Warrior Records)

Alabama-born Irby, a soul-jazz alto player in the mold of Cannonball Adderley, made inroads on the New York scene — playing with his own band and the likes of pianist Marcus Roberts, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and trumpeter Roy Hargrove — in the late ’90s, and released a pair of CDs on Blue Note. But he’s been a bit under the radar since, aside from playing in Elvin Jones’ last band.

Irby’s fourth disc for his own label documents a February 2008 show in Napoli, Italy, where he led a quartet on standards plus his own “Laura’s Love Song,” a shimmering, Latin-tinged ballad, and  Hargrove’s “Depth.” His sound is as big and warm and blues-drenched as ever, and his dexterity and the free-flow of his ideas are often astonishing; a case in point is the sprawling tete-a-tete with drummer Darrell Green that opens John Coltrane‘s “Countdown.” But the programming, aside from a surprisingly slow and sultry version of the Miles Davis burner “Four,” is on the staid side, and the half-American, half-Italian band is not his best.

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Frank Macchia, Folk Songs for Jazzers (Cacophony, Inc.)

Saxophonist-woodwind player and arranger Macchia, leading a heavy-hitting large jazz ensemble driven by drummer Peter Erskine, bassist Trey Henry, guitarist Grant Geissman and pianist Tom Ranier, takes on American folk songs in a manner that feels simultaneously reverential and tongue-in-cheek. Here it swings hard, there it’s cutesy, everywhere the compositions boast an appealing array of instrumental colors and cross-cutting figures.

Singer Tierney Sutton, not unexpectedly, handily finds her way into a haunting version of “Red River Valley,” while Ellis Hall gives a lift to a shifting-gears redesign of “Amazing Grace.” The leader gets some well-utilized solo time on a hard-charging, Latin-edged “Skip to My Lou,” a mellow “Tom Dooley” and a swirling, almost eerie “Kumbaya.” Not your dad’s big-band album.