Summer preview, Kitty Margolis, Nicholas Payton, Miguel Zenón, Bjorkestra (twice)
January 1, 1970Lots of reading in this newsletter, which covers two weeks of Globe jazz stories instead of the usual two. The reason is mildly embarrassing. After managing to send off the previous newsletter from Los Angeles, I returned home and forgot to send last Saturday's. So this morning's double-issue is going out instead.
Contents include my preview of the Boston area's summer jazz highlights, profiles of vocalist Kitty Margolis and trumpeter Nicholas Payton, and short pieces on Miguel Zenon and Travis Sullivan's Bjorkestra. Payton is someone I first heard when he was a teenager touring with Elvin Jones's Jazz Machine; he impressed me enough that I wrote a short profile of him for my former employer, Down Beat.
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Ensemble rearranges Bjork but retains the beauty
By Bill Beuttler, Globe Correspondent | June 11, 2005
At the Regattabar Thursday night, Travis Sullivan's Bjorkestra proved its point nicely: The music of the Icelandic pop star Bjork does indeed make a splendid launching pad for big-band jazz arrangements and improvisation.
The 18-piece group opened with a medley of Bjork's overture to the 2000 film "Dancer in the Dark" (in which she also starred) and her song "Hyper-Ballad." The piece began quietly, with four of the five wind-section members on clarinet, and built to a deft, robust tenor sax solo by Sean Nowell.
"Alarm Call," one of four tunes culled from the album "Homogenic," had a jazzy swing feel to it and featured a trombone solo from Scott Grant, an old University of New Hampshire buddy of Sullivan's and one of a handful of musicians subbing for a Bjorkestra regular on Thursday.
"Hunter" featured Kelly Pratt in two roles. His arrangement, which included a pulsing horn section vaguely reminiscent of Ravel's "Bolero," was the only one not written by Sullivan himself. And he took the tune's only solo on trumpet. Michael Carey was then featured twice on "Cocoon," with a tenor sax solo followed by some interweaving of improvised lines with trombonist Andrew Gold.
The set hit its peak midway through, with "Army of Me" and "Unravel" arriving back to back. The former had some fine muted trumpet work from Alicia Rau early on. Vocalist Diana Kazakova's lines "And if you complain once more, you'll meet an army of me" were followed by two frenzied bursts of horn cacophony, which led to a Dimitri Moderbacher baritone sax solo over Danny Zankert's funky electric bass line and an impressive extended soprano sax solo by Arun Luthra.
Kazakova, who handled Bjork's lyrics with aplomb throughout, shone her brightest on "Unravel," a hauntingly beautiful and affecting ballad sung as a duet with Sullivan on piano.
"Who Is It," "All Is Full of Love," and "Human Behaviour" followed in quick succession, with Sullivan playing some excellent alto saxophone and Kelly Powers taking his place at the piano. The band hit a second peak with its closing number, "It's Oh So Quiet," with Kazakova alternating super-soft passages with old-school, big-band belting, the Bjorkestra delightedly kicking out the jams behind her on the loud parts.
© Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company
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Margolis puts 'Heart & Soul' into career
By Bill Beuttler, Globe Correspondent | June 10, 2005
It's been a few years since San Franciscan Kitty Margolis last sang in the Boston area, but it was here that she began inching her way from Joni Mitchell-inspired folkie to jazz singer while a student at Harvard in the mid-1970s.
Margolis, who will open the Marblehead summer jazz festival tomorrow night before heading to New York for a two-week run at the Au Bar, answered an ad in the Boston Phoenix for a guitar player-singer in a western swing band, and wound up spending her freshman and sophomore years moonlighting with the band all over the Boston area.
"That was sort of the bridge I walked over into jazz," she says.
Also nudging her toward jazz in those early years was a visit to an uncle in New York, who took Margolis to her first-ever jazz performance: Rahsaan Roland Kirk at the Village Vanguard.
"Can you imagine?" says Margolis, 49, on the phone from her hometown. "It was a catalytic kind of paradigm shift for me to see him."
Margolis has since transformed herself into one of the finest jazz vocalists on the scene today. Her 2004 CD, "Heart & Soul: Live in San Francisco," tapped by Newsday as one of last year's 10 best jazz albums, shows off Margolis's rare ability to mix adventurous scatting with subtly felt ballad interpretations.
The disc was Margolis's fifth, all for her independent label, Mad-Kat Records. But putting out her own albums — and earning critical plaudits — took a lot of hard work and commitment. First came the decision to take a year off Harvard to return home to California and explore making music her career. She switched to San Francisco State and fought her way into a jazz improvisation class. She ended up dropping the guitar and concentrating on her singing.
"My teachers were saxophone players," Margolis explains. "Singing jazz is like playing a wind instrument instead of playing a guitar or a chord instrument. Your consciousness shifts toward the intensity of one note at a time. Playing chords while you're trying to play a horn, you're at cross-purposes."
Her teachers treated Margolis like just another horn player, insisting she learn to improvise over bebop changes with her voice the same way the other students were doing with their instruments. Hence her ability to scat convincingly, and her emphasis on improvisation. Margolis, more than better-publicized rivals whose work leans more toward cabaret than toward jazz, is a bona fide jazz singer.
One of her teachers, John Handy, who recorded on the Charles Mingus classic "Ah Um" and later had his own hit with the album "Hard Work," says that Margolis takes chances other singers don't even know exist.
"Kitty has the musical acumen and perception of a fine instrumentalist," says Handy, "which is missing in 99 percent of the singers."
Joining Margolis on this East Coast tour will be "Heart & Soul" drummer Allison Miller, plus pianist Xavier Davis and bassist Sean Smith.
"I have stripped my band down back to a basic trio," says Margolis. "And this band that I have is really very sensitive and very interactive. That's the most exciting part of it to me: the unknowns that can happen in a small group that can turn on a dime like that."
The group's repertoire, Margolis says, will include standards from "Heart & Soul" and her earlier albums, songs such as "My Favorite Things," the bluesy "I'm Always Drunk in San Francisco," and Mose Allison's comic "Your Mind Is on Vacation."
Whether she is dazzling people with her scatting or making them cry with her balladry, Margolis's goal as a jazz singer is the same. "What you want to be able to do at the end of the day, at the end of a concert," she says, "is have people come away having been moved, in many directions, emotionally."
Kitty Margolis opens Marblehead Summer Jazz 2005 tomorrow at 8 p.m. Tickets $24 in advance, $26 at the door. Unitarian-Universalist Church, 28 Mugford St., Marblehead. Call 781-631-1528 or visit www.marbleheadjazz.org.
More festivals: Two more summer jazz festivals within driving distance have announced their lineups. Berklee College of Music will put on its fifth annual Vineyard Vibes Festival Aug. 4-7, at several Martha's Vineyard locations. Headliners include Phil Wilson and the Berklee Rainbow Band, Eguie Castrillo's Big Band, Juliana Hatfield, and the Reverence Gospel Ensemble directed by Dennis Montgomery III. Festival passes cost $65, with tickets to individual shows ranging from $15 to $25. Call 508-693-0305 or visit www.vineyardvibes.com.
In Connecticut, the 24th annual New Haven Jazz Festival takes place primarily on three successive Saturdays (there will also be concerts in neighborhood parks on five Thursdays). It'll be headlined by Chris Botti on Aug. 13, the Ramsey Lewis Trio on Aug. 20, and the Dee Dee Bridgewater Quintet on Aug. 27. The free concerts begin with opening acts at 6 p.m., and will take place at New Haven Green. Call 203-946-8378 or, for more dates and details, visit www.newhavenjazz.com.
© Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company
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Calendar Jazz Picks
Travis Sullivan's Bjorkestra
Regattabar, Charles Hotel, One Bennett St., Cambridge. 617-395-7757. 7:30 p.m. $15, $11.25 student tickets for 10 p.m. show.
There's something about Bjork that appeals to a younger generation of jazz musicians. The Bad Plus's bassist, Reid Anderson, has ranked the arty Icelandic pop queen up there beside John Coltrane, Keith Jarrett, and Ornette Coleman among his primary influences. At last two jazzers have even offered up covers of a the same Bjork song, "Joga" — piano star Jason Moran five years ago on his album "Facing Left," and vocalist Kate McGarry on her just-released "Mercy Streets." No jazz musician, however, has gone as hog-wild with covering Bjork as Travis Sullivan, who assembled his 18-piece Bjorkestra to explore widely through its namesake's oeuvre in an orchestral setting. Sullivan sets aside his customary alto saxophone to play piano and conduct the Bjorkestra, and Diana Kazakova handles the tricky task of singing Bjork's lyrics without aping her style. What all this Bjork may add up to is a new set of standards for jazz interpretation. "Her melodies are really beautiful," Sullivan told Philly Metro, "and she has interesting rhythms underneath her melodies. Harmonically, she's not really doing anything that complicated — it's more modal, and really kind of suggestive of Miles Davis in a lot of ways. I recognized early on that her music was a really good springboard for improvisation."
Sat 6-11 Kitty Margolis San Francisco's answer to our own Rebecca Parris kicks off Marble Summer Jazz 2005 with a night of spirited, savvy vocalizing on standards. (Parris herself will follow her to Marblehead for more of the same on July 9, for those who like planning ahead.) Unitarian-Universalist Church, 28 Mugford St., Marblehead. 781-631-1528. 8 p.m. $26, $24 advance.
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As jazz blows hot and cold, Payton holds on
By Bill Beuttler, Globe Correspondent | June 3, 2005
Trumpeter Nicholas Payton, at 31, has already lived through a lot of jazz history. He hit the road with Elvin Jones at 18 and became the music director for the drummer's band the next year. He played the role of Oran "Hot Lips" Page in the 1996 Robert Altman film "Kansas City," and at 23 recorded the exquisite duet session "Doc Cheatham & Nicholas Payton." It would be the 91-year-old trumpet legend's final recording.
More recently, Payton spent a decade or so as one of the young lions following mentor Wynton Marsalis. Sharp-looking jazz prodigies were being snatched up and hyped hard by record labels while they were still in their early 20s. When that trend expired a few years ago, Payton found himself among the established performers — Marsalis included — that the larger labels suddenly began letting go.
"It's a very interesting time right now," Payton says by phone. "A lot of the recording industry is not what it was five years ago, and it seemed to change almost overnight. Whereas record companies were scooping up people by the dozens, now [there are] probably one, two major jazz labels, period. Actually maybe one: Blue Note. That may be it. So we're looking at a completely different scene."
That's not so much the case for Payton, who will be performing with a quintet tonight and tomorrow night at Scullers, and played at Berklee Performance Center in April with the SFJAZZ Collective. Although it's been a couple of years since he released a CD under his own name (2003's "Sonic Trance"), a trumpeter of Payton's prodigious talent will always find work.
He can thank his folks for that. Payton's mother, Maria, became a classical pianist and opera singer, and his father is the well-regarded jazz bassist Walter Payton Jr. It was his dad who got Payton started on the trumpet at age 4.
"That's what I bought him," says Payton's father. "He also played tuba in the school band."
Payton caught a break early on when Marsalis called Payton's father about something and Payton pulled out his trumpet and began playing so that Marsalis could hear him over the phone. Payton later studied with Wynton's father, Ellis Marsalis, and Wynton eventually recommended him to Marcus Roberts and Jones. But Payton had something else going for him as well: a fat, rounded tone reminiscent of the great Louis Armstrong.
Payton sounded that way when he began getting noticed with Jones, and capitalized on it more directly on the CD with Cheatham and two more of his own: "Gumbo Nouveau" (1996) and "Dear Louis" (2001). After the latter, however, Payton decided he was through with updating work made famous by others and wanted to concentrate on his own thing.
"That part of my background is always somewhat prevalent," Payton explains. "I mean, I'm from New Orleans, so it's the New Orleans tradition — particularly the New Orleans trumpet tradition. This is something that I think all my music is very much influenced by. But I'm looking to do something different with it."
What he came up with on his next disc, "Sonic Trance," drew comparisons to Miles Davis because of its use of electronics and funk rhythms. But Payton was mixing in ragtime and hip-hop influences as well.
"[Hip-hop was] what I was focused on before I really started listening to Miles Davis and Clifford Brown and Charlie Parker," Payton says. "When hip-hop was born was part of my generation. Jazz was something that, although I had it in the household, I sought to try to understand and to really develop an ear for later on."
At Scullers, Payton will be doubling back to acoustic jazz with a group that includes a couple of guys as young as he was when he started out: Ray Haynes's grandson Marcus Gilmore on drums and Gilmore's friend Joe Sanders on bass, with Payton's old pal Tim Warfield and Danny Grissett rounding out the group on saxophone and piano.
"Sonic Trance is still an actively working band," says Payton. "This is something else for me. I'm enjoying the freedom of being able to have different bands, play with different musicians, and just express myself in many different contexts."
That's probably not a bad strategy to have, as jazz slowly rights itself from its late-'90s doldrums.
"There were a lot of good years, and now we're experiencing a bit of a pause here," Payton says. "But we're on the upswing now. Things were a lot worse than they are now. I think it's forcing musicians to be more independently creative, in terms of marketing their ideas. There are many things that are happening that I think empower the artists more, put them more in control of their own creative output, which I think is great."
© Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company
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Calendar Jazz Picks
Scullers, DoubleTree Hotels Guest Suites, 400 Soldiers Road, Boston. 617-562-4111. 8 and 10 p.m. $16, $54 with dinner.
Miguel Zenón's second CD for Cambridge-based Marsalis Music came out last week, and it shows the 28-year-old to be as distinguished a young composer as he is a phenomenal young alto saxophonist. Zenón, whom Down Beat magazine voted No. 1 "talent deserving wider recognition" on alto sax in its critics' poll last year, looked home to Puerto Rico for inspiration for the new disc, "Jíbaro." He wrote 10 compositions based on the island's "Música Jíbara," a rich ethnic music less familiar to jazz ears than the Afro-Cuban rhythms generally associated with the Caribbean. A "Jíbaro," writes Zenón in his album notes, is someone from the countryside, and the music of rural Puerto Rico leans more Spanish than African in origin. It follows strict 10-line rhyme schemes, and its traditional instrumentation (cuatro, güiro, bongó, vocals) usually excludes horns. ("A trumpet occasionally," Zenón notes, "but never a saxophone.") Nonetheless, Zenón successfully tackled his complicated new material with the same quartet he used on his previous two CDs: Zenón on alto sax, Luis Perdomo on piano, Hans Glawischnig on bass, and Antonio Sánchez on drums. Henry Cole substitutes for Sánchez at Wednesday's show.
Sat 6-4 Stan Strickland Local sax favorite Strickland celebrates the release of "Love and Beauty," his first CD of jazz vocals. Ryles, 212 Hampshire St., Inman Square, Cambridge. 617-876-9330. 9 p.m. $10.