From Providence to Burlington by way of Cambridge, the New England jazz festival season is now underway.
By J. R. Carroll
The 2016 jazz festival season hits the ground running with three geographically dispersed events on multiple stages. (For a more comprehensive overview of festivals to come, watch for our annual Festival Preview in the next few days.)
Providence caught this observer (and probably many others) by surprise last summer with the launch of its ambitious Providence International Arts Festival. Rebranded and expanded as PVDFest and rescheduled for early June (Thursday, June 2 through Sunday, June 5), the festival packs most of its music into Saturday, June 4.
With one outlier—Newpoli, performing at Grant’s Block at 9:15 p.m.—all the musical performances take place on two main stages. If you want to settle in at one location, the choice is pretty much a coin toss. The FirstWorks Plaza Stage features the Puerto Rican traditions of Plena Libre at 3:30 p.m., the reggae-infused “afro-roots” stylings of Ghanaian vocalist Rocky Dawuni at 5:45 p.m., former Buena Vista Social Club arranger Juan de Marcos González with the 17-piece Afro-Cuban All Stars at 9 p.m., closing with Mali-born, Rhode Island-based master drummer Sidy Maiga and his group Afrimanding. Over at the Festival Rink Stage, next generation merengue band Grupo Afincao leads off at 5:30 p.m., followed at 8 p.m. with a blast of Brooklyn bhangra from Red Baraat; rooted in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, the 12-piece multicultural aggregation Salsa y Gaitas performs at 9:30 p.m., and the evening wraps up at 11 p.m. with Haiti’s compelling multigenerational collective, Lakou Mizik.
If you’re more in the mood to wander, you can probably manage to catch Plena Libre at 3:30 p.m., either Rocky Dawuni (5:45 p.m.) or Grupo Afincao (5:30 p.m.)—flip a coin—and then an abbreviated 8 p.m. visit with Red Baraat; at 9 p.m. dash over to the Afro-Cuban All Stars, and close the day with Lakou Mizik at 11 p.m.
Shifting from the southeast corner of New England to the northwest, we turn to one of the summer’s major events, Vermont’s ten-day Burlington Discover Jazz Festival, spanning Friday, June 3 through Sunday, June 12.
Although his jazz connection is primarily through his childhood years in New Orleans, and decades in the recording studio with some of LA’s top jazz musicians, the 8 p.m. performance on the Flynn MainStage by singer/composer Randy Newman is deservedly the centerpiece of opening night; in the Age of Trump, we desperately need his well-honed gift of deep irony (“They all hate us anyhow, so let’s drop the big one now.”). Running in parallel (from 7 p.m. to midnight at the Church St. Marketplace) is an enticing evening of music programming (on three stages, courtesy of Long Trail Brewing) that ranges from Steady Betty’s ingenious mashup of rocksteady reggae and 60’s girl-band vocals, through the Afrobeat of the Macrotones and the Balkan blast of the Čoček! Brass Band, to the embracing blues and soul of perennial Burlington and Boston favorites, Dwight and Nicole.
Saturday afternoon, June 4, honors the memory of Burlington legend Big Joe Burrell (whose statue will oversee the proceedings in City Hall Park) with a lineup featuring the infectious Afrojazz of AJOYO (at 12:30 p.m.), venturesome guitarist Will Bernard and his trio (at 2:15 p.m.), and jazz-history-spanning vocalist Michael Mwenso (at 4 p.m.). Late afternoon gives us the funk in three flavors with Trio Subtonic (City Hall Stage, 5:30 p.m.), the Walker Adams Band (Center Stage, 6 p.m.), and Akashic Record (Top Block Stage, 7 p.m.).
Emergent in both reputation and musical concept, drummer/percussionist/pianist Tyshawn Sorey headlines Saturday evening (8 p.m. in FlynnSpace) leading a quartet of adventurous peers (with trombonist Ben Gerstein, violinist/violist Mat Maneri, and guitarist Todd Neufeld). This is a not-to-be-missed performance, and Sorey’s free Meet the Artist session at 5 p.m. is highly recommended as well.
The afternoon of Sunday, June 5, is more diffuse, sporting an eclectic selection of musicians, from harpist Brandee Younger (2 p.m. at the BCA Center) to the dub-flavored Japhy Ryder (2:30 p.m. at City Hall Stage) to Ornette-inspired Triage (4 p.m. at Center Stage) to the irresistably-named Grundlefunk (5 p.m. at City Hall Stage), but it’s the evening’s headliners who really make the day. Saxophonist Jimmy Greene brings his quartet (with pianist Kevin Hays, bassist Doug Weiss, and drummer Otis Brown III) to FlynnSpace at 6 p.m. (there’s also a free Meet the Artist session at 3:30 p.m.), and, after a long drive from Providence (and, one hopes, some well-earned pre-concert R&R), Juan de Marcos and the Afro-Cuban All Stars will turn up the heat on the Flynn MainStage at 8 p.m.
Weekdays during the festival leave visitors free during the day to explore Burlington and its surroundings, while allowing residents to, well, get on with their normal lives. At 6 p.m. on Monday, June 6 there will be a free screening of the documentary Bill Evans: Time Remembered at the BCA Center, followed by a Q&A session with director Bruce Spiegel. Live music with an Afro-Cuban flavor follows when the Rodriguez Brothers (trumpeter Michael and pianist Robert, along with bassist Zach Brown, drummer Ludwig Afonso, and percussionist Samuel Torres) take the stage at FlynnSpace at 8 p.m. (You can meet the artists in a free session at 5:30 p.m. at FlynnSpace.)
Tuesday, June 7, again opens with a free film screening at 6 p.m. in the BCA Center, the documentary Erroll Garner: No One Can Hear You Read. Not to be missed is the 8 p.m. pairing of two genuine originals, violinist Jenny Scheinman and pianist Myra Melford, at FlynnSpace. (There’ll also be a free Meet the Artist session in FlynnSpace at 5:30 p.m.)
Pianist Marcus Roberts is this year’s Artist-in-Residence at the festival, teamed up with visiting scholar Greg Clark. At noon on Wednesday, June 8, in FlynnSpace, they—with assistance from the pianist’s trio-mates, bassist Rodney Jordan and drummer Jason Marsalis—will discuss the topic of “Civic Jazz” and the relationship of America’s democratic experience to the interaction and improvisation of jazz. The evening’s headliner is trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, joined by her saxophonist sister Christine and pianist Jon Cowherd, bassist Matt Clohesy, and drummer Jon Wikan, at 8 p.m. in FlynnSpace. (You can also catch these talented siblings in a free Meet the Artist session at 5:30 p.m. in FlynnSpace.)
Marcus Roberts and Greg Clark return on Thursday, June 9, at 5:30 p.m. for a Meet the Artist session continuing the discussion of their Civic Jazz project. The scene shifts to the Waterfront Tent at 6 p.m. for a high-octane triple bill of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones (reunited with founding harmonica and keyboard player Howard Levy), along with the High and Mighty Brass Band and funk duo Soule Monde. For some lower-decibel options, opt for saxophonist Stacy Dillard from 6:30-8:30 p.m. at the (free) Top Block Stage, and/or vocalist Charenée Wade, who brings her Gil Scott-Heron project to FlynnSpace at 8 p.m., in the formidable company of alto saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin, pianist Oscar Perez, bassist Lonnie Plaxico, and drummer Darrell Green.
The evening of Friday, June 10, is given over to another keyboard master, Kenny Barron, who performs with his trio (bassist Kiyoshi Kitagawa and drummer Johnathan Blake) at 8 p.m. on the Flynn MainStage. (He’ll also participate in a free Meet the Artist session at 5:30 p.m. at the Amy E. Tarrant Gallery.)
Saturday, June 11, offers another free film screening, at 3 p.m. at the BCA Center: Back in Brooklyn documents bassist John Pattitucci’s recording sessions (and life around them) for his album Brooklyn.
Meanwhile, out in the daylight, at 3:30 p.m. on the City Hall Stage, the World Trio (pianist Evgeny Lebedev, bassist Haggai Cohen-Milo, and drummer Lee Fish) mingles jazz with rhythms and modes from all the shores of the Mediterranean. (Curiously, some of the trio’s characteristic circular phrases remind me just a bit of Robert Glasper in his acoustic mode.) Then, at 5 p.m. on the Center Stage, bassist Ryan Berg leads a genre-tangling set by his quartet cPhour (with saxophonist Stacy Dillard, guitarist Craig Magnano, and drummer Jeremy “Bean” Clemons).
At 6 p.m. Saturday night, the Waterfront Stage is once again the venue for a three-fer, this time focused on Afro-Caribbean grooves. Headlining the evening is Brooklyn-based Antibalas, whose mastery of Afrobeat earned them a gig as the house band for the off-Broadway musical Fela!; sharing the bill are Haiti’s Lakou Mizik and Vermont’s little slice of Mali, Barika, built around the ngoni playing of Craig Myers.
Appropriately, 2016 Artist-in-Residence Marcus Roberts lights up the festival’s penultimate day with a pair of trio performances in FlynnSpace, at 8 p.m. and again at 10 p.m., as well as a free Meet the Artist session at 5:30 p.m.
Sunday, June 12, winds the festival down, beginning with a final free film screening at the BCA Center at 12:30 p.m., this time a double bill “Made in Vermont.” Bill Simmons’s Ambassador Brother Mister chronicles bassist Christian McBride’s tenure as Artist-in-Residence for the 2015 Burlington Discover Jazz Festival, while Ken French’s Jazz Ambassadors documents the interactions between sister cities Yaroslavl, Russia, and Burlington, Vermont, and their respective musical representatives, Overdrive Blues Band and Eight 02. The screening will be followed by a Q&A session with the two directors.
I doubt that there is anyone still alive (or at least still performing) who played in performances by the Count Basie Orchestra that were led by Basie himself—meaning that the group that will appear (joined on some tunes by vocalist Diane Schuur) as the finale of festival week is essentially a repertory ensemble. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but there’s a lot to be said for bidding Burlington adieu with a look into the future. Trombonist Jacob Garchik is a mainstay of New York’s downtown music scene (and its more recent migrations into Brooklyn), working with legends ranging from Terry Riley and Laurie Anderson to Lee Konitz; at 6 p.m. Garchik brings to FlynnSpace his project Ye Olde, a rumbling, roaring marriage of trombone and drums (Vinnie Sperrazza) with a trio of electric guitars (Brandon Seabrook, Jonathan Goldberger, and Ava Mendoza). (And don’t miss the final free Meet the Artist session with Garchik at 3 p.m. in FlynnSpace.)
Splitting the difference between Providence and Burlington, we wind up in Cambridge for the annual Cambridge River Festival on Saturday, June 4, from noon to 6 p.m. With construction still going on in the festival’s usual Riverbend Park location near Harvard Square, the event has shifted downriver this year to East Cambridge, not far from the Museum of Science and the Cambridgeside Galeria.
Musical performances are scattered across a half-dozen stages, whose names don’t necessarily reflect what you’ll hear there. For example, world music is nowhere to be found at the “Jazz, R&B, & World Music Stage”—but stroll down the block to the “Family & Children’s Stage” or the “Dance Stage” or, a bit further on, the “Rock, Indie, Alternative Stage” and you’ll hear plenty of sounds from around the world.
Given the above, here’s a suggested itinerary that will bring in a diverse range of jazz-inflected styles. If you make the “Family & Children’s Stage” your first stop, you can start your afternoon with Guy Mendilow’s multicultural ensemble (at noon), followed at 1 p.m. by Jorge Arce’s celebration of Puerto Rican traditions, El Plenazo; then drift over to the “Rock, Indie, Alternative Stage” at 2 p.m. for a taste of Jamaica with Dub Apocalypse. (Alternatively, head to the “Jazz, R&B, & World Music Stage” at 1:30 for Valerie Stephens’s tribute to Nina Simone.)
Back at the “Jazz, R&B, & World Music Stage” at 3 p.m., Dwight & Nicole shake the tentpoles with their ebullient mix of jazz and soul; afterwards, dial up the intensity with a 4 p.m. stop at the “Dance Stage” for an hour with FlamencoBoston.
The Revolutionary Snake Ensemble hits the “Jazz, R&B, & World Music Stage” at 4:30 p.m., but I’ll wager that this New Orleans-inspired band of masked paraders will take to the street long before the afternoon is over. If they head over toward the Galeria, tag along and wind up your afternoon at 5 p.m. at the “Rock, Indie, Alternative Stage” with Vapors of Morphine—relax, Gov. Baker, it’s not what you think—as surviving members of the beloved “Low Rock” band (baritone saxophonist Dana Colley and drummer Jerome Deupree) join with New Orleans slide guitarist Jeremy Lyons to pay tribute to Morphine’s late founder, Mark Sandman—and then step beyond to places one only wishes Sandman could have gone.