Jazz Preview: The 2016 Berklee BeanTown Jazz Festival

This year’s theme, “Jazz: A Peace Supreme,” is a bit diffuse—and so is the roster of performers, headlined by drummer Billy Hart and vocalist Al Jarreau.

From the 2015 BeanTown Jazz Festival

From the 2015 BeanTown Jazz Festival

By J. R. Carroll

The annual Berklee BeanTown Jazz Festival always has a theme associated with it, and this year it’s “Jazz: A Peace Supreme.” Some years the theme has a strong and specific connection to the festival’s roster, but this year’s theme (aside from the Coltrane evocation) is more diffuse—and so is the range of performers.

That said, the lineups for the three stages do seem to have been organized such that each stage has a general theme of its own. As always, the festival takes place from noon to 6:00 p.m. on Columbus Avenue between Massachusetts Avenue and Burke Street, as well as the Family Park Field adjoining Columbus.

The Berklee Stage, near the Massachusetts Avenue end of Columbus Avenue, is the locale where you’ll hear the most straight-up jazz:

Berklee Stage

12:00 p.m. Kaovanny and Vibe Collective with the Berklee City Music All-Stars
12:45 p.m. Laszlo Gardony Sextet
1:45 p.m. Billy Hart Trio
2:45 p.m. Mark Zaleski Band
3:45 p.m. Kevin Harris Project
5:00 p.m. Behind These Eyes Plays the Music of Hal Crook

The BeanTown Stage, at the opposite end of Columbus Avenue, has a more international flavor:

BeanTown Stage

12:00 p.m. The Venezuelan Project
1:00 p.m. Mark Shilansky and Fugue Mill
2:00 p.m. Self Portraits
3:00 p.m. 7th Degree
4:00 p.m. Ricardo Monzón Orchestra
5:00 p.m. Edmar Colón Quartet

The Capital One Stage, at Family Park Field, for the most part features music geared toward a more general audience:

Capital One Stage

1:00 p.m. Mili Bermejo Sextet
2:00 p.m. Dan Moretti and the Hammond Boys
3:00 p.m. Lenny Stallworth and Black Steel
4:00 p.m. Pitch Slapped
5:00 p.m. Al Jarreau

As with any event presented on multiple stages, assembling your own personal schedule of performances is a perennial conundrum. The simplest solution is to just settle in at one of the stages for the afternoon, but if you don’t mind putting some steps on your FitBit, you may want to map out a traversal of the three stages that will encompass the performers you’re most interested in seeing. Obviously, everyone’s choices will be different; here are mine.

The festival kicks off at noon with two very different student ensembles: the Berklee City Music All-Stars featuring Kaovanny and Vibe Collective, and my pick to start the afternoon, the Venezuelan Project, the creation of percussionist Alexis Soto and cuatro player Carlos Capacho:

Ah, but where to go next? The choices are all excellent, with the Laszlo Gardony Sextet performing at 12:45 p.m., and at 1:00 p.m. pianist Mark Shilansky’s ecletic Fugue Mill and the sextet of Mexican-Argentinean vocalist and composer Mili Bermejo. You may have to resort to a coin flip or two, but I’m leaning toward Mili Bermejo because she doesn’t perform that often with a larger ensemble (Jiri Nedoma on piano, Flavio Lira on guitar, Bertram Lehman on drums, Ernesto Díaz on percussion, and partner in music and life, bassist Dan Greenspan):

(For more on Mili, see her conversation with Arts Fuse writer Evelyn Rosenthal.)

I may have to cut out a bit early on Mili’s set because I absolutely do not want to miss the 1:45 p.m. performance by veteran drummer Billy Hart’s trio, with pianist and astute music blogger Ethan Iverson, and the much-in-demand Ben Street on bass (joined in this video by saxophonist Mark Turner):

The next time slot is up for grabs, with the funk of bassist Lenny Stallworth and Black Steel competing with the Caribbean jazz of 7th Degree and the more atmospheric sextet of saxophonist Mark Zaleski (with his brother Glenn on keyboards, Jon Bean on tenor saxophone, Mark Cocheo on guitar, Danny Weller on bass, and Oscar Suchanek on drums). I’m going with Zaleski et al.:

More coin-flipping ahead, with pianist Kevin Harris at 3:45 p.m. and at 4:00 p.m. the cheekily named a capella group Pitch Slapped opposite the Latin big band of Ricardo Monzón. Much as I love Latin music, I’ll probably go with the Kevin Harris Project (with Hery Paz on tenor sax, Fernando Huergo on bass, and Steve Langone on drums):

The final hour of the festival features headlining vocalist Al Jarreau and saxophonist Edmar Colón and his quartet, but I’m most intrigued by the ensemble Behind These Eyes (with vocalist Debo Ray) playing the compositions and arrangements of trombonist and master teacher Hal Crook:

OK, that’s my itinerary—now figure out yours. Oh, and bring a jacket—autumn arrives for real tonight.

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