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Owen McNally writes about jazz and other music events in Connecticut's Jazz Corridor, stretching from the tip of Fairfield County, right through New Haven and Hartford, and on up beyond the state into the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts. Keep up with the best our area has to offer in music.

Sicilian Singer/Songwriter Sissy Castrogiovanni Sizzles at Middletown’s Buttonwood Tree

Sissy Castrogiovanni
Sissy Castrogiovanni.
"I was drawn to the open harmonies of jazz. That's because I like surprises."
Sissy Castrogiovanni

In the exciting, event-packed upcoming days, jazz gets happily hitched to lyrics sung enticingly and beautifully in Sicilian dialect by the young, sensational, Sicilian-born SissyCastrogiovanni on Saturday, May 10, at 8:00 pm at Middletown’s Buttonwood Tree. 

Elsewhere, The Side Door Jazz Club, the red-hot shoreline spa nestled in the historic Old Lyme Inn, pulls out all the stops on Saturday, May 10. 

Credit Javon Jackson
Javon Jackson
Javon Jackson.

Doors open at 7:30 pm to celebrate the club's first anniversary with a jazz and champagne gala, complete with birthday cake, party songs, and jazz anthems swung by the likes of tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson. Meanwhile, in the capital city, The Hartford Jazz Society dramatically energizes the local scene on Friday, May 9, at 8:00 pm, as it unleashes the percussive power and nuanced artistry of drummer Louis Hayes rocking at the Polish National Home.     

On top of all that, the noted pianist/composer Noah Baerman celebrates the release of his acclaimed new album, Ripples, on Friday, May 9, at 8:30 and 10:00 pm at New Haven’s Firehouse 12, wrapping up his victory tour for what might well be the finest album yet in his distinguished career.       

Sicilian Diva Rising

First up, and offering something completely different for Connecticut, is Sissy Castrogiovanni. She's on the road promoting her album, Intra Lu Munnu (Inside the World), a showcase for her expansive, gorgeous voice and melodic, soulful songs in Sicilian dialect. As a citizen of the world, it’s not surprising that this Boston-based, globe-trotting native of Catania -- a city on the East Coast of Sicily -- is accompanied on her debut solo CD by musicians from around the world, including the Pletenitsa Balkan Choir.

Credit Sissy Castrogiovanni
Sissy Castrogiovanni
Sissy Castrogiovanni in concert.

As a musically precocious child growing up in a loving, tightly-knit, musical family, including a legion of musicians on her piano-playing father’s side, Castrogiovanni was immersed in the glorious seaside sights and sounds of Sicily, and its rich multi-cultural musical heritage. Among the melting pot ingredients were, of course, Sicilian folk music (including songs Castrogiovanni's grandmother sang to her) and classical music (Castrogiovanni wrote lyrics for a Chopin piece for her CD).

Castrogiovanni was musically nurtured by the rich confluence of Middle Eastern and Spanish flamenco influences, a cross-cultural mix crackling with  African rhythms and traditional melodies inspiring her Sicilian soundscapes and  poetic evocations of  everything she loves about her native land, from its pleasant climate so unlike Boston’s wintry chill, to its seaside idylls. "My father, whose family produced many musicians," she said by phone from her Boston apartment, "was the biggest influence on me. I had a normal upbringing in Sicily, which I love, always miss, and try to visit as often as I can." She started in music by singing the blues. "Then I was into soul, funk, jazz, and playing in a rock band," she said. "I was drawn to the open harmonies of jazz. That’s because I like surprises. If it’s music and it’s fun, I like it."

Since ancient times, Sicily has been conquered and occupied by a variety of foreign powers, leaving the imprint of their own cultures, including Greek, Roman, Arab, and Spanish colonizers. Castrogiovanni’s birthright includes many international influences, all of which she has absorbed into her own signature style, which is especially notable for her original songs in Sicilian dialect.

"Singing in dialect has made me more aware of the power of a song's words."
Sissy Castrogiovanni

All these influences, and many others, including Castrogiovanni's passion for jazz’s challenging harmonies, has shaped her sensuous sound and genre-crossing style that has Europeans raving. With any luck, it might well catch fire with American audiences as well. There is, however, one major bump or giant pothole on the 29-year-old Sicilian singer/songwriter’s road to fame. It’s called money and power.

Without the deep-pocket financial backing and enormous public relations clout of a major label supporting Castrogiovanni's work and tours, it could be much more of a challenge for the upbeat singer who, besides performing, songwriting, touring and teaching, now has the additional responsibility for handling all the off-stage business entirely on her own, dealing with everything from contracting gigs to handling promotion.       

Boston has been the rising diva’s home base since she arrived in the States in 2009 with not much money in her pocket, but with a life-shaping, much coveted scholarship to Berklee College of Music in one hand, and her Italian passport in the other. By 2011, she was awarded a full scholarship, and, in a prestigious honor, later invited to be a performing artist at the Mediterranean Music Institute in Valencia, Spain. At Berklee, she earned her degree, specializing in jazz composition and Mediterranean studies.    

While music is Castrogiovanni's life today, back home in Sicily just a few years ago, she seemed headed on a path towards the world of science: a wise and safe choice enthusiastically applauded by her always supportive family. "My family was a little bit confused when I first told them I wanted to focus on music instead," she said. "They tried to convince me to finish at the university, but, at the same time, they know that I am a very determined person."

Rich with talent, Castrogiovanni struggled financially to get by in the brave new world of Boston. "I don’t come from a rich family. Back in history, they were fishermen because we live by the sea," she said. "Semester after semester, it was hard to get by, and I had to get a cheap apartment." Language was another hurdle she had to leap. When she first arrived in the States, her English, which is fine today, was weak. She taught herself English through total immersion in the language in daily situations.

Credit Sissy Castrogiovanni
Sissy Castrogiovanni
Sissy Castrogiovanni on piano.

Although facing challenges, Castrogiovanni remained a risk-taker. On her debut disc, she decided to sing all her songs in Sicilian dialect. She loves its varied rhythms, inherently musical sound, lovely phrasing, and lush colors. Writing lyrics in dialect for her original songs, she added, has heightened her awareness of the emotional impact of a tune’s words and narratives, revealing to her the vital bond between lyrics and melodies. "When I began singing," she said, "I was thinking more as an instrumentalist, and was phrasing more like a horn player, with less awareness of the lyrics. Singing in dialect has made me more aware of the power of a song’s words."

Initially as a singer, Castrogiovanni recalls, she was a bit shy, and just stood by the microphone, literally delivering her songs into the wire rather than into the hearts and minds of her flesh-and-blood audience. Now she communicates directly and warmly with her listeners, having learned how to groove and move easily on the waves of the two-way rapport that she now generates with her vibrant stage presence.

As for her future, Castrogiovanni said she just wants to keep touring, playing festivals, writing, working on her Sicilian roots music, and making new records. "Besides hoping for more success," she said, "I’d like to be able to use music to help people somehow. Music is a very powerful tool."Tickets: $10.00 at the door, 605 Main Street in Middletown. Information: (860) 347-4957. 

Side Door’s Birthday Bash

A year ago,the legendary impresario George Wein and his Newport All-Stars launched the gala, champagne and ribbon-cutting grand opening of The Side Door Jazz Club in Old Lyme, a  shoreline harbor for jazz that in a single year has become one of the best and the brightest and busiest jazz venues around. 

Credit thesidedoorjazz.com
George Wein at the Side Door Jazz Club's opening night.

With its warm ambience and state of the art acoustics that even the pickiest performers admire, the club is the fulfillment of the dreams of its jazz loving owner, Ken Kitchings. For many years, Kitchings produced jazz at New London’s Garde Arts Center. Now with a dream no longer deferred, he owns his own jazz arts center.  

Kitchings and his wife, Christine, also own the Old Lyme Inn, which, in recent years, they’ve restored to the glory of its halcyon days. Fortunately for the music, Kitchings found room in the inn for jazz, and now jazz regents reciprocate by consistently packing the room for Kitchings.

Throwing a birthday party for itself, Kitchings’s club celebrates its first year anniversary on Saturday, May 10, with music beginning at 8:30 pm featuring an all-star cast including  saxophonist Javon Jackson, bassist Buster Williams, guitarist Larry Coryell, and drummer Lenny White. A free champagne toast, hors d’oeuvres, and birthday cake mark the occasion. Doors open at 7:30 pm. Admission: $75.00. Information: thesidedoorjazz.com and (860) 434-0886.  The club is at 85 Lyme Street in Old Lyme.

As a warm-up to the birthday bash, trombonist Steve Davis with bassist Nat Reeves and the Jackie McLean Institute All Stars entertain the in-crowd at the Inn’s jazz room. Friday, May 9, at 8:30 pm. Admission: $35.00.

Credit Chion Wolf / WNPR
Noah Baerman on piano.

Baerman’s Victory Tour

Credit Noah Baerman
Noah Baerman
Noah Baerman.

Winding up a celebratory tour promoting his triumphant new album, Ripples (Lemel Music), pianist/composer Noah Baerman performs with the simpatico, ultra-smart Samaritan Jazz Alliance Friday, May 9, at 8:30 and 10:00 pm at New Haven’s Firehouse 12, 45 Crown Street.

Baerman takes the final, well-merited victory lap of his tour in collaboration with The Alliance, a collective of composer/educator/performers whose lineup at Firehouse 12 features a pair of peerless saxophonists, Jimmy Greene and Kris Allen; vibraphonist Chris Dingman, a Wesleyan University alumnus; bassist Henry Lugo and drummer Otis Brown III. Tickets: $18.00, first set; $12.00, second set. Information: firehouse12.com and (203) 785-0468.

Hayes Plays Polish Home

Here’s a reminder that the Hartford Jazz Society presents the great drummer Louis Hayes and his Jazz Communicators Friday, May 9, at 8:00 pm at the Polish National Home at 60 Charter Oak Avenue. Hayes’s fellow Communicators are the awesome saxophonist Abraham Burton, pianist David Bryant and bassist Gerald Cannon. A rip- roaring Hayes/Burton sax/drum duet would be a surefire showstopper.

The Greater Hartford Arts Academy Jazz Ensemble, under the direction of Alex Nakhimovsky, opens the concert at 7:00 pm. Tickets: $15.00 in advance/$20.00 at the door; $5.00 students; $10.00 HJS members at the door. Tickets and information: 860-242-6688.

Top Duo Graces Newborn Club

A chamber jazz duo exuding wit, elegance and emotion, flutist Ali Ryerson and guitarist Joe Carter collaborate Saturday, May 10, at 7:00 pm at the newest jazz club in the area, 226 Jazz at 226 Broad Street in Windsor. You can check out the bouncing, newborn venue and enjoy dessert while savoring the duo’s zesty dialogues sometimes spiked with a Brazilian flavor. Admission: $20.00 at the door; includes coffee and dessert. Reservations: (860) 508-3186.

Violets for Your Furs

Golden-toned crooner Tony Hewitt and his trio, featuring pianist Orrin Evans, bassist Ed Howard and drummer Steve Williams, present his Violets for Your Furs show Friday, May 9, at 7:30 pm at Japanalia Eiko, 11 Whitney Street in Hartford. Tickets: $48.00 stage-side table seating; $28.00 general row seating. Reservations: (860) 232-4677.

Please submit press releases on upcoming jazz events at least two weeks before the publication date to omac28@gmail.com. Comments left below are also most welcome.   

Owen McNally writes the weekly Jazz Corridor column for WNPR.org as well as periodic freelance pieces for The Hartford Courant and other publications.

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