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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.

Jazz Goes to Church In Its Sunday Best

Asylum Hill Congregational Church
The interior of the Asylum Hill Congregational Church in Hartford.
"Every man prays in his own language, and there is no language that God does not understand."<br><em>Duke Ellington</em>

Long a welcoming haven for jazz, Asylum Hill Congregational Church embraces Duke Ellington’s sacred music Sunday, May 18, at 4:00 pm as it presents "The Best of the Duke Ellington Sacred Concerts" with full-scale, soulful re-creations blessed with four mighty choirs singing, a powerhouse jazz band swinging, and a tap dancer tapping in the historic Hartford church’s majestic sanctuary.

Credit Asylum Hill Congregational Church
Asylum Hill Congregational Church
Duke Ellington.

A musical feast of works that Ellington, the supreme jazz maestro, called “the most important thing I have ever done,” the concert is the brainchild of Steve Mitchell, AHCC’s innovative Minister of Music and Arts. Mitchell has organized the mega-musical production, a really big show involving some 140 participant/celebrants making a jazz-inspired, joyful noise unto the Lord.    

Credit Asylum Hill Congregational Church
Asylum Hill Congregational Church
The Asylum Hill Congregational Church choir.

A significant communal event, the concert brings together AHCC’s choir, directed by Mitchell (himself an accomplished singer in many genres and a consummate professional church musician), with the choirs of three predominantly black sister churches in Hartford’s North End. Members of this urban choral coalition and their directors are: Metropolitan AME Zion, Ingrid Faniel; Union Baptist Church of Hartford, Wayne Dixon; and Faith Congregational Church, Ruth Bass Green.

Add to this holy alliance a 15-piece jazz ensemble featuring premier Connecticut-based jazz musicians: alto saxophonist John Mastroianni; tenor saxophonist Jovan Alexandre; trumpeter Josh Evans; percussionist Ed Fast; and pianist Dan Campolieta, the organist and associate music director at AHCC, sitting in as Duke’s keyboard surrogate.

The sensational Connecticut rhythm and tap dancer, Corey Hutchins, is cast in the role originally filled by the legendary tap dancer Bunny Briggs. A versatile hoofer who’s been dazzling admirers since age four, Hutchins was a member of the famous Riverdance troupe for six years. He has strutted his stuff throughout Europe and Asia, and danced on stages from Radio City Music Hall to the White House. In his Bunny Briggs role, Hutchins performs in two show-stoppers, "David Danced Before the Lord with All His Might," and "Praise God and Dance."

For vocal power communing both body and soul, the featured soloists include the formidable, classically trained opera/gospel/blues and jazz-savvy Jolie Rocke Brown. Other soloists include Sarah Armstrong, Schauntice Marshall-Shepard, Traci Keen, and bass baritone Marques Ruff, who’s stepping out of his current tour with the world-acclaimed male chorus, Chanticleer, for the Hartford homage to Ellington’s spiritual side.    

“I think it’s going to sound amazing!” Mitchell said by phone from his church office, where he was meticulously crafting how best to position the legion of players on stage in the sanctuary.

Years ago, jazz did not receive such tender loving care and royal acceptance in churches, which barred their doors against what they believed was the vice-inspiring music’s worldly wiles and wayward ways.

Credit Louis Panassie / Creative Commons
Creative Commons
Duke Ellington in the French film "L'Aventure du jazz."

When Ellington (1899-1974) debuted his first of three sacred concerts in 1965 at the New Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, the idea of presenting secular music in church was anathema to some who thought of jazz as sinful music morally fit only for dens of iniquity like bars and bordellos.

Duke has been canonized as one of America's cultural saints.

Although it might well be the musical lingua franca in houses of ill-repute, the blasphemous language of jazz was most certainly not to be uttered in houses of worship, its detractors righteously thundered. Ellington replied, “Every man prays in his own language, and there is no language that God does not understand.”

In the last decade of Ellington's life, he had to deal with the death of his close friend and great collaborator, Billy Strayhorn, and faced illness, aging, and his own impending mortality. A worldly yet spiritual man, he poured his creative energies into creating sacred music with intense seriousness. “You can jive with secular music, but you can’t jive with the Almighty,” he said of his impassioned, late-in-life commitment to creating sacred music.

All these decades later, Duke has been canonized as one of America’s cultural saints. His sacred music, which scandalized some back then, is acclaimed as iconic, rather than defamed as demonic. And today’s internecine cultural and religious conflicts have moved light years beyond whether blue notes and hotly riffing trumpets and steamy saxophone licks constitute much of a threat to the moral fiber of a congregation.

“Back then, though,” Mitchell said, “the belief that the ‘devil’s music’ shouldn’t be in the church was a big obstacle to overcome.” A lifelong ecumenist and born diplomat, Duke got around all that with his nuanced strategy to blend his spirituality with his jazz spirit.

“Interestingly enough,” Mitchell said, “Duke would play something that was really straight-ahead jazz or gospel, and then do something that was really ‘legit,’ right after it. Like the whole Freedom set where there are three main tunes, grooving little songs about freedom, but every setting is broken up by a very traditional, hymn-like chorale. It’s almost as if he’s saying, ‘I know I’m in church. Is everybody okay with what we just played? Let’s move on.’ And then he would just go right back to the groove.” 

As a young man just beginning his musical ministry in 1994 at a church in Coral Gables, Florida, Mitchell presented a sacred music concert with the Ellington Orchestra, which was then directed by Duke’s son and successor, Mercer Ellington. Even 20 years after Duke’s death, the orchestra still had some of the old guard Ellingtonians and the sensational, three-octave, Swedish soprano Alice Babs, who years before had been widely acclaimed for her inspirational, some said celestial singing in legendary sacred music concerts with Duke and the orchestra.

Credit Asylum Hill Congregational Church
Asylum Hill Congregational Church
Steve Mitchell at Asylum Hill Congregational Church.
"I don't think a song needs to say God or Jesus to be sacred."<br><em>Steve Mitchell</em>

"Mercer and I worked from Duke’s original handwritten scores," Mitchell said. "We created the program together, and it was great." He admitted that he might well have been too young to fully appreciate this once-in-a-lifetime, dreamlike experience. "I was in my 20s, and learning the music at the time. As I’m working on the Sacred Music concert today, I realize the value of that experience. I still have a picture of me conducting the Ellington Orchestra. That’s one of my prized possessions."

Asked about his own credo on sacred music, Mitchell said, “I don’t believe there is such a thing as sacred music, per se. I believe that all music is sacred. I believe, however, that it’s possible to profane that concept. You can take music and mess it up. Music itself, at its core -- this innate, interpersonal, human, natural communication -- is sacred already. I don’t think a song needs to say God or Jesus to be sacred.”

Credit Asylum Hill Congregational Church
Asylum Hill Congregational Church
Asylum Hill Congregational Church in Hartford.

The event is presented as a John and Edie Murphy Music for Humanity Concert, an outreach program of AHCC. All ticket income will support the YMCA Teen Incentive Program, offered through the Wilson-Gray YMCA Youth and Family Center on Albany Avenue, Hartford. Tickets: $25.00 at ahcc.org and (860) 278-0785. AHCC is at 814 Asylum Avenue in Hartford.

McLean Festival’s Diverse Fare

In a four-day music and cultural extravaganza running from Wednesday, May 14, through Saturday, May 17, Hartford’s Artists Collective celebrates its seventh annual Jackie McLean International Arts Festival Memorial Celebration, mixing stimulating scholarly reflections on race and black history with foot-stomping, New Orleans brass band revelry, and subtle, hard-swinging modern jazz.  

Credit South Africa The Good News / Creative Commons
Creative Commons
Nelson Mandela.

The festival celebrates the life and achievements of McLean (1931-2006), the Collective’s founder, and a legendary alto saxophonist/composer, educator, community activist, and longtime Hartford resident. It opens with a commemoration of the legendary, heroic, revolutionary South African leader, Nelson Mandela.   

A major annual springtime cultural event for Hartford, the festival concludes Saturday, May 17, with a grand finale featuring the superb saxophonist Jimmy Greene leading his all-star quartet, whose mega-talents also showcase pianist Renee Rosnes, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts.

If you’re looking for variety, the festival’s musical offerings present a sharp stylistic contrast with the UConn Funky Dawgz brass band strutting its New Orleans stuff on Friday, May 16, at 6:00 pm, and Greene, a master modern jazz saxophonist, leading his all-star quartet Saturday, May 17, at 8:00 pm. Greene, an Artists Collective alumnus, is a distinguished member of the legion of highly successful McLean protégés.

Credit Facebook
UConn's Funky Dawgz Brass Band.

Funky Dawgz will stroll and roll in a historical, participatory Second Line presentation, parading in the celebratory Crescent City mode both outside and inside the Artists Collective.

The Collective is at 1200 Albany Avenue in Hartford, and is the site for all the festival’s events. The Funky Dawgz performance is free. Tickets for the Greene concert are $30.00 in advance and $35.00 at the door. Available at the Artists Collective: (860) 527-3205.

Credit Jimmy Greene
Saxophonist Jimmy Greene.

History, which was one of McLean’s favorite topics, along with his passion for the visual arts, gets top billing during the festival’s first two days.

Festivities open Wednesday, May 14, at 7:00 pm with a program called Nelson Mandela Remembered, featuring words and music dedicated to the iconic, revolutionary fighter against apartheid, a revered former president of South Africa, who died last December. South African-born Andrea Van Den Heever, founder of the Connecticut Center for a New Economy, will speak, as will Kathleen S. Santiago, president of Connecticut Chapter Coalition of Black Trade Unionists; Bill Shortell, Machinists Union; John Fussell, Tree of Life, and Dan Durant, Hartford Rising. Artists Collective dance and music ensembles will perform. Admission: free.

On Thursday, May 15, at 5:00 pm, there will be a panel discussion and book signing for the new book, African American Connecticut Explored (Wesleyan University Press). A groundbreaking overview of more than 300 years of the African American experience in Connecticut from colonial times to the present, the book, a scholarly work written for a general readership, consists of numerous essays by many of the state’s leading authorities on African American history.

Panelists include: Stacy Close, Eastern Connecticut State University; Katherine Harris, Central Connecticut State University; Wm. Frank Mitchell, Amistad Center for Art and Culture; and moderator Elizabeth Normen, editor of the volume and publisher of Connecticut Explored. The event is free. A reception follows. Copies of the book will be on sale. Contributors will be available to sign them. Information: artistscollective.org.

Singer Shows True Grit with Kitt’s Hits

When it comes to sheer talent, sassy sultriness, true grit, quick wit, keen musical intelligence and the high art of audacity, there isn’t any better candidate to make a first-rate tribute album to the legendary Eartha Kitt than the great but far too under-appreciated yet irrepressible and irresistible singer Rene Marie.

Credit Rene Marie
Rene Marie
Singer Rene Marie.

Marie is celebrating her red-hot, masterfully crafted new release, I Wanna Be Evil: With Love to Eartha Kitt (Motema), a delightful tribute to Kitt. Not only does the celebratory disc capture the essence of Kitt, but is also a vibrant reminder of what a fine, resourceful artist Marie is. A risk-taker with a fearless, fluent style, she can be slinky, soulful and swinging, or transform herself into an ethereal instrument capable of improvising free, wordless sounds delivered celestially with pitch-perfect and elegantly nuanced dynamics.

A triple threat as singer/songwriter and actress, Marie performs with her smart back-up trio from I Wanna Be Evil as she uncorks her beyond-good-and-evil musical homilies in performance on Wednesday, May 14, at 8:30 pm at The Side Door Jazz Club, 85 Lyme Street in Old Lyme. Her prime-time players and co-conspirators in spinning her wondrous web of evil are pianist Kevin Bales, bassist Elias Bailey and drummer Quentin Baxter,

A tribute to Kitt by anyone else might well have degenerated into a sad mix of earthy kitsch. Not so with the mesmerizing Marie, who has found a kindred creative spirit and mother figure in the bold and fearless, seductive and also quite artful Kitt. Tickets: $35.00. Information: thesidedoorjazz.com and (860) 434-0886.

Nolan’s Brief History of Time

Besides being graced with clarity in tone, originality and fluent, assertive phrasing, saxophonist Russ Nolan, who plays with his quartet Friday night, May 16, at Firehouse 12, is a rhythm master. 

Since immersing himself in the study of salsa dancing seven years ago to heighten his rhythmic sensibility, the agile-fingered tenor and soprano saxophonist has developed a percussionist’s deep feel for time, and is much at home grooving in Latin jazz and odd time signatures, constantly shuffling his approaches to space and time.

On Nolan’s new CD, Relentless, for example, he glides from a gentle waltz to a samba as part of his revisionist take of Stephen Sondheim’s Not While I’m Around. On one of his new disc’s six original pieces,  he plays a 12-bar blues to a Bomba beat,  seguing smoothly into 9/4 time  with a boogaloo-like groove.

Presenting a brief history of time, Nolan shifts easily from straight 4/4 to sleight-of-hand play with rhythms without ever sounding stilted, academic or pretentious. His partner-in-time is the noted Latin jazz and Havana-born pianist Manuel Valera, accompanied by bassist Michael O’Brien and drummer Brian Fishler, both of whom were on Nolan’s critically acclaimed 2012 release, Tell Me.

Backed by their CD sidekicks O’Brien and Fishler, Nolan and Valera are reunited for performances Friday, May 16, at 8:30 and 10:00 pm at Firehouse 12, 45 Crown Street in New Haven. Tickets: $18.00, first set; $12.00, second set. Information: firehouse12.com and (203) 785-0468.

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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