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Arts & Culture
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.

Nicki Parrott, Peerless Aussie Double Bassist and Vocalist, Leads Trio In Hartford

Nicki Parrott
Nicki Parrott.
Parrott's arrangements are breezy and alive, sometimes spiked with an intoxicating Latin flair.

As part of his musical legacy, the late Les Paul, the legendary guitarist, electronic wizard and iconic guitar designer, played a key role in encouraging Nicki Parrott, the gifted Australian-born double bassist, to spread her wings a bit and also become a first-rate, expressive jazz singer.

Parrott, a globe-trotting performer who now lives in Brookfield, displays those natural, fluent vocal qualities that Paul recognized in her singing some years back as she leads her trio at 7:30 pm on Friday, May 30, in the Music@Japanalia Series at Japanalia Eiko at 11 Whitney Street in Hartford. With Parrott doubling on standup bass and vocals, her exemplary trio also features the premier pianist Jon Weber and drummer Tom Melito.

Credit Nicki Parrott
Nicki Parrott
Nicki Parrott with Les Paul.

A hard-swinging bassist whose early role models were Oscar Pettiford and Paul Chambers, Parrott, following Les Paul’s advice, has also honed a bright, vibrant, nuanced, never-over-the-top singing style. It’s graced with clarity, a lovely sound. Best of all, she has a smart, musicianly sense of time and fluid phrasing.

Without Paul’s encouragement, Parrott might well have remained completely satisfied with playing double bass, an instrument that has brought her international acclaim. Instead, however, she listened to the word of Paul, a virtually sainted figure in the world of popular music, who was both her mentor, musical buddy, and good friend.

For ten years, Parrott, a young Aussie transplant, was the regular bassist at Paul’s legendary, wide-open Monday night jam sessions at the Iridium jazz club in Manhattan, where his legion of admirers and disciples might drop by to sit in. They included just about anybody, from Jose Feliciano to Paul McCartney and Slash. It was a famous Monday night ritual that the revered guitarist maintained religiously, despite failing health in his later years, almost right up until the time of his death at 94 in 2009.

Parrott began on bass at 15 after studying piano and flute, and had not given serious thought to becoming a professional singer. One night, at Paul’s urging, she made her public singing debut on stage at the Iridium. It was her first baby step towards becoming a headlining dual act as a skilled singer whose vocal talents complement her gifts as a first-rate jazz bassist.

A native of Newcastle, Australia, Parrott came to the States to pursue a jazz career in 1994. She has performed at major jazz festivals around the world, including stateside at the Newport and Litchfield Jazz Festivals. She’s played and/or recorded with a varied array of luminaries, including John and Bucky Pizzarelli, Randy Brecker, Kenny Davern, Randy Sandke, Rachel Z, and David Krakauer.

Quite notably, although not quite so noticeably in this country, Parrott has recorded a highly successful series of 13 outstanding albums -- with a 14th coming out soon -- on the connoisseur Japanese label Venus Records. Although big in Japan, where she has a loyal fan base, her Venus recordings are hard to come by in the States, available only as imports.

In a giant step towards making that rich lode of Venus material widely available in the States, Parrott and her fiancée and co-manager, Brian Wittman, have launched a new label called Ooroo (Australian slang for see you later), whose first release is Nicki Parrott: The Best of Venus Volume One.

With permission from Venus Records owner and founder Tetsuo Hara, The Best of Venus Volume One features 14 songs from the original Venus series, which have been remixed and remastered for the new Ooroo Records compilation.

Parrott’s wide-ranging repertoire on the new Ooroo CD, which was released early in 2014, features a bouquet of elegant evergreens, ranging from an ethereal “Moon River,” to a slow, seductive “Besame Mucho,” whose romantic cachet is accentuated by Harry Allen’s tenor saxophone musings.

A singer for all seasons, Parrott surpasses herself on classics ranging from “It Might as Well Be Spring” to “The Summer Wind,” with a rare but rewarding reprise of an obscure song, “Blackberry Winter,” by the often-snubbed but fascinating, wittily misanthropic American composer Alec Wilder.

Credit Nicki Parrott
Nicki Parrott
Nicki Parrott.

Parrott’s arrangements are breezy and alive, sometimes spiked with an intoxicating Latin flair. And she’s surrounded by such empathetic talents as Houston Person, Ken Peplowski, her sister, the saxophonist Lisa Parrott; Gil Goldstein and John DiMartino, among others. The focus here is on vocals, but her bass playing, whether soloing or accompanying, is also a felt presence, always vital and in the groove. Sometimes her singing and bass playing simultaneously swing hand-in-hand, again with no strain, no pain or pretension, only the serenely swinging sound of right notes deftly falling into the right place at the right time, thanks to the craft of Parrott’s instantaneous self-editing.

Wittman, a one-time West Hartford resident who is the executive producer of Ooroo Records, says there will be a second release featuring newer material, followed up by an encore volume of selections from Parrott’s Venus Records material.

Meanwhile, Wittman says, Parrott is due home soon from a whirlwind, six-week tour of Europe. In the biggest news of all, he added, the couple will be married August 16. Festivities will be held at their vintage farmhouse in Brookfield nestled on four acres of idyllic land, followed by a honeymoon in Paris.

Asked what sort of music the jazz loving couple will select for their wedding reception party, Wittman pauses a minute, then says: “We’re going to have a lot of friends here who are jazz musicians, and we wouldn’t want to ask them to play. So I think we’ll go with something completely different, like maybe a mariachi band would be festive and fun.” Tickets for the Japanalia performance, which marks Parrott’s Hartford debut, are: $48.00 stage-side table seating; $28.00 general row seating. Reservations: (860) 232-4677.

The Side Door jazz club in Old Lyme.
Credit The Side Door
The Side Door
The Side Door jazz club in Old Lyme.

Shoreline Spa Harbors Bold Explorers

Trumpets reign supreme this weekend at the shoreline Side Door Jazz Club in Old Lyme, with individual appearances by two bold genre explorers who swing hard while gleefully bending and blending traditional boundaries. The formidable trumpeter Jeremy Pelt leads his boundary-dissing quintet Friday night, May 30, followed by the red-hot trumpeter and Trinidad native, Etienne Charles, and his soulful, Caribbean roots-informed jazz on Saturday, May 31.

Pelt’s latest album, Face Forward, Jeremy -- a concise verbal statement of his forward-looking, futuristic exploration of jazz fusion -- is a follow-up to his Water and Earth, HighNote Records releases featuring his quintet. On Face Forward, Jeremy, the trumpeter is joined by quintet members saxophonist Roxy Coss, keyboardist David Bryant, drummer Dana Hawkins and, debuting with the band on this disc, bassist Chris Smith. Harpist and Hartford favorite Brandee Younger sits in on one track.

Similarly seeking artistry through diversity, Charles, a hip, young groovemeister, reconnoiters diverse territory with his rhythmically and melodically mesmerizing soulful eclecticism. Among myriad roots, he taps into calypso, Haitian voodoo music, reggae, rock, Motown, R&B and many other earthy elements. As much at home with Thelonious Monk as he is with Bob Marley, the musical alchemist creates a jazz-based amalgam that he calls “Creole music,” the inspiration for his latest, buoyant release, Creole Soul.

“As a person in the new world,” Charles explains on his website. “I’ve been influenced by so much music. And my family has a mixed background, with French Caribbean, Spanish and African roots as well as Venezuelan influences. I come from a fusion of rhythms, a fusion of cultures. That’s what this album (Creole Music) is all about: focusing on soul music that is Creole at heart.” Downbeat time is 8:30 pm for both shows at The Side Door, 85 Lyme Street in Old Lyme. Tickets for each show: $30.00. Information: (860) 434-0886.

Credit Chion Wolf / WNPR

Revealing the Essence of Things

Out of their stint with Henry Threadgill’s Make a Move ensemble, guitarist Brandon Ross and the Japanese bassist Stomu Takeishi developed a tight musical rapport. Even deeper than that, however, was their realization that they were completely in synch with one another’s philosophical and aesthetic views on how to collaborate in the mutual creation of unique soundscapes, spare, balanced and resonant.

Credit Facebook
Brandon Ross.

Through interplay, a balance of soloing skills and collective effort, a variety of timbres and colors, ability to play with space as an element of expression and a complete disregard for adhering to any particular genre or tested formula, the visionary acoustic string duo, which is known as For Living Lovers, creates new music that Ross refers to as “future folk music,” while describing his own contribution as rooted in an “outward stillness but inner intensity.”

Celebrating its new release, For Living Lovers: Revealing Essence, the duo exhibits its world of sound in separate sets at 8:30 and 10:00 pm on Friday, May 30, at Firehouse 12 at 45 Crown Street in New Haven. While the music, according to JazzTimes, is “extremely sparse,” Ross’s beautiful, exploratory melodies, it adds poetically, slowly let “the music meander like a traveler walking an unfamiliar path in the woods.”

Credit downtownmusic.net
Stomu Takeishi.

What the duo creates with its colloquies is a kind of sonic/Socratic dialogue leading to the revelation of essence. Its use of space, shapes and colors sounds like Sol LeWitt, the great American conceptual artist, set to music.

Besides being celebrated for his contributions as music director for diva Cassandra Wilson, Ross has led his own groups and worked with a Who’s Who of innovators, including Muhal Richard Abrams and Oliver Lake. Takeishi, who came to the United States in 1983 to study at Berklee College of Music, has been a member of such units as Myra Melford’s Crush Trio and Erik Friedlander’s Topaz and performed and/or recorded with an array of luminaries ranging from Don Cherry and Dave Liebman to Badal Roy and Wynton Marsalis.

Most of Revealing Essence was recorded and mixed at Firehouse 12, a venue that features an intimate performance space, which doubles as a state-of-the art recording studio, making it a haven specifically designed with close listeners in mind. In addition, it boasts a label all its own, Firehouse 12 Records, which offers a distinguished catalog of improvised music. Its amenities also include a full-service bar. Tickets: $18.00 first set; $12.00 second set. Information: firehouse12.com and (203) 785-0468.

You Can Go Home Again

Richie Barshay, the globe-trotting percussionist celebrated for his work with Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and The Klezmatics, returns once again to West Hartford, his hometown, to perform in an admission-free concert at The Emanuel Synagogue.

Barshay, who’s musically right at home with any style and with everybody from his boyhood pals and early collaborators, the Curtis Brothers, Zaccai and Luques, to the superstar bassist/singer Esperanza Spalding and vocalist Natalie Merchant, grew up not far from the synagogue where he and his family were congregants and he celebrated his bar mitzvah.

A product of West Hartford’s music education programs through Aiken Elementary, King Philip Middle School and Hall High School, the New York-based musician has gone on to stunning success, including being selected to join Hancock’s quartet while only a sophomore at New England Conservatory of Music from which he graduated in 2005.

For his latest homecoming, Barshay performs with his trio at 7:30 pm on Thursday, May 29, at the synagogue, 160 Mohegan Drive. He’s joined by Petr Cancura on saxophone and mandolin and Garth Stevenson, double bass, a cosmopolitan trio tapping into influences ranging from Brazil to Mali and beyond.

While An Evening with the Richie Barshay Trio is free, seating may be limited. Reservations are recommended by calling (860) 236-1275, or emailing mlowenstein58@gmail.com. The concert is sponsored by the Sharon Barshay Music Fund of The Emanuel Synagogue. Contributions may be made to the fund in support of future concerts. Information: emanuelsynagogue.org.

Frisk Fields First-String Lineup

Karen Frisk, a savvy vocalist, is backed by a primetime rhythm section at 8:00 pm on Saturday, May 31, at the Buttonwood Tree, 605 Main Street in Middletown. Her primetime players are pianist Kent Hewitt, bassist Brian Torff and drummer Rich Tortorigi. Tickets: $10.00 at the door. Information: (860) 347-4957.

 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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