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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.

Rising, Young Saxophonist Alexa Tarantino Headlines at Baby Grand Jazz Series

Alexa Tarantino
Alexa Tarantino, a Connecticut native, and a member of a new generation of jazz musicians, brings her talent to the international stage preforming both at home and across the globe.
"I didn't have stage parents constantly looking over my shoulder, always pushing me to practice. But they didn't have to tell me twice that it was okay."
Alexa Tarantino

Alexa Tarantino, a gifted, 22-year-old alto saxophonist who grew up in West Hartford, has plenty to celebrate as she performs in a duo concert with the Polish-born piano virtuoso Dariusz Terefenko at 3:00 pm on Sunday, January 25, at the Hartford Public Library’s free Baby Grand Jazz Series.

Among the causes for celebration, the versatile multi-instrumentalist/composer has recently graduated from Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, where she earned degrees in jazz saxophone performance and education, as well as a certificate in arts leadership.

Besides the joy of graduation, the emerging saxophonist has a new CD out with Terefenko called Crossing Pathsthat they’ll be promoting in March on a two-week tour of workshops, clinics, and performances in some of Poland’s premier conservatories. Later this summer, the mini-Poland tour will be followed up with the duo’s appearances in Brazil.

Marking the milestones of college graduation and the release of a new CD, the library gig represents a homecoming of sorts for Tarantino. It’s also a festive symbolic reunion with her family and many friends made through her music-filled years in West Hartford public schools from elementary to Hall High School.

“I haven’t played in Connecticut for a while, and I don’t get to come home often,” Tarantino said by phone from San Diego, where she’s performing at the Jazz Education Network Conference. “I’m very excited to be back, and to get to see some of my old friends. Otherwise, I don’t know when I’d be able to show my CD to everyone. With my family, it’s always a party somewhere. We always find an excuse to celebrate.”

No excuses, of course, are needed to celebrate the skills of this promising, young saxophonist who plays with commanding authority and moving expressiveness far beyond her years, whether waxing rhapsodically on “I Hear a Rhapsody,” or inventing something freshly-minted on a Thelonious Monk or Herbie Hancock classic.

Credit Alexa Tarantino
Tarantino and her former professor, Dariusz Terefenko, and current collaborator will be promoting their new album "Crossing Paths" first in Hartford and later, during a short tour in Poland and Brazil.
At Hall High -- long a nurturing hothouse for aspiring talent -- the jazz program has drawn national attention.

Crossing Paths demonstrates Tarantino’s impressive ability as a fluent, resourceful soloist, and as an empathetic collaborator in tune with Terefenko, a professor of jazz studies and theory at Eastman. He’s as learned in the works of Frederic Chopin as he is with those of Keith Jarrett, and is an explorer of creative, interactive links between the two seemingly disparate worlds of classical composition and jazz improvisation.

At this early point in her career, Tarantino’s new CD marks the culmination of her deep devotion to the alto saxophone, which began in elementary school when her father took her to see one of Hall High School’s celebrated Pops ’n Jazz concert/revues. Sitting alongside her dad in the packed Hall High auditorium, Tarantino was mesmerized by the marvelous sound she heard played by student alto saxophonist Erica von Kleist in Hall’s Concert Jazz Band. (Von Kleist, one of Hall’s many premier contributions to the jazz world, has since gone on to great success as a first-call instrumentalist, composer, bandleader, recording artist and educator.)

Credit Richie Barshay
Hall High School has produced many notable jazz musicians apart from Tarantino, such as: Richie Barshay.

“I just fell in love with the alto after first hearing Erica at that concert,” Tarantino said. “You can get so many colors from the instrument, and it’s so versatile. You can play fast. You can play ballads. You can fit yourself in anywhere with that saxophone.”

Even long before she had even thought about going to Eastman, Tarantino had inspiring teachers and mentors, including Rich Cangro and Joe Ganci. At Hall High -- long a nurturing hothouse for aspiring talent -- the jazz program has drawn national attention because of its bumper crop of exceptional musicians, including the internationally-acclaimed pianist Brad Mehldau, the noted tenor saxophonist Joel Frahm, and the much sought-after drummer/percussionist Richie Barshay.

Credit Phil Woods
Tarantino cites Phil Woods as one of her early jazz idols.

Tarantino’s mentors at Hall included Haig Shahverdian and John Mastroianni -- a killer alto saxophone player, skilled arranger, and a jazz pro with hands-on experience and pragmatic knowledge of the nitty-gritty workings of the jazz world. Tarantino studied privately with Mastroianni and saxophonist Larry Dvorin, and attended the renowned Litchfield Jazz Camp right here in Connecticut.

While absorbing everything she could about her chosen craft, Tarantino developed her own personal pantheon of alto saxophone heroes. “Phil Woods was my big number one idol when I started in high school after I heard his American Songbook album with his quintet,” she said. “I actually got a chance to play with him when he came to Hall High as a guest in my freshman year. There was Cannonball Adderley, Bird (Charlie Parker), and from there I branched out to Dick Oatts and Kenny Garrett. Now with the duo project with Dariusz, we’re exploring a lot of Lee Konitz and Lennie Tristano music. I’m trying to cover the whole spectrum.”

Having an outstanding musician in the family is something well off the genetic path for the Tarantinos, at least in recent historic memory. Perhaps the single exception was Alexa’s paternal grandmother, a pianist who played on the radio to help support her family, according to family lore. Although supportive of Tarantino, her parents are not the least bit musical, she said. Her father, Dr. Arthur Tarantino, is a urologist at Hartford Hospital. Her mother, Lynne Tarantino, is an interior designer who runs her own business.

“They wanted me to figure out what I wanted to do on my own and decide about music for myself,” Tarantino said. “I didn’t have stage parents constantly looking over my shoulder, always pushing me to practice. But they didn’t have to tell me twice that it was okay. I really ran with it right away.”

As she ran with it, Tarantino began winning numerous musical awards right from Hall High on through Eastman. Even as a member of Hall High’s elite Jazz Combo, the then-teen prodigy began turning heads with her searing alto solos at events at school and special appearances at downtown hotels and other venues.

At Eastman, Tarantino was not only devoted to her studies, but even somehow had time to make her mark on the local Rochester jazz scene. She also hosted and produced a much-admired weekly series of jazz programs on the college radio station. All the while, she was expanding her arsenal of instruments to include saxophones, clarinets, flutes, and even oboes and bassoon as well, transforming herself into a one- woman woodwind band.

Tarantino’s varied resume includes such highlights as playing with Ryan Truesdell’s acclaimed Gil Evans Project at the Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, Italy, performing once lost but now restored orchestral gems by Evans. There were also several appearances at the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival with the Dave Rivello Ensemble, Eastman Jazz Ensemble, the Gil Evans Project, and the modern jazz ensemble, Colossus.

At one of the Xerox fests, a completely cool, self-confident Tarantino wowed the crowd when she sat in with Earth, Wind and Fire, delivering a knockout, show-stopping alto rendition of “I Remember You.”

Closer to home a few years ago, Tarantino made a grand appearance on the Hartford-basedNew England Jazz Ensemble’salbum, It’s a Grand Night for Swinging, swinging on a chart that she had co-arranged with her mentor, Mastroianni.

Credit Alexa Tarantino
Alexa Tarantino looks forward to promoting her CD, "Crossing Paths", in Italy where she fondly remembers her 2012 performances at the Umbria Jazz Festival.

Tarantino’s appearance at the Umbria Jazz Festival had a special personal resonance for her. Years before, she had vacationed there as child with her family. It was the very first jazz fest she ever attended. “When I called my parents and told them I was playing six nights at the Umbria Festival, they said, ‘We’ll be there.’ The whole Tarantino clan -- at least 20 of them, anyway -- all booked flights and showed up at the festival,” she said.

No doubt, they’ll turnout once again in strength to celebrate and support this step so close to home, with its open-ended promise of giant steps to come in the wide world of jazz. Information on Baby Grand Jazz: hplct.org and (860) 695-6300.

Nylon String Guitar Wizard

Hailed by jazz legend Kenny Burrell as “a brilliant young guitarist and composer,” nylon string guitar wizard Freddie Bryant has been a member of Ben Riley’s Monk Legacy Septet and the Mingus Orchestra, has worked with pianist Eliane Elias and trumpeterTom Harrell, made his mark on the New York jazz and Brazilian scenes and led seven recording sessions under his own name.

Credit Freddie Bryant
Freddie Bryant.

A world traveler, the eclectic virtuoso has toured 50 countries. Using his fluent versatility as his musical passport, he has easily crossed over the boundaries of numerous world genres through collaborations with Indian classical musicians, African singers, traditional Arab players and klezmer bands, as much at home with everyone from sitarists and oud players as he is with saxophonists and bassists.

The multi-faceted guitarist, who has a degree in classical guitar from the Yale School of Music, presents a solo concert at 8:00 pm on Saturday, January 24, for the Connecticut Guitar Society (CGS) at Asylum Hill Congregational Church at 814 Asylum Avenue in Hartford.

On his 2014 CD, Dreamscape: Solo, Duo, Trio, the master of diversity performs selections ranging from original tunes, standards and spirituals to pieces by Mingus, Monk, Hancock and Haden, sometimes as soliloquies, sometimes with the exquisite assistance of Scott Colley on bass and the always excellentChris Potter on woodwinds.

Dreamscape is dedicated to the guitarist’s late mother, the celebrated concert and operatic soprano Beatrice Rippy Hollister who died in 2012. It is graced with Bryant’s signature lyricism, sensitivity, classic clarity and warmth presented here on 12-string, arch top, electric and nylon string guitars. Tickets for the CGS concert: $30.00, general; $25.00, CGS members; available online atctguitar.org or at (860) 249-1132.

Jazz Reigns From Wine Bar to Library

Nicki Parrott, the fine bassist/singer and Australian native who now lives in Connecticut, leads her trio at 6:30 pm on Sunday, January 25, atSarah’s Wine Barin Ridgefield.

As a special bonus, the trio features the fine and mellow tenor saxophonist Harry Allen, who brings something quite cool and complementary to Parrott’s double-edged talent as both a savvy singer and a rock solid jazz bassist. Parrott’s Italian-born, classically trained pianist, Rossano Sportiello, has worked extremely well with such mainstream masters as clarinetist Kenny Davern and guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli. Information and reservations: (203) 438-8282.

The Bad Plus’s Potent Cocktail

Serving its 100-proof, iconoclastic mix of jazz, pop, rock, and avant-garde, The Bad Plus returns for an intoxicating encore appearance at 7:00 pm on Friday, January 23, at Northampton’s Iron Horse Music Hall. Information: (413)-586-8686.

The Bad Plus - Made Possible EPK from Couple 3 Films on Vimeo.

Side Door Opens with a Bang, Not a Whimper

Old Lyme’s Side Door Jazz Club swings open this weekend with a bang as drummer Willie Jones III leads his quartet on Friday, January 23, followed the next night by guitarist Mike Moreno on Saturday, January 24.

Jones comes armed with bassist Gerald Cannon and two other high-caliber players, saxophonist Stacy Dillard and pianist Donald Vega. Moreno’s marauders are pianist Jon Cowherd, bassist Doug Weissand drummer Kendrick Scott. Both shows hit at 8:30 pm. Doors open at 7:30 pm. Information: thesidedoorjazz.com and (860) 434-0886.

Avon Library’s Songbook Booking

While the venerable Hartford Public Library has enjoyed enormous success with its Baby Grand Jazz Series, jazz, it should be noted, is also sometimes booked in other libraries as well, including this Sunday afternoon at Avon’s historic public library.

Pianist John Brighenti and Friends interpret their favorite passages from The Great American Songbook as they entertain at 3:00 pm on Sunday, January 25, with a free concert at the Avon Free Public Library. A veteran exegete of The Songbook canon, Brighenti is joined by the sagacious bassist Mike Asetta and the young vocalist Erin O’Luanaigh in an homage to such great American writers as Cole Porter and Jerome Kern.

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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