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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.

Russ Nolan, Master Mixer of Jazz and Latin Idioms, Celebrates New CD at New Haven’s Firehouse 12

John Abbott
Russ Nolan
Nolan uses his music as a kind of choreography unfolding in a magic ballroom.

Without ever sounding the least bit formulaic, saxophonist/composer Russ Nolan makes his musical calculations by using his favorite working equation, which is: Latin rhythms + post-bop harmonies = infinitely expanding quantities of energetic expression.

On his new, vibrant CD,Call It What You Want(Rhinoceruss Records), the insatiable scholar of Latin rhythms keeps his smart, post-bop harmonies dancing on top of everything from cha-chas and mambos to a Peruvian Lando rhythm and the African Mapale. And Nolan, who is himself an accomplished salsa dancer, executes his all-encompassing use of dance rhythms in a free-spirited, swinging manner. It’s completely natural sounding, original and 100 percent free of stifling, academic pedantry that can sometimes infect forced fusions, or infusions, of world music elements.  

Nolan, who doubles on tenor and soprano saxophone, celebrates his new, upbeat CD, his fifth as a leader, with his quartet as they perform sets at 8:30 and 10:00 pm on Friday, May 8, at New Haven’s Firehouse 12 at 45 Crown Street. He’s joined on this leg of his promotional CD tour by pianist Mike Eckroth, who has toured with John Scofield; bassist Daniel Foose and drummer Brian Fishler. The performances will be recorded live that evening at Firehouse 12.

On the new CD’s studio recording session, extra rhythmic sauce was provided by the Latin jazz percussionists Yasuyo Kimura, a native of Japan who was originally a dancer; and Victor Rendon, a Mexican-American who has worked with such Latin giants as Mongo Santamaria and Chico O’Farrill. Rendon, incidentally, is also one of Nolan’s tutors in the art of the Latin legacy.

Latin rhythms stoke more than enough heat and inspiration to keep the saxophonist soaring over the album’s eight originals and one cover. My Ship, the single standard, sets sail powered with a Peruvian rhythm. Not too far from shore, it steams into a modal vamp with Nolan and Eckroth, respectively, invoking John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner in the golden era of the classic Coltrane quartet of the 1960s.

A lover of variety, Nolan uses his music as a kind of choreography unfolding in a magic ballroom where moods and time signatures shift seamlessly. Post-bop harmonies pas de deux with Latin idioms as constantly-changing partners.

Credit John Abbott / russnolan.com
Russ Nolan

Typically, the new CD opens with a multi-faceted Nolan original called “Neruda,” a piece inspired by the Nobel Prize-winning, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (1904-1973). Initially, it depicts the somber, introspective depth of the poet/activist’s work. Before it gets its poetic feet very wet, however, Nolan’s portrait of the artist shifts into a celebration of the more joyful side of Neruda’s writing, simply by morphing into a festive mambo. Similarly, on the CD’s grand finale, “Las TeclasNegras (The Black Keys),” Nolan reverts to his fundamental formula by making his dramatic exit with an E-flat minor blues played as a medium tempo mambo in 7/4, yet another happy hybrid of his jazz harmonies and Latin rhythms.

Nolan’s profound concern with the Latin beat first came to the fore in the late 1990s when he was living in Chicago. Saxophonist Chris Pottercame through town with the Dave Holland Band, and gave Nolan lessons in the rhythmic riches of Latin music, the first seductive step in what has become an unending, diligent study.

“I didn’t grow up in Cuba or with this music,” Nolan has said of his quest to master Latin as a second musical language, “but I’ve really connected with these rhythms through a lot of study… You take what you’ve absorbed and make it your own.”

At the advice of pianist Kenny Werner, one of his mentors, Nolan moved to New York City in 2000 where he has, much to his delight, connected with what he calls the Big Apple’s burgeoning Pan-American scene. As part of his total immersion in Latin genres, he has not only become a fine salsa dancer but also, in addition to running a busy career as a performer, bandleader, composer/arranger and educator, leads a salsa band that plays for dancers.

“There are all the different nationalities in New York -- Peruvian, Panamanian, Cuban -- and the deeper I got, the more I liked it,” says Nolan whose musician’s mind and dancer’s feet are always ready to learn more about Latin grooves from all over the Americas. Tickets: $20.00, first set; $15.00, second set. Information: firehouse12.com and (203) 785-0468.

Credit John Abbott
Sonny Rollins.

UHART Confers Honorary Doctorate on Sax Savant

As gifted jazz and Charlie Parkerloving youngsters growing up in Harlem’s Sugar Hill neighborhood in the 1940s, Sonny Rollins, a future tenor titan, and Jackie McLean, a future alto master, jammed together in various configurations of bands that included such fellow prodigies and neighborhood peers as pianist Kenny Drew and drummer Arthur Taylor, among others.

Such grandees as Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell lived nearby, and Duke Ellington, one of the early superstar African-American artists, sometimes graced the neighborhood with his charisma and cosmopolitan appearance, mesmerizing young Jackie and Sonny. Among the Sugar Hill inner circle of aspiring jazz players were, Walter Bishop Jr., Andy Kirk Jr. and Gil Coggins, who was a bit older and already playing in clubs.

Credit wbur.org
Jackie McLean, in an undated publicity headshot. (Courtesy of the artist)

For Sonny and Jackie, Sugar Hill marked the start of a lifetime friendship. A jazz-forged bond, it thrived even as their journeys on the road to becoming jazz icons diverged in various creative directions over the years, including McLean’s later achievements as an influential educator, a success story that complemented his impressive career stats as an all-star Major League artist.

Besides founding the Artists Collective, the celebrated educational and cultural center in Hartford’s North End, McLean, who died at 74 in 2006, also established the groundbreaking jazz studies program at the University of Hartford, which basks in national renown and is named in his honor as the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz at UHart’s Hartt School of Music.

All these years, many recordings, concerts and tours later, the Rollins/McLean bond will be, at least in a symbolic way, renewed again as the University of Hartford awards an honorary doctor of music degree to Rollins at graduate commencement ceremonies at 10:00 am on Saturday, May 16, on its West Hartford campus at 200 Bloomfield Avenue.

The tenor saxophone colossus, one of the music’s most astoundingly inventive improvisers, is, at age 84, looking forward to making a new recording this year, adding to his Cooperstown-like discography studded with landmark albums that have influenced generations of musicians and dazzled fans around the globe.

Speaking of dazzling, Rollins many years ago appeared at the UHART campus to be honored by and to perform in a concert for the Artists Collective at the Lincoln Theater.

Although he was suffering from an ear infection and a cold that evening, his stunning performance turned out to be perhaps the most memorable tour de force in the Collective’s long, highly distinguished series of tribute concerts honoring an array of jazz Hall of Famers ranging from Dizzy Gillespie and Art Blakey to the Heath Brothers and Max Roach.

Credit sonnyrollins.com
Sonny Rollins

A classic Rollins live performance, it was, from opener to encore, a joyful lesson in spontaneous invention, a signature Sonny mix of sizzling uptempo pieces, warm ballads, including “My One and Only Love” and “I’m Old Fashioned,” instantaneously transformed into elegantly structured saxophone concertos, a wildly celebratory calypso, dizzying a cappella cadenzas, and pure creative fire and wit that would not quit.

Just before the music was launched, McLean, Rollins’ old friend and fellow jazz luminary from Sugar Hill days, presented the tenor saxophonist with a plaque praising him for his great contribution to American music. As part of the event’s tribute ceremony, an eleven-year-old piano student from the Artists Collective’s music program presented the honored maestro with a basket of flowers.

The rest of the evening was all glorious tenor madness, right up to the final note of the coda for Rollins' encore number, “I’ll Be Seeing You.”

Although Rollins won’t be speaking at the UHART commencement, his regal, patriarchal presence brings grace and gravitas to the ceremony.

In the hippest of all imaginable graduation ceremonies, Rollins would be the commencement speaker who, instead of using words, would deliver his entire address in a revelatory solo performance on tenor saxophone.

Over the years, UHART has presented honorary degrees to a number of jazz and music greats, starting with Marian Anderson in 1958, Aaron Copland, 1959; Dizzy Gillespie, 1982; Benny Goodman, 1985; Dionne Warwick, 1986; Wynton Marsalis, 2003; the late Jackie McLean and his widow Dollie McLean in 2007, one year after the legendary saxophonist’s death; and Hank Jones, 2009.

Credit Maurice Robertson / Hartford Jazz Society
Hartford Jazz Society
Bassist Nat Reeves performing in Hartford.

Nat Reeves Also Honored 

Among those honored at the undergraduate commencement ceremonies the next day at 10:00 am on Sunday, May 17, is the internationally acclaimed bassist and Hartt School faculty member, Nat Reeves, a longtime colleague and collaborator with McLean and a much-respected member of the jazz brain trust at the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz. Reeves, an associate professor of music, will receive the James F. and Frances W. Bent Award for Scholarly and/or Artistic Creativity.

A dedicated teacher and empathetic mentor for more than 30 years to hundreds of jazz studies students, the big-toned, personable bassist has performed over the past 40 years with many jazz greats, appeared on more than 60 recordings and is celebrated for his musical invention and unerring sense of swing, and for being a class act both on and off the bandstand.

Free Flying Lage Takes Solo Flights at Bridge Street

A compleat guitar virtuoso, Julian Lage seems fluent in all genres, invoking everybody from Andres Segovia to Jim Hall, picking away with country and folk flair through traditional passages, or grooving on complex modernism, always mixing dazzling dexterity and intellect with feeling while creating in his own original voice, whether on electric or acoustic, sounding warm, intimate and easy to connect with.

The 27-year-old guitarist from California shows the solo side of his artistry as he performs at 8:00 pm on Saturday, May 9, at Bridge Street Live, 41 Bridge Street in Collinsville. Admission: $25.00/$35.00. Information: 41bridgestreet.com and (860) 693-9762.

Julian Large

Lage has collaborated with a diverse array of master musicians in varied configurations, including, quite notably, in highly interactive duos with guitarist Chris Eldridge and Nels Cline. And in another duo summit meeting of kindred artistic spirits, he has communed with the great pianist Fred Hersch in an album, aptly enough called, Free Flying, which was awarded a five-star review (the starriest of all stellar ratings) in Down Beat magazine.

Last February, fulfilling a long desired personal project, the guitar maven made his solo debut on a recording called World’s Fair, featuring a dozen well-crafted acoustic tracks.

Out of what might seem like a potentially austere setting -- solo and unplugged -- pours forth a worldly exposition on everything from optimism to tragedy.

Happy Birthday Side Door Jazz Club

Old Lyme’s Side Door Jazz Club, a successful, brightly shining shoreline beacon on the regional jazz scene, celebrates its second anniversary at 8:30 pm on Saturday, May 9, with happy birthday vibes generated by vibraphonist Christos Rafalides and his Manhattan Vibes.

Credit manhattanvibes.com
Christos Rafalides with Latin Jazz Coalition featuring Steve Turre

A native of Kozani, Greece, and graduate of Boston’s Berklee College of Music, Rafalides, a touring and recording artist, is joined by pianist Sergio Salvatore, bassist Petros Klampanis, drummer Eric Doob and vocalist Thana Alexa. To mark the occasion, there’ll be a free opening champagne toast and cupcakes all around for the birthday party-goers. Tickets: $50.00. Information: thesidedoorjazz.com and (860) 434-0886. The club is at 85 Lyme Street.

Doors open at 7:30 pm, giving you time to have a leisurely drink or two while checking-out the cozy digs for the red-hot venue that features Big Apple-like jazz programming. The club’s upcoming upbeat schedule typically features such headliners as Ingrid Jensen, Renee Rosnes, Steve Davis, Benny Green andLuis Perdomo, among many others.

Credit John Abbott
Renee Rosnes

In contrast with the notable exceptions of a handful of long-lived survivors, a number of jazz clubs, sadly, die in infancy, a high mortality rate caused by, among other chancy factors, the fluctuating economy. If lucky, some clubs, defying the often gloomy actuarial statistics for jazz ventures, get to live into their early childhood years.

At two-years-old and with its lifesigns percolating with robust vitality and enormous promise, The Side Door Jazz Club will, with any luck, keep right on swinging intensely and joyfully for a long, healthy and creative lifetime, with many more happy birthdays and celebratory champagne toasts to come.

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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