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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.

Royal Jazz Couple Celebrates First CD Together in Concert at Waterbury's Palace Theater

"The music actually came first in our relationship."
Atla DeChamplain

Atla and Matt DeChamplain, former high school sweethearts who have become one of Connecticut’s premier jazz power couples, debut their first album done together at a festive CD release concert on Friday, October 2, with shows at 7:00 and 9:00 pm at the Palace Theater Poli Club at 100 East Main Street in Waterbury.

With Atla's cool, consummate command of scat and the complete art of the bebop vocal and Matt's mastery of the piano tradition from ragtime, stride, and blues through modern and contemporary styles, the DeChamplains have much to celebrate with the release of their first recording together, a beautifully crafted, briskly executed, and triumphant disc called Pause.

To help the husband-and-wife team usher in their newborn CD, they'll be joined by such Connecticut-based notables and friends as tenor saxophonist Kris Jensen, bassist Matt Dwonszyk, and drummer Ben Bilello, all of whom appear on Pause, along with other top players in varied lineups for the tight-knit combos on the new CD's dozen sparkling selections.

While Pause resonates with the promise of much applause for both its immediate success as well as for the many more excellent projects yet to come, the DeChamplains' personal stories, which are bound together, as Atla said, by "the common thread of jazz," already have the makings of a future, Hollywood bio-pic sometime way down the road.

Atla, who grew up Southington, and Matt, who was raised in Wethersfield, first met when they were in high school at the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts, a performing arts magnet school in Hartford, when they were teenagers.

"I met Matt when he was playing the piano for the jazz choir. It was really sweet," Atla said. "I think the music actually came first in our relationship. We were really young when we started dating, 15 or 16. I don't even know if you could call it dating. We would get together after school and just go through tunes over and over."

Credit ellafitzgerald.com
Ella Fitzgerald.
"We had this foundation of people we both really loved, and I think this kind of bound us together."
Atla DeChamplain

"We were kids, so it was like the blind leading the blind," Atla said by phone from the couple's condo in Berlin, Connecticut. "We learned all this stuff about music together and had, from the very beginning, the same common thread that we were interested in: jazz. We both loved Oscar PetersonElla FitzgeraldRay BrownNat Cole and Louis Armstrong. We had this foundation of people we both really loved, and I think this kind of bound us together."

Even before they met, Atla, 29, and Matt, 30, were hooked on jazz, a love that began at home with the support and encouragement of their parents, Laurajean and Chris Conlon of Southington, and Susan and Ray Deschamplain of Wethersfield. Matt changed his surname Deschamplain back to its original spelling, DeChamplain, Atla explained, to be historically accurate.

Both Matt and Atla are avid history buffs and enjoy studying their families' heritage and genealogy. Atla has learned, for example, that her unusual first name has been used in the United States since pre-Revolutionary War days, and was originally an Icelandic name meaning, appropriately enough, "a woman who celebrates with song."

For Atla, her first taste of jazz came to her through her family's annual camping vacations at the Great Connecticut Traditional Jazz Festival in Moodus. Trad jazz is, of course, a style quite remote from that of her future mentor and inspiration, the legendary bebop vocalist and hip lyricist Jon Hendricks, the master-builder of words in vocals set to jazz tunes and to classic, improvised solos transcribed from recordings. Nonetheless, trad jazz, not her later much beloved bebop, was the original connecting point sparking a lifetime passion for the music.

"My father loved Louis Armstrong and wanted to learn more about jazz," Atla said. "We went every single summer to the trad jazz fest in Moodus, and camped there for our family vacation. Jazz just stuck with me. What really got to me was the non-verbal communication among the musicians. You could feel that there was a special language there, and I wanted to speak it."

Matt's inspiration came not from the great outdoors, but from his grandfather's old player piano and vintage piano rolls that mechanically reproduced solos performed by such early keyboard titans as Fats Waller and James P. Johnson

Beginning at age one, Matt would be set down by the player piano as his grandfather pumped its pedals and sang along with the rolls of the masters. That experience, starting before he could even walk or talk, implanted an indelible love for ragtime, swing and stride piano in Matt, who today uses these classic styles for explosive, dramatic effect in his modern jazz improvisations.

Credit mattdechamplain.com
Matt DeChamplain and Jon Hendricks.

Think of a solo by, say, Bud Powell, Hank Jones, Benny Green or Herbie Hancock suddenly morphing into a half-chorus or so of James P. Johnson's romping, stomping, stride piano, with the left-hand gone wild, a thing possessed by rhythmic fury.

"I think I was in seventh grade when I started my own piano roll collection," Matt said of his burning love for rollicking, robust vintage pianistics. "Later, I got a player piano and started to hunt for rolls cut by Earl Hines, Fats Waller, and Jelly Roll Morton. I've got about 3,000 rolls now that I've discovered everywhere from antique shops to flea markets."

Credit mccoytyner.com
McCoy Tyner.

Matt's ecumenical taste, in addition to the Old Masters, embraces a host of other great pianists from Art Tatum to McCoy Tyner, along with more contemporary figures like jazz musician Gary Versace. "I began with stride piano and loved that whole style. When I was in high school I discovered Oscar Peterson, and kind of progressed through the history of jazz, checking out Chick Corea and others by college," Matt said.

His original, fluent, open-ended style, much like Jaki Byard's smooth, time-machine flights, can move about freely in all eras, seamlessly mixing the past with the present. Like Peterson, Matt's early hero, he never loses sight of the central importance of the groove and playing with feeling. "Stylistically," he said, "I think I'm definitely rooted as a hard bop/bebop musician. But I definitely love the swing influences, the stride, the solo piano thing. The challenge is absorbing the history and tradition, and then trying to find your own voice, which is what I'm aspiring to do."

Because of their age, the DeChamplains -- who perform and are champions of the Great American Songbook -- have long been asked at gigs how and why they wound up playing material that, in most cases, was written many decades before they were even born.

"If you look at the American Songbook, you see that those who have contributed to it range in ethnicity and economic background," Atla said. "It touches every part of America. It's important to us to be part of this huge community that has always been diverse, sharing and collaborative, which is, I think, quite cool."

Credit Courtesy of Atla DeChamplain
Courtesy of Atla DeChamplain
Atla DeChamplain.
Credit Matt DeChamplain
Matt DeChamplain.

Atla, whose teachers have included not only Jon Hendricks, but also Dianne Mower and Shawn Monteiro, acknowledges that Hendricks, 94,  is one of her primary influences, and bebop as the great musical love of her life. Time magazine once called the freewheeling scat-singer and witty, inventive lyricist that "the James Joyce of Jive."

"Jon is probably the most charismatic gentleman, I've ever met on stage," Atla said. "His stage presence is just amazing. And honestly, no vocalist that I've ever heard has the rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic language that he has. He's like a bebop instrument just by himself." 

Both Atla and Matt are perpetual jazz students, always hungry to learn more no matter what level they attain. Before going to Toledo University where they earned their masters' degrees with guidance and inspiration provided by Hendricks, they had done their undergraduate studies at the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz at the University of Hartford, a hothouse for the nourishing and cultivation of young jazz talent.

Credit atladechamplain.com
Matt and Atla DeChamplain.

On bebop-an indelible element and catalytic force in Atla's vocal style as well as in the writing of her original lyrics-she said, "The more I learn about jazz music, the more I fall in love with bebop over and over again."

All that love comes shining through on Pause, a collaborative effort that co-features Atla and Matt together, with skilled support from the rotating cast of empathetic players the couple handpicked for their project.

Without hesitation, Pause steps off lively with its vibrant opening track, “I Can't Believe You're in Love with Me.” It sustains that unflagging spirit and high-wattage quality right through to the grand finale, a virtuosic display of Atla's top bop chops on a high-velocity, Gold Medal-winning sprint through “Them There Eyes” -- a guaranteed show-stopper in any live performance.

Variety abounds from Chick Corea's “Spain” to a fine reflective duo interpretation of “Day Dream,” an impressionistic reverie and one of two delightful duo pairings of Atla's voice and Matt's piano on the disc. Besides the title tune, “Pause,” which was co-written by Atla and Matt, the repertoire ranges from Horace Silver's “Soul Food” (originally called “Home Cookin'”), with vocalese lyrics written by Hendricks based on recorded solos by Hank Mobley and Silver, to Thelonious Monk's “Ask Me Now.”

Among the many highlights is “Three O'Clock in the Morning,” which features Atla's amusing vocalese lyrics and her dexterous, swinging solo based on Dexter Gordon's recorded solo improvisation on the classic Blue Note album, Go. Hendricks, Atla's venerable mentor, makes a non-scatting but supportive cameo appearance on the CD on the song “Two for the Blues.” Noted bassist Paul Keller, who's worked with Diana Krall and Russell Malone, also makes a guest appearance on two tracks. Other members of the DeChamplains' stalwart studio repertory company include:alto saxophonist Kris Allen, guitarist Doug Maher, bassist Adam Cote and drummers Sean Dobbins, Jake Goldbas and Curtis Torian.

Atla stressed that the CD is a collaborative work and anything but the conventional format of an all-dominating singer up front with backup players appended as a kind of afterthought. "It's not my CD. We're equals here. And it's not just about me and Matt, but the entire band, the team," she said of the democratic esprit de corps that reigns, without pause, throughout the session.

Along with savory servings from the new CD, the release party at the Palace Theater Poli Club features free BBQ fare provided by Atla's jazz-loving father, Chris Conlon, a retired fireman turned restaurateur, and her mother, Laurajean. The Conlons own the popular, jazz-friendly, BBQ restaurant in Southington called Smokin' with Chris. Tickets to the two shows, which might well be called Smokin' with Atla, Matt and Friends, are $23.00 apiece. Information: (203) 346-2000.

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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