Piano talent, unbridled

Continuing a vibrant Cuban dynasty, Chuchito Valdés closes the 2017 Vail Jazz Winter Series

If any artist were to enter the world with music already in their blood, it would be Chuchito Valdés. Born and raised in Havana, Cuba, Chuchito, like his father, the great Chucho Valdés and grandfather, Bebo Valdés, possessed an uncanny knack for playing the piano. Nearly 50 years later, he remains inseparable from the instrument. When not touring or performing, not a day goes by in which Chuchito isn’t thirsty for some time on the keys.

Bebo Valdés was one of the most prominent musicians in Cuba during the 1940s and ‘50s before relocating (for political reasons) to Sweden in the 1960s and teaching his son, Chucho Valdés, a few secrets on the piano from the age of 3 onward. Chucho, who is about to celebrate his 75 th birthday, is considered one of the most influential figures in Afro-Cuban jazz and has won six Grammy awards and three Latin Grammies.

After early coaching from his father, Chuchito’s foray into the profession began after attending the musical school of Cuban legend Ignacio Cervantes, whom Chuchito names along with his father and grandfather as an inspiration. He began performing at age 16 with Cuban vocalists Pello el Afrokan, Anibel Lopez and Jamaican-born trumpeter/vocalist Bobby Carcasses. After his father left Irakere, the iconic Cuban jazz ensemble he’d founded, Chuchito replaced him as leader and arranger.

Eventually, Chuchito launched his own band, composing spicy Afro-Cuban jazz numbers and earning one Latin Grammy nomination after another, beginning in 2002. He continues touring the world, performing fast-paced, feel-good numbers, most recently from his 2015 release, Horizontes.

Freshly landed in the U.S. for a round of gigs across the Midwest, Chuchito’s first comment during a phone interview is a warning that his English is not so good. But his passion is crystal clear.

“My inspiration is the music,” he says. “For me, the music is everything.”

Chuchito’s style is distinctly Afro-Cuban in nature, capturing the spirits of several unique genres cultivated throughout the history of his native country, including Son, Cuban Timba, Danzon and Guaguanco. His sizzling harmonies also take on flavors of Caribbean, bebop and cha-cha- cha. The foundation of his musical artillery, however, is classical.

“My teacher, he told me I need play first classical music and later jazz,” Chuchito says. “For the jazz, the piano is muy importante to everything.”

What’s it like to witness Chuchito Valdés on stage? Picture this: He’s so enraptured in the sound emanating from the keys he’s furiously slapping that his hands become a blur. Without a microphone, he’ll call out and sing throughout his set. His fingers not skipping a beat, he’ll sporadically launch onto his feet and sit back down as if his own rhythms have him attached to marionette strings. His head bobs and rolls with every note. If anything is obvious – besides the ecstatic nature of his performance – it’s that Chuchito takes his role in the Valdés musical dynasty seriously.

“My grandfather prepared the future for my father and my father for me. The sound is different but it’s still the style, the Cuban music,” he says. “The future because of me is one direction on the piano – different sounds but with my [father and grandfather’s] education.”

When he’s not touring the world, Chuchito resides in Cancún, Mexico, with his family. There is no such thing as a day off for him when it comes to the piano, because that would be like a day without food. He says that playing to him is like breathing.

“Every day, every day, I play every day,” he says. “If I no play … I no happy.”

Catch Cuban pianist Chuchito Valdes in the final performance of the 2017 Vail Jazz Winter Series at Ludwig’s Terrace in The Sonnenalp on April 13. The evening features two 60-minute performances; the first seating takes place at 6 p.m. (doors at 5:15 p.m.) and the second seating at 8:30 p.m. (doors at 8 p.m.) Tickets to each performance are $35 in advance. Seating is jazz club style around small tables. Dinner service and a full bar will be available at an additional cost. For tickets or more information, click here or call 888-VAIL- JAM.

A cool combo of bass and vocals

Award-winning Australian artist pays tribute to Peggy Lee at Vail Jazz Winter Series

Nicki Parrott probably never would have discovered her vocal talent if not for the late, great Les Paul. Parrott had been a Monday night mainstay with Paul at New York City’s Club Iridium when one evening he stopped her suddenly in the middle of a set and suggested she start singing.

“He stopped me in the middle of a bass solo on stage and said, ‘is that all you’re going to do is play the bass?’ I had never sung in public,” Parrott says. “But Les was like that. He liked to put people on the spot and make them think on their feet. He liked having a female vocalist on stage.”

Parrott launched into Ella Fitzgerald’s “Deed I do” that night and her vocal career was born.

“He pressured me to do it, but then I fell in love with it,” Parrott says. “He seemed to have a lot of faith. You never knew what to expect with Les. He was always in the moment. He thought it was funny to catch me in the middle of a bass solo. He loved to be funny. He was all about the show.”

From composing, recording and collaborating on nearly 30 albums to performing in jazz festivals across the world, playing Broadway ensembles to winning numerous awards and sharing the stage with Clark Terry, Patti Labelle, Bucky Pizzarelli and countless other greats, Parrott knows a thing or two about “the show.”

Hailing from New South Wales, Australia, Parrott grew up constantly listening to classical music and started playing piano before she was 5 years old. She added the flute to her repertoire a few years later, “got serious and had some lessons,” then joined concert bands at school. Her older sister started bringing home Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker records when she was a teenager and both girls began cultivating a love for jazz. Playing clarinet and saxophone, her older sister started a band and asked Parrott if she’d be interested in playing bass.

“I wanted to be part of everything, so I got a bass from school. It had only three strings on it, but I didn’t think that as a problem at the time,” Parrott recalls. “I could read music and transcribe. I did fall in love with jazz and the bass pretty quickly.”

By the time she was 16, Parrott had moved to Sydney to study jazz and began touring Australia. One of the compositions for her debut album with her sister landed her first place in Jazz Action Society’s Annual Song Competition. Then The Arts Council of Australia sent her to New York to study with famed bassist Rufus Reid in 1994 when she was 18. By 2000, she had caught Les Paul’s eye and ear and joined the Les Paul Trio.

Of her many career achievements to date, it’s her role in the guitarist’s legacy that she names first as a standout highlight.

“We played the 90th birthday of Carnegie Hall – to be part of that was a real honor. But every Monday night with Les Paul was a new show. It was a very, very interesting gig. Any chance you get to work with jazz legends like Clark Terry and Skitch Henderson, all of these wonderful musicians. Now they’re not here, but that I got some time talking with them was really special.”

As far as honoring legendary artists, Parrott loves putting her personal stamp on Peggy Lee tunes. Lee’s “Fever” has been a bastion of her set list for years, dating back to her first gigs after Paul summoned her vocal talent.

“She was one of the first voices that really struck home for me,” Parrott says. “I started to try to find new ways to do some of her classics. What I found interesting about her is how much of a musician she was. She was a composer – she composed a lot of songs – not many singers compose their own songs. She was a great performer with a very unique, sassy style. I always loved her voice. She had a wonderful delivery, with this cool, understated way of singing.”

As far as what to expect for her upcoming Tribute to Peggy Lee on March 2, Parrott says the classics aren’t the only tunes in the lineup.

“I like to have a varied repertoire. The audience is going to know some songs, but they won’t know every song. I want to enlighten them about facts and songs they might not have heard. Above all, I want people to enjoy themselves.”

Don’t miss Nicki Parrott’s Tribute to Peggy Lee for the 2017 Vail Jazz Winter Series at Ludwig’s Terrace in The Sonnenalp on March 2. The evening features two 60-minute performances; the first seating takes place at 6 p.m. (doors at 5:30 p.m.) and the second seating at 8:30 p.m. (doors at 8 p.m.) Tickets to each performance are $35 in advance. Seating is jazz club style around small tables. Dinner service and a full bar will be available. For tickets or more information, visit vailjazz.org or call 888-VAIL-JAM.


Brazilian guitarist specializes in ‘putting music into your heart’

Diego Figueiredo teams up with Chiara Izzi for Vail Jazz performance

Even before he starts strumming the guitar, a warm and inviting vibe emanates from Diego Figueiredo. Maybe it’s his large, disheveled hairdo of tight curls or his genuine and nearly constant ear-to-ear smile. Maybe it’s the prominent fingernails on his right hand that serve as natural guitar picks and immediately identify him as someone who not only plays music, but embodies it.

Once the Brazilian strikes his first note – slowly and thoughtfully passing each finger over its targeted string – his allure takes on a level of near-hypnosis.

Add the enchanting voice of Italian singer Chiara Izzi to the mix and the swoon is complete.

Introduced to the guitar and to Brazilian samba music at a very young age, Figueiredo has fused the traditional sounds of his mother country with his own infectious style. He has produced 23 albums and performed on major stages throughout the world, including the Montreux Jazz Festival, the Hong Kong Jazz Festival, the Copenhagen Jazz Festival, and of course, the Vail Jazz Festival.

Although he’s on the road most of the year, back home in Brazil, where he’s considered one of the greatest guitarists ever born, Figueiredo is always freshly inspired for new arrangements.

“I feel when I’m at home, I’m completely relaxed. I get the old vinyls that my father gave me when I was nine or 10 years old and listen to the traditional Brazilian samba. It is the base of my heart and my style. I can get more ideas for this and when I’m traveling, I discover things that I add to it,” he says.

Of his many performances in Vail over the years, the 36-year-old once performed with award-winning French vocalist Cyrille Aimée, to whom he likens Izzi’s tone and style. A Montreux Jazz Festival Vocalist winner (2011), Izzi’s vocal approach blends jazz, pop and world music.

“Two years ago I met her in New York,” Figueiredo says of Izzi. “She has a very nice accent in jazz for Latin music and can sing in English, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese. I love when she sings in Spanish, because she has the balera, the strong Latin accent. I grew up with my mom and grandmother who loved the balera and I have a lot of reference to this style. She sings hundreds of traditional Brazilian songs, the old ones. She can sing anything. We have played many concerts together and are preparing a special repertoire for Vail.”

In addition to their very unique take on jazz standards, Figueiredo and Izzi will perform some original Brazilian Samba tunes as well as Bossa nova and a few other rare treats at their Feb. 2 performance in Vail.

Although Figueiredo has performed and recorded with musical icons throughout the world – including Al Di Meola, John Scofield , Yellowjackets, Hermeto Paschoal and Geraldo Azevedo to name a few – and played for massive audiences, it’s the intimate shows that he appreciates the most.

“I am more comfortable in small venues,” he says. “Sometimes I play New York for people who really know and really understand jazz, sometimes in places [where] there are all kinds of people – people with families and dogs, people who like country and rock and come for fun, not for the music. But everywhere, when people stop to listen, their reaction is the same.”

Among the most memorable reactions Figueiredo has elicited from a crowd was at a performance in the small town of Rexburg, Idaho a few years back.

“I played for 800 people in a nice theater and after there was a standing ovation for 10 minutes,” he recalls. “Signing the CDs, there was a huge line of 200 people. Moments like that make me more strong. Even at small concerts for 50 people, the reaction is so nice and so close. I’m very happy when I can see how I put my music in their hearts.”

Brazilian guitarist Diego Figueiredo and Italian vocalist Chiara Izzi perform at the 2017 Vail Jazz Winter Series at Ludwig’s Terrace in The Sonnenalp on Feb. 2. The evening features two 60-minute performances, the first seating takes place at 6 p.m. (doors at 5:30 p.m.) and the second seating at 8:30 p.m. (doors at 8 p.m.) Tickets to each performance are $35 in advance. Seating is jazz club style around small tables. Dinner service and a full bar will be available.


For tickets or more information, click here or call 888-VAIL-JAM.

Professor Cunningham and His Old School open Vail Jazz Winter Series

The Australian-born vocalist and multi-instrumentalist reflects on his musical journey from piano player to swing star

Adrian “Professor” Cunningham didn’t set out to be the master of many instruments. Growing up in Sydney, Australia, he took up the piano at age 11. He was steadily perfecting his prowess on the keys when he realized in high school that adding the saxophone to his repertoire might be “a nice way to get the chicks.” It was the early 90s, after all, and every pop band of recent years had staked their claim to cool with a sax player.

But then Cunningham’s father introduced him to jazz.

“He loved Louis Armstrong and we had all of these great 78s that we listened to together,” he recalls. “I started playing clarinet and fell in love. It became my baby.”

It wasn’t until his 20s that Cunningham added the flute to his skill set.

“I love that each instrument has a personality,” he says. “Each one is able to express music in a different way … in a different voice. With that given personality, I like to be able to change a song.”

With each echelon of talent, Cunningham moved up the musical ranks in his mother country, joining the house band for the hit television show, Australian Idol, the Sydney All Star Big Band and being nominated for Mo Awards as Jazz Instrumentalist of the Year and Best Jazz Group.

Eager to further expand his horizon, Cunningham relocated to New York City in 2008. In addition to the long list of Australian luminaries with whom he’d performed, he began sharing the stage with American stars like Wynton Marsalis, Bucky Pizzarelli, Debbie Reynolds and Wycliffe Gordon, to name just a few.

Performing in cities across the globe, on every continent besides Antarctica with his Australian-based quartet as well as His Old School ensemble, Cunningham has played Switzerland’s famed Montreux Jazz Festival on three separate occasions and has led the saxophone section of Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, the Grammy- winning, New York-based swing group. Now 39, Cunningham has made major strides as a composer and has recorded seven albums. His performances are typically blended with energetic instrumental and vocal numbers.

Although he doesn’t have a precise formula for writing music, when the mood strikes him, he can’t shake it.

“I go through phases. When I get into a composition mode, it takes over. I was just back in Australia with my long-time quartet and I was obsessively doing it. It’s very much an emotional place I have to be in. A lot of what I write is inspired by my travel.”

As far as said travel, Cunningham’s most memorable gig is surprisingly not one of his Montreux Festival performances or a big night at Lincoln Center, but an impromptu set in Africa before he was even a professional musician.

“We were backpacking and camping in Botswana and our tour guide said, ‘I have a place to show you.’ We went into this jazz club in the middle of bushy Africa. The band playing was all African guys. Somehow they got the notion that I was a musician. We couldn’t communicate with words but played jazz tunes. We could communicate through music. These guys weren’t polished musicians. They didn’t have the techniques that First World countries have. But it was amazing. The spirit was just magical.”

When it comes to connecting with people these days, Cunningham – Professor Cunningham, that is – has kindled a fiery energy with His Old School, a New York City-based, New Orleans-inspired ensemble that has firmly etched its mark on the international swing scene, winning Best Band, Best Horn Section and Best Rhythm Section awards at the 2016 International Swing Band competition in Madrid, Spain.

Swing dancing has become a natural supplement to Cunningham’s shows, and of course, a skill that the Professor himself has notched onto his resume.

“Connecting with dancers on a musical level is one of the highest [rewards] you can have playing jazz,” he says. “It’s such a great compliment to this music. Not only is it great to watch them get affected by what we do, but how I play has changed. I’ve learned to swing dance myself and I’m pretty good.”

That’s not to say it’s easy, though. Cunningham admits that his dance moves max out at two songs.

“I can tell you, what they do is so hard. But it’s made me more attentive to the rhythm, how I play rhythms as a soloist,” Cunningham says. “If you’re improvising in terms of ‘how would I react to this if I were dancing?’ you’re trying to connect with people on a physical level with the tempos and what feels good on the dance floor and also on a listening level.”

Whether playing to a room of swing dancing couples or a rapt seated audience, Cunningham revels in speaking through his common, cosmic language.

“Jazz seems to have a recurring life of its own,” he says. “It’s accessible to everyone, the older crowds, the younger crowds, the swing audience. The language has become more sophisticated. It’s not as easy to get straight away, but it’s something that we all understand.”


Kick off 2017 with hot jazz

The Sonnenalp sets the stage for a spicy jazz club scene on cold winter nights!

Go to a jazz club in any of the world’s major cities and it’s abuzz with an unmistakable sizzling magic on show nights. There is not one, but two performances – one for the earlier crowd and one for the later crowd. The acoustics envelope the intimate audience and the artist delivers something special to each crowd.

This scene is coming to Vail, Colo. this winter with the all-new 2017 Vail Jazz Winter Series. The Series features four artists, each filling a diverse corner of the vast jazz umbrella. For the first time in Vail Jazz’s 22-year life span, the Winter Series will take place at Ludwig’s Terrace in the Sonnenalp Hotel.

Surrounded by glass on three sides and the roof with the stars shining through, the space checks every characteristic off the list as far as an elegant and classic jazz lounge setting with the added benefit of its distinctly alpine appeal perched in the woods at the base of Vail Mountain. Seating will be club style, around small tables offering a special menu featuring a full bar and scrumptious small and large plates available for both performances – the 6 p.m. set and the 8:30 p.m. set. Doors open 30 minutes before set time, enabling guests to pick seats and place orders.

Here’s what’s on the musical menu:

Jan. 12 – Professor Cunningham and his Old School

Interestingly, the Professor – Adrian Cunningham – is not old at all but is certainly well-schooled when it comes to playing instruments. Growing up in Sydney, Australia, Cunningham started out on the piano before taking on the clarinet, flute and saxophone. After establishing himself as a standout talent in his mother country, the Aussi relocated to New York City where he began performing with the likes of Wynton Marsalis, Wycliffe Gordon, Chris Potter, Renée Marie, George Coleman Jr. and Bucky Pizzarelli, becoming a regular at the Blue Note, Birdland and Apollo Theatre. In 2012, Cunningham donned the Professor hat and took up with Old School, a rotating ensemble of high-energy, NYC-based musicians specializing in the New Orleans tradition but also known to steam up the room with R&B, hot jazz and swing. This performance marks the return of the Professor after he established a strong following at the 2016 Vail Jazz Party. The Vail sets will hone in on swing music from the 1920s, so be sure to bring your dancing shoes.

Feb. 2 – Diego Figueiredo with Chiara Izzi

No stranger to Vail, guitarist Diego Figueiredo has been a favorite among Rocky Mountain jazz fans for years. His lightning fingered virtuoso style flirts with classical, bossa nova and traditional jazz as he puts his own stamp on standards from the American Songbook as well as classics from his native Brazil. Teaming up with the upbeat, zinging deliveries of Italian vocalist/songwriter Chiara Izzi, the duo is a surefire recipe for star power. Winner of the Montreux Jazz Festival’s Vocal Competition in 2011, Izzi has since relocated to New York City and has begun raising eyebrows for her uncanny ability to interpret – in her own distinctive way – jazz traditions from all over the world. The energy emanating from this international pair is not to be missed.

March 2 – Nicki Parrott’s Tribute to Peggy Lee

Capturing the vibrant spirit of legendary vocalist Peggy Lee is no simple feat, but Nicki Parrott has been refining her versatile musical skills since the age of 4. Hailing from New Castle, Australia, Parrott moved from the piano to the flute to the double bass by age 15 and by the age of 16, was winning song composition contests. After moving to New York City, Parrott’s vocal talents were recognized by the one and only Les Paul and she became a mainstay at his Iridium Jazz Club Monday night session. Even when not channeling Peggy Lee, Parrott’s voice swings hypnotically and powerfully, even more so when she’s plugging away on the bass.

April 13 – Chuchito Valdés Quartet

Hailing from a bloodline of piano kings three generations deep, Jesus “Chuchito Valdés can make the keys smoke like no other but can also draw out deep sentiment in the rich veins of classical mixed with his native Afro-Cuban jazz. Possessing enormous talent for creating original compositions, Valdés’ tunes often drift into the swirling waters of Bebop, Cha-Cha-Cha and Danzon. He has been enrapturing audiences around the world and recording music for the last 15 years, doing his father and grandfather proud.

Tickets are on sale now for the 2017 Vail Jazz Winter Series, which also includes two invitation-only performances at private residences – in February with Eric Alexander playing the Great Songs of the Tenor Sax and in March with husky vocalist and guitarist Bob Margolin, former member of Muddy Waters’ band.

The Winter Series performances at Ludwig’s Terrace at the Sonnenalp take place at 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Tickets are sold separately for $35. Prices increase at 5 p.m. day of show. For tickets or more information, please visit vailjazz.org or call 888-VAIL-JAM.

Vail Jazz Winter Series has arrived!

The Vail Jazz Winter Series is back! This year’s lineup boasts swinging bands, stunning vocalists, and exciting musical pairings, all hosted in an exciting new venue: the terrace at Ludwig’s. Ludwig’s terrace at the Sonnenalp hotel will transform into an elegant alpine jazz club, complete with dinner service.

The 2017 Vail Jazz Winter Series lineup features:

Professor Cunningham and His Old School | January 12th

Led by reedman and vocalist Adrian Cunningham, Professor Cunningham and His Old School consists of some of the most energetic and accomplished musicians on the New York scene, playing swinging and grooving music in the aesthetic of Sidney Bechet, Fats Waller, Professor Longhair and even Fats Domino! Their repertoire is deeply steeped in the New Orleans tradition, and is marked by hot jazz, growling horn, and grooving rhythms. The group has been a regular hit in the NYC underground party and swing dance scene since it’s formation in 2012; regularly performing to packed houses at swing venues and speakeasies throughout the city.

Diego Fiegueiredo with Chiara Izzi | February 2nd

Brazilian guitarist Diego Figueiredo is a returning favorite at Vail Jazz, having wowed audiences this past Vail Jazz Party. Diego fuses jazz, bossa nova and classical music, blending his virtuoso technique with an infectious, joyful interpretation. He will be joined by award winning Italian singer and songwriter Chiara Izzi, “a talent to be heard, admired and anticipated” (Jazz Times). Chiara’s international debut took place at the Montreux Jazz Festival Vocal Competition in 2011 where she was awarded first prize by Quincy Jones. Together the duo will bring a unique blend of brazilian, mediterranean, and everything in between.

Nicki Parrott’s Tribute to Peggy Lee | March 2nd

Peggy Lee’s iconic sultry singing voice carried impeccable rhythmic subtlety and smoldering sexuality—in a world of belters, she was exquisitely understated. In this special show, hard-swinging bassist and gifted vocalist Nicki Parrott will pay tribute to Miss Lee. Originally from Australia, Parrott possesses a “bright, vibrant voice graced with clarity,” and her arrangements are breezy and alive (NPR).

Steady Rollin’ Bob Margolin | March 29th (by invitation only)

As a former member of the Muddy Waters band, Steady Rollin’ Bob Margolin plays his blues Chicago-style, naturally. After leaving the band in 1980, Margolin is now a bandleader, soloist, songwriter, vocalist and in-demand session player. He easily fuses the driving shuffle of his roots in Waters’ band with a high-energy approach, combining riveting slide guitar work, husky vocals, and powerful original songwriting.

Chuchito Valdés Quartet | April 13th

Born and raised in Havana, Cuba, pianist and composer Jesus “Chuchito” Valdés is the third-generation manifestation of a Cuban jazz piano dynasty that includes his father, Chucho Valdés, and grandfather, Bebo Valdés. Playing professionally since the age of 16, by the late ’90s he took his father’s spot in the world-renowned Irakere band. As a solo artist he displays fiery intensity and daredevil technique, with original compositions and arrangements drawing on a variety of style including Afro-Cuban, latin jazz, Beblop, classical, and many more.

For more information about the series, visit the Vail Jazz Winter Series page.

Tickets to the Vail Jazz Winter Series will go on sale on Friday, December 16th.

Singer-pianist Sarah McKenzie makes local debut

Sarah McKenzie has etched herself a firm place on Australia’s map of formidable jazz artists, and now she’s taking on the rest of the world. At the moment, the Melbourne native calls Paris home.

“To say that I love Paris would be an understatement,” the singer-pianist said. “In Paris, you can be inspired by every little thing … an old street lamp, a cobblestone lane, a little cafe. Paris has had a big influence on my writing, and I am certain it will continue to do so.”

A full scholarship recipient and graduate of Berklee College of Music, McKenzie’s second album, 2012’s “Close Your Eyes,” won the Best Jazz Album Australian Recording Industry Association Music Awards Award (Australia’s equivalent to a Grammy). Last fall’s “We Could Be Lovers,” produced by Brian Bacchus (who has worked with Norah Jones and Gregory Porter, among other stars), won the Bell Award for Best Australian Jazz Vocal Album.


McKenzie’s original compositions have always arrived to her naturally, inspired by the world around her.

“I wrote the music for ‘We Could Be Lovers’ while living in Boston. I had a tiny apartment on the top floor of my building just near Symphony Hall, and I did most of my writing while gazing out the window at the skyline,” she said. “In three years, I watched all the seasons come and go.

“It has been said that I have ‘an old soul,’ and I do find that to be true. I love the way the writers of the Great American Songbook wrote tunes, particularly how they wrote lyrics. I love the old charm and wit they used. I have never tried to force anything writing-wise.”

The Australian’s latest release also features covers by Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Henry Mancini, Duke Ellington and other greats whom McKenzie said naturally influence her musical style. She names Maria Schneider and Dianne Reeves as vocal inspirations. As a young girl, it was Oscar Peterson’s “Night Train” that made her fall in love with jazz music.

“I remember it vividly,” she said. “I was 13 years of age, and I just felt while listening to the recording that it was really special. I had never heard a kind of music like it before, but I knew instantly that I loved it and wanted to be a part of this music called jazz.”


Composing since the age of 5, McKenzie’s musical ability evolved along with her depth of knowledge about the structures of jazz. Still, she believes there is a common ingredient at the heart of every amazing song.

“I listen constantly and not just to jazz,” she said. “Recently, I’ve been listening a lot to the great film writers — John Williams, Michele le Grand and Nino Rota. Film writers write great melodies. Great melodies. Without a great melody, you don’t have a great tune.”

Although her composition process differs for every number, McKenzie’s tunes typically begin with an idea or, in the case of the recent “Onwards and Upwards,” a solid title.

“For this particular tune, I had the title first and sat down at the piano and tried to visualize something that would fit. I wanted something similar to the sound of the Nat King Cole trio with the Freddie Green-style guitar and George Shearing-style voice,” she says. “I then addressed the melody. It needed to be something simple and catchy for the verses and something to vary it in the bridge. I came up with a simple idea and it stuck with me. When a melody gets stuck in your head, that’s a good sign.”

Judging by the reactions from her audiences, McKenzie’s melodies are contagious. When asked to recount the most memorable feedback she’s received about her music, McKenzie mentioned a young fan who named nearly every one of her songs as his favorite.

“I had a 14-year-old fan write recently to tell me how much he and his sister liked my music. He wrote that he enjoyed hearing me play on Jamie Cullum’s Show on BBC Radio 2 and that his favorite songs were … basically all of them,” she said.

“I thought this was so endearing and funny. He writes on to tell me that they are his favorite songs because they have timeless and unforgettable lyrics and melodies that you can sing along to and that they make everybody feel happy. I don’t know if I could receive any greater feedback than that my music makes people happy.”

Chicago-born Cesar makes Vail debut

Growing up on the south side of Chicago, Cesar thought playing the guitar was his life’s calling. His family traveled to Indianapolis twice a year for a big family cookout, and he’d watch his cousin, Odell Rhodes, jam in the living room with Wes Montgomery, who, unbeknownst to 8-year-old Cesar, would come to be regarded as one of America’s most seminal jazz guitarists.

“I would stand there mesmerized,” Cesar said. “When we returned home, I begged my father to buy me a guitar for my birthday.”

By the time he was a freshman in high school, Cesar played in the jazz band and, after numerous early-morning hours delivering newspapers, saved up enough money to buy himself a Gibson Les Paul Red Sunburst. The young musician, who was also captain of his football team, as well as a baseball and basketball player, eagerly awaited his first performance in front of his peers in the school talent show. But while at football practice one day, his guitar was stolen out of the band vault.

“I ended up singing in the talent show,” Cesar said. “I won. The rest is history in the making.”


Jazz music was a mainstay in Cesar’s house. Every weekend, he and his father would sit in the basement for hours listening to Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Getz, Billy Eckstine, Brook Benton, Joe Williams, Arthur Prysock and their favorite, Nat King Cole. As he performed more and more frequently, Caesar’s voice and vocal style was likened to Cole’s, a fellow baritone and Chicago native.

“It is an honor and humbling to be compared to one of the greatest singers of all time,” Cesar said. “He was the first African American to host a radio and television show and one of the highest-paid artists in the music industry long before the Civil Rights movement. The one thing that we can all agree on is that his voice and timeless lyrics brought people together.”


Like Cole, Caesar moved to Los Angeles to pursue his vocal career. He was performing at a club in Encino, California, covering one of Cole’s most memorable recordings, “Route 66,” which had taken on special firsthand meaning to the recently relocated singer, when who should walk in but the King’s famed daughter, the late, great Natalie Cole.

“Natalie Cole walks in with Star Jones and sits in the second row,” Cesar said. “I start singing ‘Route 66,’ and something came over me. It was probably the best performance of my life. After the show, we hung out and talked and laughed. I told her about my Nat King Cole project. She said, ‘Cesar, you’ve got it.’ I will always cherish that moment.”

Cesar and Natalie kept in touch for years, and she attended several of his performances before her passing last December. He regards her “you got it” comment as the most memorable piece of feedback he’s ever received.


As far as other career highlights to date, Cesar names being chosen by Julio Iglesias as a background vocalist on his Tango World Tour. He was the first baritone vocalist to tour with Iglesias, one of the best-selling artists of all time. Another big notch on his wall was touring and recording with Peter White and recording his album “Jazz Standards for Today’s Audience” at Capitol Studios in Hollywood using the original microphone and Steinway piano Cole used in the 1950s.

“The record was engineered by Al Schmitt, winner of 23 Grammy Awards. Al worked with me right after working with Paul McCartney and Diana Krall in the same studio,” Caesar said. “The Capitol Records building is called ‘the house that Cole built’ because Nat’s record sales built that building.”

The night before Cesar’s monumental day of recording, he came down with a severe case of laryngitis.

“I had dreamed of playing in that studio,” he said. “You’ve got Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis … everyone has played in that room. The day of the session, I couldn’t talk. My throat was so sore. Al looked at me and said, ‘We’ll get you some tea.’

“I walked through the hallway and took the time to look at the photos on the wall of all the people who had played there. All of a sudden, the adrenaline kicked in. I used Nat’s microphone and sang ‘I Wish You Love.’ Something crazy happened, and it sounded amazing. Al said, ‘You’re channeling Nat.’”

Jazz Ghosts and Yellowjackets

Jazz is truly a unique form of music, the hallmark of which is improvisation. But this article is not about what sets jazz apart from other forms of popular music. Instead, we focus on what it has in common with all popular music.

No, it is not melody, harmony and rhythm; it is the need for an audience. Yes, many musicians play music for the love of it, but let’s face it, if you are going to dedicate your life to making music, you need an audience. You can be a virtuoso and possess a compelling stage presence, but for better or worse, you need to have an audience, and they better dig what you do, so you can have a career, or you need a back-up plan, usually a day job.

Ah, the commercial side of things. How mundane and disappointing, but so important! In the 18th century, Franz Joseph Haydn was fortunate to connect with the wealthy royal Esterhazy family; he found patrons that provided him lifetime employment as a composer. Today, you need loyal (not royal) support — an audience that sticks with you.


So how do dedicated, talented musicians find and keep their audience? If you Google “finding your audience music,” you will get more than 19,000,000 entries of sure-fire, can’t-miss self-help guides and advice. Let’s say you are one of the fortuitous ones: You have the talent and perseverance to succeed, and you connect with like-minded, great musicians to form a band that rises to the top. Long odds, but doable, right?

Every day new names and faces, playing “new and old” music, enter our consciousness and vie for our attention in the hyper-competitive world of music. We marvel at their talent as they entertain us, and if they are truly special, they can have more than 15 minutes of fame, but it is extremely hard to stay at the top.

And yet for graying audiences, nostalgia is a powerful emotion and the number of bands that have lived off the glory of their past is testament to the powerful desire to reconnect with our youth. But to live off the past, you first need to have been very successful at building an audience — no past, no future.

In jazz, there are the “ghost bands” — the leader is deceased, but the band carries on in his name. Glen Miller went missing more than 70 years ago, but the band plays on. So, too, for the Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Harry James ghost bands and many, many more. And, of course, there are the innumerable tribute bands that play the music of (insert the name of your favorite deceased jazz musician).

But we live in the here and now, and the question is: How does a successful jazz band keep its audience?


For the answer we turn our attention to the Yellowjackets, the iconic, multiple Grammy Award-winning jazz quartet that has flourished over a 35-year period, recording 22 albums, while successfully touring the world and enjoying unparalleled critical acclaim — quite a run for a band, jazz or otherwise.

Founding member Russell Ferrante on piano and keys anchors the band. Bob Mintzer is on saxophone and joined the band 25 years ago. William “Will” Kennedy holds down the drum and percussion throne, having had two stints with the band — 1987 to 1999 and 2010 to present. And the newest addition is Australian bass player Dane Alderson, who joined the band in 2015.

So how have the Yellowjackets been able to stay on top all these years? By combining extraordinary musicianship with superb new compositions, while performing music that spans the worlds of jazz — straight ahead and smooth, R&B, funk, fusion and more — the band has continued to successfully reinvent itself, thereby staying connected to its fan base while continuously attracting new fans. Quite a feat!

As for the band’s name: Pressed to come up with a catchy name during the band’s first recording session, Russell Ferrante recalls being presented with a list of “just awful” names. Forced to pick one, the band members agreed upon Yellowjackets since it seemed to communicate “something lively, energetic and something with a ‘sting.’ That’s really about as deep as it went. Once you choose a name, you’re stuck with it.”

While the name has stayed the same for 35 years, the music keeps on evolving, allowing the Yellowjackets the opportunity to take their audience to new and compelling musical places. The Yellowjackets will appear at the Vilar Performing Arts Center on Wednesday at 7:30 pm. You won’t want to miss this opportunity to be part of the audience to see and hear this great band!

Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of the Vail Jazz Foundation, which is partnering with the Vilar Performing Arts Center to present the Yellowjackets in concert.

New Donovan Pavilion shows bring jazz club setting to snowy Vail

Summer is not the only time that Vail transforms into a hub for some of the world’s greatest jazz artists. While the snow falls and nighttime entertainment ebbs, Vail Jazz pours a tall glass of first-rate live music on select special evenings this winter.

Vail Jazz’s 2016 Winter Series lineup is confirmed and consists of two exclusive, invite-only soirées at private residences, a big-time Vilar Center performance and a pair of one-of-a-kind evenings in Vail, transforming Donovan Pavilion into an intimate dinner lounge scene reminiscent of jazz clubs in Chicago or New York.

Magical jazz evenings in Vail

The heart of the Winter Series beats at Donovan Pavilion, transforming the beautiful wooden lodge on Gore Creek into an alpine jazz club with beer, wine and scrumptious gourmet bites from Edwards foodie favorite eat! drink! and a pair of performers that are bright lights on the up-and-coming jazz world radar.

Caesar sings Nat “King” Cole on Feb. 25

Nothing makes for a cozier winter evening than the rich strains of Nat Cole, especially when delivered by acclaimed baritone Caesar. With constant flashes of a huge, bright smile not unlike Cole’s, Caesar, a Chicago native, enraptures audiences with deep, spellbinding vocals that have been compared to the King’s long before Caesar began performing the legend’s greatest hits. Caesar’s voice earned him the first and only baritone spot on Julio Iglesias’ world tour and brings back the vocal velvet of Nat “King” Cole’s Golden Age with every performance.

Sarah McKenzie Quartet on March 10

If you haven’t heard of Sarah McKenzie, be assured that you will. The young Australian pianist has sung alongside Michael Buble and is referred to by James Morrison, one of her many A-list mentors, as “a musical marvel.” With vocals that have been likened to those of Diana Krall and Norah Jones, Morrison says that McKenzie’s “groove of the piano is the stuff that makes people want to play jazz.”

Vail Jazz Winter Series performances at Donovan Pavilion kick off at 7:30 p.m. (food served beginning at 6:30 p.m.) and are limited to audiences of about 120. Seating will be lounge/jazz club style at small tables with wine, beer and gourmet fare served cash bar-style by eat! drink! of Edwards. Parking is free. Tickets are $30 in advance, available beginning Dec. 29 at vailjazz.org or by calling 888-VAIL-JAM.

Private soirées

The Winter Series kicks off with an invite-only intimate soirée on Jan. 29 as six- string virtuoso Frank Vignola and accordionist Julien Labro stoke the flames of the hot gypsy jazz tradition. The second soirée in the Series wraps up the winter on March 25 with a truly grand finale starring renowned New Orleans-based pianist and singer Jon Cleary performing The History of New Orleans Piano. Touring internationally with the likes of John Scofield, Taj Mahal and Bonnie Raitt, Raitt has touted Cleary to be “the ninth wonder of the world.”

Beaver Creek big stage

On Feb. 10, Vail Jazz partners with the Vilar Performing Arts Center as two-time Grammy winners Yellowjackets make their Beaver Creek debut with a mix of R & B, fusion and straight ahead jazz. The four piece, which has been nominated for a whopping 17 Grammy Awards and whose hit song “A Rise in the Road” debuted as No. 1 on the iTunes Jazz Charts, is about to release its 24th album.