In its 24th year, the summer grand finale over Labor Day weekend has become famous for its rare fusion of talent.
When you see an artist perform live you’re naturally moved by their talent – by the way they’re able to mix up their regular numbers, extend solos, improvise. How about if you rotated 35 of the world’s most talented musicians on and off of stages with one another for four days and nights of live performance? There would be some unforgettable sparks.
Such is the format of the Vail Jazz Party over Labor Day weekend. In its 24th year, the multi-day live music experience was originally cast on the extravagant, one-off whim of Vail Jazz founder Howard Stone.
“It all started with too much wine in 1995,” Stone recalls. “We had some of the greatest musicians on the planet there. It was pure … spontaneous.”
The original lineup of Grammy Award winners and internationally acclaimed jazz stars included John Clayton and his brother Jeff Clayton, Phil Woods, Tommy Flanagan, Jack McDuff, Slide Hampton, Bobby Hutcherson, James Moody, Joe Wilder and Jeff Hamilton.
At the end of the weekend, a happy hangover of inspiration and euphoria prevailed. John Clayton asked Stone if he would ever do it again. Before the idea had even solidified in his own head, Stone answered, “this is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.”
Now, 24 years later, the Vail Jazz Party has established itself as one of the world’s premier jazz gatherings, still replete with star-studded lineup (more than 35 headlining artists) and a contagious aura of exaltation that participating musicians swear taps into some sort of higher power.
“At the party last year from beginning to end I felt like somebody gave me magic,” says Japanese organ virtuoso Akiko Tsuruga, who recently closed out the 2018 Vail Jazz @ Vail Square series. “I felt very strong energy from so many musicians. I was always crying … it was a very, very great vibe. I’ve never had that experience before. That four days in Vail was the best I’ve ever played; the best experience of my life.”
Highlights of the 2018 Vail Jazz Party:
Bill Cunliffe’s tribute to Leonard Bernstein – Friday
As the creator of the score to West Side Story and musical director of the New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein stands as one of America’s most revered conductors and composers. His legacy has been honored by numerous fellow musical greats. One of these is Vail Jazz Party House Band pianist Bill Cunliffe, who won a Grammy Award for his arrangement of Oscar Peterson’s “West Side Story Medley.” Cunliffe will be joined by fellow House Band members John Clayton and Lewis Nash as well as guitarist Peter Bernstein (no relation to Leonard) for what is sure to be a lively, one-of-a-kind exploration of the Leonard Bernstein songbook.
Tony Monaco’s Tribute to Jimmy Smith – Saturday
Master of groove, Jimmy Smith single-handedly rendered the B-3 organ a cool instrument, especially in the world of jazz and blues. Viewed by many as the world’s organ king, he mentored contemporary keys king Tony Monaco, who has gone on to become recognized as one of the top five international jazz organists himself. Don’t miss the soaring and swelling melodies on tap for this heart-felt tribute.
Wycliffe Gordon’s Nu Funk Machine Dance Party – Sunday
Did someone say dance party? What better way to spend Sunday afternoon on Labor Day Weekend … Nu Funk is a movement that originated in Brooklyn in the 1980s, blending hip hop and deep funk with danceable riffs and climatic breaks. Internationally lauded (not to mention Vail favorite) trombonist pegs Nu Funk to hits from James Brown, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. It’s bound to be a party.
The Sessions – Friday through Monday
The morning, afternoon and late-night sessions throughout the Vail Jazz Party feature unlikely fusions of artists who have often never met, much less performed on stage together. This is when the real magic happens.
“It’s an opportunity for each player to express themselves in a way that leads to something else, that leaves room for self-expression from every player,” explains Stone, whose musical matchmaking skills have become legendary at this point. “It’s a breakthrough moment in a jam session when someone is musically communicating and the other person says, ‘wow, I never thought of that.’ It takes someone – everyone – to places they’ve never gone before.”
The 24th Annual Vail Jazz Party
From Aug. 31 to Sept. 3, the Vail Jazz Party features more than 70 musicians delivering special performances, tributes and jam sessions. Tickets to individual sessions start at $55 and weekend passes are available. Performances take place at the Vail Marriott and in the all-weather Jazz Tent in Lionshead’s Vail Square.
Hammond, Leslie, Cobbs & Smith … do the names sound like a law firm? Actually, the first two men were inventors, the third was a man of the cloth and the fourth was a musician. Collectively, their respective contributions to organ music shaped the future of the sounds of Gospel, jazz and much more. So who were these organ donors? Let’s start with the inventors. Laurens Hammond invented the Hammond electric organ revolutionizing the world of organ music. Prior to Hammond’s invention, if you wanted an organ your only option was to purchase a very large and very expensive mechanical pipe organ and therefore they were generally only found in cathedrals and concert halls. However, when Hammond’s Model A made its debut in 1935, it transformed the world of organ music because for the first time, relatively inexpensive and small instruments could be purchased for home use and by small churches. The availability of the Model A (and subsequent models) greatly increased the number of people playing the organ and in the decades that followed its introduction, Hammond organs could be found in the living rooms of homes across the U.S. and in many churches.
While the Model A sounded good in a large venue, to Donald Leslie, another inventor, it sounded “dull, shrill and still” in a confined space, so Leslie set out to improve the sonic qualities of the Hammond organ. In 1937, Leslie approached Hammond with his new invention, the Leslie, special speakers and amplifier housed in a separate cabinet that was to be connected to, and placed next to, the organ. The Leslie gave the Model A a distinctive whirling/swirling sound, known as the Doppler effect – the sound you hear as the source of a sound moves towards you and then past you.
To Leslie’s ears, his invention was what the Hammond organ needed to sound like a symphony in a box. Leslie suggested to Hammond that they join forces, but Hammond was indignant that Leslie was critical of the Model A’s sound, so Leslie decided to manufacture and sell his invention himself. Hammond was extremely hostile to the idea and redesigned subsequent models of his organ so that they couldn’t be easily connected to a Leslie. Ultimately, consumers decide which products succeed and which fail. Notwithstanding Hammond’s aggressive posture with Leslie, the organ buying public made it clear that the combination of the two was what they wanted and Hammond organ buyers bought Leslies and connected them to their instruments.
Two years later in 1939, the African-American founder of the First Church of Deliverance in Chicago, the charismatic and dynamic Rev. Clarence H. Cobbs, decided to purchase a Hammond organ and Leslie for his church. Cobbs was one of the first preachers to broadcast his services on the radio; he had a large congregation and a gift for promoting his ministry. It is speculated that the purchase of the Hammond organ and Leslie was a shrewd marketing move by Cobbs, but whatever the motivation, congregants flocked to his church after hearing them played on the radio and many black churches, particularly in the South, began to emulate the new Gospel music that was being beamed from the First Church of Deliverance. The Hammond organ and Leslie had forever changed Black Gospel music and it would never be the same. The passion, joy and earthy expressiveness of Black Gospel music were now joined with a rollicking exuberant sound of the Hammond organ and Leslie, and the result was a seismic shift in the music. Eighty years later, it is still going strong.
Now to the musician: James Oscar Smith. Growing up in Philadelphia in the 1930s, Jimmy played piano as a young boy, winning a radio talent contest when he was 9. In 1947 after service in the Navy, Jimmy studied music for two years with the assistance of the G.I. bill. By the early 1950s, he was playing piano in an R&B band, but on a fateful night in Philly, he met Wild Bill Davis, a jazz organist, and decided he wanted to become an organ player. Playing piano at night and practicing the organ during the day, Jimmy, totally self-taught, explored the myriad possibilities of the newest Hammond organ, the Model B-3 (and of course Leslie). He developed a technical command of the instrument and a musical approach that allowed him to combine Gospel, blues and bebop. Singlehandedly (actually he used both hands and feet), he created a jazz genre that inspired generations of musicians that followed, whether they played jazz, blues, R&B, pop, acid jazz and many others.
Miles Davis called Jimmy “the eighth wonder of the world.” Some called his music “soul jazz” and others called it “grits and gravy,” but it didn’t matter what it was called, it had an unmistakable groove and for the next five decades Jimmy was a major force in jazz influencing generations of organ players. A true innovator, Jimmy received the NEA Jazz Master Award, the highest honor that an American jazz musician can be bestowed. He was a prolific performer, who played with most of the jazz greats of the last half of the 20th century and when he died in 2005, he left behind an extensive catalog of recordings that are musical treasures. It is now generally agreed when reviewing the history of jazz organ playing, there was the period prior to 1955, the pre-Jimmy Smith era, and for the five decades following 1955, the Jimmy Smith era.
Vail Jazz will present the great Hammond B-3 wizard, Tony Monaco, a disciple of Jimmy’s, in a multi-media tribute concert to Jimmy at 8:55 p.m. Saturday in the Grand Ballroom of the Marriott Hotel in Lionshead. Come hear why Jimmy Smith was the master of the B-3!
Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of the Vail Jazz Foundation, which produces the annual Vail Jazz Festival. Celebrating its 24th year, the Vail Jazz Festival is a summer-long celebration of jazz.
Esteban Castro was running to escape the rain before the biggest experience of his young life, performing in the prestigious Montreux Jazz Piano Competition in Switzerland. Only 13, he was the youngest pianist in the history of the contest and was up against extraordinarily talented adults from all over the world. He’d been practicing a steady 13 hours a day back home in New Jersey leading up to the competition. It was two days before his performance and he was outside enjoying the stunning Swiss landscapes when it started pouring. He ran toward cover, slipped, fell and landed on his right hand.
“It was swollen; looked and felt terrible. I think it may have been broken. It hurt more than I put on. I didn’t say how much it hurt because I still wanted to participate,” recalls Castro.
In a cinematic feat of overcoming adversity, Castro entered the contest and powered through the pain. Uninhibited, his hands fluttered up and down the keys.
“It was one probably the most rewarding experience I’d ever had,” he says. “I was completely shocked when I won.”
This tenacity – not to mention modesty – is characteristic of the teenage musical prodigies that participate in the Vail Jazz Workshop, the 2018 edition of which is underway this week, featuring 12 carefully selected young musicians from across the country.
The group was vetted from more than 150 highly qualified applicants for the 23rd edition of the workshop. Led since its inception by iconic jazz bassist John Clayton, the Vail Jazz Workshop has cultivated some of the nation’s top professional jazz musicians and features fellow Vail Jazz Party House Band members and mentors Jeff Clayton, Bill Cunliffe, Wycliffe Gordon, Terell Stafford and Lewis Nash. The week-long workshop is comprised of intimate and intensive training – two students to one mentor – focusing on the art of improvisation and playing by ear. Upon “graduation,” the group of students becomes the Vail Jazz All-Stars, performing on the same stage as their mentors in the 24th Annual Vail Jazz Party over Labor Day weekend.
“We look at each other and say, ‘Wow. Not only are they doing stuff we could never do at their age, but they’re doing stuff we can’t even do now’” John Clayton says of the students.
Turning 16 during his time in Vail, Castro is very much looking forward to the workshop with his musical heroes. In addition to the Montreux Jazz victory, he’s won numerous other major awards in his young career, recorded three albums and has been performing around New York City for the last several years – making his Blue Note debut at age 10. He wrote his first composition at age 6 and began tinkering on a toy piano as an infant, his parents renting him his first real piano at age 4. When asked how much of his free time he spends at the piano these days, Castro is momentarily confused by the question.
“It’s pretty much all of my free time,” he says.
“I find that my best stuff comes out in a natural way,” he says. “It’s less of a meticulous process and more of a creative process. The stuff I’ve written I’m most proud of, I’ve written in a short amount of time, maybe 30 minutes. I love the feeling of connecting with an audience. I want to play all over the world and make people happy with my music. That’s what it’s all about.”
Meet the 2018 Vail Jazz Workshop students
In addition to Castro, the 2018 Vail Jazz Workshop includes fellow pianist Eugene Kim. The 17-year-old South Korean was invited to play at the Newport Jazz Festival and has attended the New England Conservatory’s preparatory school and Jazz Lab, winning numerous awards including the Massachusetts Association for Jazz Education’s gold medal, first place at the UNH Clark Terry Jazz Festival, first place at the Berklee High School Jazz Festival and Downbeat Magazine’s Student Music Award for Outstanding High School Jazz Soloist Performance. Bassists include Rhode Island native and Grammy Band finalist Ian Banno, 17, who was selected for the Berklee Global Jazz Institute Workshop at the Newport Jazz Festival. Also, Los Angeles native and bassist Dario Bizio, 16, has played in a variety of school-based bands, orchestras, combos and ensembles. Trumpet players include 17-year-old Florida native Summer Camargo, who has been principal trumpet and section leader for the Dillard Center for the Arts Jazz Band and Wind Orchestra, lead trumpet for the All Jazz Band of America, lead trumpet of the All-County Jazz Band and has played in Florida’s All-State Jazz Band. California resident Joey Curreri, 18, won the National YoungArts competition and has been a member of several Grammy bands, played in the Monk Peer-to-Peer All-Star Sextet and received the Los Angeles Jazz Society’s Shelly Manne New Talent Award. From Massachusetts, trombonist Nate Jones, 16, believes in bringing personality to his music and has won numerous awards from the Massachusetts Association for Jazz Education, five Stanford Jazz Awards including Outstanding Soloist and three Outstanding Musicianship Awards from the Clark Terry Jazz Festival. After his father introduced him to trombone as a small child, Arlington, VA’s Zach Niess, 18, has played with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Summer Jazz Academy Milt Hinton Big Band, the Grammy Band, a YoungArts combo, the Arlington Youth Symphony and will be attending the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami. Traveling from Olympia, Wash., saxophonist Willie Bays, 16, was accepted into the Next Generation Jazz Orchestra, has performed in Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in NYC, the Montreal Jazz Festival, Toronto Jazz Festival and the Rochester International Jazz Festival and has his own quartet. New York native and sax player Coby Petricone-Berg, 17, has played in numerous bands, including the Manhattan School of Music PreCollege Jazz and Berklee Global Jazz Institute at Newport Jazz Festival, was as a Grammy® Jazz Camp Finalist and a National YoungArts Merit Award winner. Also a Precollege Jazz Student at Manhattan School of Music, drummer Varun Das studies with greats Tony Moreno and Tommy Igoe, has played in the Grammy Jazz Band, the Manhattan School of Music Precollege Big Band, the Princeton Symphonic Brass Group and has toured Europe with the New Jersey Youth Symphony. Last but not least, 17-year-old drummer Michael Manasseh of Massachusetts incorporates a myriad of styles into his rhythms – rock, funk, Latin, Afro-Cuban, Indian and West African. He was a Grammy® Band Finalist and has won many awards, including Outstanding Soloist in the Charles Mingus High School Competition, the Massachusetts Association for Jazz Education Outstanding Musicianship Award (twice), and Berklee High School Jazz Festival Outstanding Musicianship Award.
Live in Vail Aug. 30
See the 2018 Vail Jazz Workshop students in their newly found stardom. To kick off the 2018 Vail Jazz Party, it’s a triple bill at the all-weather Jazz Tent in Lionshead’s Vail Square beginning at 6 p.m. with the Vail Jazz All-Stars followed by the Vail Jazz Workshop Alumni Quintet at 7 p.m. and wrapping up with an 8 p.m. performance by the mentors themselves, the star-studded Vail Jazz Party House Band – John Clayton, Jeff Clayton, Terell Stafford, Bill Cunliffe, Wycliffe Gordon and Lewis Nash.
Recently I wrote a column about the joy of discovering new musicians. This is another story of a fabulous “find” – Australian James Morrison. It wasn’t until the 90s that I first heard about James, although he had already performed in the U.S. in the late 80s at the Monterey Jazz Festival when he was only 16. James grew up in a musical family in a rural area of Australia and started playing his brother’s cornet at the age of 7. By the time he was 13, he was playing professionally. He focused his early playing on brass instruments, the trumpet and the trombone primarily, as well as the piano. He studied at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and became a member of the faculty before he was 21 and by the time he was in his mid-twenties he had established himself as an international jazz star.
Before I tell you more about James, a little background is in order. Having unsuccessfully tried on several occasions to play music (piano and alto sax), I am resigned to the fact that in this life I won’t be making music. I am not prepared to make a pact with the Devil to master a musical instrument, but I have given it some serious thought. So when I discover a great musician, I am thrilled and when that musician is a virtuoso on more than one instrument, I am in awe of his/her prowess. I think, I can’t play the alto and this musician can play all the saxophones. It isn’t fair.
Fair or not, I get it and I am resigned to the fact that you have to have an innate musical talent to play an instrument and I don’t. Further, I understand that once you have mastered the “technical” aspects of playing an instrument, a talented player can master a related instrument. But what about an unrelated instrument? When you contrast the expertise that is required to play the various popular instruments (piano, reeds, brass, stringed instruments and percussion instruments), you start to realize each group of instruments requires a specialized skill. The saxophonist uses his/her breath to create sound by blowing across a reed, while a trumpeter needs to blow into a cup-shaped metal mouth piece to vibrate his/her lips, “buzzing” them to create sound. Contrast that with the skill and talent of a drummer who can musically strike the heads of drums with drumsticks while using his/her feet to work drum pedals. Or the guitarist or bassist that needs to use both hands in a coordinate way to pluck and press down on strings to make his/her instrument sing. In addition, let’s not forget the pianist who has to use all ten digits to depress the keys on the keyboard while using his/her feet on the pedals of the piano.
Why the above segue way into an exploration of what it takes to become a multi-instrumentalist? Because that is what James is and I know of no other jazzman who can do what he does so well. By way of example, in 1990, James recorded an album with the legendary Ray Brown and Herb Ellis on bass and guitar, respectively, and with the rising drum star Jeff Hamilton. The album Snappy Doo had James playing piano, trumpet, trombone and saxophone (soprano, alto, tenor and baritone) along with clarinet, flute, flugelhorn and euphonium. On a follow-up album years later, he played all of the above plus guitar and bass. One thing is to play a multitude of musical instruments, but another is to play them in a virtuosic manner. He did. After recording Snappy Doo with James, Ray Brown referred to James as “The Genius.”
To say that James is a musical genius may be an understatement. In a three-decade-long career he has played with the who’s who of the world of jazz and pop, including Dave Brubeck, Chick Corea, Phil Collins and Chaka Khan, to name just a few. All the while bringing joy to audiences throughout the world and performing with many of the world’s greatest orchestras, including the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Berlin Philharmonic, and many more. James has appeared in some of the most famous venues in the world, including Hollywood Bowl, Royal Albert Hall and Covent Garden, plus two command performances for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and for Presidents Bush and Clinton.
Everything James does, he does in a big way. He is an accomplished film and music composer (he did the opening fanfare for the Sydney 2000 Olympics), a conductor (he once conducted an orchestra composed of 7,224 musicians in a Guinness World Record Book performance), an educator (the founder of the James Morrison Academy of Music in Australia), and an instrument innovator (the Morrison Digital Trumpet). James and his wife of 30 years, the former Miss Australia, Judie Green, have three sons and the family resides in Australia.
Vail Jazz is extremely pleased to present James in concert at 1:50 p.m. on Sept. 1 in the Jazz Tent at Vail Square in Lionshead as part of the Vail Jazz Party. James has billed his performance as “James Morrison Plays The Lot.” Come see and hear James play the bugle, cornet, pocket trumpet, slide trombone, piccolo trumpet, tuba, euphonium, bass trombone, tenor trombone (both slide and valve versions), trumpet, bass trumpet and flugelhorn in what promises to be a performance for the ages.
Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of the Vail Jazz Foundation, which produces the annual Vail Jazz Festival. Celebrating its 24th year, the Vail Jazz Festival is a summer-long celebration of jazz.
Take it from a world-class organist, drummer and guitarist … the jazz miracle doesn’t happen every day
Akiko Tsuruga likens the feeling of perfect musical chemistry to a heavenly experience in the beauty salon.
“Sometimes the person cutting my hair is so nervous. They’ve never cut Asian hair and they don’t know what to do and it makes me nervous. But sometimes it feels so great. They wash my hair and give me a massage and I don’t have to do anything. I don’t have to worry about anything. I feel like I’m in heaven. It’s the same with musicians.”
The Japanese B3 organ player experiences this salon-style luxury every time she takes the stage with drummer Jeff Hamilton and guitarist Graham Dechter, with whom she recorded the live album, 2017’s So Cute, So Bad, which was streamed from New York’s Lincoln Center.
“Both of them are geniuses,” says Tsuruga, who has shared the stage with many of jazz’s top international artists and was named 2017 Best Jazz Organ by Hot House Magazine. “Every time I play with them or I listen to them playing, I feel like God gave them special talent. I respect them so much. Their rhythm is so driving. When we play together, it’s chemistry. It’s just fun. My brain, my whole body are so full of heart. I feel full joy.”
Hamilton and Dechter describe the trio’s dynamic in similar words.
“We have A LOT of fun while playing together,” Dechter says. “Jeff Hamilton talks about musicians who are ‘serious about what they do, but don’t take themselves too seriously.’ Being that all of us come from that mindset, it definitely creates a serious yet joyful vibe.”
Widely considered one of the greatest jazz drummers of the modern age, Hamilton mentored Dechter and has performed or recorded with some of the biggest names in music, from Ella Fitzgerald to Diana Krall, Barbara Streisand to Mel Tormé. But sometimes when a combo clicks, it truly locks. Such was the case between Hamilton and Tsuruga, whom were first brought together by Vail Jazz founder Howard Stone.
Tsuruga has a clear recollection of Stone’s phone call after the first time he saw her perform many years ago.
“He called me and said, ‘I have a really good drummer for you.’ I asked him who and he said Jeff Hamilton. I said, ‘wow.’” Tsuruga recalls.
Within the first seconds of their first performance together at the Vail Jazz Festival, the lock was sealed.
“In the first eight measures, Akiko and I looked at each other. We were both thinking, ‘uh oh … we have something really special here,’” Hamilton says, adding that Dechter finishes the package to a T. “I think Graham is one of the greatest improvisers going today. I’ve played with great guitarists in my day and have a pretty high standard. I knew he’d be the perfect fit.”
The joy the three find together is obvious when they perform, each one wearing an ear-to-ear smile and a joy so thick it forms a palpable aura.
“I believe that it’s a combination of getting along together both on and off the bandstand. Jeff, Akiko and I come from very similar places in terms of how we hear and feel music but we also share many common traits outside of music – food, wine, humor …You can put three great musicians together but if they don’t jive well as people, it’s very difficult for the music to reach that next level,” Dechter says, agreeing with Tsuruga that his bandmates’ talent appears effortless.
“Jeff and Akiko both play instruments that require so much coordination and independence, both physically and mentally, yet they make it look so easy,” he says. “It’s something I’m always aspiring to in my own playing – playing something incredibly complicated and making it look simple.”
A skillful ear and a solid background of sacrifice are also key ingredients to amazing musical chemistry, according to Hamilton.
“Hearing the music the same so you have that common language makes it easier to play together,” the drummer says. “The determination and the sacrifice from a young age are a big part of it … not being able to play baseball when you’re 10 years old because you have to practice, in some cases relationships throughout your life, in the jazz world … there are sacrifices you have to make to do it properly.”
Also, these artists certainly don’t forget that the winning mix can’t be made without a generous dash or three of love.
“I have been thinking, what is chemistry? I have been living in New York and there are so many good musicians here, so many great musicians, but nobody like Jeff and Graham. They are so loveable. They have so much love,” Tsuruga says.
Vail Jazz @ Vail Square Aug. 23: Akiko/Hamilton/Dechter
Don’t miss the magical musical force that is Akiko Tsuruga, Jeff Hamilton and Graham Dechter. The trio closes out the 2018 Vail Jazz @ Vail Square season at 6 p.m. Aug. 23 in the all-weather jazz tent at Vail Square in Lionshead. Tickets are $25 for general admission, $40 for preferred seating and $50 for premium seats. Beer, wine and cocktails are available for purchase.
One of the great joys of my life has been “discovering” jazz musicians. As a listener, I find myself simultaneously moving in two directions – backward in time, discovering many of the jazz greats that are no longer with us, as well as forward in time, as I try to stay current by hearing all the jazz that is out there today. With the digitization of music, the rise of the artist self-produced recording, and YouTube, it is an impossible task to digest all that exists, but it is fun trying.
At the heart of my listening is something that I think is fundamental to many of us, without reference to music: the pure joy of discovering something new. Foodies are willing to sample endless offerings of extra virgin olive oil to find the perfect one and many shoppers enjoy scouring garage sales and second-hand stores looking for that perfect treasure. All are on a quest and discovery is at the heart of it.
As the Artistic Director of Vail Jazz, I have the perfect job, at least for me. I am constantly on a musical expedition to discover jazz musicians that I can bring to Vail to perform at one of our 85 jazz performances each year. So how do I do my job? Between Spotify and the streaming of jazz radio stations, there is an endless source of content that can easily be heard. In addition, relationships play a big role in learning about new players. Whether it is by recommendations from other musicians I respect, or the community of jazz booking agents who have a track record for representing up and comers, referrals play a big part in learning about new talent. Jazz magazines, jazz blogs and reviews of performances are also fertile ground for discoveries. Another source of information are the artists’ websites that abound, and the “virtual jazz club” of YouTube. These tools have made the job of checking out musicians so much easier, but there is no substitute for seeing a live performance. I want to share with you one story of how seeing a live performance put in motion forces that I believe were meant to be.
In 2011, I learned that there was a great Hammond B-3 organ player from Japan – Akiko Tsuruga, living in New York City – and the buzz was that she was the “real deal.” Women jazz organists are not that common, although one of the greatest was Shirley Scott. I made a mental note to check out Akiko the next time I was in NYC and the following year I had the opportunity to see/hear Akiko perform. It was clear that night that she was, in fact, the “real deal.” As she stepped off the bandstand, I approached her, introduced myself and booked her to come to the Vail Jazz Festival over Labor Day Weekend 2013, where she would perform with other musicians that I would select. This was part of my hidden agenda, since I wanted her to play with drummer Jeff Hamilton, a Vail Jazz Festival favorite and one of the top drummers in jazz. Akiko and Jeff had never met, but when I heard her play in NYC, I knew that she and Jeff were kindred musical spirits and I was confident that the results would be magical. They were. Akiko and Jeff played in a “jam” session where the music was completely improvised. As the 50-minute set unfolded, the two of them connected in a way that was miraculous. It was as if they had had been bandmates for years. I was grinning from ear-to-ear when the set was over.
If the story ended here, it would speak to the ability of two extraordinarily talented jazz musicians to make music without ever having the opportunity to rehearse together. That, in itself, is one of the most compelling aspects of jazz. How can strangers make such great music? That question has captivated me all these years and I still don’t have an answer. However, the story doesn’t end here. Because of the opportunity to play together in Vail, Akiko and Jeff agreed that they would try to work together in the future. Keep in mind that Jeff lives in Southern California, is the leader of the Jeff Hamilton Trio, co-leader of the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra and a very busy musician and of course, Akiko lives in NY with a very busy performance schedule as well.
But the vow to work together was not just idle conversation and Akiko and Jeff began to play together when their busy schedules allowed. In January 2017 they recorded a live album, “So Cute, So Bad,” named after Akiko’s cat. The album was extremely well received and confirmed they were meant to play together and they now regularly do so. At 6 p.m. Aug. 23, Akiko and Jeff are returning to Vail to perform in the Jazz Tent next to the Arrabelle Hotel in Lionshead. Joining them will be guitarist Graham Dechter, the third member of the band, Akiko/Hamilton/Dechter. Again, if the story ended here, it would be a fitting climax to a musical encounter that began in Vail five years earlier. However, I am pleased to report that the next day following their performance in Vail, the trio will record their second album in the Denver studios of Vail Jazz’s sound engineers, Mighty Fine Productions. As a side note, MFP has been with Vail Jazz for over two decades and its team provided the sound for Akiko and Jeff when they first played together in Vail in 2013. What goes around, comes around!
Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of the Vail Jazz Foundation, which produces the annual Vail Jazz Festival. Celebrating its 24th year, the Vail Jazz Festival is a summer-long celebration of jazz.
Jazz singer Veronica Swift’s unlikely role models have shaped her powerful stage presence
Veronica Swift’s wide range doesn’t just apply to her vocal talent. When citing her musical inspirations, the 24-year-old first names legendary jazz singer Anita O’Day. However, she is quick to point out that she’s also been greatly influenced by opera, hard rock and even metal.
“Marilyn Manson is one of my big influences,” Swift says. “It’s the draw of the theater, the great stories and the edgier side of music. Opera is one of my other passions. I like how opera and metal have such an edgier thing going, whereas jazz is the art of subtlety.”
Hailing from Charlottesville, VA and now residing in New York City, Swift has written a rock opera (she describes it as “Lady Gaga meets Marilyn Manson”) and played a role in a low-budget zombie movie. But most importantly, she’s established herself as one of America’s greatest modern jazz vocalists. Her earliest musical influences were of course, her parents. An only child, Swift began performing with her father, celebrated jazz pianist Hod O’Brien, and her mother, singer Stephanie Nakasian, before she reached double digits. Playing the piano and the trumpet from a young age, music has always been such second nature to Swift that she can’t even recall when it became a pivotal part of her life.
“Did you ever realize you enjoyed speaking English growing up? There was never a sense of duty about singing or playing music. It was my environment,” she says.
By the time she was 10, she was recording with and sharing the stage with saxophonist Richie Cole, singing a Telluride Jazz Festival duet with vocalist Paquito d’Rivera and at age 11, landing a spot in the Women in Jazz series at Lincoln Center.
Her darker alter ego didn’t develop until college (she attended the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami).
“When I was in college, I didn’t do jazz for two years. I was doing the goth/metal thing,” she says, adding that it was her experience in the Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition (where she landed second place) and the passing of her father that “brought me back to my roots.”
“That set the seriousness and the tone. I got to thinking this is a serious career path. When I started performing from that point on, all the rage and frustration that I got to utilize with my rock stuff, that undertone was in the jazz tunes. It added so much to telling the story.”
Regardless of genre, some of the world’s greatest songs are born from sadness, anger and rough times and Swift believes that her “dark side” makes her a stronger jazz singer.
“100 percent it does,” she says. “When I’m dealing with some seemingly big deal … whether there’s a guy, or financial stuff, I put that energy into the music. You feel it physically. It’s alleviating the weight. You can’t hold it in and let it fester. You have to let out the darkness. You have to let people feel that together and rise above it.”
Swift possesses a strident and uncanny ability to hypnotize with her vocal instrument, performing powerful renditions of everything from the Great American Songbook to bebop to Frank Sinatra hits, also originals developed in vocalese fashion. If she were to isolate a single model for her dynamic style, O’Day is it.
“As a jazz singer, the woman who really inspired me was Anita O’Day, not just because of her voice and her approach, but because of her personality. Back then you either had to be really tough and kind of a bitch or really passive. You were either a Lucille Ball or an Ella Fitzgerald. Anita was one of the first female jazz singers to be one of the boys. She was one of the first to wear a suit.”
Swift’s song selection changes with every performance. Above all, she aims to capture universal truths.
“I’m always looking for songs that are more complex in that way. I like to mix it up between American Songbook and obscure tunes. What am I? I’m a storyteller. A jazz singer is a storyteller. I have to sing lyrics that will apply to a large range of ages and races. That’s what jazz does.”
Vail Jazz @ Vail Square: Veronica Swift with the Emmet Cohen Trio
Veronica Swift makes her Vail debut with the Emmet Cohen Trio at 6 p.m. on Aug. 16 in the all-weather jazz tent at Vail Square in Lionshead. Swift, who plays with the trio on the annual Jazz Cruise, promises “sophistication, elegance and spontaneity.” “They are some of the best young professionals on the scene,” she says. “People will say to us, ‘you’re born in the wrong era.’ They’re all such creative people. It’s inspiring.” Tickets are $25 for general admission, $40 for preferred seat and $50 for premium seats. Beer, wine and cocktails are available for purchase. Get tickets here.
Well before the spoken word, early humans were singing (using their vocal cords to create musical tones) and to that extent, the human voice was the first musical instrument. Since language hadn’t yet evolved, it is speculated that the human voice was used to recreate the sounds heard in nature. What is certain is that singing is a universal human endeavor, found in all cultures and locations no matter how remote. As language evolved over the millennia, “singers” began to use words to tell musical stories, initially performed without instrumental accompaniment (a capella). As musical instruments evolved, the voice and instrumental music were combined.
The general consensus is that the first organized use of the voice was to sing and chant as part of religious ceremonies and rituals, but that over time singing became a form of entertainment. Informally, “folk music” was orally transmitted among the people of a region, but over time a more formal process evolved, with the lyrics and music of a song being written down and “published.” It was of course the recording industry and radio in the early 20th century that propelled singing into a mega world-wide business.
At the heart of vocal music is the use of the human voice to deliver the lyrics, the words that tell the story, but that is not always the case as there are many vocal techniques used to create sounds, but not words, that aren’t therefore truly lyrics – humming, whistling and yodeling come to mind and very recently, beatboxing. In addition, there are many songs where the lyrics aren’t recognizable words. Musicologists referred to these as “non-lexical vocables” and many songs have been written with such “lyrics.” Whether it is “fa-la-la, la-la, la-la-la” of “Deck The Halls” or “nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, hey Jude,” the lyricist has written the text of what is to be sung.
What happens when the vocalist decides to stray from the lyrics of the composer? In jazz there is a long tradition of doing exactly that. Known as “scatting,” the vocalist improvises by singing nonsense syllables creating his own melody and rhythm, much like an instrumental soloist does. But in this case, the voice is the musical instrument. Scatting can take the form of mimicking the sound of other instruments or the scatter can harmonize with his own instrument, such as a guitarist or bassist that scats along with his own solo.
The origin of scatting has been lost in history, although Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong has long been credited with having been the inventor of the technique. As the story goes, Satchmo and his Hot Five were in a recording session in Chicago on Feb. 26, 1926, when his music stand toppled over “scattering” the music and lyrics of the song he was singing, “The Heebie Jeebies.” Instead of stopping the recording, Satchmo sang an improvised passage of nonsense syllables, comparable to a “riff” he might have played on his trumpet, and legend suggests that is how scat singing was born. (Listen on YouTube: Heebie Jeebies-Louis Armstong and his Hot Five). In fact, jazz historians can point to earlier examples of scatting and probably what best explains the origin of scatting is the old New Orleans’ adage: “If you can’t sing it, you can’t play it.” So even though Satchmo didn’t invent scatting, he made it extremely popular and ever since, legions of jazz singers have adopted the technique and taken it to new and exciting places.
Like foodies who have their favorite dishes, every jazz fan has his favorite scat solos. I could list dozens of my favorites, but space and the reader’s patience must be taken into consideration, so I’ll focus on two. Ella Fitzgerald, “The First Lady of Song,” is considered to have been one of the greatest jazz singers of all time and a master of scat. Ella’s performance of “How High the Moon,” recorded live in Berlin in 1960, is one of the definitive examples of the art of scatting and some would say the greatest scat solo ever. During the course of her almost-seven-minute rendition of this standard, she spontaneously quotes the melodies of over a dozen tunes, with humor and technical command of her voice, combining different nonsense syllables to imitate the sounds of various instruments, while she artfully weaves together scat phrases and lyrics in a way that makes perfect sense to the listener (Listen on YouTube: Ella Fitzgerald How High The Moon Live in Berlin 1960).
The epitome of combining scat and humor is the performance of “Mumbles” by the legendary NEA Jazz Master, flugelhorn player and vocalist Clark Terry. Slurring words, Clark appears to be “speaking in tongues” using a vocabulary that sounds as if he is singing in a dialect of a long-forgotten Scandinavian language. His voice inflection, rhythmic conversational tone and mixture of an occasional recognizable word makes the listener believe that he is close to breaking the code of an almost comprehensible swinging language. “Mumbles” is the perfect example of how words and music can interact to lift the listen to a level of pure pleasure (Listen on YouTube: Clark Terry does “Mumbles” on Legends of Jazz).
Satchmo, Ella and Clark are no longer with us, but the art of scatting is very much alive today. It has been embraced by young jazz singers who are now adding their creativity to this unique vocal technique, one of whom is 24-year-old Veronica Swift, who scats like a seasoned pro, while combining perfect pitch and phrasing to her interpretations of the Great American Songbook and bebop classics. Veronica acknowledges being inspired by the great vocalists who preceded her, but is clear about her approach when she sings, “I try not to imitate, but to emulate.”
Vail Jazz is pleased to present Veronica Swift and the Emmet Cohen Trio in concert at 6 p.m. on Aug. 16 in the Jazz Tent in Lionshead.
As early as she can remember, Nicki Parrott has been drawn to the voice of Peggy Lee. 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 and began joining concert bands at school. Her older sister, also a musician, had a habit of bringing home Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker records. It didn’t take long for both girls to cultivate a love for jazz. Playing clarinet and saxophone, Parrott’s sister started a band and asked her younger sister if she’d be interested in playing bass.
“We had grown up playing music together and I wanted to be part of everything,” Parrott recalls. “I never even thought about the bass. Then I brought it home from school. It only had three strings on it, but I didn’t think that was a problem at the time. There was a guy across the street who played. I started to develop a good ear. I copied bass players on record and fell in love with the bass pretty quickly.”
The Aussie’s vocal talents did not emerge until some time later, after her bass talent had been widely discovered and she was regularly performing with 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 point blank 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.
Nonetheless, she 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.”
One major hit that became part of “the show” was Peggy Lee’s “Fever.”
“She was one of the first voices that really struck home for me,” Parrott says of Lee. “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.”
It’s not just Lee’s classics that Parrott focuses on in her Peggy Lee tribute performances. She also taps into some of the legendary vocalist’s more obscure numbers. Sing-a-longs are not out of the question, either, just so you know.
“I like to have a varied repertoire,” Parrott says. “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.”
In addition to being part of the legendary Les Paul Trio for a number of years, Parrott has shared the stage with Clark Terry, Patti Labelle, Bucky Pizzarelli and countless other greats. She has composed recording and collaborated on nearly 30 albums, performed in major jazz festivals across the world and played in Broadway ensembles.
Nicki Parrott’s Tribute to Peggy Lee
Vail Jazz Club Series
Internationally heralded vocalist and bass player Nicki Parrott returns to Ludwig’s Terrace at The Sonnenalp for a pair of intimate performances featuring Peggy Lee classics and more. She’s joined by Eric Gunnison on piano, Paul Romaine on drums and Vail Jazz favorite Ken Peplowski on clarinet. Doors for the first seating open at 5 p.m. with performance beginning at 5:30. Doors for the second seating are at 7:30 p.m. with music starting at 8 p.m. Tickets at $40. Full dinner service is available, not included in ticket cost and a $30 per person food or beverage minimum applies. Find tickets here.
Vail Jazz @ Vail Square
The quartet bring its Tribute to Peggy Lee to the big stage for a multimedia performance in the Jazz Tent at Lionshead’s Vail Square at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 9. Tickets are $25 for general admission, $40 for preferred seat and $50 for premium seats. Beer, wine and cocktails are available for purchase. Find tickets here.