Inside the Vail Jazz Festival: The Joy of Discovering Akiko

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.

Howard Stone

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. 

The ‘dark side’ of a young vocalist

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

 

Inside the Vail Jazz Festival: The Art of Scatting

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.

Howard Stone

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.

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. 

Channeling the voice of a legend

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

Aug. 8

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

Aug. 9

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.

 

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Norma Deloris … a.k.a Peggy Lee

On May 26, 1920, in a small remote farm town in North Dakota a baby girl, Norma Deloris Egstrom, was born, the seventh of eight children. Her mother would die when she was 4 and her father, an alcoholic railroad worker, remarried shortly thereafter. Raised by her stepmother who was cold and abusive, she stayed away from home as much as possible.

Her parents were of Scandinavian ancestry and her fair skin, blonde hair and striking appearance in her youth set her apart from her peers. She began singing in church and the glee club in high school and resolved to become a singer. She left home for Hollywood at 17 to pursue her singing career, but was unsuccessful and quickly returned home; however, she wasn’t defeated and she began singing on the radio in Fargo, ND. Shortly thereafter, she returned to Calif., where a defining moment in her journey to stardom and fame would take place. Singing before an extremely boisterous crowd in a club, she could not be heard and instead of attempting to raise her voice to compete with the din in the club, she began lowering her voice. Years later she explained, “When they discovered they couldn’t hear me, they began to look at me. Then they began to listen. As I sang, I kept thinking, ‘Softly, with feeling.’ ”

Howard Stone

Not quite a “Eureka” moment, but this approach became an essential career defining stylistic technique and led to her “trademark sultry purr.” Paying her dues, she gained experience by traveling and singing with small bands in the late 30s. When she was 21 there was another “Eureka” moment, except this time it wasn’t her problem that was solved, but Benny Goodman’s. The King of Swing had just lost his lead singer and he urgently needed a replacement “girl” singer. He heard Norma Deloris sing in Chicago and hired her on the spot, a stint that would last 20 months, during which she would launch her career as a vocalist (selling several million records) and appear in two movies with Benny and his band. When she wasn’t singing with the band, she was falling in love with the band’s guitarist. Benny had a rule that his musicians could not “fraternize with the girl singer,” so he fired the guitarist, whereupon Norma Deloris quit the band. The two married in March 1943 and moved to L.A. where they began collaborating as composers and lyricists.

A string of hits followed, some performed by others, but many performed by Norma Deloris that became big sellers. By the late ‘40s, she was on top, performing in the biggest superclubs in the U.S. and Europe, but there was a problem. Her husband was an alcoholic and by 1951, their marriage ended in divorce. Norma Deloris would marry three more times, all of which ended in divorce, as she searched for the love and security that eluded her as a child. “They weren’t really weddings, just long costume parties,” she quipped later. Between her marriage interludes, there were affairs with musicians, including Frank Sinatra and Quincy Jones.

While her personal life was beginning to spiral downward in the late ‘50s, she continued to have extraordinary success in all the facets of her career well into the 1960s. She had already ascended to “star” status as a vocalist with a defining glamorous and seductive “look,” but this was a façade to conceal her personal pain. Her musicianship was unrivaled among the singers of the day and only Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra were worthy of comparison. Equally comfortable interpreting the Great American Songbook, singing jazz, pop tunes or the blues, she delivered all with her unique style and phrasing and a wonderful sense of rhythm. She continued to compose music and lyrics for songs, penning many hits and even wrote film scores. Nominated for an Oscar for her performance in “Pete’s Kelly’s Blues,” she was one of the highest paid performers of the era.

But all that success couldn’t fill the hole in her soul and is often the case, children of alcoholics don’t escape the curse of their parents’ addiction. Norma Deloris was no exception. Eventually, she succumbed to the pain of her childhood and excessive alcohol and prescription drug abuse followed, along with binge eating, all of which took its toll. By the time Norma Deloris was in her 50s her talents were severely diminished by her pathological behavior. Episodes of double pneumonia, diabetes, and heart trouble followed and exacerbated her declining fortunes. Sadly, many top entertainers continue to perform well past their “prime,” tarnishing their image and disappointing their fans and Norma Deloris was guilty of this failing. It appeared that she couldn’t accept that she no longer had “it” and she sorrowfully continued to perform, in a wheelchair and with a respirator, a shadow of her former greatness. She died at the age of 81.

However, she left behind a musical legacy, recording over 650 songs and 60 albums. She was nominated for 12 Grammy Awards, winning one and receiving the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. She composed music and lyrics for hundreds of songs that have entered the canon of our musical heritage and was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

So who was Norma Deloris? Duke Ellington said it best: “If I’m the Duke, man, Peggy Lee is Queen.”  The list of her hits is beyond the scope of this article, but a very few highlights are her breakout recording of “Why Don’t You Do Right?” in 1943; her biggest hit, “Fever” in 1958 and a last hurrah in 1969 that tragically asked “Is That All There Is?”

At 5 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on Aug. 8 at the Sonnenalp Hotel and at 6 p.m. on Aug. 9 at Vail Square in Lionshead, the wonderfully talented Nicki Parrott will pay tribute to Peggy Lee, singing all of the songs that Peggy Lee (a.k.a Norma Deloris) made famous. The performance on Aug. 9 will include screenings of photos and classic video of Peggy that capture her essence in a unique multimedia format.

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.

Seven Questions with Andrea Motis

In her own words, Spanish musician Andrea Motis provides insight on her background and inspirations

At 23 years old, Spanish-born Andrea Motis has already notched a lengthy career as a professional musician. When she was 7 she took on the role of lead trumpeter and also saxophonist at the Municipal School of Music of Sant Andreu in Barcelona. Playing with the Saint Andreu Jazz Band for another nine years, Motis performed and recording with the likes of Wycliffe Gordon, Jesse Davis, Bobby Gordon and Dick Oatts, to name just a few. By the time she was 15, she released her first album of jazz standards and after a couple more album recordings, she released last year’s Emotional Dance on major label Impulse! Records, highlighting her incredible range and deftness on trumpet as well as her alluring vocal talent. She has taken the European jazz scene by storm.Vail Jazz founder Howard Stone can also attest to the jaw-dropping caliber of her talent, having first seen her perform as a teenager.

“I see a 14-year-old performing at a major jazz festival and I said, ‘what the hell? This is unbelievable.’ I think I have to keep an eye on this gal. When she was 22, I worked with another organization to bring her to the states. They were willing to sponsor her and her band to come. She went to Stanford and they put out an email asking if anyone was interested in booking her. Of course I said yes. She’s not a household name, but she’s really a big deal in Europe.

Making her Vail debut, Andrea Motis joins one of New York City’s most lauded tenor sax players, Vail Jazz favorite Joel Frahm, for a trio of Vail Jazz performances. Catching up with Motis last week, we picked her brain about her inspirations and goals.

  1. Vail Jazz: What was the initial allure of the trumpet and why you were drawn to it at such a young age?

Andrea Motis: It was a causality, as I, at age 7, only knew some instruments like violins or pianos. In my neighborhood’s municipal school of music there were no more places for students of these instruments, only more “rare” instruments. So my father had a trumpet from when he was playing it at about 15 years old. He told me to at least get into the school with his instrument and, after that in one year or so, changing if I wanted. But I had a really good teacher and person – Toni Gallart – and I never left.

2. VJ: What was your initial impression of Joel Frahm and why did you choose him for your album and collaborative projects? How would you describe your on-stage dynamic?

AM: I first knew about Joel Frahm through the recording, Live at Smalls by singer Cyrille Aimée. I love that recording and all the musicians playing on it. It is such fresh music and standards that I love playing [played] so naturally and well. For me, his sound on this CD was some kind of “perfect” and I thought I would love having him on the CD. On stage, there isn’t any mystery. It is so easy to work with such a great musician like Joel who knows about all the standards. We just pick the ones we know better and he can perfectly play whatever new music we give him. We’ve also played originals. In fact, he’s playing on my originals on the CD, Emotional Dance.

3. VJ: What would you say are the most important elements necessary for a musician to successfully play by ear (as you do so well)?

AM: 1. Listening to music (jazz), 2. Learning by heart lots of melodies, 3. Transcribing some solos, 4. Playing as much as you can

4. VJ: As a young artist, what have been your most memorable performance/audience experiences to date?

AM: There are so many! One of the more special [experiences] to date was last August when I performed for the first time at the big outdoor theater – Grec – in Barcelona under my name. I prepared a three-part-show with jazz and songs with contemporary dance and funk. With so many great musicians and dancers, it was, for me, like a dream come true.

5. VJ: What are your ultimate goals as a musician?

AM: To be able to play every [type of] music I love, being able to improvise musically as I feel it without technical or theoretical troubles and to work more for playing it easily. Also composing and arranging more in the future and feeling free to do whatever appears in my mind.

6. VJ: Who are other artists with whom you’d like to collaborate in the future and why?

AM: Cécile Mc Lorin Salvant. I admire her so much. Ingrid Jensen … I feel I like can play by her side. Many others that are just great people, friends and musicians. That’s so important. Also people I’ve already played with and I’ve discovered how well could we work together, such as Pasquale Grasso and Federico Dannemann on guitars.

7. VJ: What artists are you listening to at the moment and why do you find them inspiring?

AM: Freddie Hubbard, Mingus, Monk, Avishai Cohen, Parker, Tom Harrell, Esperanza Spalding, John Erik-Kellso, Luigi Grasso, to just saying people that come to my mind. It’s better to hear it [yourself] and take what you feel about it. I think that will be much better than trying to explain what I take from all that …

Andrea Motis and Joel Frahm live in Vail

Vail Jazz Club Series

Aug. 1

Andrea Motis and Joel Frahm perform a pair of intimate loung performances at The Sonnenalp’s Ludwig’s Terrace on Wednesday, Aug. 1. 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. Get tickets here.

Vail Jazz @ Vail Square

Aug. 2

The pair take their talent to the big stage in the Jazz Tent at Lionshead’s Vail Square at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 2. 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.

 

Learning by Listening

Something extraordinary has occurred in Barcelona, Spain that is proving that the old adage, “don’t fix it if it ain’t broke,” is applicable when applied to teaching jazz. Over the past 12 years the Sant Andreu Jazz Band (SABJ), comprised of boys and girls aged 7 to 20 years old, has been organized and led by Joan Chamorro, a Spanish jazz multi-instrumentalist and educator. During this period, 60 youngsters have played in the SABJ and have demonstrated a remarkable level of musicianship and an incredible ability to improvise, well beyond their years, playing together like seasoned pros with a joy and energy that has captivated their audiences. Before we explore why this amazing ensemble has had so much success, let us explore how jazz has been taught in the past and then we can compare Joan’s teaching techniques with the current approach in the U.S.

In the first two decades of the last century, as jazz evolved into a recognizable form of music, it did so without the use of written music … because most of the players couldn’t read music. Also, with improvisation at the heart of jazz, written music wasn’t relevant. Instead of studying written music, jazz was learned by “ear,” also known as “aurally,” from the Latin word that refers to the ear or hearing. Learning music aurally enables a player to develop the capacity to hear pitches, chords, melodies, rhythms and intervals without reference to written music. This ability to recognize and internalize sound, very much like how an infant hears words spoken and learns to speak them back, was how jazz was passed on from player to player and generation to generation.

Howard Stone

Listening to music is a passive activity. Many of us listen to music, but never really hear it. You drive along in your car listening to music, but do you really hear it? This is the key; you must actively stay focused to train you ear to hear the music. You then hear the music in an entirely different way.

When a jazz musician takes a solo and begins to improvise, he is akin to a storyteller, only he uses musical notes and phrases instead of words to tell his story. Simultaneously, he has to play his instrument and compose his story and his ability to know what the notes will sound like before he plays them is crucial, if he is to successfully improvise. Choosing the right notes, harmonies, rhythms and more is what separates the pros from the amateurs in jazz and the pros can do it because they have great “ears.”

As the formalization of jazz education began to take place in the latter half of the last century, reliance on reading music and understanding the theory of the music, pushed ear training aside, as it was judged not a very intellectual approach to music. Today, young musicians are taught scales and to learn to read music as a starting point. Practice books abound and the focus is to learn to faithfully play the notes that are on the page. Jazz musicians today are educated at conservatories where the technical side of the music is emphasized and virtuosity is prized. This is now the “approved” approach to teaching kids and aspiring professional musicians all types of music, not just jazz.

So what teaching methodology does Joan use to create such astounding results? Joan is “old school” and believes that starting a youngster’s musical education by teaching scales and to read music is too mechanical. He believes that it is more important for a novice to learn what a given note will sound like, than to know how to read the note. He therefore focuses on connecting his students to the music by having them listen to the music they will play, so they can hear what it sounds like. He encourages the students to sing the notes of a tune so that they can internalize the melody. In short, this is the early jazz tradition of playing by ear and 100 years later, the SABJ is proof positive that it works.

As an aside, Vail Jazz annually brings 12 of the most talented high school jazz musicians in North America to Vail to participate in our award-winning Workshop and for the past 23 years our teaching staff has exclusively relied on ear training with no written music allowed during the students’ 10-day residency. I can attest to its effectiveness, as many of our alumni are now professional jazz musicians.

At 5 and 7:30 p.m. on Aug. 1 at the Sonnenalp Hotel and at 6 p.m. on Aug. 2 in the Jazz Tent in Lionshead, Vail Jazz is very pleased to present from Spain, Joan Chamorro and 23-year-old Andrea Motis, a vocalist, trumpet player and former member of SABJ, who is now an internationally touring professional. They will be joined by the marvelously talented American tenor saxophonist Joe Frahm and other Spanish musicians rounding out a sextet. Come listen … and hear.

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.

Tony DeSare sets his own definition of jazz

Singer and pianist Tony DeSare has often been regarded as a young Frank Sinatra. Although he can swing with the best of them on all the classic jazz numbers, the 42-year-old New York native puts his bright and totally unique stamp on pretty much everything he produces. Take, for example, the Justin Bieber pop hit, “Despacito.” In an effort to raise funds for last year’s Puerto Rico hurricane victims, DeSare teamed up with Hamilton star Mandy Gonzalez and Postmodern Jukebox for a hypnotizing rendition of the pop tune that has to date yielded well over 4 million views on YouTube. Also last year, DeSare created the entire score for the Lifetime movie, Hush Little Baby and released his sixth full-length album, One For My Baby.

Before returning to Vail this week for a pair of intimate solo performances Wednesday at The Sonnenalp and “Vegas-style swing” with the H2 Big Band Thursday at Vail Square, DeSare took a stab at the definition of “jazz.” Here’s what he had to say about why the genre, especially his own version of it, might surprise people.

1) It has transcended generations

“I think jazz has become a kind of all encompassing term for hard-to- classify types of music that tend to use more sophisticated harmony and have some element of improvisation. For Baby Boomers and Millennials, jazz seems to have become somewhat of a four-letter word, at least in the mainstream culture.” 

2) Jazz has no borders

“As far what the boundaries of jazz are today, there don’t seem to be any, as jazz festivals commonly include even rock, blues and pop acts among more traditional jazz acts. There still certainly exists a culture of people who have followed and stay up to date on the art form of jazz and its history. In that culture, the definition of jazz is definitely more narrow. I would say what I do has usually been on the outskirts of that niche, though I certainly appreciate it myself.”

3) Pop music and jazz share some of the same genes

“I fell in love with pop music and love classic pop, which was truly was all about a great melody and lyric. Those songwriters and artists drew from the vocabulary of jazz music and I consider myself part of that tradition.”

4) The magic all comes down to each song

“I present songs that swing, have sophisticated melodies and jazz chords and will improvise solos here and there, but for me, the most important thing is the feeling and content of the song itself. A more ‘purist’ view of jazz would favor the improvisation as the selling point of the performance with the song being more the vehicle through which it’s delivered. In other words, if I sing a song like ‘All the Things You Are’ by Kern and Hammerstein, my goal would be to deliver the tender emotion of the song and present it more like the songwriters intended whereas a modern jazz group will use the melody and chord changes more as a jumping off point to make a new statement that often is an interesting contrast to the original standard.”

5) It’s all about what’s real and in the moment

“All in all, I think the definition of what encompasses jazz is ever widening and more and more people are understanding that the label of jazz is not really specifically pointing to any one style in particular. I feel like the term jazz suggests the idea that the music is organic, real and of the moment, not that it necessarily has to swing, have lots of solos, feel serious, etc.”

See Tony DeSare live in Vail

Vail Jazz Club Series

July 25 – 2ND SET SOLD OUT!

Tony DeSare returns to Vail with a pair of intimate solo performances at The Sonnenalp’s Ludwig’s Terrace on Wednesday, July 25. In his words, it’s going to be a “spontaneous and intimate night where the set will vary depending on the audience and how I’m feeling. We’ll cover a lot of musical ground.” 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 or $136 for a subscription to the remaining Club Series performances through Aug. 8. 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

July 26 – SOLD OUT!

DeSare is joined by H2 Big Band in the Jazz Tent at Lionshead’s Vail Square at 6 p.m. on Thursday, July 26. He says to expect “that one and only feeling you can get hearing a live big band with a singer. I’ll be performing everything from Sinatra, Khachaturian, Bruce Springsteen, The Beatles and Prince as well as a few originals. The whole night, though, would feel right at home at the Sands Hotel in Vegas in 1966.” Tickets are $25 for general admission, $40 for preferred seat and $50 for premium seat. Subscriptions are also available for multiple performances. Beer, wine and cocktails are available for purchase.

Inside the Vail Jazz Festival: The Vegas Strip

There have been many famous streets in the U.S. that have been synonymous with a style of music. In New Orleans it was Basin Street for the nascent sounds of jazz, Beale Street in Memphis for the blues, 18th and Vine for swinging jazz in Kansas City, Central Avenue in L.A. and 52nd Street in New York City for bebop, and of course, Broadway in NYC for what else but “Broadway music.”

Howard Stone

In Las Vegas, N.V. there is the Strip, a 4-plus-mile-long desert road, not associated with a particular style of music, but instead the entertainment capital of the world. Nevada was the first state to legalize gambling in 1931, but with the Depression underway, Vegas had to wait for better economic times and the end of World War II before it could become Sin City. By the early 1950s, the mob controlled the hotels with their extremely profitable casinos and much of the vice in the city as well, and Vegas took off. Gambling, bookmaking, prostitution (ultimately banned from Clark County where Vegas is located), 24-hour entertainment, food and booze, easy marriages and divorces, strip shows and much more, all of which ultimately led to the famous slogan: “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”

With gambling at the heart of the economy, entertainment became the “hook” to bring in the “losers” and the best way to attract them was to present the greatest entertainment of the day. Beginning in the 1950s the competition among hotels to feature the biggest draws in their respective “showrooms” was fierce and headliners that could draw a full house were handsomely rewarded. With Hollywood nearby, Vegas developed a connection to the world of celebrities and they were frequent visitors and performers on the Strip. Initially, the entertainment offerings were centered on lavish floorshows and reviews, comedians and vocalists. Whether singing pop, country, rock, or jazz, the greatest singers of the past 70 years have appeared on the Strip and in the 1950s and 60s many of my then favorites regularly appeared: Frank Sinatra, Nate “King” Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis, Jr., Louis Armstrong, Lena HorneTony Bennett and Peggy Lee, to name just a few. In 1956, a 21-year old Elvis had a two-week engagement in Vegas and bombed, but ultimately returned for many successful engagements and the filming of “Viva Las Vegas.” Today, Elvis impersonators can still be seen wandering on the Strip.

Many observers believe the golden age of the Strip was a period roughly half a decade long in the 60s when “The Rat Pack” held court in the Copa Room (400 seats) in the Sands Hotel. The iconic leader of the quintet was Frank Sinatra, joined by Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford, all donning tuxedos with drinks in their hands, smoking on stage and generally projecting the image of being cool, ’60s style. The combination of great vocal talent (Frank, Dean and Sammy) with off-color humor, dancing (Sammy) and a swagger that was the personification of hipness, made their performances the “main event” and the biggest draw in Vegas. Backed by top bands, vocalists reigned supreme during this period and there was a magical atmosphere in the Copa Room where audiences were able to see the best perform in an intimate environment that defined the era. In 1966, Sinatra appeared in the Copa as a solo act and recorded his first ever live album, “Sinatra at the Sands,” with Count Basie and his 20-member band, conducted by Quincy Jones. The album is the definitive recording of this epoch and it captures what a night on the Strip was all about, with some of the swingiest music ever recorded, including Sinatra classics “Come Fly with Me” and “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)” and a comedy monologue by Sinatra, known as the “tea break.”

As the 60s unfolded, rock musicians began to eclipse the jazz/pop stars of the day – the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Elvis, the Who, Simon and Garfunkel and many others took center stage. In 1964, The Beatles made their only appearance in Vegas. Originally planned as a one-off concert on the Strip in the 700-seat Conga Room in the Sahara Hotel, the overwhelming demand for tickets ($2, $3, $4 and $5) caused the promoters to move the show to the Las Vegas Convention Center with a second show added. Approximately 17,000 screaming fans attended and it changed the Strip forever. Rock concerts came of age and it became clear that Vegas would have to compete for the best talent with the promoters of arena/stadium shows, something that a 500-1,000-seat venue on the Strip couldn’t do.

The Strip had to change to meet the new competition and it did. Public corporations began to take over the hotel/gaming industry, replacing the mob, and a new economic model was developed. The “old” hotels were replaced with megaresorts (of the 25 largest hotels in the world, 23 are in Vegas) themed as ancient Egypt, Rome and Greece, as well as NY, Paris, Venice and Hollywood, and of course the Old West. These hotel/gambling palaces contained arena-like performance venues requiring much more variety in entertainment to draw larger crowds, including the new generation of entertainers, lavish spectacles, Broadway shows, impersonators, magicians and animal and circus acts (at one point, seven productions of Cirque Du Soleil were running on the Strip).

The Copa Room and the Vegas Strip of old are now just memories, but Sinatra’s album remains a testament to an era when great vocalists and great musicians could always be seen and heard on the Strip in an intimate showroom.

At 5 and 7:30 p.m. on July 25 at the Sonnenalp Hotel and at 6 p.m. on July 2 in the Jazz Tent at Vail Square in Lionshead, the great pianist and vocalist Tony DeSare will pay tribute to Frank, Sammy, Elton John and many other crooners who helped establish the Vegas Strip as the entertainment capital of the world.

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.

The infectious draw of gypsy jazz

Samson Schmitt was playing guitar before most toddlers knew how to bounce a ball. Hailing from the Moselle region of eastern France, Schmitt’s father, Dorado Schmitt, introduced his son to the music of Django Reinhardt and had him noodling on the neck of a guitar when he was just 3 years old. Schmitt names his father as the “master” of his musical education. He concedes that Dorado taught him “the necessary basics to play gypsy jazz” but “then later told me that I had to find my style of music with a personal touch.”

Today, the refined embodiment of gypsy jazz with a personal touch – not just Schmitt’s but each of his band mate’s – is the Django Festival All-Stars.

Comprised of Schmitt and DouDou Cuillerier on guitar, Antonio Licusati on bass, Pierre Blanchard on violin and Ludovic Beier on accordion, the All-Stars deliver a romping, high-energy blast of gypsy jazz. They play Django Reinhart classics as well as original compositions and countless surprises with what Schmitt describes as a “chemistry” that “has grown over the years to be fantastic.”

Beier, who grew up in Paris among a family of musicians and gravitated to the accordion after first learning the keyboard and drums, insists that the All-Stars’ chemistry is “not a rational fact.”

“Sometimes the magic appears without explanation,” he says. “The alchemy sometimes between musicians can create extraordinary things, and that’s the case in our group. But one of the keys of that is the listening. Everyone has a role and a precise function that blends the music without interfering with ego. When all those facts are put together, it works. And of course the friendship and common passion for this music is very important.”

The passion is tangible. During an All-Stars performance, each musician attacks his instrument with a ravenous but precise force that Schmitt claims is possible only by understanding three key ingredients – “heart, sensitivity and energy.”

That said, playing music in the Django tradition is not something just anyone can do.

“Besides virtuosity, harmony and swing, which are the ‘technical’ skills to master, I can clearly identify the most challenging aspect as the respect of the tradition with a kind of ‘opening’ on something from our modern times. Tradition is so inclusive that you cannot change the basics of this music, but adding new influences from the years after Django, you can make a creative answer to Django’s legacy.”

According to the accordionist, this is why gypsy jazz is so popular not only in France but throughout the world, among people of all ages who love every genre of music. But the genre wasn’t so popular when he first discovered it in the 1980s, when new music was largely electronic-based pop.

“But in the late ‘90s the appeal for world music revealed the Django legacy to the public and became popular among all kinds of people from young heavy-metal fans to white-collars businessmen,” Beier says, adding that in France today, Gypsy jazz is one of “the strongest” forms of music.

Beier began playing with Schmitt when the guitarist was still performing with his father and the two bonded immediately when it was clear that they both relished what Beier calls “the new side of Django’s music.” They have been playing together as the Django Festival All-Stars for 16 years.

“We have plenty of music to share from fast tempos to lyric ballads,” Beier says. “I need to keep the surprises for the concert, but our music is easy to understand and brings a lot of happiness.”

Django Festival All-Stars live in Vail

Vail Jazz Club Series: July 18

The quintet returns to Vail with a pair of intimate performances at The Sonnenalp’s Ludwig’s Terrace on Wednesday, July 18. 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 or $136 for a subscription to the remaining Club Series performances through Aug. 8. Full dinner service is available, not included in ticket cost and a $30 per person food or beverage minimum applies. Get tickets here.

Vail Jazz @ Vail Square: July 19

The All-Stars deliver a fiery big stage performance in the Jazz Tent at Lionshead’s Vail Square at 6 p.m. on Thursday, July 19. Tickets are $25 for general admission, $40 for preferred seat and $50 for premium seat. Subscriptions are also available for multiple performances. Beer, wine and cocktails are available for purchase. Also, don’t miss the after party with local pianist Kathy Morrow at the Vail Chophouse from 8 to 10 p.m. Get tickets here.