The jazz is jumpin': Crash course in music history this weekend

Posted: March 08, 2014

Anyone looking for a quick overview of jazz history could take a crash course simply by checking out a few performances in Philly this weekend. Around the city, modern jazz artists are paying homage to a groundbreaking festival and some of the music's most pioneering artists, glancing back while moving determinedly forward.

Saturday night at the Painted Bride Art Center, Philadelphia saxophonist and bandleader Bobby Zankel kicks off his three-night "Still the New Thing" festival with a concert celebrating his mentor, Cecil Taylor. The avant-garde pianist turns 85 this month; the festival continues March 21 with a tribute to fellow birthday boy Ornette Coleman, a year younger, concluding on April 9 with a centennial concert in honor of pianist Sun Ra.

For this weekend's concert, Zankel has gathered an all-star band of adventurous musicians who have worked with Taylor over the years. Drummer Andrew Cyrille and bassist Henry Grimes both played on the pianist's landmark late-'60s albums Unit Structures and Conquistador! Bassist William Parker is a member of Taylor's Feel Trio, while pianist Dave Burrell has a fiercely percussive approach and a genre-spanning style that makes him an apt surrogate for Taylor, who innovated a highly physical, improvisatory attack on the keys.

"The thing that Cecil taught me that no one else could have, that maybe no one on the planet understands as much as he does, is the power of music to elevate the spirit," Zankel says. "Music can do much more than entertain or create a mood; music has a power to ennoble life, to make you feel the joy and meaning of living, to express your humanity without any limit. I don't think anybody living has explored those things in the way that Cecil has."

For the last six decades, the joy of jazz has been celebrated in an ideal setting at the Newport Jazz Festival. Founded by impresario George Wein in 1954, the festival set the template for the modern jazz festival and has produced countless memorable moments and changed the fortunes of many a musician. Duke Ellington resurrected his flagging career with his exuberant 1956 performance, and the festival served as the backdrop for the Frank Sinatra/Grace Kelly musical High Society.

"Over the years it's launched people's careers and revived careers that have slowed down," says clarinetist and saxophonist Anat Cohen. "I love the spirit of the festival."

Cohen is the music director for Newport Jazz Festival: Now 60, a multigenerational ensemble assembled by Wein to celebrate the festival's diamond anniversary. The Israeli-born reeds player will be joined onstage at the Merriam Theater on Sunday night by trumpeter Randy Brecker, vocalist Karrin Allyson, guitarist Mark Whitfield, pianist Peter Martin, drummer Clarence Penn, and bassist Ben Allison.

"Representing this festival is a tricky one because George has programmed the festival from the beginning as a combination of modern and traditional," Cohen says, citing the 1963 teaming of bop pioneer Thelonious Monk with Dixieland clarinetist Pee Wee Russell. "A band needs to show the spirit of jazz, the spirit of interaction and of finding a common language between musicians who come from different backgrounds. We represent the spirit of the festival."

Philadelphia trumpeter John Vanore has worked with his fair share of greats from jazz's past, including a long stint with bandleader Woody Herman. But with his band Abstract Truth, he sticks to his own original music, albeit bearing the influence of those mentors. The 12-piece ensemble, which plays two sets at Chris' Jazz Cafe Friday night, has a unique instrumentation that can evoke the richness of a big band while maintaining the flexibility of a small group.

Vanore originally formed Abstract Truth in 1981, releasing two albums in the early 1990s. Those caught the ear of EMI Records, and he put the band on hold to concentrate on recording and producing for EMI, Atlantic Records, Wyndham Hill, and Miramax over the next decade. After a few years, however, he found himself missing the personal expression that Abstract Truth afforded him. "I decided five years ago I had to resurrect the band," Vanore says. "That's where my heart is."

Unlike the other bands playing in town this weekend, Abstract Truth doesn't hark back to an earlier period in jazz history. But the centerpiece of the band's most recent album, Culture, looks even further into the past. The three-part Easter Island Suite is a musical journey to the Polynesian island and its mysterious ancient sculptures.

"I was always fascinated by the mysticism of Easter Island," Vanore says. "I wanted the music to feel as if you've just washed ashore and discovered the heads and the statues."

Jazz is a music that always remains strongly rooted in tradition even while stretching its boundaries. According to Zankel, exploring the innovations of its greatest artists is one way to keep moving forward. "What these guys have done, the ideas that they pioneered, fought, and lived for, can be so useful to young musicians. It really can bring so much pleasure and open some new doors."


John Vanore's Abstract Truth

8 and 10 p.m. Friday at Chris' Jazz Cafe, 1421 Sansom St.

Tickets: $20 (8 p.m.), $15 (10 p.m.)

Information: www., 215-568-3131.

Celebrating Cecil: Cecil Taylor 85th Birthday Celebration

8 p.m. Saturday at the Painted Bride Art Center, 230 Vine St.

Tickets: $20, $25 (day of show)

Information: www. 215-925-9914

Newport Jazz Festival: Now 60

8 p.m. Sunday at the Merriam Theater, 250 S. Broad St.

Tickets: $28-$60

Information: www.

events, 215-893-1999

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