Sonny Rollins and Dianne Reeves Light Up the New Mexico Jazz Festival
Richard Bona, Michel Camilo, Eddie Daniels, Toumani Diabaté, Mighty Clouds of Joy, John Pizzarelli, Bobby Shew—and more!—round out a constellation of jazz stars
By Mel Minter
Last year, the producers of the New Mexico Jazz Festival—Outpost Productions, The Lensic; and the Santa Fe Jazz Foundation—told us it was the first annual event and, hallelujah, it turns out they were right. The second annual event, held in Santa Fe and Albuquerque from July 19 to 29, features a breathtaking collection of award-winning international artists, as well as popular local groups.
The John Pizzarelli Quartet performs “The Girl from Ipanema” in Korea.
The urbane voice and guitar stylings of John Pizzarelli summon images of an intimate late-night club with tiny round tables and couples nuzzling in dark corners. Never mind that his fresh, sophisticated approach to the great American songbook has entertained audiences in some of the world’s largest venues. When Pizzarelli caresses a lyric, he creates an intimate circle that crowds out the madding crowd.
Born in 1960 in Paterson, N.J., he came to the seven-string guitar by way of his father, renowned guitarist John "Bucky" Pizzarelli, with whom he just recorded a swinging CD, Generations (Arbors). Singing, however, came to Pizzarelli early on.
“I’ve liked to sing since I was a kid. I enjoyed The Beatles and stuff like that. I started listening to Michael Franks and Kenny Rankin in my late teens," he says. "When I turned 20 in January of 1980, I remember getting the Nat King Cole Trio records. They were re-released on Capitol on my father’s request. That was how I found a foundation for what I wanted to do.”
Pizzarelli’s 21st and most recent recording, Dear Mr. Sinatra (Telarc) with the Clayton-Hamilton Orchestra, explores songs Ol’ Blue Eyes made famous. Some of those tunes, along with other standards and originals, will be featured at The Lensic. Accompanying Pizzarelli are Larry Fuller on piano, Pizzarelli’s younger brother, Martin, on bass, and Tony Tedesco on drums.
In the early ’80s, Albuquerque native Bobby Shew was making a comfortable living playing trumpet in the studios of Los Angeles, but “I was doing everything I could to play jazz in between 'Mork and Mindy' and other stuff,” he says.
He kept his hand in the jazz scene, working with Art Pepper, Bud Shank, Horace Silver and several big bands. His album Outstanding in His Field was nominated for a Grammy in 1980. Still, he spent much of his time in unsatisfying studio work.
“At one point, it got to me. I came home from a gig. I just poured a little cognac, and I sat in the den in the dark and thought about my future. I decided right then and there to retire from the studio,” he says. “I went from a six-figure income to a five-figure income pretty fast, but everything started making sense.”
Since that night in 1982, Shew, who returned to the Albuquerque area last year, has devoted himself to what he loves best: playing jazz and teaching. And he’s in demand all over the world.
Asked about his program for the concert, he says, “Everything we’ll play will be in search of lyricism and melody.” He typically finds both—as on his latest CD, Cançaos do Amor (Torii). Joining Shew and alto saxophonist/flutist Foster (“the consummate musician in every way,” Shew says) are bassist David Parlato, pianist Stu MacAskie and drummer John Bartlit.
Toumani Diabaté demonstrates how he plays the kora.
Seventy-one generations. That’s how long kora master Toumani Diabaté’s family has been performing as griots, a musical caste whose roots go back to the Malinke Empire of the Mande people. Seventy-two if you count his son, who has also taken up the hereditary mantle of musician, oral historian, praise singer and peacemaker.
Maybe that helps explain the mind-bending virtuosity of Diabaté on the kora, a 21-string harplike lute. Of course, his father, Sidiki Diabaté, was known as the “king of the kora,” but Toumani—born in Bamako, Mali, in 1965—began teaching himself to play at age 5.
“The Symmetric Orchestra is an institution, a whole legend in Mali,” he says in the liner notes to the orchestra’s stunning CD, Boulevard de l’Independance (World Circuit/Nonesuch). “It’s my concept of how to mix the positive and authentic side of the tradition with a contemporary and modern outlook. I chose the name ‘Symmetric’ in order to show that the balance between all the elements is even, complementary, each instrument contributing to the whole, equally, to create a groove, a flow.”
The Symmetric Orchestra, which can include as many as 40-some musicians, plays most Friday nights at the Bamako cultural space where the CD was recorded. The group requires that you lift your spirits and move your feet. At the center of mesmerizing rhythms, Toumani Diabaté weaves sparkling webs of improvisation that limn the connections between the musical traditions of West Africa and the New World’s blues and jazz.
For clarinetist/saxophonist Eddie Daniels, his upcoming CD, Homecoming, is distinguished by his quintet's “quality of thought behind the music.”
“I was really picturing the sound of the Modern Jazz Quartet plus me on the clarinet,” says Daniels, whose virtuosity on the devilishly temperamental instrument has earned him kudos from both the classical and jazz worlds.
Daniels started on the tenor sax as an original member of the Thad Jones–Mel Lewis Orchestra. Although he has long concentrated on the clarinet (“my voice,” he says), he's lately picked up the saxophone for Homecoming and, previously, Mean What You Say (both on IPO Recording). He'll play both instruments again Saturday.
Although he admits to “wailing like a mother” on the sax, he adds, “Jazz doesn’t have to be always frantic. It’s great when it’s exciting—we’re going to have a lot of moments like that, I guarantee you. But there’s going to be these soft, quiet moments where everybody can go, ‘Ahh, beautiful.’ You don’t hear that so much in jazz.”
Whatever the instrument, the bottom line for Daniels is “making the art of music and of expression. ... That’s what people end up liking about a player—not that he has all the technique in the world. It’s really the expression of his heart.”
The quintet—with Joe Locke (vibes), Tom Ranier (piano), David Finck (bass) and Lewis Nash (drums)—will focus on material from the new recording, including jazz standards and new compositions.
Starting out in Los Angeles storefront churches more than 46 years ago, legendary gospel quartet the Mighty Clouds of Joy have since played the greatest halls in the world. They also transformed gospel music, adding bass, drums and keyboard to the traditional lone guitar accompaniment and grafting gospel onto secular musical styles. (“Ride the Mighty High” became a huge dance hit of the disco era.)
Electrifying lead singer Joe Ligon, who has fronted the group from the beginning, had humble ambitions at the outset. “I just wanted to sing,” he says.
Ligon credits the preaching style of his godfather Rev. C. L. Franklin (Aretha’s father), and the vocal techniques and stage savvy of Julius Cheeks (the Dixie Hummingbirds) along with Sam Cooke as his greatest influences.
Ligon credits their record company with the idea of expanding the group’s instrumentation. “They saw—and we had to go along with them—gospel music changing,” he says. “They saw contemporary gospel coming in. They knew we were a daring group. They knew if anybody would try, it would be the Mighty Clouds. We tried it first.”
The group took flak from family, friends and fans but persevered. “We knew our intentions,” says Ligon, who saw an opportunity to widen the group’s musical ministry. “We got in doors that we never would have entered.”
Ligon will be joined by early partner Richard Wallace, and longtime members and vocalists Mike Cook and Ron Staples. Johnny Valentine, Orick Ewing, Alfred Hudson and Ervin “Big Man” Williams make up the band—as on their latest recording, Movin’ (EMI Gospel).
Richard Bona’s life reads like a dream. From a small village in East Cameroon, the multi-instrumentalist has grown into a citizen of the world and one of its great musicians, playing with everyone from Harry Belafonte and Bobby McFerrin to Danilo Pérez and Branford Marsalis.
“I live in my dream,” says Bona, laughing sonorously. “Before I started my career, I already saw it, like a movie.”
Inspired to play bass after encountering a recording of the late Jaco Pastorius, Bona has emerged as a virtuoso on that instrument, and he’s accomplished on several others. Then, there’s the voice—clear, soothing, intimate, singing in his native language, Douala.
He’s a composer as well, which his first three CDs as a leader clearly demonstrate. His latest, Tiki (Decca), explores the Brazil-Africa connection. “I love to learn. I learn from other music, from other musicians,” he says. “When I went to Brazil, I tried to combine what I learned down there with my own background.”
Bona does not just hear music. He sees it, too, in color, and his compositions reflect the painterly effort of combining those colors.
Color or sound, “music is a healing process,” says Bona. He describes his music, which combines elements of world, jazz and pop, “in only two words: respect and love. ... Every time I walk on the stage, I just want to share that blessing. I want people to see me on stage, and go back maybe 10 years, just thinking of it, and put a little smile on their face.”
Bona will be accompanied by Ernesto Simpson (drums), Samuel Torres (percussion), Etienne Stadwijk (keyboards), Taylor Haskins (trumpet) and John Caban (guitar).
Grammy-winning Dominican pianist Michel Camilo, who moves effortlessly between the classical and jazz worlds, feels it’s the element of surprise that makes jazz so attractive.
“That’s what has us in love with the jazz world. It’s so immediate, it’s so different each time you play a song and it comes completely different out of you,” he says. In the trio, "We surprise each other every time. I call it the process of self-discovery—how you find out things about yourself that you never knew existed.”
For Camilo, who is famous for his energy and virtuosity, part of that self-discovery has been harnessing his prodigious technical facility. “I’ve struggled with that all my life,” he says, explaining that it’s very easy to “just become technique all the way.”
“The music is more important. The feelings are more important,” he says. The last seven years, he says, have been a turning point for him: He's consciously worked to distill a personal style that subordinated technique to the music.
“In the solo piano album, which is my most intimate album to date," Camilo says, referring to his Telarc release, Solo, "I definitely wanted to bring all that emotional side on top of any technical prowess.”
His most current and beautiful recording, Spirit of the Moment (Telarc), returns to the piano trio format, where that commitment to the expressive continues. His fire and technique will still dazzle you—but they consistently serve his musical ideas and a very satisfying communion with the listener. Camilo will be joined by Charles Flores (bass) and Cliff Almond (drums).
The “Saxophone Colossus,” one of the supreme figures in the history of jazz music and one of its most jaw-droppingly sublime improvisers, tenorist Sonny Rollins considers himself “sort of a work in progress.”
Every day, he is faced with “the same thing that has always challenged me in my career,” he says. “I’m trying to get better. I’m trying to get a better sound. ... My sound and my approach and everything was never set. It’s set today to a degree, of course, but I’m trying to break that set because I’m always trying to improve on my expression. That’s my everyday task when I wake up in the morning. ... So that’s an ongoing thing as long as life goes on.”
Rollins’ professional life has been going on for more than 60 splendid years, through many changes. “My music is always changing a lot because I’m trying to get to something I’m hearing, which is always a little elusive,” says Rollins.
Speaking of his approach to improvisation, he says, “Generally, in my career, I’ve played musics which are based on themes.” Whatever the approach, “the net result always should be the same, which is something uplifting and meaningful and that you instinctively feel is correct. You know what I mean?”
Rollins expects to be joined by the band from his latest recording, Sonny, Please (Doxy): Clifton Anderson (trombone), Bobby Broom (guitar), Bob Cranshaw (bass), Steve Jordan (drums), Kimati Dinizulu (percussion).
Dianne Reeves is a four-time Grammy winner for Best Jazz Vocal Performance (including three consecutive recordings—an unprecedented achievement in any vocal category) who believes all the songs she records share at least one characteristic: “I love the lyric,” she says.
Dianne Reeves, Terence Blanchard and Della Reese honor Carmen McRae at her NAACP Lifetime Achievement Award presentation in the early ’90s.
“Generally, the songs that I choose to sing, it’s because there’s something in the lyric that makes me feel ... a story. I can actually tell a story, and it’s that story that people hear in the emotion when I’m singing, because I just really love the songs that I sing. Yeah.”
You can hear that love on her latest Blue Note recording, A Little Moonlight, an intoxicating romantic experience.
Born in Detroit and raised in Denver (where she still lives), Reeves has taken a circuitous professional route, singing a variety of music—Latin, world, R&B and more—on her way to becoming a bona fide jazz diva. That variety and versatility is well suited to the “Strings Attached” program she brings to the festival, which features her with guitarists Romero Lubambo and Russell Malone.
“My repertoire with Romero is really steeped in Brazilian tradition, and my repertoire with Russell is steeped in the blues. We meet together in jazz music,” she says. “In our set, each of them plays each other’s music. We mix it all up, and it’s very exciting for me, because when you are on stage with musicians you absolutely trust, then the music goes away from your head—and just [comes] from your heart. So anything can happen, because you trust that whatever is going to be is going to be good.”
A.B. Spellman and Sonny Rollins: Meet The Artist
The Lensic, Santa Fe, 3 p.m.
A.B. Spellman, retired NEA deputy chairman, jazz historian and poet, meets with Sonny Rollins for an on-stage interview and Q&A.