On Saturday, July 25, 2020, the Litchfield Jazz Festival held a virtual event. During this pandemic, it is wonderful to see organizations still bringing music to the people. This is the 25th anniversary of the LJF, and despite the current restrictions, they still managed to hold quite a party!
Even before the actual Festival on July 25, there were several outstanding virtual concerts leading up to the main event, called Jazzy Nights at Home.
Monday, July 13 & 20 — Avery Sharpe “Trio”
Bassist Avery Sharpe did two Jazzy Nights at Home concerts, the first on July 13, which he called his “Me, Myself, and I” concert. He welcomed the viewers, and on three different screens Sharpe played the upright bass, the bass guitar, and the piano. It was quite a feat of talent and engineering that allowed him to play seamlessly, like three separate musicians! The “trio” started with a hauntingly lovely ballad, an Avery Sharpe composition titled “Colonial Life,” followed by another Sharpe original, tour de force bluesy number on the upright bass, “Oh No!” Next was “Beautiful Love” by Victor Young, a minor key delightful duet by Avery on upright bass and piano. The “trio” continued with an elegant Miles Davis composition “Nardis,” a favorite of Bill Evans. Sharpe went back to the upright bass for his final song, McCoy Tyner’s “Blues On the Corner.”
Avery did his second “Me, Myself, and I” concert on July 20, and he started by saying, “I really appreciate you tuning in. Hope to see you soon, and enjoy!” The set began with Sharpe’s piano and upright bass duet of Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love?” Then came a plaintive solo on upright bass of “Autumn Leaves.” “Minuano” by Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays was played with feeling by the “trio.” Avery’s composition, “I Understand” was performed on the upright bass, in a gloriously mellow tone. The finale was another upright bass and piano duet of “There Is No Greater Love” where Sharpe also sang and exhibited his relaxed and laid-back scatting skills. This man is the living embodiment of the term “one-man band,” showing his exceptional musical versatility.
Tuesday, July 14 — Don Braden Quartet
The group, Mimi Jones on bass, Oscar Perez on piano, and drummer Steve Johns began with a swinging “I’ll Remember April.” Then saxophonist Don Braden joined the group and welcomed the virtual viewers, and they moved right into “Billie’s Bounce” with style and precision. Don talked about sharing any donations they get with The Equal Justice Initiative and Music Cares – Covid 19 Relief. The set continued with a winning performance of “Don’t You Worry “Bout a Thing” from Braden’s CD, Earth, Wind, and Wonder, followed by a change in tempo with Jerome Kern’s “Yesterdays.” Another song from the CD Earth, Wind, and Wonder, “I Can’t Help It” was composed by Stevie Wonder, but made famous by Michael Jackson. Don played the flute beautifully on this song. In tribute to the late, great saxophonist/composer Eddie Harris, Braden wrote the song “Eddieish.” He encouraged any of his students who were watching to pay attention to specific aspects of Eddie Harris’ style. Don ended the concert by telling the viewers to “Keep swinging and stay healthy!”
Wednesday, July 15 — Nicole Zuraitis Trio
Vocalist/keyboardist Nicole Zuraitis was joined by her husband, drummer Dan Pugach, and bassist Zwelakhe-Duma Bell le Pere, and began their set with a sentimental “It Had to Be You,” which included some skillful scatting by Nicole. She exclaimed, “The first time we’ve played as a trio in four months! We have a real live bass player in a house! Zwelakhe!” Throughout the set, they interacted with people making live online comments. The concert continued with a passionate rendition of Russ Columbo’s song, “Prisoner of Love” followed by Nicole’s whimsical composition, “I Like You a Latte.” Next came a song from the film Matilda, “Send Me On My Way.” Nicole gave a shout-out to her songwriting students, then the group played an exquisite version of “Someone To Watch Over Me.”
Zuraitis discussed her and Zwelakhe’s days at Litchfield Jazz Camp, and said to Dan, “Litchfield is our family, and welcome to the family, Dan Pugach!” She laughed when she added, “He married in!” The trio continued with a jumping “I Got My Mojo Working.” Nicole thanked Vita Muir, Don Braden, Albert Rivera, Andrew Hadro, and all the people behind the scenes for all they do for the Jazz Camp, and for this opportunity to play live music. “Big hug and love to them for making this happen for us and giving us a place to play. We love you all very much,” and she dedicated “Long Meadow Vine” to them. The group continued with a swinging “Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey” and for an encore they performed the sweetest “What a Wonderful World.” This set was filled with great musicianship and impressive solos by all three artists, and there was joy and good humor throughout their concert.
Thursday, July 16 — Zaccai Curtis & Kris Allen
Pianist Zaccai Curtis and saxophonist Kris Allen got together for a brilliant virtual concert. Both Zaccai and Kris are teaching artists at Litchfield Jazz Camp. They started with a Dizzy Gillespie composition “Woody’n You,” and segued into a jubilant “Joy Spring” by Clifford Brown and Max Roach. Next came an original composition by Kris Allen, the smoothly beautiful “Foti and Liminitz,” from his digital album, Circle House. They followed with Zaccai’s hypnotic original, “Sol Within” from The Curtis Brothers’ CD Completion of Proof. Curtis dedicated the gorgeous ballad “The Things We Did Last Summer” to the Litchfield Jazz Campers. Before the last song, Zaccai quipped, “Get your drinks before the bar closes. Don’t forget to tip your bartender. If there is no bartender, you can tip us!” They closed with an energetic rendition of Thelonious Monk’s “Evidence.” Zaccai Curtis and Kris Allen performed a top-notch concert, switching back and forth from lead to background, without missing a beat. It was a true pleasure from beginning to end!
Monday, July 20 — Don Braden Quartet
In his second Jazzy Nights at Home concert, saxophonist Don Braden bid hello to the viewers, and introduced the band: guitarist Dave Stryker, bassist Mimi Jones, and drummer Jeremy Warren. Braden gave a shout-out to a couple of sponsors, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the George A. and Grace L. Long Foundation. Don also gave kudos to Albert Rivera and Andrew Hadro for making the virtual Jazz Camp awesome, and to Vita Muir for her incredible work in raising funds, and for being the heart, soul, and energy that drives all the Litchfield endeavors. The group started the set with a spirited performance of Thelonious Monk’s “Rhythm-A-Ning,” with choice input by all the players. They followed with a song composed by Dave Stryker in tribute to Elvin Jones, titled “24 For Elvin.” The group moved on with Braden’s fine arrangement of the Bronislaw Kaper and Paul Francis Webster song “Invitation” from his CD, Brighter Days. The Antônio Carlos Jobim classic “Triste” was played in a wonderfully mellow fashion. Don said they were going to play a “nice, bright version” of the classic, “It’s You Or No One.” Even though three of musicians were masked (obviously, Don couldn’t wear a mask while playing the saxophone), the group still had great chemistry. Braden was full of smiles throughout the set, and from the nods and hand gestures in response to his comments, the quartet really appeared to be having a blast! Before the closing of the concert, Don talked about giving part of any donations to worthy causes, and he discussed his CDs, including Earth, Wind, and Wonder, Luminosity, and his latest one, In the Spirit of Herbie Hancock. He also mentioned that his cohorts have several CDs between them. “The Vail Jumpers” was written by Braden in Vail, Colorado, and it was an energetic and satisfying closing to the show. At the end, Don put on his mask and said they were being careful and social distancing, and he encouraged the viewers to be safe. He said, “Hang in there…Take care of each other. We’ll take care of you the best we can with the music. ”
Tuesday, July 21 — Nicki Parrott Trio – Dedicated to Les Paul
Before the concert began, there was a video about guitarist Les Paul, stating how much of an icon he was, and how every generation of guitarists really stands on his shoulders. Then the Australian-born bassist/vocalist Nicki Parrott welcomed the viewers, saying, “G’day!…It’s great to be here in the backyard. I’m really looking forward to playing for you this evening. We want to thank Vita Muir, Don Braden, and Albert Rivera for the invitation tonight to play.” She also thanked the Les Paul Foundation for sponsoring the event. Nicki introduced guitarist Paul Bollenback and drummer Ian Carroll, and they started with Harold Arlen’s “Let’s Fall in Love” where Parrott’s limber and supple singing was given fine support by her fellow musicians, as well as her own bass playing. Nicki said, “Tonight feels very special for a couple of reasons, actually. It’s my first gig since March 12…and it feels so good to play with great musicians…It’s also the first time we are playing together as a trio, so that also feels really special.”
She continued, “This next song reminds me of Les for a few reasons. When I first joined the trio, I was just hired to play the bass…One night, Les asked me, ‘Is that all you’re going to do, just play the bass?’ I said, ‘Well, that is all I was hired to do, Les.’ He said, ‘Do you tap dance, do you sing, do you do anything else?’ I said, ‘Well, I sing at home, but everybody sings at home, right?’ And he says, ‘Well, Let’s hear it.’ So, I sang this next song for him, and as I was leaving the stage, he tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Leave that in.’ So, to keep my gig with Les Paul, I had to sing every Monday night. And here’s the song I sang for him.” It was “The Man I Love,” and it was a delightfully energetic gypsy-influenced rendition. The next song was an appealing interpretation of Les Paul and Bing Crosby’s collaboration, “It’s Been a Long, Long Time,” and they followed up with Sonny Rollins’ swinging “Sonnymoon For Two.” It was a warm evening, and Nicki said, “After a sip, we’re going to swing a Bob Dylan tune for you,” which was a melodious “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.” Next was a ballad that was originally by Les Paul and his wife, Mary Ford, “Just One More Chance.” Parrott dedicated “Where or When” to her parents, who were watching from New Castle, Australia. Nicki discussed how many people didn’t know how well Les played the blues. Towards the end of his life, he developed arthritis in his fingers, but he didn’t need the fast chops to still be able to play the blues, and in his honor, the group performed a lush “You Don’t Know.” Parrott talked about what a great inventor Les was, and how he changed the music business, then the group did a medley of “Young At Heart” (where she personalized the lyrics), and a fast-moving “How High The Moon.” Before the last song, she praised her fellow musicians, and it was obvious they immensely enjoyed performing together. Their finale was a marvelous interpretation of Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now.”
Wednesday, July 22 — Doug Munro & La Pompe Attack
Guitarist/composer/arranger Doug Munro was joined by guitarist Vinny Raniolo and Albert Rivera on soprano saxophone. Munro started the set by saying, “Hello Facebook Live!’ and he said they were going to do some gypsy-style swing music, beginning with a whimsical song by Django Reinhardt, “Artillerie Lourde,” followed by another sprightly Reinhardt composition, “Belleville,” that had shades of “Heart and Soul” in the mix. The group laughed and joked between songs, and they seemed to be having quite a time! Next came an evocatively romantic “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” Doug then said he was going to sing, even though he was some distance from the microphone, and the song was a swinging gypsy version of James Taylor’s “Traffic Jam.” They followed up with a song dedicated to drummer Ian Carroll, who Doug called “a great drummer, a really good friend, one of the funniest people I ever knew, and one of the most talented people around.”
They had played this song a few times with Ian, and the title is “Douce Ambiance.” They followed with a hot, jumping version of “Caravan.” Before the last song, Munro said, “We had a blast, because for me personally, this is only like the second or third time in like four or five months that I’ve gotten to play with other people, and not only did I get to do that, I got to do it with some of my favorite people that I love playing with. So, this has really been awesome!” The set ended with “Fly Me to the Moon.” Their musicianship was outstanding throughout the set, and they communicated wonderfully with each other.
Thursday, July 23 — Billy Strayhorn Tribute Featuring Pianist Orrin Evans
Pianist Orrin Evans started the show, saying, “Welcome. It’s an honor and a pleasure to be playing for you, and to be playing on the Litchfield Jazz Festival and Jazz Camp Facebook page.” He talked about being a teacher at the Jazz Camp and having appeared at the Festival. He added, “It’s great to still be able to find a way to play and deal with music…I do appreciate the venues, the organizations, the festivals…all of those groups that are finding a way for us to play music.” He joked, “This is the first time I’ve worn shoes since March, so I’m excited! I got a little dressed up. I haven’t really been anywhere to do anything, so thank you for giving me an opportunity to wear a new shirt and some shoes.” He said that he would play both songs by Billy Strayhorn and music inspired by the late icon. His solo piano set included “C Jam Blues,” “Take the ‘A’ Train,” his own composition, “The Answer,” Geri Allen’s “Feed the Fire,” and “Autumn Leaves.” He said there was one song really needed and that he is looking forward to, “A Brand New Day” from The Wiz. He finished with a new composition by his son Matthew, titled “Tired.” It was a beautifully solemn lament that Orrin sang in a surprisingly strong voice. This was a riveting concert where Orrin Evans played with spellbinding virtuosity!
Saturday, July 25 – Main Festival
Vita West Muir, founder and executive/artistic director of Litchfield Performing Arts, Inc., welcomed the viewers, saying, “This is a dark time for many people. Some of us have been inconvenienced and some of us have been devastated.” She said that they thought they could bring some light and enjoyment with this Virtual Festival. She praised the sponsors, including TELEFUNKEN Elektroakustik, who allowed them to hold the Festival at their premises on the TELEFUNKEN Soundstage. The TELEFUNKEN Elektoakustik Soundstage is located adjacent to the TELEFUNKEN’s microphone laboratory in South Windsor, CT, allowing them access to some of the best recording microphones and studio equipment in the world!
Vita introduced Albert Rivera, Director of Operations of Litchfield Jazz Camp and Tegan Ryan, second-in-command at Litchfield Jazz Festival, and stated how important their contributions are. She sang the praises of Kris Allen, Teaching Artist at Litchfield Jazz Camp, and the Master of Ceremonies, and brought him to the stage, and he also gave props to TELEFUNKEN Elektoakustik.
Litchfield Legends in the Making
Singer/composer Nicole Zuraitis started with a swinging “That Old Black Magic” with some stellar scatting. She was excellently backed by pianist Jen Allen, drummer Dan Pugach, and bassist Luques Curtis. Next, Nicole brought out her student and friend, vocalist Anson Jones and they beautifully performed a duet of the lovely “Make it Flood.” Nicole wrote lyrics for the Billy Strayhorn classic, Chelsea Bridge, featuring both Anson and Nicole’s superb vocals. The next song was inspired by Herbie Hancock’s interpretation of Joni Mitchell’s “River” and Nicole and Anson’s voices blended in a wonderful way that made the song hauntingly gorgeous. Jen Allen’s fine piano solo added just the right touch. Luques Curtis started ‘Moon River” with some fine bass licks, then the group chimed in for a warm and sultry rendition.
The next song was a clever, lively composition by Nicole for her husband, Dan Pugach, about their mutual obsession with coffee, “I Like You A Latte.” Nicole and Anson talked about how they’ve known each ever since Anson was 13 years old, and Nicole joked that the words to “Black Coffee” weren’t appropriate for a teenager. Anson reminded Nicole that she was finally no longer a teenager, then she performed a marvelous version of the song. The group followed up with a great mash-up of “A Night in Tunisia” and “Caravan” with hot drum licks by Dan Pugach. Nicole said she dreams of having a winery one day, and the group performed a charming and sassy “Long Meadow Vine” with a stand-out bass solo by Luques Curtis. Nicole and Dan wrote the witty tune together, “Our Blues.” Nicole said she wrote the lyrics on a day when she and her husband Dan had a spat, but added that they’ve been doing great during the pandemic. It is featured on the Dan Pugach Nonet album, Plus One, and the song is being re-released in September. Ms. Zuraitis praised Vita West Muir for having the great brainchild to hold this Virtual Festival. Anson Jones returned to the stage, and she and Nicole reminisced about their Litchfield Jazz Camp days, and then Anson sang a romantic “Misty.” From Nicole’s new CD, they played the title song, All Wandering Hearts” and followed with the last song “How High the Moon.” This set was a delightful beginning to the Festival!
After the first set, there was an informative video about the Litchfield Jazz Camp, where there were testimonies from students, parents, and teachers, as well as commentary by Festival Founder Vita West Muir and Litchfield Jazz Camp Musical Director Don Braden.
Artist Talk – Nicole Zuraitis and Dan Pugach
Mike Gow from WZBG, 97.3 FM Radio was the host, and Nicole spoke about all the different people she has collaborated with, including Rachel Z., opening for Dave Brubeck, and Dan mentioned having received a Grammy nomination for “Jolene.” They discussed working together as spouses, and being supportive of each other, both musically and emotionally. Dan said they keep it positive and fun, while still being professional. Nicole talked about learning to cook and create a piano lounge during quarantine, and they both agreed that they have gotten good at balancing working and living together. Dan stressed that they are both very versatile, which is really helpful. They also discussed the generosity of Jane Monheit and her fabulous mentorship. They also talked about Nicole’s newest CD, All Wandering Hearts. For more information about Nicole and Dan, go to: www.nicolezmusic.com and www.panpugach.com.
Charlie Parker Centennial Tribute
Although saxophonist Charlie Parker died way too young at 34 years old after a long struggle with painkillers that started when he had a serious car accident at 16 years old, he packed a lot of music into his short time on Earth, and his influence on other jazz musicians continues to this day. Kris Allen said, “There’s no one more imitated or appreciated than Charlie Parker.” Kris had high praise for Parker, and he said how proud they were to play music by Charlie Parker, and songs associated with him. Starting the set with some excellent bebop, fully expressive conversations were given from each member of the quintet, then they followed with a swinging “Diverse.” Kris Allen led the group on saxophone, and he introduced trumpeter Bruce Harris, pianist Jen Allen, bassist Zwelakhe-Duma Bell le Pere, and drummer Jonathan Barber. Next came a soulful version of “Repetition” with a great bass solo by Zwelakhe-Duma Bell le Pere. Kris spoke about Parker’s collaborations and influence as an introduction to the superb “Bird Bailey,” which included snippets of “Bye Bye Blackbird.” Then Kris invited vocalist Nicole Zuraitis to the stage to perform a sensual “Lover Man.” Their final song was written by Jackie McLean titled “Bird Lives.” It was a dynamic ending to a vibrant set.
Artist Talk – Bruce Harris
Kris Allen was the host for the talk with trumpeter/cornetist Bruce Harris. Kris and Bruce spoke about how much fun they had during the just finished set in tribute to Charlie Parker. They discussed how Harris was first introduced to Charlie “Bird” Parker by his grandfather, who was also a musician, and a big aficionado of Parker, and he played of lot of Bird’s music. At one point, Harris said, “I’m a stone-cold bebopper. I think bebop is the best!” When asked whether he gravitated towards Bird or trumpeters like Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, he said he was always drawn to Parker. Kris and Bruce talked about their experiences in teaching, and what affect the pandemic has had. Bruce said before the pandemic, he was running from gig to gig, and although he is looking forward to getting back to normal, right now he feels mentally refreshed by the break that Covid-19 has offered. They talked about the lessons they learned from Bird and Jackie McLean, and Kris stated that although the two artists were quite different, and they have both had continuing influence on musicians, and their respective legacies are well-earned. Kris mentioned the thoroughness and attention span of Parker, as opposed to the highly distracting times we’re currently living in. The two also talked about the different approaches and stances that various musicians use in their art. In closing, Kris said, “Bird lives!” For more information, go to: www.bruceharrismusic.com.
Art Blakey Centennial Tribute
Kris Allen started the final set of the Festival by once again praising the sponsors and telling the viewing audience about links where they can donate. Then he talked about renowned drummer Art Blakey, saying, “The Jazz Messengers had a very unique sense of purpose and mission.” Allen said that Blakey, through the Jazz Messengers, mentored numerous musicians, and the group had a high turnover, since Blakey regularly sent people out to become leaders themselves. Some members of this tribute band at Litchfield were themselves part of the school of The Jazz Messengers, or they had been influenced by them. The group, trumpeter Valery Ponomarev, saxophonist Don Braden, drummer Carl Allen, trombonist Robin Eubanks, bassist Lonnie Plaxico, and pianist Zaccai Curtis started with a lengthy and passionate rendition of “Moanin’” with amazing riffs by every musician in the group. It was really a fitting tribute to The Jazz Messengers.
Valery Ponomarev introduced the group, stating amusingly over and over, how each member was one of the best in the world! The group followed with Freddie Hubbard’s “Crisis,” that featured magnificent work by all. Using their improvisational skills to the utmost, each of them really killed it! The set continued with Benny Golson’s splendid composition, “Along Came Betty,” which was inspired by a woman Golson was dating at the time. Next was Horace Silver’s aptly named “Quicksilver,” which had a rapid-fire beat where the musicians kept up with each other, note for note. The next selection was the beautifully emotional classic, once again composed by living legend Benny Golson, “I Remember Clifford,” which he wrote in honor of the late, lamented trumpeter Clifford Brown. The finale was a Benny Golson and Art Farmer composition titled “Blues March,” which had a marching cadence, controlled by the drummer, that was effectively incorporated into the straight-ahead jazz flavor. This set was a great ending to the music of the Festival!
Vita West Muir came onstage and said, “Thank you to everyone out there for listening.” She thanked all the great musicians, and she noted that the Litchfield Jazz Camp was a big success. She praised Don Braden for all his efforts for the Jazz Camp, and she thanked the viewers for all their donations.
Artist Talk – Valery Ponomarev and Lonnie Plaxico
The 2020 Virtual Litchfield Jazz Festival’s final event was the Artist Talk with Valery Ponomarev and Lonnie Plaxico, hosted by Kris Allen. Allen said that the set they had just played was great. Both Ponomarev and Plaxico had worked with Art Blakey, and they discussed their experiences with The Jazz Messengers. Ponomarev said that Carl Allen sometimes subbed for Art Blakey, which showed what a great drummer he is. He also mentioned that Art Blakey disliked the term “Ex-Messenger” and Blakey always said, “Once a Messenger, always a Messenger!” Both Valery and Lonnie talked about how they got started with the Jazz Messengers. Valery said the first time he heard “Moanin’,” it set him on his path for life; his life was decided from then on. Valery also mentioned his book, The Flip Side of Sound, and told some anecdotes from his career. Lonnie Plaxico spoke about mentoring young musicians, something he learned from Art Blakey. Both Valery and Lonnie agreed that Moanin’ is their favorite Blakey album. It was an illuminating interview, and an excellent finish to an excellent Virtual Festival!
In addition to TELEFUNKEN Elektoakustik, the other sponsors that are essential to the presentation of the Festival are: Northwest Connecticut Community Foundation, Sheraton Hartford Hotel at Bradley Airport, and The State of Connecticut and Art Works.
This Virtual Festival was an outstanding way to bring music to audiences everywhere, despite the pandemic. It was filled with fantastic music by some incredibly talented artists, as well as some entertaining and informative interviews. The Virtual 25th Litchfield Jazz Festival was a splendid musical celebration, and in these times, you really couldn’t have asked for more!
For more information about Litchfield Jazz Festival and Litchfield Jazz Camp, go to: www.litchfieldazzfest.com.