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Glenn Siegel’s Jazz Ruminations

The vocalist Queen Esther, decked out in a diaphanous, fur-themed dress, made the ornate Robyn Newhouse Hall at the Community Music School of Springfield, seem even more elegant. Accompanied by pianist Jeremy Bacon, resplendent in a deep red, velvet jacket, the Queen Esther Duo performed the rare sides that Billie Holiday sang in the 1930s and 40s. Friday’s concert (February 5) was produced by Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares.

Queen Esther’s voice is round and supple. She would slowly roll into words or attack them with well-articulated emphasis. Her phrasing was right on and she expressed these songs of love and love lost with perfect period sentiment.

Over the course of two sets of music, Queen Esther established a wonderful rapport with the 80 intrepid souls who braved a morning snowstorm to hear her sing. A self-described “library nerd” who spent considerable time researching Holiday and her work, Queen Esther gave just the right amount of anecdote and context throughout the evening.

We learned that Holiday spent a good part of 1948 in prison (the same facility where Martha Stewart did time), and despite entreaties from the warden, refused to sing a note while incarcerated. Because of her conviction, she couldn’t work in New York nightclubs, so upon her release, and despite having been off the scene and rusty, Holiday sold out Carnegie Hall. Soon afterwards she premiered “Holiday on Broadway” and began each night with “Easy to Love.” Queen Esther delivered her version with sass and easy swing.

Describing “Some Other Spring” as Holiday’s favorite, Queen Esther gave us a thumbnail sketch of the song’s composer, Irene Kitchings, a brilliant, classically trained pianist and arranger who was leading bands of adult male professionals in Chicago at age 16! She put her own career on hold after marrying pianist Teddy Wilson, expanding his musical horizons and raising their family. Queen Esther’s raised eyebrows and comments about gender inequality were seconded by the assembled.

The duo closed the first set with “Big Stuff,” penned by a young Leonard Bernstein from the musical “Fancy Free.” It was a critical time in Bernstein’s budding career and he created controversy by using “Negro slang” in his lyrics. Bernstein wrote the song with Billie in mind, but lacking clout and cash could not afford to have her sing it in the original production. Queen Esther counted off the rhythm then had a brain freeze; she forgot the words. It was a moment of high, unscripted drama. Her witty repartee, spot on all night, was tested, until a smartphone-wielding member of the audience handed her the three opening words: “So you cry”. With the lyrics unlocked, Queen Esther sailed through the song. In that moment she won over audience members, many of who undoubtedly have had their own experiences with the vagaries of memory.

The role of accompanist requires special skills: blending the sound, leaving space, lack of ego. Pianist Jeremy Bacon acquitted himself beautifully. It was a nice touch to have Bacon begin each set with a solo piece, giving us a chance to see his spread wings.

Queen Esther came highly recommended by acclaimed dramaturg and good friend, Talvin Wilks, who helped develop her Billie Holiday project at Minton’s in New York last year. Thanks Talvin, good call.

When I asked Larry Ochs, one of the founders of the ROVA Saxophone Quartet, how they decided what repertoire to play during the Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares concert on January 26, he told me they chose pieces they played during the previous week that didn’t require much rehearsal.

Founded in 1977 in the Bay Area, where they still reside, ROVA had just completed a weeklong residency at The Stone (John Zorn’s small, but influential Lower East side music room.) While in New York, ROVA, plus eight all stars, also gave a monumental performance of John Coltrane’s “Ascension” at Le Poisson Rouge.

The capacity crowd at 121 Club in Eastworks, Easthampton, Massachusetts was treated to two transcendent sets of knotty virtuosity, played with wit and panache. The written parts were intricate and executed without so much as a bead of sweat, although on the car ride home the musicians immediately launched into a self-critique of missed cues and opportunities. The improvised sections were equally evocative, distinguished from the written material by a series of various homemade hand signals that dictated the flow.

Shareholder John Sinton (father of the wonderful baritone saxophonist/bass clarinetist Josh Sinton) described ROVA’s music as “thick”. Indeed the harmonies and textures were layered in surprising, and at times unsettling ways. Shareholder Frank Ward, who was sitting in the front row, talked about the “cleansing” experience of being so close to that much sound. Shareholder Tony Stavely’s reaction: “Quacking conversations among demented ducks and harmonious honking of glad geese. Not the whole story.”

Writer and poet Byron Coley was in the house, as was Hal March, who has run the valuable Toonerville Trolley Records in Williamstown, for many years. There were a number of saxophonists present, including Dave Barrett, now a Great Barrington resident, but a friend of the band since his San Francisco days with the Splatter Trio, and Valley stalwarts Jason Robinson and Carl Clements, who had brought a handful of unsuspecting Amherst College students. John Voci, now Program Director of NEPR, who was part of the technical crew when ROVA made an historic trip to the Soviet Union in the 1980s, showed up. As did Bex Taylor of the Jazz a la Mode family. Cliff Peterson made the trip from Albany; Ronald Lyles, Richard Williams and Chris Carville came from various Connecticut points. Alex Lemski was representing Boston.

The opportunity to hear ROVA in western Massachusetts was special; their only other appearance was a 2011 UMass Magic Triangle Series performance of the Celestial Septet: ROVA + the Nels Cline Singers. The scarce chance to hear today’s premiere working saxophone quartet brought over 100 people to Will Bundy’s bustling venue.

In Space is the Place, John Szwed’s wonderful biography of Sun Ra, the author reminds us that musicians in the 1960s, “moved pitch away from the convention of playing in or out of ‘tune’, and made tonality a conscious choice, just as time keeping or swing were turned into resources to be drawn on, rather than laws to be obeyed.” But even as the sound swirled, at least one of the saxophonists provided a rhythmic backbone, playing a vamp or repeated figure that gave shape to the music. And sometimes not.

My jazz loving friends and I often play the “whatever happened to?” game, where we trade information about musicians whom we haven’t heard from in some time. Where is Anthony Cox, for instance? (Marty Ehrlich informs me that the great bassist moved back to Detroit, has his real estate license and still plays locally.) Until he resurfaced in 2003 after a 35-year hiatus, Henry Grimes was a popular “whatever happened to?” subject. Does anyone know the whereabouts of the outstanding cellist, Abdul Wadud?

Matt Merewitz, the well-respected jazz publicist, asked me what happened to Jorge Sylvester. I’m here to report the alto saxophonist and composer is alive, well and playing at a very high level. His ACE (Afro-Caribbean Experimental) Collective performed a two-hour concert at a sold out Parlor Room in Northampton on December 11 as part of Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares.

Since moving to the States from Panama in 1980, the 61-year old Sylvester has released four recordings under his own name, been a member of the World Saxophone Quartet, Joe Bowie’s Defunkt Big Band, Frank Lacy’s Vibe Tribe and worked with poet Sekou Sundiata, Karl Berger, and David Murray, among others. But the creative music business being what it is, those high profile gigs are often not enough to keep one in the public eye. There is very little room on the head of the jazz pin. So highly skilled musicians like Sylvester keep plugging away, keeping faith that the music will provide.

That positivity was on full display on Friday, December 11, as the Collective played many of the selections found on the band’s most recent release, Spirit Driven. The lyrics, written and sung by the evocative, highly musical vocalist Nora McCarthy, spoke often about truth, justice and beauty. Her dynamics, stage presence and varied vocal techniques (including some very inventive scatting), kept our attention despite the program’s length.

The electric bassist Gene Torres, a regular sub for Donald Nicks, was wonderful, easily negotiating the tricky contours of Sylvester’s shifting originals and soloing with a relaxed virtuosity. Torres, a long-time colleague of the Valley’s Terry Jenoure, appeared with Craig Harris’ 10-piece ensemble in the 2013 Magic Triangle Series at UMASS Amherst. Much of the music Torres makes these days tends towards funk, soul and other commercial music. He was thrilled to be able to stretch his skills playing music that demanded a different kind of attention.

Drummer Kenny Grohowski, a full generation younger than his bandmates, can be found making music with John Zorn, Andy Milne’s Dapp Theory, Haitian singer Emeline Michel, the black metal band Imperial Triumphant and the avant rock band, Secret Chiefs 3. That one instrumentalist can be effective in such varied settings shows that the industry’s tendency to box, label and compartmentalize, is irrelevant to creative musicians. His riveting drum solo closed the show and made me wish for more.

Sylvester was masterful throughout, judiciously using extended techniques to ratchet up the intensity, while wowing with fluid runs and stop-on-a-dime precision. His gorgeous tone at all registers was remarkable given that during sound check he had to replace the cork seal on one of his saxophone keys with rolled paper.

Here’s to indomitable, spirit driven musicians who uplift and provoke, even when the material rewards are meager and uncertain.

Jazz Shares Thanks Its Business Sponsors for this Season
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