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The University of Hartford

Thinking Globally, Buying Locally:
Recent CDs by Connecticut
Improvisers Make Ideal Holiday Gifts

By Chuck Obuchowski

Doesn’t it feel great when you find gifts that offer their recipients the potential for surprising, exciting discoveries? Gifts that avoid the generic (“Wow...another McDonalds gift certificate!”)? Gifts that transcend practical-but-boring (“Hey, thanks for that great can opener!”)? The items I’ll be suggesting herein could provide your friends with many hours of enjoyment, while also enhancing their appreciation for the outstanding quality and variety of artists who live, or have lived, right here in our little Nutmeg State. And, although you’ll be giving something produced in limited quantities, something you might even purchase directly from the hardworking artist himself, it won’t cost you a fortune!
If the people you’re shopping for are jazz fans, you’ve come to the right place. Of course, as we all know, beauty is in the ear of the beholder; so read on to determine which recordings will best suit each of your gift-getters. In the event that you aren’t celebrating any holidays now – if instead you associate this time of year with traffic gridlock, ice-covered sidewalks and long, cold nights – all the more reason to buy a few of the discs mentioned below for yourself, to help eradicate the dreaded mid-winter blues!
Finding these recordings shouldn’t be too difficult. Integrity ‘n’ Music, 506 Silas Dean Highway in Wethersfield, a jazz specialty shop, carries most, if not all, of them. Additionally, most are available directly from the musicians whenever they perform in public. Where possible, I have included web site information as well.

Swingin’ with Class
In terms of popularity, acoustic “straightahead” jazz—a style rooted in the bebop innovations of the 1940s—remains the dominant sound in Connecticut—at the clubs, on the radio and in the classroom. Which is not to say that a musician can make a comfortable living here playing this music; moonlighting is almost a given. Fortunately, our state is blessed with some excellent academic jazz programs, which provide teaching jobs for qualified players; a number of enterprising individuals have been able to maintain successful performance careers, thanks to the steady income of their teaching work.
Trombonist Steve Davis has mastered the art of career juggling during the past decade, having learned the skills from a pioneer of jazz academia, Jackie McLean. When Davis came to the University of Hartford’s Hartt School 20-some years ago, he could not have imagined that someday he’d be playing in his mentor’s band, nor that he himself would become a respected jazz instructor at Hartt. But the young boneman kept plugging away and is today recognized nationally as one of the top improvisers on his horn. Systems Blue, released this year on Criss Cross Jazz, marks Davis’ eighth recording as a leader, and it’s sure to delight fans of the current jazz mainstream. The trombonist contributed a couple new original tunes to the date, which also features inspired interpretations of standards (“Speak Low,” “My Old Flame”) and pieces that deserve to become standards (e.g., “Three and One” by Thad Jones). The rhythm players here are among Davis’ bandmates in One for All, one of the hottest bands on the Big Apple scene. New Haven native and fellow Hartt person Mike DiRubbo adds his buoyant alto sax stylings to the two Davis originals on this disc. (www.crisscrossjazz.com)

Bassist Jeff Fuller, a lifelong Connecticut resident, is another successful performer/instructor. When he’s not teaching composition to high school students at New Haven’s Educational Center for the Arts (ECA), you might catch him penning new tunes for Samba Brasil. It’s just as likely you’ll find him doing session work for a variety of instrumentalists and singers (he’s one of the area’s first-call sidemen). During the evening, chances are Fuller will be playing at one of his many regular jazz gigs. One such gig, a duo with his piano-playing buddy Charlie Sutton, has been so satisfying for both that it’s continued for over a dozen years; every Thursday night, the Cuckoo’s Nest Restaurant in Old Saybrook, plays host to the sophisticated, swinging music of Sutton and Fuller.
Deep in a Dream, on Quadrangle Music, commemorates the duo’s lengthy association; wisely, they opted to record in the studio, rather than at the restaurant, where the background noise would most certainly have detracted from the intimate nature of this music. For anyone on your gift list who appreciates heartfelt lyricism, combined with a fun-loving sense of swing, this disc is a must. For more information, check out www.jefffuller.net



Keyboardist Noah Baerman has indirectly benefited from the efforts of (slightly) older musicians like Jeff Fuller and Steve Davis. A New Haven native, Baerman actually received his first formal jazz training at the ECA, where Fuller now teaches, and at the Artists Collective in Hartford, where Steve Davis once worked alongside Jackie McLean.
But Baerman threw himself into performance, even during his college years. While under Kenny Barron’s tutelage, for instance, the pianist helped found Positive Rhythmic Force, a young quartet that managed to remain together for five years, even making time to tour and record two albums in the process.
More recently, Baerman has led his own groups in the Middletown area, taken on several teaching positions and written eight jazz instruction books. How he squeezed in time to record U-Turn this year with his trio is anybody’ s guess! Whatever his secret, Baerman’s album contains just about an hour’s worth of music; most of it was written by members of the trio; none of it sounds cliche or trite, yet all of it is very listener-friendly.
An interesting trend in the past couple years finds younger players like Baerman, players steeped in the jazz tradition, re-exploring the electric (and electronic) instruments which some of their elders have shunned. Baerman plays the Fender Rhodes electric piano exclusively on U-Turn, giving the music a funky, edgy feel. This disc will appeal to middle-aged jazz fans who miss the vibe of the bygone fusion era, but it will also find favor among the young devotees of jam bands. Who knows—you might even turn a kid on to some “real” jazz in the process! You can order this disc from Baerman’s impressive web site: www.noahjazz.com

The Wide, Wide World of Jazz
The music of other countries and other cultures has always exerted some influence on jazz, but no more so than now. For this listener, the most fascinating jazz developments in recent times have been those projects that involved cross-pollination with ethnic sounds and instruments.
As an example of such blends, This Is the Afro-Semetic Experience, under the leadership of pianist Warren Byrd and bassist David Chevan, is undoubtedly among the best discs of the year. This multi-cultural gem, available from Reckless DC Music, combines elements of Hebrew spiritual music with those of the African-American gospel tradition. But before you dismiss this as some sort of academic exercise, imagine what might happen once they’ve added a Native American saxophonist to that mix, one who specializes in freewheeling creative improvisations. Then add a violinist/steel guitar player with an extensive knowledge of American folk music. Finally, include a couple outstanding percussionists and horn players for good measure.
Well, let’s just say the results are surprising, and very inspiring. In the wrong hands, this could have been a chaotic mess, but Byrd and Chevan have assembled an amazing group to play highly original music that simply must be heard to be fully appreciated. This release, and previous recordings by Byrd and Chevan as a duo, are available at www.chevan.addr.com


Insight has been a part of the Hartford jazz scene for the past seven or eight years, although until recently they were known as Latin Flavor. The truly astounding thing about the band’s continued existence is the fact that some of the members weren’t even of high school age when they began playing in public. At first, many regarded them as little more than an entertaining child-prodigy act. But the Curtis brothers, Zaccai and Luques, who form the band’s nucleus, were lucky enough to have parents who believed in their talents, and saw to it that they had the opportunity to continue. The band’s self-titled, self-produced release of 2002 finally brings to fruition the family’s efforts. Currently, most of the group’s players are at various colleges on the East Coast, but the band continues to perform whenever schedules permit.
Now operating as an octet, Insight presents a recording consisting largely of high-octane Afro-Cuban jazz, most of it composed by the group. Band members suggest that Insight is much more than “just” a Latin jazz group, that their influences encompass everything from hip hop to classical music. For evidence of the latter, listen to the four-part arrangement of Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite,” probably the wildest ride Igor’s music has had in some time! You can find out more about Insight at www.insighttheband.com

Sadly, a number of area jazz fans are quick to criticize the state’s musicians and music presenters. I urge anyone with those Grinch-like tendencies—in the peacemaking spirit of the holiday season—to give some of these recordings a listen, and to make an effort to check out a few local jazz events. Granted, such gigs don’t usually get much press, but by tuning in to WWUH jazz programs, or calling our Jazzline (860-768-5267), you should have no problem tracking down live jazz nearby to suit your tastes. The nightclub scene may not be as kind to the music as it once was, but plenty of opportunities to hear outstanding Connecticut-based improvisers still exist. Obviously, the local jazz community cannot thrive if people don’t support the artists who are trying to make a living here.
Cynics will tell you that all the good musicians are gone. These fair-weather fans, in search of a scapegoat, will recall the infamous night in 1950 when Stan Getz “kidnapped” Norwalk native Horace Silver after the pianist accompanied Getz at a Hartford nightclub. But who can blame the young Silver for accepting an offer to tour with one of the most successful jazzmen of that era? And why shouldn’t talented players—like John Scofield, Thomas Chapin, Cindy Blackman, Brad Mehldau, etc.—leave Connecticut to seek their fortunes in New York City? Especially when many of them received neither the respect nor the support they clearly deserved when they were here?
As one who has been a part of the state’s jazz community for the past 25 years, I can attest to its frustrating ebb-and-flow nature. There have been great years, and there have been some very lean ones. But, through it all, some world-class musicians have always remained here, contributing their talents and sharing their wisdom with students, with other artists and with fans.
What does the future hold in store for jazz in Connecticut? Every one of us who enjoys and respects this unique art form can have an impact on its future. Tonight you could stay at home and watch television ... or, you could go out to hear a local jazz group perform. Tomorrow you could borrow one of the albums referred to in this article from a friend, take it home, and burn a copy for yourself ... or you could purchase the disc from a local independent retailer, or from the artist’s web site. Right this moment, you could drive to the nearest super-mall and buy as many gift certificates for the holidays as you can afford ... or you could consider getting the gift of music for your friends and family. It’s your choice, jazz fans.

Copyright©WWUH: November/December Program Guide, 2002

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