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Monday, September 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 42.0° F  Fair
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On its first day, the 2013 Isthmus Jazz Festival puts a little love in your heart
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The Carmen Lundy Choir provided a blast of positive vibrations.
The Carmen Lundy Choir provided a blast of positive vibrations.
Credit:Lesia Witkowsky

I expected the Isthmus Jazz Festival on the Terrace to offer an evening's worth of great music on Friday, June 21. I didn't expect it to call for radical social change.

The first act I caught at the UW Memorial Union Terrace was the Carmen Lundy Outreach Gospel Choir. It's a local group assembled for the festival and schooled by headliner Lundy, who'll perform her own set on Saturday, June 22. The 20 diverse singers -- black and white, young and old, male and female, balding and hairy -- crowded onto the stage at the edge of Lake Mendota, with local gospel musician Leotha Stanley on piano. They wore big smiles, suggesting that they enjoyed their stint with an artist of Lundy's caliber.

The urgent call for change began with the first song, written by Stanley. "WE'RE BREAKING DOWN BARRIERS THAT KEEP US APART!" the choir chanted. In place of those barriers, they vowed to "build a new foundation of love and respect." An ambitious agenda, to be sure, but I wouldn't put anything past this idealistic crew.

The blast of positive vibrations continued with "Better Days," a song written and conducted by Lundy. "We're looking to put more love in your hearts today," Lundy said, looking chic in a black top and red-tinted hair. The lovely multi-part tune, sung a cappella, promised that "Every day will be much sweeter than the day before."

The group's final song was Stanley's arrangement of "Put a Little Love in Your Heart," featuring an impassioned lead vocal by UW Whitewater student Claire Olsen. The large Terrace crowd joined in the hand-clapping. At the song's wailing climax, I suspect they had more than a little love in their hearts.

We Six are a sextet associated with Milwaukee's Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. As sailboats floated placidly on the lake, they played an equally placid set of mostly original compositions. These guys are competent on their instruments (hey, they're conservatory instructors), and they've mastered the straight-ahead idiom. One might have wished for more structural variety, more rhythmic surprises. The soloists played fluently but offered few fireworks.

Still, the group made a good impression in their first Madison appearance. Their breezy mid-tempo grooves set the tone for the dinner hour.

As the sky darkened, singer Typhanie Monique commanded the stage with Thelonious Monk's "In Walked Bud," taken at a bracing tempo. Monique swung effortlessly on the bebop classic, with help from a poppin' trio. When she unmoored herself from the melody for a soaring scat interlude, bliss ensued.

The Wisconsin-born singer, now making her mark on the national scene, has an appealingly eccentric repertoire. She combined Monk with jazz adaptations of Don Henley, Gian Carlo Menotti and the Doors. Somehow, she maintained forward motion on even the most challengingly slow tempos.

Monique's most charming moment came when a bride and groom appeared in the small dance area in front of the stage. As a spontaneous gift to them, she departed from her set list for a sexy rendition of "The Very Thought of You." The crowd cheered the lovebirds, but if you ask me, Monique deserves all the credit for drenching the evening in romance.

I was sorry to miss the last set of the evening by the Madison Jazz Orchestra. But there's a lot more jazz to look forward to on Saturday, June 22. And as that Carmen Lundy song promised, "every day will be sweeter than the day before."

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