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Thursday, July 31, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 80.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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ISTHMUS JAZZ FEST

Isthmus Jazz Festival 2014 busts boundaries on opening night

You felt the groove in your solar plexus.
Credit:Joe Engle
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On Friday, my first cheer of the Isthmus Jazz Festival was for an inanimate object. The Joan Wildman Quartet inaugurated the UW Memorial Union's renovated Fredric March Play Circle, and it proved to be a dramatically improved space. The Union has replaced the awkward old configuration with raked seats that wrap gently around a spacious black-box stage. And I'm here to tell you that the seats now have cup-holders. Welcome to the 21st century!

My second cheer of the evening was for Wildman herself, the emeritus UW professor who has been pushing musical boundaries here since the 1970s. With a synthesizer at her right and a grand piano at her left, she made a triumphant return to the Isthmus Jazz Festival with a set that explored the tension between structure and improvisation.

Wildman ushered the audience into her sonic universe with a traditional bit of bebop -- well, traditional to a point. Yes, the piece had a theme, a swinging rhythmic foundation and a round of solos from bassist John Christensen, percussionist Geoff Brady and saxophonist Danny Weiss. But even in this context, Wildman wasn't content to let your ear off too easy. She comped with unconventional accents and intriguing dissonances -- a taste of things to come.

Wildman's composition "Lake Effect" was inspired by Lake Mendota at the edge of the Union Terrace, making it nothing less than a site-specific work of art. She said she imagined all the sounds the lake has heard emanating from the Terrace over the years -- though, to be honest, I doubt Mendota ever heard anything quite like this. The perpetually evolving piece went in and out of rhythm, with shifting textural combinations. It included snatches of polka -- or, rather, a funhouse abstraction of polka, with clacking, squeaking oom-pah sounds emanating from Wildman's synthesizer.

"Lake Effect" was carefully composed, and yet (here's that tension between structure and improvisation) it allowed for wild freedom of expression, particularly in Wildman's octave-spanning piano solo. Both her right and left hands skittered across the keys with a tonality all her own. The others followed along with the hyper-attentiveness typical of her ensembles.

The surprises continued for the entire 90-minute set. "Bright and Shiny" evoked an off-kilter samba, while a showcase for Brady found him playing vibraphone with his hands and shaking bells with his feet.

Wildman had started with more or less traditional bebop, and she ended that way too, with Charlie Parker's "Now's the Time." You have to love that about her: She has one foot planted in jazz tradition while keeping her eyes firmly fixed on the new frontier.

I walked out to the Union Terrace at sunset for an entirely different sort of musical pleasure. The Darren Sterud Orchestra played a set of punchy big-band jazz, heavy on Thad Jones.

Jones' sophisticated compositions are a cut above for this genre, and the orchestra did them justice with nimble section work and preaching solos from the likes of trumpeter Dave Cooper, bassist Nick Moran, pianist Johannes Wallmann and Sterud himself on trombone. The group members play once a month at the Cardinal Bar, and they seemed to relish the chance to bust out on the Terrace for a cheering throng. They paid particular attention to dynamic contrasts, building from delicate passages to raucous climaxes. You felt the groove in your solar plexus -- which is the very best place to feel a groove.

The Isthmus Jazz Festival continues on Saturday from noon to midnight at the Memorial Union. Highlights include vocalist Jan Wheaton (4 p.m.), the UW Jazz Orchestra with trumpeter Vern Sielert (6 p.m.), headliner Richard Davis on bass with pianist Willie Pickens (7:30 p.m. in Shannon Hall), the Dave Stoler Trio (9 p.m.), and wailing saxophonist Frank Catalano (9:30 p.m.). My solar plexus can't wait.

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