The Isthmus Jazz Festival is always fun. But in a recession, it's also worth noting that most of the festival is free. You won't need to touch your wallet to hear 11 of the region's best jazz acts at the UW Memorial Union Terrace on June 5 and 6 - though the Union's beer and brats would probably be a sound investment.
The one ticketed concert features David Sanchez, who appears at the Wisconsin Union Theater on June 6. Sanchez is a Grammy-winning saxophonist playing some of the best jazz of our times - a unique mix of Latin and mainstream styles. His appearance is a bona fide cultural event and a perfect kickoff for summer.
Hop on board for a tour of the festival, which encompasses big band, Latin, bebop, vocal and many other styles of jazz. All events take place at the UW Memorial Union, 800 Langdon St., with most of the outdoor events moving into the Rathskeller in case of rain. (The one exception is Madisalsa, whose rain location is the Wisconsin Union Theater.) For more information, see IsthmusJazzFestival.com.
Friday, June 5
Patrick Breiner Trio
This new local group performs swinging originals along with tunes by Duke Ellington, Sonny Rollins and Thelonious Monk. Tenor saxophonist Breiner is a recent transplant from New York City, and he has enlisted bassist John Christensen and drummer Michael Brenneis for a Madison version of his NYC-based trio Basement Magic. What makes them different from other mainstream jazz combos?
"The lack of a guitar or piano allows us to be more adventurous harmonically," Breiner says. "John and I both feel that we can play melodies that aren't necessarily in the key of the song. We're getting good at throwing a monkey wrench into the gears every once in a while and seeing what the machine does."
Gerri DiMaggio & Friends
I don't know how she does it, but Gerri DiMaggio can make the huge Union Terrace feel like a cozy cabaret. DiMaggio has a knack for drawing us close, both with her vocals and her stage patter. She has extraordinary warmth onstage, and she clearly loves singing jazz standards for us. We can't help but love her back.
DiMaggio is a regular at the Isthmus Jazz Festival, and she always takes the trouble to put together an interesting package. This year she'll share the stage with four other vocalists: Lynette Margulies, Sally DeBroux, Jeanne Woodall and Donna Woodall. They're backed by an all-star local quintet featuring pianist Paul Hastil, bassist John Mesoloras, drummer John Becker, trumpeter Dave Cooper and saxophonist Patrick Breiner.
The repertoire is unconventional, at least for a vocal set. DiMaggio and company will emphasize songs by beboppers Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, along with post-bop genius John Coltrane.
New Breed Quintet
New Breed's lineup has changed over the years, but the quality has remained constant. The group continues to showcase some of the best straight-ahead blowing in Madison jazz. The current roster includes several stalwarts of the local scene: trumpeter Dave Cooper, pianist Dave Stoler, bassist Nick Moran and drummer Michael Brenneis. Saxophonist Patrick Breiner is the new blood in the New Breed, having joined last fall.
"The Madison jazz scene is small in comparison to those in cities like Chicago, New York or San Francisco," Breiner says, "but it is a vibrant scene, and the cool thing about it is that everybody knows everybody. That's how the New Breed has built its reputation. There's a small core of really great musicians, and at one time or another they've been involved in the New Breed in some way, having been in the group or subbed in the group."
The New Breed Quintet hosts a lively weekly jam session on Wednesdays at the Cabana Room, drawing on a repertoire of 100-plus modern-jazz classics. They're likely to pull out tunes by Art Blakey or Thelonious Monk for their festival set, but you can also count on hearing originals by Cooper, Stoler or Breiner.
Madison Jazz Orchestra
In some ways the Madison Jazz Orchestra are old-school, affirming the verities of classic big-band jazz. The 19-member ensemble draw from the libraries of Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Stan Kenton, balancing structure (well-rehearsed arrangements) with freedom (spontaneous solos). At their best, they can give you a traditional jazz sensation: a chill right up your spine.
But the MJO work new angles, too. They perform original compositions, sometimes in strange meters that would have made Count Basie dizzy. And for their festival set, they plan to exploit new media. They're allowing their Facebook fans to choose three of the tunes, so go to their page and vote. (Then use Twitter to tell all your friends.)
Saturday, June 6
Mama Digdown's Brass Band
You might think that a New Orleans-style brass band composed of white guys from Madison, Wis., would get some funny looks. And Mama Digdown's Brass Band did get their share when they started playing funky Crescent City music in the mid-1990s. Since then, the band have earned their props through hard work and yearly trips to New Orleans, where the members rub shoulders with some of the best brass bands in the business.
Mama Digdown's Brass Band have a core membership of six: trumpet, trombone, saxophone, sousaphone, bass and snare drum. But the group add players depending on availability, drawing from alumni who've moved on to other cities. That shaggy spontaneity is reflected in Mama Digdown's sound, marked by shouted vocals, punchy percussion and rude squawks from the brass. The set list is spur-of-the-moment too, picked that day from a repertoire of traditional New Orleans songs and brass-band funk.
Mama Digdown's Brass Band will get the party started on Saturday by marching to the Terrace from Library Mall. Don't be surprised to see a happy horde trailing behind them.
Isthmus High School Jazz All-Stars
The High School All-Stars perform at every Isthmus Jazz Festival, and it's always a hoot to watch the kids throw themselves into the task. Dan Wallach, Edgewood College's professor of jazz studies, chooses the best players from local schools and does a fabulous job of molding them into a cohesive unit. He works with the players on improvisation and arranging, rehearsing them thoroughly. You'll see how well they've learned their lessons in unconventional takes on "Confirmation," "Watermelon Man" and "Stella by Starlight."
Edgewood College Big Band
Edgewood's Dan Wallach is also behind this swaggering outfit, which mixes Edgewood students with players from the UW and the community, including a couple of experienced pros in the rhythm section. Expect tunes by Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington and a Sinatra-style vocal.
Vocalist Jan Wheaton draws inspiration from Nancy Wilson, Carmen McRae and other one-of-a-kind stylists. Like her forebears, she can bend a jazz standard to her will. She scats, growls and messes with the melody. By the time she's through, it's not a George Gershwin song or a Duke Ellington song; it's a Jan Wheaton song. Her sets have been known to send certain listeners (okay, me) into an ecstatic state.
Wheaton has been a fixture of Madison jazz since the mid-1960s, but she and her trio haven't had many opportunities to perform since the Concourse Hotel ended its weekly jazz gigs late last year. She didn't appear at the 2008 Isthmus Jazz Festival, either. I guess that makes her appearance at this year's fest something of a comeback.
Tim Whalen Nonet
With his little big band, pianist Tim Whalen finds the perfect balance between jazz's two poles: composition and improvisation. Whalen packs his arrangements with surprises, from rhythmic shifts to sly horn parts to pungent harmonies. But he doesn't let his knack for shaping a composition squelch his musicians' freedom. He has a great group of soloists, and they get their chance to shine.
In previous festivals, Whalen has focused on writing sophisticated original material. This time, he's less interested in sophistication than swing. "Rather than writing original stuff," he says, "I plan to do arrangements of tunes by others, like 'Anthropology' or Thelonious Monk's 'Evidence.' It'll be more straight-ahead stuff, and not as complicated."
Get Down, Mr. Cat!
Guitarist Doug Brown and singer Michelle DuVall had been performing as a duo, but they thought it would be fun to have a bigger sound for a Jazz at 5 gig. So they hatched the idea of Get Down, Mr. Cat!, an octet featuring four horns and gemlike arrangements of classic jazz tunes. The format has proved to be a perfect vehicle for DuVall's classic voice.
"Get Down, Mr. Cat! is not a jamming kind of group," says Brown. "Most of the tunes are arranged fairly thoroughly. The emphasis is on the song, and swinging hard."
At last year's Isthmus Jazz Festival, the band's set was delayed by a tornado warning. There should be heavy blowing again this year, but it will most likely come from the stage. "We're trying to play great old songs with young, new energy," Brown says. "We don't look at our material as museum pieces, but as songs that still resonate."
Madisalsa always take the last slot on an Isthmus Jazz Festival evening. That's because no one could possibly follow them. With their explosive versions of mambo, merengue and salsa, the Latin jazz aggregation would blow the roof off the Terrace if only it had a roof.
The secret's in the arrangements. Madisalsa take maximum advantage of their 11-piece ensemble, creating an irresistible blend of vocals, horns and percussion. And I'm not exaggerating about the "irresistible" part. Just try not dancing.
Madisalsa recently added two Puerto Rican singers who are now based in Milwaukee, Junior Rivera and Joey Burgos. They've also been developing new material. Between the changes in personnel and repertoire, their set at Isthmus Jazz Festival should feel unusually fresh.
"We've been around for awhile," says leader/trombonist Claude Cailliet, "but the changes have breathed new life into the band."
Saturday, 8 pm, Wisconsin Union Theater.
Tickets available at the Wisconsin Union Theater box office, 800 Langdon St. ; by calling 262-2201; or through www.uniontheater.wisc.edu. Prices are $34, $28 and $18; $10 for UW students
Sanchez is the top tenor saxman in the new-century florescence of Latin-tinged Big Apple jazz that's led by players with superlative chops - conservatory-trained expats from across the Caribbean and the continent who bring their own heritages to the table. Sanchez cut his teeth playing bomba percussion in his native Puerto Rico. Today he's playing John Coltrane-inspired sax that glistens with Afro-Boricua spirits.
Sanchez, 40, has put out eight albums in 15 years. Several were simultaneously nominated for Grammys and Latin Grammys; in '04 he copped an award in the latter category for the lush Coral, featuring some of the best young players in the business and backed by the City of Prague Philharmonic. It's a lovely listen, though Cultural Survival, which followed in '07, is more my style. It's seriously seductive nightclub jazz.
This is essentially a Cultural Survival tour, adapted for quartet. Guitarist Lage Lund and drummer Henry Cole, who'll play here, are on the album, though bassman Orlando Le Fleming is a recent addition. There'll be no congas, no bongos. But listen for the bomba beats.
- Susan Kepecs
Jazz Personality of the Year
The Isthmus Jazz Personality of the Year is the versatile, ever-swinging pianist Dave Stoler. He'll be honored before the David Sanchez concert at 8 pm on Saturday, June 6, in the Wisconsin Union Theater.