The UW Memorial Union Terrace was already full when the Isthmus Jazz Festival kicked off at 4 p.m. on June 5. I walked in just as Patrick Breiner blew the first blast of the evening: a startling, corkscrewing, unaccompanied improvisation on tenor sax that lasted for minutes without a break. It was an impressive feat of circular breathing -- the method of sucking air in while simultaneously blowing it out -- and it served notice that Breiner is a force to be reckoned with.
A skinny kid in a T-shirt, Breiner was making his debut appearance at the Isthmus Jazz Festival. He's an assured saxophonist who cut his teeth in New York City, supported here by the skillfully modernist rhythm section of drummer Michael Brenneis and bassist John Christensen. Without help from the customary piano or guitar, the combo played edgy originals and an edgy Steve Lacy tune, along with Duke Ellington's "Koko" -- also edgy, unlike Duke's happily swinging version. It wasn't that Breiner's trio couldn't swing happily if they wanted to: the set's last number proved that for anyone who was wondering.
At times I wished for more momentum from the ensemble, as well as more tonal variety. (Maybe a guitar or piano wouldn't be a bad idea after all.) Still, Breiner made a notable Jazz Fest debut, and drew hearty applause from tables that might have been easily distracted by the perfect warm weather and Union beer.
A lot of Union denizens listened closely to the music, but not in the first place I sat down. Two dudes next to me wouldn't stop talking -- deep, philosophical conversations on the order of: "So, you been chasin' any tail lately?" Right before I moved, one of them got a cell phone call, and all I could do was laugh ruefully at his answer to "What are you doing?":
"Listening to jazz."
How's everybody doin'?
Edginess disappeared at 6 p.m. when Gerri DiMaggio & Friends crowded onto the small stage. DiMaggio and fellow vocalists Lynette Margulies, Sally DeBroux, Jeanne Woodall and Donna Woodall emphasized the good-time side of jazz. Backed by an amiable rhythm section and Breiner's sax, they began with an irresistible version of Ray Charles' "One Mint Julep." The five voices were huge -- worthy of the similarly huge Lake Mendota in the background -- and the arrangement reveled in joyous effects. The singers tossed around the lead, moaned the backup "ahh-ahhs" and threw themselves into the glissandos.
The rest of the set went from one pleasure to another. There were vocal solos and duets, ranging from blues to jazz standards to Brazilian tunes; instrumental spotlights; and more ensemble fireworks on "A Night in Tunisia" and Bruce Springsteen's "Fire."
"How's everybody doin'?" Lynette shouted at the crowd.
By the end of this fabulous set, we were all doin' pretty well.
Dedicated to swing
Next up, the New Breed Quintet worshipped at the altar of the great modern jazz combos of the 1950s and '60s. They played bright, bold, bop-oriented tunes, with an emphasis on sophisticated solos by trumpeter Dave Cooper, pianist Dave Stoler, bassist Nick Moran, drummer Michael Brenneis and saxophonist Patrick Breiner (yes, him again).
"We're dedicated to swing," said Moran.
As musically gifted as they are, I would have appreciated more variety in the New Breed's arrangements. They tended to play the head and then go around the horn with solos before wrapping things up. But the solos were good, and the rhythm section kept the music barreling forward.
As night fell, dancers jumped out of the audience and twirled near the front of the stage. The New Breed's dedication to swing had paid off.
The Isthmus Jazz Festival continues at the UW Memorial Union on Saturday, June 6, beginning at 12:30 p.m. with Mama Digdown's Brass Band. It continues through midnight with the Isthmus High School Jazz All-Stars (2 p.m.), the Edgewood College Big Band (3:30 p.m.), vocalist Jan Wheaton (5 p.m.), the Tim Whalen Nonet (6:30 p.m.), headliner David Sanchez in the Wisconsin Union Theater (8 p.m.), Get Down, Mr. Cat! (8:30 p.m.), and Madisalsa (10:30 p.m.).