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Isthmus Jazz Festival 2012 is a primer in the art of improvisation
Swing 101
The Modern Sounds. For more photos, click gallery, above.

This year's Isthmus Jazz Festival offers a chance to see one of jazz's unsung heroines. Mary Stallings was a top vocalist in the 1960s but walked away from music in the 1970s for a career in clothing design. Now she's back, sounding like the great jazz singer who somehow slipped through the cracks. Stallings headlines the festival with a free concert at the Wisconsin Union Theater on Saturday, June 2, at 8 p.m. (see accompanying article).

The chance to see the headliner for free is a new twist for the Isthmus Jazz Festival, which also offers free sets by regional acts on the UW Memorial Union Terrace on June 1 and 2. The eclectic lineup ranges from Latin to straight-ahead to big band - in other words, a primer on the art of improvisation. There will also be a jam session and late-night sets suitable for dancing.

If the weather is nice, you can plant yourself on the Terrace with a pitcher of Union beer and get a two-day education in contemporary jazz. If the weather isn't so nice, the action (and, presumably, your pitcher) will move into the Rathskeller.

Friday, June 1

Ladies Must Swing
4 p.m.

The name suggests reckless abandon. These ladies must swing, even if the authorities try to stop them.

Luckily, no one is likely to stop this all-female orchestra, which harks back to "girl bands" of the 1920s, '30s and '40s. The Ladies play the part with plunger-muted brass, crooning saxophones and the occasional pillbox hat. The tunes include can't-miss arrangements of "Chattanooga Choo-Choo," "Take the A Train" and "In the Mood," which could well cause spontaneous outbreaks of jitterbugging. You might want to bring along a pillbox hat of your own, just in case.

The Rand Moore Quartet
5 p.m.

Moore is a veteran local drummer and the owner of the Drums n' Moore music store in Monona. You might expect a guy who lives for percussion to exult in bangs and booms. But no - this straight-ahead ensemble emphasizes subtlety. With bassist John Schaefer, pianist Paul Muench and saxophonist Bill Grahn, Moore creates momentum even when playing quietly. The musicians listen intently and seem connected to each other by invisible strings. Every action causes an equal and interesting reaction.

Gerri DiMaggio and Friends with Donna Woodall
6:30 p.m.

DiMaggio, the local singer with the golden pipes, has a way of making a stage feel as warm and inviting as a party in her living room. In previous Isthmus Jazz Festival appearances, she has invited other singers to the party, including Milwaukee's Jeanne Woodall. Woodall recently passed away, alas, and her daughter, Donna, will be on hand this year to pay tribute.

But don't expect a somber mood. DiMaggio promises an upbeat take on tunes associated with Ray Charles, Nat Cole and Dizzy Gillespie. Her topnotch band includes pianist Paul Hastil, bassist Nick Moran and drummer Dane Richeson. Woodall is a fine singer in her own right, gigging extensively in her native Milwaukee.

Rajiv Halim Quintet
8 p.m.

The Rajiv Halim Quintet - The Wise Man

Rajiv Halim Orozco is a young saxophonist from Chicago who's mastered the style of bebop gods like Charlie Parker and Cannonball Adderley. His quintet plays the classics from that era - "Donna Lee," "Scrapple from the Apple" - and gives them the ring of authority. Orozco has big-city chops, negotiating the modern-jazz chord changes at blistering tempos. The rhythm section cooks behind him, with nuances that reward close listening.

The Modern Sounds
10 p.m.

The Modern Sounds aren't that modern. The trio specialize in mid-20th-century music, from vintage jazz to rockabilly to jump blues. These irresistible American genres have a few things in common, including spontaneity and swing. It's just the kind of music to get you up out of your seat and partying Eisenhower-style.

The Modern Sounds are popular in their native Chicago, winning music polls and packing clubs. Guitarist Joel Paterson, who hails from Madison, would make Buddy Holly proud with his bright sound and effortless rhythms. Bassist Beau Sample and drummer Alex Hall join him for vocal exhortations on poppin' tunes like "Stomp Stomp." The audience itself is likely to stomp-stomp till the Union turns out the lights.

Saturday, June 2

Student Bands
12:30 p.m.

This set is not just for parents only. Every year, student ensembles turn in some of the freshest performances at the Isthmus Jazz Festival. See what the kids are up to in bands from UW-Whitewater, Edgewood College, UW-Madison and local high schools.

Dave Stoler Quartet featuring John Greiner
4 p.m.

Stoler has been a fixture on the Madison music scene since the 1980s. He's a serious student of jazz piano, and he's got the know-how to play in almost any style, from Latin jazz to big band to bebop. Here, he appears in a congenial setting: leading a straight-ahead quartet that showcases his harmonic sophistication and classic approach to swing.

Along with bassist Jeff Hamann and drummer Dave Bayles of Milwaukee, Stoler's group includes Wausau saxophonist John Greiner, a passionate improviser who draws from Charlie Parker's bag of tricks. They'll perform original tunes along with their own take on standards.

Alison Margaret Jazz Quartet
5:30 p.m.

Alison Margaret Jazz Quartet - Spring Will Rise Again

Margaret came to Madison from Chicago, where she worked with the estimable pianist Laurence Hobgood. She got her master's in music at the UW and has established herself as a force to be reckoned with on the local jazz scene. Her clear, lovely voice reminds you of a folksinger's, but she does much more with it than a folksinger would. She negotiates tricky intervals, scat-sings, and luxuriates in complex rhythms.

Her quartet includes vibraphonist Geoff Brady, drummer Jim Huwe and bassist John Christensen. They'll perform Margaret's arrangements of classic folk and jazz tunes.

The New Breed
6:45 p.m.

The New Breed - Sunday (Live at the Cardinal Bar)

The local combo have had a revolving-door membership since the late '90s, but their dedication to the jam session has remained constant. They currently host a weekly installment at the Cardinal Bar on Tuesday nights.

The version of the New Breed that will play the Isthmus Jazz Festival includes some of the area's best musicians: pianist Paul Hastil, guitarist Louka Patenaude, bassist Nick Moran and drummer Dane Richeson. They'll perform their own compositions and then invite other musicians up for a jam, including members of the High School Jazz All-Stars, the UW Jazz Ensemble and past New Breed combos. It'll be pretty crowded on the Terrace stage, but these guys are skilled at directing traffic.

Mary Stallings
8 p.m., Wisconsin Union Theater

See accompanying article.

10 p.m.

Madisalsa - Up On The Roof

The 11-piece Afro-Caribbean ensemble formed specifically to play the 1992 Isthmus Jazz Festival, and they haven't looked back since. Twenty years on, they remain a festival mainstay as well as a popular draw around the region.

And why not? Madisalsa know how to find just the right groove for dancers, with punchy brass, fiery solos and ecstatic percussion. If you've planned a trip to San Juan this summer, you might as well save the plane fare. You can hear all the merengue, mambo and bolera you need right here.

The Isthmus Jazz Personality of the Year is Howard Landsman, an organizer and fundraiser extraordinaire. He will be honored before the Mary Stallings concert at the Wisconsin Union Theater on Saturday, June 2, at 8 p.m.

Isthmus Jazz Festival 2012

All events are free at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Memorial Union, 800 Langdon St. Mary Stallings plays in the Wisconsin Union Theater, with the other acts on the Terrace; no tickets are required for any of the performances. The outdoor shows move into the Ratheskeller in case of rain.

Friday, June 1

  • 4 p.m.: Ladies Must Swing
  • 5 p.m.: The Rand Moore Quartet
  • 6:30 p.m.: Gerri DiMaggio and Friends with Donna Woodall
  • 8 p.m.: The Rajiv Halim Quintet
  • 10 p.m.: The Modern Sounds

Saturday, June 2

  • 12:30 p.m.: UW-Whitewater Big Band
  • 1:15 p.m.: Edgewood College Big Band
  • 2 p.m.: UW Jazz Orchestra
  • 2:45 p.m.: High School Jazz All-Stars
  • 4 p.m.: Dave Stoler Quartet featuring John Greiner
  • 5:30 p.m.: Alison Margaret Jazz Quartet
  • 6:45 p.m.: The New Breed
  • 8 p.m.: Mary Stallings (Wisconsin Union Theater)
  • 10 p.m.: Madisalsa

The Isthmus Jazz Festival is presented by Isthmus, WUD Performing Arts Committee and Union Theater. The Mary Stallings concert is presented in partnership with the Madison Music Collective.

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