The Isthmus Jazz Festival kicks off summer in swing time.
The 2011 edition features a wide-ranging lineup on June 3 and 4 on the UW Memorial Union Terrace, from big bands to small groups, Latin to bebop. You can either sit and admire the musical virtuosity or get up and dance to late-night salsa and merengue - a win-win proposition.
Out-of-town acts include Chicago's Mike Frost Project and Indiana's Marlin McKay Quintet. Local groups new to the festival are the Madison Mellophonium Jazz Orchestra, the Stellanovas, the UW Jazz Orchestra and Grupo Candela. And two returning vocalists - Michelle DuVall and Jan Wheaton - will make you fall in love with jazz standards all over again.
This year's festival is all free, and all outdoors at the Terrace - that is, unless it rains, in which case the whole shebang moves into the Rathskeller. The UW beer is guaranteed to taste good in either spot.
Friday, June 3
Isthmus Jazz Festival High School All-Stars
This group changes every year, but there's one constant: music educator Dan Wallach, who always turns a promising collection of teenage all-stars into a real band. Wallach calls this year's version "one of the most diverse and talented groups I have had the pleasure of leading." That's reason enough to get to the Terrace early on Friday.
Get Down, Mr. Cat!
Michelle DuVall was accustomed to singing in small groups with guitarist Doug Brown, but in 2002 she yearned for a fuller sound. So she recruited some horn-playing friends, got hold of arrangements for an eight-piece band, and debuted Get Down, Mr. Cat! The ensemble provides a lush setting for her crystalline vocals, with Brown adding artful touches on guitar. And the small-big-band format offers all the dramatic contrasts DuVall could have wanted.
The repertoire draws unashamedly from the Great American Songbook, with classics like "Embraceable You" and "I Can't Give You Anything But Love." As a devotee of singers Anita O'Day and Sarah Vaughan, DuVall adores this material from a bygone era. "The songs make me feel nostalgic for a time I have no right to be nostalgic for," she says.
Madison Mellophonium Jazz Orchestra
Stan Kenton's early-'60s big band distinguished itself by adding four mellophoniums - basically, French horns with the bell facing forward. But the mellophonium lasted for only three years in the Kenton band (tuning was a problem) and never again made an impact on the jazz world.
The instrument has made a comeback locally, though, thanks to the tireless efforts of drummer Rand Moore. Moore is a passionate fan of that early-'60s Kenton band, and a couple years ago he happened to meet one of its members, saxophonist Joel Kaye. Moore floated the idea of creating a Madison-based mellophonium band, and Kaye - though based in Florida - took him up on it. He'd remained a proponent of the mellophonium format throughout his career and had access to the Kenton scores, including Johnny Richards' Grammy-winning arrangement of West Side Story.
Thus, the supersized, 23-member Madison Mellophonium Jazz Orchestra was born, with Kaye as its music director. For Moore, the chance to play this rare music was too good to be true. "It was a lifelong dream of mine to have a mellophonium-size orchestra."
At the festival, expect punchy arrangements made even punchier by an extra brass section. Today's mellophoniums, or mellophones, are designed to stay in tune, and they offer the orchestra more colors to play with. "They add beautiful depth to the regular big-band sound," Moore says. "Because you have a whole other section in the band for that voicing, it just brings more emotion into the arrangements."
Tony Castañeda Latin Jazz Super Group
Tony Castañeda's Latin jazz band has been known to inspire feverish dancing at its weekly Cardinal Bar gig. But the Tony Castañeda Latin Jazz Super Band? Well, let's just say that resistance is futile. The expanded ensemble includes guitarist Louka Patenaude, trombonist Darren Sterud and percussionist Neraj Mehta.
At last year's Isthmus Jazz Festival, Castañeda's set attracted a legion of writhing bodies in front of the stage, and this year's version is bound to do the same thing. You'd be well advised to stake out your dancing turf early.
Saturday, June 4
Edgewood College Jazz Band
Dan Wallach leads the ensemble through tunes by Count Basie, Woody Herman, Horace Silver and Louis Armstrong. How can you go wrong with a lineup like that?
UW Jazz Orchestra
The members of the UW big band dispersed after the spring semester ended, but they're returning to Madison just for the Isthmus Jazz Festival. In other words, they really want to play, so expect a committed performance. The group spent the semester on funk, Latin and modern music, including songs you don't usually hear in a big-band setting. (Average White Band, anyone?)
Husband and wife Chris Wagoner and Mary Gaines met as students at the UW School of Music, where they really got into jazz. Afterwards, they drifted away from the style, playing together in such local groups as the folk-soul Common Faces and the Americana-oriented Moon Gypsies. Formed seven years ago, the Stellanovas represent their return to jazz, with Ed Fila on guitar, Todd Steward on drums, and both Gaines and Wagoner contributing vocals. Gaines plays cello, and Wagoner displays his virtuosity on violin, ukulele, electric mandolin, Hawaiian guitar and accordion.
I know what you're thinking - most of those aren't normal jazz instruments. But that's a good thing. Gaines and Wagoner call their happily swinging music "café jazz," and they're anything but purists. They mix material by Harry Nilsson and John Hartford with more traditional jazz tunes by Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker. One of their major influences is Louis Jordan, who walked the line between jazz and rhythm 'n' blues, emphasizing fun.
"We focus on music that has a direct connection to the audience," says Wagoner. "We're not trying to play anything esoteric that they're not going to get."
Jan Wheaton Quartet
Jan Wheaton has been a fixture on the Madison music scene since the mid-'60s, singing on just about every stage in town. You don't hold people's attention for that long without being good, and Wheaton is very, very good. She phrases with complete authority, evoking such stylists as Carmen McRae and Nancy Wilson. Like the best jazz vocalists, she surprises you with rhythmic twists and melodic variations. And who doesn't like surprises?
Wheaton's set at the Isthmus Jazz Festival will be bittersweet. It marks her final performance with longtime pianist Matan Rubinstein, who's taking a job in Vermont. Wheaton has developed a telepathic relationship with Rubinstein after 10 years of playing together, starting when he was a student. "I accosted him and never let him get away," she says.
Marlin McKay Quintet
Trumpeter Marlin McKay hails from Texas and now lives in Indiana, but he has strong ties to Wisconsin. He studied music at UW-Stevens Point, married here, and had his two kids here. And Wisconsin audiences are still his favorite.
"They are open to a lot of different things," says McKay. "And they like to go out and do things. I guess that's because of all the months they have to stay inside for winter."
McKay was one of those promising music students who kept ascending to the next level. After recording an album as a senior project at Stevens Point, he was accepted to a residency at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., where he got to study with jazz greats Billy Taylor and Carmen Lundy. That led to a stint at the Steans Institute for Young Artists in Chicago, where he worked with yet another batch of greats, including James Moody and Rufus Reid. After picking up his master's at the University of Indiana, McKay is now playing around the country and recording a new album.
At the Isthmus Jazz Festival, his combo will play postbop - a style he likes because "it can incorporate everything that came before and hopefully push beyond."
Listen for echoes of trumpeter Art Farmer in McKay's sound. "I like the fact that every note Art played counted. Nothing was a throwaway. He was in search of a deeper understanding. His music sounded like it meant something and was going somewhere."
The Mike Frost Project
This combo is battle-tested after a dozen years playing in Chicago clubs. You can hear big-city grit in its traditional bebop sound, reminiscent of Sonny Rollins, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. Tenor saxophonist Mike Frost started listening to these mid-century jazz giants in high school and still emulates their approach, even on his original tunes.
"Our music sounds like it's from that period," says Frost, who's recorded three albums for Chicago's Blujazz label. "I write as if I were living in that time."
There's one difference, though: coloration. You don't necessarily associate Frost's heroes with a combo setting that features guitar and organ. Backing the front-line saxophone and trumpet, those instruments will help you hear standards like "A Night in Tunisia" and "Oleo" in a new way.
The members of this local Latin ensemble don't believe in half-measures. Why stick with one vocalist when you can have two? Why stick with one style of Latin music when you can play salsa, merengue, montuno, cumbia and bachata? Not to mention Latin jazz, which they'll emphasize on this occasion.
Grupo Candela formed in 2005, and two of the cofounders are still on board: percussionists Manny Vellon and Roberto Rengel, both from Puerto Rico and both proficient on timbales, conga, bongo and just about every other kind of percussion.
Expect to hear original tunes from an upcoming CD - but don't expect to sit still in your Terrace chair. This is music you'll want to dance to until the Union shoos you away at closing time.