The Madison Mellophonium Jazz Orchestra made their first appearance at Isthmus Jazz Festival.
Okay, Madison music scene expert, so you see a lot of live shows, eh? Well, when's the last time you saw a mellophonium orchestra open for a Latin jazz supergroup?
Jazz encompasses a wide range of styles. That much was clear at Friday night's edition of the 2011 Isthmus Jazz Festival. Like a wedding, my time on the UW Memorial Union Terrace Friday night featured something old and something new.
The Madison Mellophonium Jazz Orchestra made their inaugural appearance at the Isthmus Jazz Fest, and they played for two hours while the sun set over Lake Mendota. The conductor, Joel Kaye, knows something about the odd wind instrument called the mellophonium. Kaye played saxophone in the late Stan Kenton's groundbreaking mellophonium band of the early 1960s. Kenton was a pioneer of progressive jazz, and decades ago, he embraced the odd, three-valve instrument that sounds like a French horn and looks like a trumpet on steroids.
Kaye lives in Florida, and he met Madison percussionist Rand Moore in 2010. Kaye began to work with the Madison Mellophonium Jazz Orchestra soon after that. The June heat bearing down on the Terrace didn't deter Kaye from putting on his Sunday best. His long-sleeved, collared shirt was drenched in sweat. His tie knot sagged under the weight of the humidity.
Jeff Sime's alto saxophone grounded the opener, "Tico Tico." The song provided for a lively improvisational exchange among the trombone, trumpet, sax and mellophonium sections of this prodigious 23-piece band.
Sime was center stage again on "Stairway to the Stars." Kaye introduced the song by explaining how Kenton created the "showcase," a whole song dedicated to one featured soloist.
Throughout the set, the mellophoniums extended the band's emotional reach. On "Misty," the instrument's vintage ring and dreamy vibe deepened the song's melancholy feel.
Vocalist Angela Babler joined the group for three songs. Briefly, the prominence of the orchestra gave way to her singing. The horn parts rose only to punctuate her efforts.
It was body to body on the Terrace by intermission -- as crowded as I have ever seen the outdoor venue. People competed not just for chairs, but for a square foot of grass with a sightline to the stage.
Before he started his 10 p.m. set, Tony Castaneda was given an award, Isthmus Jazz Personality of the Year. Castaneda has gigged around Madison for more than 30 years, and he's fronted his local Latin jazz group, the Tony Castaneda Latin Jazz Sextet, for the past 13.
He didn't waste any time expressing his views on Wisconsin politics during his acceptance speech. "This award is dedicated to everyone who has been down to the Capitol the past few months," he said. "And no, I don't mean the lawmakers. I mean the people of Wisconsin!"
After opening with Spanish singing accompanied only by timbale, Castaneda kicked off the full band, billed as the Tony Castaneda Latin Jazz Super Group, with timbales and hand drums tumbling over each other. In a fit of high drama, rollicking keyboard notes crashed against a meandering saxophone.
The detached sound of the upright bass kept time for the whirlwind of passionate emotions. Before the piece ended, a tuba stumbled awkwardly into the mix. An electric guitar rumbled ahead in extended improvisation.
The guitar brought an element of rock to Castaneda's Latin jazz sound. By the time the band was singing the lyrics to Tito Puente's "Oye Cayuco," thoughts of Carlos Santana and "Oye Como Va" were heavy on my mind.
"Everybody get hot and sweaty," yelled Castaneda. Amid the Terrace throng and with late-night temperatures still in the 80s, that wasn't a big challenge. The raw energy of the music sealed the deal.
The Isthmus Jazz Festival continues at the UW Memorial Union Terrace on Saturday, June 4, starting at 1 p.m. Performing are the Edgewood Jazz Ensemble, the UW Jazz Orchestra, the Stellanovas, the Jan Wheaton Quartet, the Marlin McKay Quintet, the Mike Frost Project and Grupo Candela.