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Beantown Sings the Blues

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The lines separating Blues from jazz can easily become blurred. The varied acts Carrington has recruited reflect a variety of genres and traditions.
By Timothy J. O'Keefe

The Blues may have been spawned within the African-American communities of the Deep South in the late 19th century, but its influence still permeates our society today. While this music often acknowledges sadness, embraces loss, and speaks of impending dread, buried deep within its core you can sometimes find hope and resolve.

“The Blues is something people have always enjoyed listening to during challenging times," says Terri Lyne Carrington, artistic director of the BeanTown Jazz Festival. As a result, and with nod toward the country's economic climate, the 2009 festival contains a Blues theme. “I tried to put together a lineup that will reflect where we are as a local community and a national community."

The 8-day music festival hosts national acts at some of the city's most prominent jazz stages: Berklee Performance Center, Regattabar, and Scullers Jazz Club. Cafe 939 and Wally's Cafe will house local and upcoming talent. The headline event, 14 acts on three outdoor stages, occurs Saturday September 26, 2009, near the intersection of Massachusetts Ave. and Columbus Ave. Admission is free for Saturday's event.

Carrington, who grew up in Medford, Massachusetts, and graduated from Berklee College of Music, has performed with an endless number of jazz figures. Among them are Dizzy Gillespie, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Diane Reeves, Cassandra Wilson, and Clark Terry. Her latest recording, More To Say, was released last May. On Saturday, she'll be drumming with Joe Louis.

A Boston area native and Berklee instructor, Carrington describes her role as the festival's artistic director as “an honor and a privilege. I look forward to it and learning from the experience so next year can be even better. Obviously in the trying economic times it's difficult to put a festival together. I think it's strong artistically and I'm interested in the response from everybody. This is my way to give back to my local community. I was gone for 22 years, but I always came back and I was always welcome here. I want to try to gvie back to the community in some way."

The lines separating Blues from jazz can easily become blurred. The varied acts Carrington has recruited reflect a variety of genres and traditions. Joe Louis Walker provides a taste of the old school, Donald Harrison has a zesty, New Orleans influence, while Ashanti Munir exudes an R&B feel.

Of all the performances, perhaps Yoron Israel's musical tribute to David "Fathead" Newman best captures the raw, human emotions with which the Blues is often associated. Newman, a saxophonist who played with Aretha Franklin, Bobby King, and Eric Clapton, was also a noted member of the Ray Charles Band during the 50s and 60s. Sadly, in January, 2009, he passed on from complications associated with pancreatic cancer.

Israel, assistant percussion chair at Berklee, was one of Newman's band mates for over a decade. Back in 2006, Newman released a recoding called Cityscapes. “It was an interesting recording in that is uses 4 horns," Israel explains. “We never got to play that music live. This performance will capture that music in its original intent as a septet."

Israel describes Newman as “...a very warm and inviting person. I worked with him for 12 years and that never changed from performance to performance or night to night. I think it's a reflection of who he is as a person, and in his sound."

Newman's last recording, The Blessing, was released three months after he passed away. Reflecting, Israel recalls “We didn't know the extent of his pain. It was never obvious to us in the studio. It never came out in his sound or his performance that day."

“I wanted to pull together different people who had affiliations with David," says Israel, who looks forward to the upcoming performance. Pianist Dave Leonhardt and bassist John Menegon, long-standing members of Newman's rythym section will accompany Israel for the performance. They will be joined by trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater, trombonist Curtis Fuller, and saxophonists Bill Easley and Howard Johnson.

Overall, Saturday's lineup contains an eclectic blend of musical sounds. The Berklee City Music All-Stars is made up of talented high school students, mentored and trained in the Berklee system. Originally started as a Boston-based outreach program, it now brings several US cities into the fold.

Two additional Berklee ensembles will include funk-oriented music by Tower of Power and Parliament-Funkadelic. Carrington describes the Tower of Power ensemble as “...a popular, stable ensemble. Lots of students want to join it when they arrive."

Branching away from the Blues, the festival reflects additional types of roots music containing jazz influences. The Latin Jazz spectrum is represented with performances by Eguuie Castrillo, Bernardo Hernandez, the Berklee Salsa Ensemble, and Bloco AfroBrazil. Barbados native Elan Trotman brings a jazz-funk project with hints of the Caribbean.

According to Carrington, the BeanTown Jazz Festival “helps the culture of jazz continue to flourish." Looking forward, she hopes to play a role in establishing the event as a staple in Boston that is one of the regions tourist attractions.

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