“Jazz on a Sunday Afternoon,” one of the area’s longest-running traditions, returns to Grantham’s Center at Eastman this Sunday for its fifteenth season. This year’s lineup features ten performers as musically far-ranging as jazz itself.
Vocalist Al Alessi seems a perfect choice for the kick-off show December 1. He handles the hits of Tony Bennett and Mel Torme with ease, but he’s also made a reputation channeling Roy Orbison and Frank Sinatra – and he plays a mean harmonica. Jody Ebling, who’s drawn notice in Miami, New York and London (where she performed at Elton John’s “Friends” restaurant), promises Christmas-flavored jazz singing December 17.
After a holiday interlude, Grammy-nominated alto saxophonist Greg Abate cuts loose on January 14th; Abate, whose credits include sessions with Ray Charles and Artie Shaw, also performs at the season finale. Jim Porcella looks like a gruff Marine, but has the silken vocal dexterity of Sammy Davis Jr.; the singer performs January 28th.
Mike Monaghan, who appears February 11, has played with Sinatra and Torme, and performed at Carnegie Hall, but most will recognize his saxophone from his many solos in the film “Mystic River.” Tiger Okoshi has become a JOSA favorite with his “tightrope walker” style of playing. The adventurous trumpeter sits in February 25.
Richie Cole has won acclaim for his unconventional jazz/bebop style on the alto sax, giving a special touch to familiar and fun songs like the theme from “I Love Lucy.” He arrives March 11th. Vocalist Shawnn Monteiro’s territory is the classics in the “Great American Songbook;” after several performances, she’s now “a part of the JOSA fabric.” She returns March 25th.
Finally, Greg Abate co-headlines an Easter “All-Star Finale” with trumpeter and vocalist Johnny Souza on April 8th. All performances feature the JOSA Ensemble, with Bill Wightman, bassist John Hunter, percussionist Tim Gilmore and reedman/flutist Richard Gardzina.
Over the 14 seasons of JOSA, there has been one constant element: founder and house band leader Bill Wightman. The Berklee-trained pianist began promoting the shows at the Sunapee Country Club in 1992. They moved to the Newport Opera House when Wightman took over as director there in the mid-90’s, and “when I left, I took them with me,” says Wightman.
Two figures loom large in their absence from this year’s series – vocalist Eve Whitcomb, who died in 2003, and saxophone player Joe Burrell, who passed away in 2005. “Joe and Lady Eve were the mainstays from day one,” says Wightman. “Basically for 12-13 years they were there, and really helped build it. They would show up to perform even when they weren’t featured.”
Burrell was scheduled to perform the 2005 season finale, which ultimately became a musical tribute to him. This year’s program proclaims that “with great respect, admiration and gratitude, we dedicate this JOSA season to “Big Joe” Burrell.”
“Joe – what a guy, what a mentor – for all of us,” says Wightman, who also remembers “Big Joe” as being less than patient with musicians who couldn’t keep pace with his standards. “He was harsher than Eve. He yelled at me once – ‘what did you do with that channel?’ I learned from him ‘the channel’ was the [song’s] bridge.”
“ I guess he thought you have to go underneath, not over it,” laughs Wightman. “I miss him, just talking about him now.”
The “jam session” ethic is a big part of the series’ appeal. Every performance has the potential for surprise, with area musicians stopping by to play.
“One of the things about JOSA,” says Bill Wightman,” is that it involves the audience, to the degree that we let them sit in. They’re not always great , but sometimes they are. The audience likes to see them take that risk.”
This gives the audience the “sense [of] what it’s like to be backstage with the band,” he continues. “They feel the tension, the edge.”
“The only time it may get rough is when a drummer sits in,” he chuckles.
“Sit-in” musicians are further encouraged with a reduced ticket price.
Wightman says he likes fans to arrive with “a sense that we’re going out to see something special.”
Adding to JOSA’s intimate elegance is the contribution of chef Brian MacKenzie, who prepares a $32 prix fixe meal to jazz fans, complete with white linen, polished silver and dishes that are both photogenic and delicious. This is MacKenzie’s second year offering the meals. They were a big success last year, with more than 70 percent of the audience partaking.
But the focus is and will remain “America’s Music,” which has evolved and transformed itself over its near 100-year history. “JOSA is jazz but not just jazz,” says Wightman. “The jazz music label covers a wide variety of musical genres including swing, blues, bop, Latin and more.”
Perhaps Shawnn Monteiro summed it up best. Quoting her father, the late jazz bassist Jimmy Woode, she said, “jazz, jazz, jazz – you never know what’s gonna happen. It’s gonna happen, so we’ll leave it to chance, OK?”