Weekend Review

boccellis.JPGIt felt like a fall evening in Bellow Falls last Friday, with a smattering of rain and overflowing cheer at Boccelli’s on the Canal. As Josh Maiocco took the stage, I was reminded why the scene there is so compelling. Josh played a couple of his original songs, then remarked, “it’s great to have an … audience.” Guys like Josh (and co-headliner Jesse Peters, and Colin McCaffrey, Jason Cann, Chris Kleeman) play songs which deserve to be heard, yet too often suffer the indignity of being background music. Not in BF, where Boccelli’s fans sat and paid attention.

Charlie Hunter, who came out of retirement to present shows for Boccelli’s, introduced the performers and also confirmed that the tentative Dave Alvin & the Lonely Men show is now confirmed for February 1. I haven’t seen Charlie looking so chuffed in a long time.

Also in attendance was Ezra Veitch, who had plans to leave the area for Arkansas last fall that “fell through.” Ezra’s been out of action due to a hand injury that’s fortunately now on the mend. He told me he’s mixing a Mr. Burns album; he also said it won’t be heard on MySpace. “I don’t like their policies,” he said, referring to the social networking site’s willingness to allow pages from “artists” who are really fans. This situation is benign sometimes – Shana Morrisonwas “surprised” to find out she had a MySpace page neither she nor her management set up, but professed that it stayed up to date and was basically a good tool for her fans. Not so in Ezra’s case.

I was only able to stick around for Josh’s set, but I did see a Josh/Jesse duet that was pretty good. Josh is s very talented songwriter, and line from one of his songs sort of summed up the night for me:

“It’s winter then it’s spring and now it’s winter/there should be a name for the season in between”

That’s the way the weather is, and that’s the way Bellows Falls has been, never letting the twin devastation of a big venue’s closing and the fire at Oona’s kill their spirit. A mostly packed house helped celebrate the return of spring to one of the area’s vital musical homes.

Later, I headed back to Claremont to catch Al Alessi and Bill Wightman’s second set at Sophie & Zeke’s. Bill’s looking forward to the next JOSA show, and both he and Al are exicited about January 20 at the Newport Opera House. Though the show’s being advertised as the Al Alessi Band, it’s really a full-band version of what Al and Bill do the first Monday of every month in Claremont – a dip into the Great American Songbook with a healthy dose of jazz. It’s a huge hit at Sophie & Zeke’s, and I’m sure it will wow the crowd in Newport.

I wasn’t able to get to Bistro Nouveau for Jason Cann’s Saturday set, but I assure you that he was a crowd pleaser. I took some guests to the Shana Morrison show December 29; Jason opened, and at least two of the women there wanted more Jason. Mr. Cann’s original songs are quite good. “Inside Information,” in particular, is timely, topical and soulful. He also does some clever covers – he re-worked Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” in a different key with a slowed down tempo and exposed a part of the song I’d not seen before.

Jason plays open mike at the cramped and often indifferent Skunk Hollow every Wednesday, and most every Friday in Ascutney.

Speaking of Ascutney, the next big show there is the duo of Barry Goudreau (Boston) and James Montgomery. I hope they do it in a different room than the Crow’s Nest, which is IMHO unsuitable for concerts. Background music, maybe, but if you actually want to concentrate on the band, there’s nary a good vantage point anywhere.

I also heard a rumor that there may be an outdoor CSN show in the summer. We’ll wait and see on that one.

Jazz On A Sunday Afternoon Returns December 1

al-alessismall.jpg“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?”