Bill Wightman – For the Love of the Gig

In the summer of 1992, Bill Wightman and his friend Rink Mann hatched the idea for “Jazz on a Sunday Afternoon.”  They were hoping to re-create the atmosphere of the great New York jazz clubs during the heyday of bebop, when performers like Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker and Ella Fitzgerald reigned supreme.

Rink was in a band and Wightman, a Berklee grad and longtime area pianist, was recruiting players to jam with.  “I was into jazz, but I wasn’t doing only jazz,” says Wightman.  “Rink said, ‘let’s make it only jazz.’” 

“It was slow starting,” Wightman says.  “We were doing it because we loved it.”

16 years down the road, the venues have changed – from its start the Lake Sunapee Country Club to a five-year run at the Newport Opera House, to JOSA’s current home, the Center at Eastman.   

But for Wightman – musician, teacher and jazz lover – the story remains the same.

“I’m doing this for me, and all the musicians that I work with.  I’m not making a lot of money,” he says.  “I do it to play.” 

In keeping with the session spirit that spawned the series, Wightman’s house band, the JOSA Ensemble, has changed and evolved over the years.

The current lineup – John Hunter on bass, percussionist Tim Gilmore and reed man/flutist Richard Gardzina, with Wightman on piano – has the requisite instincts to follow a wide-ranging vocalist like Shawnn Monteiro, an inventive horn player like Greg Abate or a dynamic duo like saxophone player Fred Haas and singer Sabrina Brown (all of whom will perform during the current season).  

“They’re just so solid and dependable,” says Wightman.  “The variable is that we play with people we’ve never played with before, the featured artist. So to have a real solid rhythm section is a real advantage.”

Such sentiments also motivate him in his day to day life. 

Wightman taught off and on for 10 years at Proctor Academy; now he’s their full-time music director.  In that role, he’s shepherded students to Boston’s Berklee School of Music, his alma mater. More important, he’s refined what he calls an “experiential” method of music instruction.

“If art becomes academic, it’s no longer art,” he says. During his classes, “we jam, we get a groove going.  We listen to each other.  Do I conduct? Yeah, to get them going, but then I step out of the way.” 

“I do a lot with improvisation, and with understanding … the chordal structure of a song, as opposed to just giving them a sheet with notes on it,” he says.  “We work on what is the form, how do you solo.  Everybody solos; everyone has a lot of fun with it.”

The goal is to help each student find their place in the group, and “communicate through playing,” says Wightman. 

“That’s what I’m teaching, and is in fact the joy of playing music.”

JOSA’s season opener brings together these many threads.   Al Alessi, who also opened last year, is a longtime collaborator of Wightman’s.   This time around, Alessi is bringing his daughter Elizabeth, who’s making her marquee debut.  The 16-year vocalist, however, has performed quite a bit, performing with her dad’s band, and also singing with Wightman. 

“She sang at JOSA at the Opera House,” said Wightman as the pair sat down following their regular first Friday appearance at Sophie & Zeke’s in Claremont.

“She scatted with Lady Eve and was right next to Big Joe (Burrell),” notes Alessi, adding that the then-12 year old “had a lot of composure on stage, and some real interesting young chops.”   

Wightman compares her to a young Norah Jones; he asked her to play JOSA after backing her during a fundraiser in Woodstock, Vermont.

“She was fabulous, really quite something,” he says.  “We had a great rapport together.” 

Al pointed out that “Biz” (her nickname) was busy finding her muse these days. She’s writing songs on the piano and working with a voice coach, and she recently discovered Joni Mitchell’s “Court and Spark” period.  She wasn’t exactly keen on sharing the stage with Dad. 

“She’s probably regretting that she said she’d do this,” Alessi says, “but Bill asked her and she can’t say no to Bill.” 

“We might do a duet,” Al says.

Responds Wightman, “well, I hope so.” 

Al laughs it off.  “We might do “Cheek to Cheek” – Louis and Ella did that,” he says.  “We’ll come up with something.  Maybe, if she wants to.  I’m not gonna force it.”

Wightman smiles, looking sure that Alessi & Alessi’s performance will go without a hitch. 

He’s asked, “Is this the youngest featured performer you’ve had at JOSA?”

“Yes, I think it is,” he answers – at least with their name on the program.  For years, Wightman’s extended an open invitation to anyone with the gumption to get up on stage and jam, regardless of age.  

“That is one of the things about JOSA, it invites young people, any age, to sit in,” he says.  “For the audience, it’s just a major hit.”

It’s also a sweet deal, he says.  “If you come to play you get in free. It’s really a good place for kids to get experience with top notch musicians.  My guys are really good with kids.” 

Casting aside riches to excite musical discovery has always been a big part of Bill Wightman’s philosophy.  It’s what’s kept JOSA vital all these years.

Says Wightman: “I never went after the money. I went after the gig.” 

JOSA Returns December 9

The 16th annual Jazz on a Sunday Afternoon series commences December 9, and runs every other week through April 6 (except for a 3-week break after Christmas).

The shows are held at Bistro Nouveau at Eastman.  The restaurant’s award-winning appetizers, entrees, drinks and desserts will be available for all performances, which begin at 4.

This season’s lineup includes familiar faces from past years, along with some exciting newcomers.   

Dec. 9             Al and Elizabeth Alessi – Jazz Vocalist & Entertainer and his talented   daughter. making her JOSA debut
Dec. 23          Jody Ebling – Captivating Jazz Vocalist
Jan. 13           Greg Abate – International Saxophonist
Jan. 27           Fred Haas & Sabrina Brown – Saxophonist & Vocalist Extraordinaire
Feb. 10           Cercie Miller – Jazz Saxophonist 
Feb. 24           Tiger Okoshi – International Trumpeter
Mar. 9             Shawnn Monteiro – International Vocalist
Mar. 23           Steve Marvin – Jazz Vocalist & Entertainer (Easter Show)
Apr. 6              Richie Cole – World-Class Alto Saxophonist (Season Finale) 

 

All performers are backed by the JOSA Ensemble:

 

Pianist, Bill Wightman, from Sunapee, NH, is the Instrumental Music and Music Technology Director at Proctor Academy.  He attended Berklee College of Music in Boston and, since the mid 1970s, has been performing, teaching, directing and producing in music and theatre both in education and for the public throughout New England and New York.  

Bassist, John Hunter from the Portsmouth, NH area has performed from coast to coast accompanying such jazz greats as Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, Art Farmer, Milt Jackson and Joe Williams to name a few.  His playing is always highly intuitive, his repertoire extensive, and he’s a great listener and all around human.  The Rockingham Gazette says, “[John is] fast emerging as one of the most respected bass soloists in the country.”

Percussionist, Tim Gilmore from Lebanon, NH, attended Berklee College of Music, and studied with both drum legends Max Roach and Alan Dawson.  Having performed with such jazz greats as Mary McPartland, Dick Johnson, and Warren Vache among others, Tim is a recipient of the Presidential Arts Scholarship.  He brings to JOSA an up-beat and delightful attitude, and is known for his occasional, intricate and sometimes epic (never to be missed) drum solos. 

Reedman and flutist, Richard Gardzina from Barnstead, NH, has a BA and MA. in music composition from both the University of North Texas and UNH.  His performances include dates in Dallas, Los Angeles, San Francisco and New England with such jazz greats as Red Garland, David “Fathead” Newman, Little Feat, and “Blue” Lou Marini to name a few.  With two CD releases to his credit, Richard brings consistent freshness and innovation to JOSA with solos that support and compliment the performance of each featured artist.

Local Rhythms – No DRM

nodrm.jpgSteve Jobs is like that old ad for BASF – he doesn’t make the computers, digital music players or cell phones, he just makes them better. How? By thinking like the people who will ultimately use the MacBooks, iPods and iPhones that his company, Apple, unleashes on the world.

On Sunday night, the world will watch the annual Grammy awards unfold. Amidst a sea of self-congratulation, the stubbornly out-of-touch music business will again refuse to face some obvious truths. First, lawsuits won’t make people buy music, and second, encryption schemes won’t stop them from stealing it.

Which brings me back to Steve Jobs. In an open letter published on Apple’s website last Tuesday, he called for an end to digital rights management (DRM) schemes – the many ways record companies lock up their online music. His declaration carries some weight, because iTunes is the world’s largest legal download service, and the iPod is far and away most popular music player.

Jobs made a call to simple, common sense. In a world, he wrote, where last year 2 billion songs were sold online, “while over 20 billion … were sold completely DRM-free and unprotected on CDs by the music companies themselves,” how can anyone stop piracy?

On the other hand, if the industry took all the money wasted on making CDs that aren’t bought, the warehouses where they’re stored, and the fleets of trucks that deliver them, they could change the world and save their business.

When faced with the choice of a drive to the mall or a click of a mouse, what will most people do? But music purchased through most download services is fraught with problems that often render it unplayable. Tech-savvy fans turn to free (and currently illegal) download options for convenience as much as price.

If only the industry could agree upon a way to monetize this practice. They view Napster, which ushered in MP3 file trading in 1999, as the beginning of their end. Left out is the fact that CD sales rose, not fell, in Napster’s wake.

In making millions of songs easily available to casual listeners, Napster sparked an explosion of interest in previously ignored music. The industry responded by litigating them out of existence. Eight years later, they still haven’t learned that more fans means more business. Hopefully, Jobs’ modest proposal will spur them to find fresh ways to face this challenge.

On to live entertainment:

Thursday: “The Male Intellect,” Claremont Opera House – It’s a weekend for laughter, with Dubac’s critically acclaimed one-man show tonight, and Brooklyn funny woman Mary Dimino Friday at Hullabaloo in downtown Claremont. Dubac hilariously explores the confusing gulf between the sexes, while the down-to-earth Dimino looks at life from a female perspective, including this funny take on weight: “I started as a woman, and ended up Spongebob Squarepants.”

Friday: – Pondering Judd, Salt Hill Pub – A first-time appearance by this Seacoast Americana combo, who can pick and grin like Nashville cats, and then kick out the jams with e-Phish-iency (sorry about the pun, it’s been that kind of day). They’ve opened for Guster and the Saw Doctors, and were just named best rock band of 2006 in a recent Portsmouth poll.

Saturday: Last Kid Picked, Newport Opera House –
Local heroes hold down the musical end of Winter Carnival for another year. They’ll play everything from “My Prerogative” to “Boys of Summer” – the Ataris’ version. Newport boasts the oldest winter carnival in the country; this is the 91st year. LKP hasn’t played every one, but they’ve done a bunch. The best part about this show, perhaps, is that it’s indoors.

Sunday: Mike Monaghan, Center at Eastman – Saxophonist Monaghan freelances with the Boston Pops, and has worked with Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Anita O’Day. Sunday’s show begins with the Bill Wightman-led JOSA Ensemble, who will then back Monaghan. There’s a real chemistry between Wightman’s band and the musicians he recruits for JOSA that makes each performance special and unique.

Tuesday: Altan & Paul Brady, Hopkins Center – This is a great double bill of Irish music, featuring Altan, a six-piece traditional band, and Brady, a terrific songwriter who’s given songs to everyone from Bonnie Raitt to Bob Dylan. Brady will do his own set and sit in with Altan. His soulful voice should blend well with lead vocalist Maihread Ni Mhaonaigh’s pristine soprano.

Wednesday: Jerry Douglas, Iron Horse – He didn’t invent the Dobro, a resonator guitar turned flat and played with a combination of steel sliding and finger picking. But to hear the sounds emanating from Douglas as his hands float and dance across the instrument, you’d be forgiven if you thought otherwise. He often backs people like Allison Krause. To see him up front is a real treat.

Blues and Jazz this Weekend

junabate.jpgTwo shows not mentioned in Local Rhythms, but equally noteworthy:

“Jazz on a Sunday Afternoon” at Eastman – January 14 – Alto Sax from Greg Abate … 2005 Grammy nominee for Album of the Year, Best Instrumental Solo and Best Jazz Instrumental Album. He’s played with Ray Charles and Artie Shaw.

Joined by the JOSA Ensemble, led by Bill Wightman on piano. Featuring bassist John Hunter, Ted Gilmore on percussion and reedman/flutist Richard Gardzina.

Sophi & Zeke’s in Historic Downtown Claremont welcomes Matt McCabe January 12 – Piano player extraordinaire makes his downtown debut. Matt spent 9 years with the legendary Boston band, Roomful of Blues. He also played 4 years with RoB founder Duke Robillard. A great music room with no cover charge.

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?”