On Stage: Monterey Jazz Fest On Tour comes to Philly

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By Denny Dyroff, Entertainment Editor, The Times

Monterey Jazz Festival On Tour

Some of this weekend’s featured concerts in the area cover a variety of musical styles including all-star jazz, modern blues, singer-songwriter, and alt-country/experimental.

Six of the most talented new artists on the jazz scene are now on the road together as part of the Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour.

The tour, which features Cécile McLorin Salvant, Bria Skonberg, Melissa Aldana, Christian Sands, Yasushi Nakamura, and Jamison Ross, will touch down locally on March 23 at the Kimmel Center (260 South Broad Street, Philadelphia, www.kimmelcenter.org).

In addition to having three unique and talented vocalists on the tour, and an equal balance of men and women, the show will feature renditions of classic jazz standards, along with originals penned by the members. Each musician is an outstanding representative of the next generation of jazz artists and educators.

And, each of the touring musicians has a close relationship with Monterey that represents both its musical excellence and jazz education activities — core components of Monterey Jazz Festival’s mission statement and expanding on its tradition of presenting the best in jazz, and of jazz’s younger, international and diverse future in 2019.

To celebrate the Festival’s 60th Anniversary, Artistic Director Tim Jackson put together a tour with an all-star band that represented the future of jazz in a nationwide tour. Previous incarnations include a 50th anniversary tour in 2008, with additional national tours in 2010, 2013, and 2016, with a collective 163 performances to over 115,000 fans across the country.

“Tim Jackson and Danny Melnick assembled this cast,” said Skonberg, during a phone interview Thursday afternoon from a tour stop in Rockville, Maryland. “They’ve been planning this for two years.”

According Jackson, “This will be the 10-year anniversary of MJF on Tour and it is also one of our most exciting. With a strong female presence on the front line with Cécile, Melissa and Bria, and the mastery of Christian Sands as our pianist and musical director, we are looking forward to

spreading the joy of jazz, which is the essence of the Monterey Jazz Festival, to rest of the country.”

One of the most acclaimed vocalists of her generation, Cécile McLorin Salvant is the winner of the 2010 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition. Other honors include selection for Jazz Album of the Year by the DownBeat International Critics Poll and NPR, as well as Up-and-Coming Jazz Artist of the Year and Top Female Vocalist from the Jazz Journalists Association.

Tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana was born in Santiago, Chile, and in 2013, she became the first female instrumentalist and the first South American ever to win the Thelonious Monk Competition. Aldana attended the Berklee College of Music, studying with George Garzone, Danilo Pérez and Patricia Zarate, while hitting the clubs with Greg Osby and George Coleman, among others. She is also a recipient of the Martin E. Segal Award from Jazz at Lincoln Center and a double recipient of the Altazor Award, Chile’s highly prestigious national arts prize.

Pianist and MJF on Tour Music Director Christian Sands is a five-time Grammy nominee. As a child in New Haven, Connecticut, he began music classes at age four, started playing professionally at the age of 10, and received his Bachelor of Arts and master’s degrees from the Manhattan School of Music. A protégé of Dr. Billy Taylor, Christian began a six-year association with bassist Christian McBride in 2009, touring jazz festivals and clubs worldwide. 

Bassist Yasushi Nakamura is one of the most commanding voices on bass today. Born in Tokyo, Nakamura moved to Seattle, Washington, eventually receiving his bachelor’s in jazz performance from Berklee College of Music, and an artist diploma from the Juilliard School. He has recorded or performed around the world with Wynton Marsalis, Wycliffe Gordon, and Toshiko Akiyoshi. As an educator, Nakamura has led master classes and summer intensive courses at Juilliard, The New School, Koyo Conservatory, Osaka Geidai, and Savannah Swing Central.

Grammy-nominated drummer and vocalist Jamison Ross won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition in 2012. A Jacksonville, Florida native, Jamison received his B.A. in Jazz Studies from Florida State University and his master’s from the University of New Orleans. He has toured internationally and recorded with a variety of esteemed jazz artists including Cécile McLorin Salvant, Jonathan Batiste, Dr. John, Jon Cleary, Christian McBride, and Carmen Lundy.

Canadian singer, trumpeter and songwriter Bria Skonberg has been described as one of the “most versatile and imposing musicians of her generation” by the Wall Street Journal, recognized as one of 25 for the Future by DownBeat Magazine, and cited as a millennial “shaking up the jazz world” by Vanity Fair.

Signed to Sony Music Masterworks’ OKeh Records, Skonberg released her eponymous major label debut in 2016, winning a Canadian JUNO award and making the Top 5 on Billboard jazz charts. Her many accolades include Best Vocal and Best Trumpet awards from Hot House Jazz Magazine, Outstanding Jazz Artist at the New York Bistro Awards, and DownBeat’s Rising Star award.

In addition to performing at jazz festivals around the world, Skonberg is an avid educator and supporter of public school opportunities, giving numerous workshops and concerts for students of all ages.

“I played with my own group at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 2016,” said Skonberg. “This tour group met in September, had a few rehearsals and then played two shows the next day. Prior to that, we had been listening to each other’s music online. I’ve probably known everybody in the group for eight years. Melissa is the only one I hadn’t played with recently.

“In this show, we’re all onstage together and perform in different configurations from full band down to as small as a trio. We are all bandleaders. There is so much talent in this group, it’s ridiculous. We’ve all put our egos aside for this tour. Christian Sands is the music director and he discusses everything with everybody.”

Skonberg grew up in Chilliwack, British Columbia – a small city two hours north of Vancouver. She began studying music when she was very young.

“I started on piano,” said Skonberg. “When it was time to pick a sport and an instrument, I chose soccer and piano.

“My dad played trumpet when he was younger, so we had a trumpet around the house. I started playing trumpet in seventh grade. I liked it because it was a ‘call to action’ instrument. I started listening to musicians like Count Basie and Duke Ellington.

“My hometown had a festival focusing on early jazz. In high school, I joined a small combo that was playing that music. I’m lucky to have studied the roots of jazz. That gave me a strong foundation.”

Skonberg has also worked as a bandleader. She was the leader of Bria’s Hot Five and The Big Bang Jazz Band. She also has released several albums  — the most recent of which was “With a Twist” in 2017.

“This tour runs through April 14 and visits 26 cities – including several places I’ve never been like Mississippi and Nebraska,” said Skonberg. “I never played Philadelphia before, but I am coming to Longwood Gardens later this year.”

Skonberg will be one of the featured acts at Longwood Gardens’ Wine and Jazz Festival on June 1.

Video link for Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour — https://youtu.be/3HIor7suGHU.

Video link for Bria Skonberg — https://youtu.be/TvB8Z-sEBFA.

The show at the Kimmel Center will start at 8 p.m. Ticket prices range from $35-$65.

Slim Cessna Auto Club is an alt-country/experimental band but that label still falls short in describing the music made by Cessna and his talented group of musicians.

According to punk rock legend Jello Biafra, “Slim Cessna’s Auto Club is the country band that plays the bar at the end of the world.”

DBUK

Slim Cessna’s Auto Club exists as the main band – SCAC. It also has other incarnations such as DBUK.

DBUK (which stands for “Denver Broncos UK”) features the four core members of Slim Cessna’s Auto Club — Slim Cessna, Munly J. Munly, Lord Dwight Pentacost, and Rebecca Vera. On March 23, DBUK will headline a show at PhilaMOCA (531 North 12th Street, Philadelphia, 267-519-9651, www.philamoca.org).

The band is touring in support of its new album “Songs Nine Through Sixteen,” which was released in January on Slim Cessna’s label SCACUNINCORPORATED. DBUK has been celebrating the release of the new album with tours in Russia, Europe and the US.

DBUK exists on its own musical plane. Haunting, warped murder ballads come with a louche, anti-spiritual cast. Limerence and longing co-exist with casual cruelty in compositions that feature a remarkable amount of detail of the natural world. They often begin sparingly and build into an ecstatic reverberation of instruments and voices. Reverb and shake rattles abound, lending a spaghetti western vibe.

“With DBUK, there are four of us,” said Cessna, during a phone interview Wednesday afternoon as the band was driving from Detroit to a gig in Cleveland.

“Rebecca sings and plays cello and keyboards. Munly sings and plays guitar. Dwight plays autoharp, banjo, melodica and percussion. I play percussion and sing.

“DBUK has been such a sporadic iteration because it’s so different than the Auto Club. Munly is the songwriter and he has specific differences in the writing for each band. For me, the biggest difference is just in the presentation. DBUK uses different instruments and is much quieter. It’s the flip side of the coin.

“We started DBUK years ago but haven’t toured that much. We joked that we wanted to start this band to prepare for old age. Sometimes, the Auto Club can be brutal.”

DBUK dropped its first record a few years ago.

“We released DBUK’s debut album ‘Songs One Through Eight’ in 2015,” said Cessna. “‘Songs Nine Through Sixteen’ came out earlier this year. We

record everything ourselves in Denver. We’re based in Denver. We have our own studio there – and we have our own label.

“We worked on ‘Songs Nine Through Sixteen’ over the course of a few years. We continued to write songs while going with Slim Cessna’s Auto Club at the same time. Lately, we’ve been touring a lot with the Auto Club.”

SCAC fans in the area have had the opportunity to hear that band perform locally a number of times in recent years. Not so with DBUK.

“We only had one tour before this,” said Cessna. “That tour took place in western United States. This time, we wanted to give the whole country a shot. We just got back from a European tour. We played all over Europe. A lot of people in Europe support Slim Cessna’s Auto Club. There is more interest there than in the states.

“Our live show on this tour will be 50/50 songs from each album. We finish this tour in the middle of April. The next thing after that – we’ll be out on the road with Slim Cessna’s Auto Club in June.”

Video link for DBUK – https://youtu.be/LS59Acu7z5c.

The show at PhilaMOCA, which has Norman Westberg as the opening act, will start at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15.

Richard Shindell

Another interesting show on March 23 will take place when The Locks at Sona (4417 Main Street, Manayunk, 484- 273-0481, sonapub.com) presents Richard Shindell.

Shindell is a writer whose songs paint pictures, tell stories, juxtapose ideas and images, inhabit characters, vividly evoking entire worlds along the way and expanding our sense of just what it is a song may be.

Shindell continues to tour nationally in the United States, with the occasional forays into Canada, the UK, and Europe. Although known primarily as songwriter, Shindell takes a more holistic view of his career. Producer, writer, singer, guitarist, interpreter — it all adds up to a life in music.

A New Jersey native who now splits his time between residing in Beacon, New York and living in Buenos Aires, Argentina, he released his debut album “Sparrows Point” on Shanachie Records in 1992. Shindell’s latest album, “Careless,” came out on Amalgamated Balladry in 2016. His discography also includes more than 10 albums that were made in between his first and his most recent offerings.

“This tour started out with 10 dates in the South and then I was home in Beacon for a few days,” said Shindell, during a phone interview Thursday from a tour stop in Columbia, Maryland.

“Now, I have five gigs in a row in the Mid-Atlantic. I’ve been back in the states for a month now. I go back-and-forth but I’m always in Argentina for the southern summer. I come up when it’s summertime here, but I don’t spend the whole summer.”

“Careless” represents the culmination of years of work, preparation, and growth. It was meticulously recorded over three years in upstate New York and Buenos Aires. Shindell immersed himself in the studio — allowing the time and latitude to explore, experiment and take risks.

“I recorded ‘Careless’ mostly in upstate New York – at a studio in the Saugerties near Woodstock,” said Shindell. “I also did a lot of recording in Buenos Aires. My wife is from Buenos Aires and we’ve been living there for almost 20 years. I love Buenos Aires. There’s a lot of culture there. Argentina and its people are really interesting.”

Like Skonberg, Shindell also has a strong interest in soccer…especially living in a city with the two best teams in South America — River Plate and Boca Juniors.

“It’s a divided household,” said Shindell. “My daughter is a River Plate fan and my son is a Boca Juniors fan. My wife’s favorite team is Estudiantes de La Plata so I side with her.”

When it comes to team nicknames, the parents’ choice has the best. River Plate are Los Millonarios (The Millionaires) while Boca Juniors are Xeneizes (Genoese).Estudiantes de La Plata are known as Los Pincharratas, which means The Rat Stabbers.

Back to music — on “Careless,” Shindell mixes in more electric guitar work than usual.

According to Shindell, “Returning to the electric guitar has transformed my relationship with all aspects of my career. The wider sonic and dynamic range of the electric has been a real inspiration. Rejuvenating.” 

“In my live shows now, ‘Careless’ has been put into the pool with the other stuff,” said Shindell. “I play songs from a lot of my albums, but I do still play a lot of songs from ‘Careless.’

“This is a different tour from the previous one. It’s completely solo. I’m not bringing (guitarist) Marc Shuman with me. I’m using three instruments – one electric guitar, one acoustic guitar and my mandola.

“I’m having a really good time. I’m working in new material and some older songs that haven’t been played live much. And, I’m doing the regular stuff.”

Shindell’s music career has followed a far-from-traditional path.

After college and a nine-month stint in a Zen Buddhist community in Upstate New York, he headed to Europe with his guitar, finding something not approaching a livelihood performing in the Paris Metro, where his repertoire consisted of Fahey-tinged fingerpicking, Blakian flatpicking and “endless droning along in open tunings.” Evincing an early inclination toward self-imposed commercial exile, Shindell sought out the less-travelled corners of the Metro.

Upon running out of money, and despite being an atheist, he applied to and was accepted by Union Theological Seminary (NY), beginning his studies in 1986. Three years in an M.Div. program did nothing to cure him of his atheism.

However, it did provide him with late-night access to the neo-gothic expanses of Union’s St. James Chapel – a place with celestial acoustics that inspired his first “keeper” – a song called “On a Sea of Fleur de Lis.”

Ostensibly a paean to the Virgin Mary, the song marked his rupture from the church and the beginning of his creative life. Its underlying themes –immanence and transcendence, human love and divine love, the particular and the general — have continued to resonate through subsequent work, right up to the present. In many ways, “Careless” represents a further exploration of those ideas.

Shindell is more than just a song writer – he is a song crafter.

“It’s just a question of having a phrase in English that sounds good to me,” said Shindell. “The line has to sound good and be something that can be sung. It’s really helpful for these words to have a wide-open quality – to not be too specific – to not be too determined about where it is going.”

Like a tournament Scrabble player, Shindell is always looking for the perfect word to fit the situation.

“I edit fairly well,” said Shindell. “I like to mess around with word choices and word order – and that will go on forever. I love that process.

“I love polishing it. Then, after a while, it sounds fine and I can’t do anything more to it. I am a perfectionist. Actually, I wish I were less of a perfectionist.”

Now, Shindell is looking for new avenues for creative expression.

“I’ve written some songs recently,” said Shindell. “I may want to write things other than songs. I honestly don’t know. There are other things I want to accomplish.

“This is a strange career – not the usual way to make a living. People who live on a schedule – they want to retire when they’re 65. Not me because what I do is different.

“Performing live is a challenge. It’s not really comfortable. I may focus my touring into a concentrated block and then spend more time in Argentina. I would love to write a book — non-fiction prose, poems or short stories.”

Whatever medium in which Shindell decides to write, one thing is certain – he will always be searching for the right words.

Video link for Richard Shindell – https://youtu.be/XZD36CEVHUQ.

The show at The Locks at Sona, which has Dina Hall as the opening act, will start at 8 p.m. Tickets are $30.

Selwyn Birchwood

Top shelf live music just keeps coming at The Locks at Sona.

On March 24, The Locks at Sona will host one of America’s brightest young blues musicians – Selwyn Birchwood.

With his fiery guitar and lap steel playing, his trailblazing, instantly memorable songs and gritty, unvarnished vocals, Birchwood is among the most extraordinary young stars in the blues. His deep familiarity with blues tradition allows him to bust the genre wide open, adding new sounds, colors and textures, all delivered with a revival tent preacher’s fervor and a natural storyteller’s charisma.

Birchwood wrote and produced all 13 songs on his latest album “Pick Your Poison,” which was released in 2017 on Alligator Records. The album is a testament to Birchwood’s overflowing talents as a blues master – despite his young age of 34.

“The ‘Pick Your Poison’ album was nominated for two Blues Music Awards and we’re still touring it strong,” said Birchwood, during a phone interview last week from a tour stop in St. Georges, Delaware. “We’re just working hard.

“We started making ‘Pick Your Poison’ in May of 2106. It was a real challenge for us to get in the studio because our tour schedule was so crazy. I had to do it two or three days at a time. I didn’t finish it until December. We did it at Phat Planet Studio in Orlando. It’s a great studio with a lot of great gear.

“We had already been performing half the record on the road. We finished out the rest of the tracks while working on them over a nine-month period.”

Birchwood is one of the top acts to emerge in the world of blues music in recent years. In 2013, he won the world-renowned International Blues Challenge — beating out 125 other musicians from the U.S. and abroad.

He also took home the Albert King Guitarist of the Year Award. After that, it didn’t take long for Alligator Records president Bruce Iglauer to offer Birchwood a contract.

“Bruce heard me play at IBC (International Blues Challenge) in Memphis,” said Birchwood.

“I gave him some of my tracks to listen to. I was just hoping to get his opinion on them. Instead, he asked me to make an album for his record label.”

His album, “Don’t Call No Ambulance,” which was his third overall and first for Alligator Records, received the Living Blues Critics’ Award for Best Debut Album Of 2014.

Birchwood was born in 1985 in Orlando, Florida. He first grabbed a guitar at age 13 and soon became proficient at mimicking what he heard on the radio. But the popular grunge rock, hip-hop and metal of the 1990s didn’t move him, and he quickly grew bored.

Then he heard Jimi Hendrix. By the time he was 17, Birchwood was deep into the blues — listening to Albert King, Freddie King, Albert Collins, Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins and especially Buddy Guy.

“When I was young, I decided I wanted to play an instrument and landed on guitar,” said Birchwood. “I was bored with just hearing the stuff on the radio in the late 90s.

“When I heard Jimi Hendrix for the first time, I was blown away. It was like a spaceship landed. Then, I started listening to Hendrix’ roots — Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy.

“Buddy Guy was one of my favorites. He was coming on tour to the House of Blues in Orlando when I was 17 and living there. I went to his show and was completely floored. I said — what I’m feeling coming off this stage is what I want to do.”

Birchwood not only is a strong player, he is a very good writer.

“I’m writing all the time,” said Birchwood. “I write by myself and bring it to the band. My way to write songs is always different. It’s kind of sporadic.

“I have a lot of time on the road with these tours, so I think about songs and start working on them. I grew up listening to Muddy Waters and B.B. King. So, when I’m writing, it feels like blues to me no matter what the form.

“We normally like to road-test songs because they seem to develop out of improvisation. I really dig all kinds of blues – Delta, Piedmont, Chicago and Hill Country blues. Now, I’m trying to make some Florida blues – original music.

“I just never understood playing old blues all the time. In the United States, if you played in a rock band and did covers, you got mocked. It’s much better to tell your one stories – and maybe throw an occasional cover into your live show.

“I don’t want to stand in stage and be recreating something that’s been done before – telling somebody else’s tale. I want to tell my own story. I’ll quote a few old songs, but I’ll never do a full cover.”

A new Selwyn Birchwood album is on the horizon.

“I’ve got about eight songs done for the next record,” said Birchwood. “We haven’t started recording yet. I’ve got songs done for the live show. The songs evolve and change. The longer you play them, the more you find nuances.”

Video link for Selwyn Birchwood – https://youtu.be/MZjeJsN5CcU.

The show at The Locks at Sona, which has Eryn as the opening act, will start at 8 p.m. Tickets are $18.

Another upcoming show at the venue in Manayunk will be Lula Wiles with special guest Nina DeVitry on March 27.

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