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Rock/Pop Bands in Town
Jazz Clubs by Night
Jazz Club Directory
Jazz Bands in Town
The Center for Cultural Exchange, hosts of this weekend’s first-ever Festival of Cultural Exchange, deserve great praise for the line-up they’ve fashioned. They’ve thrown bones to just about every fan contingent you can find in Portland, except for the punk/metal crowd, and they’ve gathered a great group of local musicians to represent Portland and Maine to the thousands of folks who’ll come to see what the international fuss is all about.
Their choices show acumen for picking combinations of critical and fan favorites, and acts that have something new and different to bring to the event: Steve Earle and Juliana Hatfield, probably the two most recognizable names for commercial-music fans, each have brand-new albums to showcase. Oteil Burbridge will draw fans of the Allman Brothers and Aquarium Rescue Unit, but he’s got major chops that will turn heads of jazz fans when he brings his own band, the Peacemakers. Al Kooper should be more familiar to fans than he is — it’s likely almost everyone has heard his session work with Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, the Who, and the Rolling Stones’ "You Can’t Always Get What You Want." Maybe you’ve heard of his first band, Blood, Sweat & Tears.
And that’s just the stuff I’m capable of judging. No doubt, Musicalia, Vusi Mahlasela, and Greater East River Ensemble are titans in their own rights.
Possibly most telling, though, is the obvious excitement evidenced by the locals who’ll be playing the event (although many of them said they were looking forward to seeing the Skatalites until I told them they’d backed out of the festival). Relatively new Latin band Esperanza’s Jason Ward, looking forward to catching a Kooper set, or maybe one by the Persuasions or Juliana Hatfield, says that "I think this show’s a bigger deal" than any they’ve played so far. "For the most part we haven’t played a show like this in Portland."
"We’re just going to bring our A-game." That A-game involves some of the most danceable rhythm Portland has seen since Dulce de Leche packed it in, highlighted by melody from Ward and Marc Chillemi’s horn section and piano player Stephanie Reed, a Cape Elizabeth grad who’s ferrying back and forth from Brown for gigs and practices.
"Shows how much dedication she’s got," chuckles Ward.
Tarpigh’s Tom Kovacevic is looking forward to seeing a Kora player he’s heard will be at the festival. "That would be my thing," he says of the West African harp, a 21-stringed instrument. Known for their ability to play a wide variety of instruments, the Tarpigh trio will likely be agog walking around the Festival Saturday and Sunday. Also, they’ve designed a special, very flexible set that they’ll be performing both times they play on Saturday.
"It’s going to be our heavy rocking set," say Kovacevic. "We’re going to pull out the electric," playing mostly stuff off the most recent album, Skull Crackers, and some from Monsieur Monsoon, an older work.
"We want to make sure we’re able to be heard," he says, "and we got kind of billed as a Middle Eastern folk ensemble, so we want to show the other side, too." This kind of strutting of stuff seems to be common to the local acts playing the festival.
"I think people would hear our music that wouldn’t normally," says Kovacevic, agreeing with Ward. "Just that many artists together, it will just be a lot of energy. I’m pretty psyched about that."
So is Sam Sherry, who’ll be bringing his jazz quartet Ursa Major to the Festival. He’s "always happy to see [fellow Mainers] Mark Kleinhaut and Brad Terry play," but says he went to the New England Conservatory of Music with Mimi Babson, an electric violinist heading up the Mimi Babson 3, and wants to see what she’s up to. Plus, "I sure hope I can see the Persuasions and the Holmes Brothers." The latter group, he tells me, used to play with local violin maker John Cooper, who reportedly "used to spank the plank down in New York City."
Jazz fans need to be excited about Ursa Major playing, too. It’s a rare chance to see a double-bass man who composes fronting his own group. Sherry does a lot of work as local sideman, but doesn’t often play out with Ursa Major. Plus, Sherry will be "debuting a suite of tunes drawn from Khalil Gibran’s great book The Prophet."
"It’s a project I’ve been working on for years," he says. "It’s finally at the point where I have the opportunity to bring it out in public. I’m excited about it. I really am. It’s not just the hucksterism you normally get fed." He’s even contacted the Gibran family trust to get permission to use his name in concert with his compositions — he’s a lawyer by day. This weekend, he’ll have Chris Humphrey playing keys and singing, Tim O’Dell on alto and soprano saxophone, and Steve Grover on drums.
Kleinhaut and Terry will be a little more stripped down: It’s just the two of them.
"Brad and I have a pretty unique way of delving into the book of jazz standards," says Kleinhaut, "the Great American Songbook, if you will, and interpreting them in a very improvised format. Sometimes people who know those old songs well may not even recognize that we’re playing that song. Yet it’s always very melodic and cohesive sounding. It’s not free jazz, but we play very freely."
Kleinhaut says he was hoping to debut some pieces he’s been composing just for his guitar and Terry’s clarinet, but that a busy summer got in the way of them finding the time to rehearse them.
As for whom he’s excited to see, "to be perfectly honest, a lot of these folks coming in from all over the world are names that are unfamiliar to me, so I’m looking forward to just wandering around and being exposed to some new things. It’s a great opportunity to hear sounds from all over the world that are not part of what’s regularly in the air in Portland." It’s that musical curiosity that took Kleinhaut and Terry to Cuba earlier this year.
"When we went to Cuba," he says, "we met many people who spoke no English, and we spoke no Spanish, but through music we were able to immediately communicate and really make some friendships that we’ll always remember.
"When I’ve been performing in Germany, and Brad performed in Poland and other parts of Europe, we’ve had the same experience. Through jazz as a central established idiom, we can connect people who play Latin jazz with what we do, which might be a more straight-ahead style. Within literally a couple of minutes we can find some common ground and make music together. All without speaking in English or what have you."
I note that there should be a fair amount of "what have you" at the festival this weekend.
"Yes," he laughs, "it should be really exciting just to walk down the streets of Portland and keep your ears open."
The Muddy Marsh Ramblers’ guitarist/vocalist Scott Conley will certainly have his ears open, but there’s little doubt as to who he’s most excited about: "Definitely Steve Earle," he says. The Ramblers cover Earle’s "Carrie Brown," a song they’ve added to their set since second guitarist Craig Hensley came aboard about two years ago. Conley’s also one of the musicians who was excited about the Skatalites, but, as with everything, he takes the news about them not coming with good humor: "At least we’re on the same poster as them, whether they show up or not."
But the Ramblers are most excited to show off their brand-new debut self-titled CD, stocked with 10 originals and three standards, on Charlie Gaylord’s Cornmeal Records. And they’ll be doing that showing off with at least one set right out front of the State Theatre as Steve Earle’s about to go on.
So maybe he’ll have his ears open, stop by, take a listen to "Carrie Brown," and buy himself a Ramblers disc. That would be an exchange of culture perfectly fitting the festival.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at email@example.com
The Festival of Cultural Exchange happens Aug. 7 and 8 in downtown Portland. Check www.centerforculturalexchange.com or call (207) 761-1545 for full schedule.
Issue Date: August 6 - 12, 2004
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