By George Halas
In its continuing quest to provide multi-faceted public service, The Inquisition is issuing the following travel advisory for this upcoming Labor Day Weekend: The best possible travel destination for August 30 and 31 is The Twenty-first Annual Fox Jazz Festival held in Jefferson Park in Menasha.
It is the quintessential “staycation.” Great jazz in an idyllic lakeside setting, no worries about traffic or gas price…no cover charge…and you can grab a room at the Holiday Inn-Riverwalk in Neenah at the very special Fox Jazz Fest rate, so you can stay until the end of (and theoretically drink to your heart’s content) the Saturday jam that often features many of the best musicians from the Fest and the always fabulous Noah Harmon Trio.
In addition, the Fox Jazz Fest has gone to the ends of the earth to bring the best jazz performers to Menasha.
Who knew that the ends of the Earth would include Northeastern Wisconsin?
For Fox Jazz Festival artistic director John Harmon, terms like “world class” and “internationally recognized” recur as he discusses locally-based musicians like Dane Richeson, Matt Turner, Bill Carrothers, Marty Robinson and Mike Kubicki.
“We are very fortunate to have so many world-class musicians who live right here in the Fox Cities,” Harmon said. “Many of them deserve to be headliners.”
Because of the Festival’s ability to attract top talent, it is rare to see the same performers within three or four years of a Fox Jazz Fest performance. This year, however, the Fest has broken precedent––in a move that The Inquisition would term “brilliant”––and brought back Kubicki and Marlin McKay performing a tribute to hard bop legend Horace Silver. Many very knowledgeable folk insist that their “Tribute to Sonny Clark” performance was the highlight of the 2012 Fox Jazz Festival.
“It is unusual, but we try to honor the regional people who honor the past greats,” Harmon explained. “Mike and Marlin take such great care and do such a great job of presenting the music. Horace Silver’s hard bop needs to be kept alive.”
“Hard bop, in my view, embodies the pinnacle of American jazz,” Kubicki said. “It borrows concepts of arrangement from the big band era, innovations in improvisation and technique from the bebop era, and that gritty soulfulness from blues and gospel music, and blends it all into the style coined “hard bop.” When people say they wanna hear “classic” or “traditional” jazz, it’s hard bop they’re talking about. Hearing it live is the full experience, and we love to bring that live experience of this classic hard bop music to the audience.
“All of the music we’ll be performing was composed and recorded by Horace Silver in the mid-50s to mid-60s, all on the famous Blue Note record label,” Kubicki continued. “It was the golden era of hard bop, and Horace Silver was certainly one of the most popular and most influential leaders of the genre. No jazz is more soulful, finger-snappin,’ and swingin’ than Horace’s!”
The quintet will have a distinctly Wisconsin flavor; bassist Jim Paolo, saxophonist Eric Schnoor and drummer Dave Bayles are all from Milwaukee. That unit lit up the 2012 Fest.
“That was our Sonny Clark tribute, also a hard bop project,” Kubicki said. “I’d say it (the reason for success) was the energy and high caliber of the musicians Marlin and I were able to assemble.”
Kubicki is also a big fan of Fox Jazz Fest.
“I love playing for the Jazz Fest audience; the crowd is there because they love jazz,” Kubicki said. “They listen and they appreciate the music and the talent that the Fest brings in. I love the venue, too––great stage, great piano and sound engineering, right on the lake.”
“And, on a personal note,” he added, “it’s always a special pleasure to share our music with John Harmon, the Festival’s artistic director and my primary jazz piano instructor years ago.
The Inquisition theorizes that multi-instrumentalist and UW-O Director of Jazz Studies and professor of trumpet Marty Robinson could show up with four first-year music students and The Marty Robinson Quintet would be a festival highlight…
But the quintet will include saxophonist/flutist Jose Encarnacion (who was featured at the Fest two years ago as a soloist), bassist extraordinaire Mark Urness, and Danny Lueck, always the ‘first call’ drummer for top performers like Janet Planet and Stevie March-Torme as well as Robinson. The set list will emphasize Robinson’s compositions.
“It’s a great crowd and a great venue, absolutely,” Robinson said. “The guys running the stage (Brad Curran) and sound (Gary Baris) are awesome, and that is very important to us as musicians. It’s well run and it’s all good people––John (Harmon) always brings in good people who like to be around other musicians.”
“The Festival is a great mix of national and local talent. The Fox Valley is loaded with high-caliber jazz musicians,” Robinson continued. “It is a great showcase for those of us fortunate enough to be in that group as well as the national acts.”
As we go to print, the fest web site indicates that internationally renowned pianist Reggie Thomas, a good friend of Robinson’s, would be a featured guest. However…
“Reggie is very disappointed that he won’t be able to play with us. He is under contract to Wynton Marsalis, who just added a Labor Day concert in Australia, and he is contractually obligated to play,” Robinson explained.
Robinson is looking for a pianist of similar caliber; while he planned to play trumpet, he is talented enough to handle the keys as well. The Inquisition is confident that Robinson’s quintet will include a world-class pianist and will be more than worth arriving at the fest early Saturday afternoon.
Another potential highlight is the collaboration of world-class players and Lawrence University professors Carrothers, Turner and Richeson. A pairing of pianist Carrothers and cellist Turner for a performance in last year’s Jazz at The Trout series produced incredibly interesting, engaging and spontaneous music; adding percussionist Richeson impresses The Inquisition as approaching genius…or maybe just really, really good.
“Bill and Matt are world-class musicians who deserve to be headliners,” Harmon said. “Their music is always uniquely different. It is some of the most exquisite, spontaneous music that our festival offers.”
“Dane is another global guy who has played with some very famous people around the world,” Harmon continued. “We are very fortunate to have him around this area and playing at our festival.”
One of the most distinctive features of the Fox Jazz Festival is the educational/developmental component. Young musicians from the Seton Middle School Jazz Band and Neenah High School Jazz Band will have the opportunity to experience playing live at a festival on Saturday while the Kaukauna High School Jazz Strings and the Pulaski Red Raider Jazz Band will perform on Sunday.
The Fest holds a high school “improv” contest (jazz improvisation) for outstanding young soloists; the winners will perform with the Noah Harmon Trio Saturday afternoon.
On Saturday morning at 9:00 AM at Seton Middle School, headliner Matt Wilson will host a free jazz clinic. Harmon emphasizes that this clinic is open to the public, “open to everyone.”
An Inquisitor need not be a musician or a student to attend the clinic; interest in jazz is more than enough.
The Inquisition freely admits that few things sound less sexy than a free jazz clinic at a middle school on a Saturday morning, but consider: 1) it’s happy hour somewhere; 2) Wilson is not only very talented, he’s funny and entertaining; and, 3) this is an opportunity to not only hear some great playing but also have an interactive experience with one of the top jazz musicians in the world…at no charge.
The Ends of the Earth Include the Fox Cities
By George Halas