It has become a Fox Cities summer tradition…and a fine one at that.
The 23rd annual Fox Jazz Festival returns to Menasha’s idyllic lakeside Jefferson Park on Saturday, September 3rd and Sunday, September 4th. One of the unique and most enjoyable features of the festival, the Fox Jazz Fest Jam, which often includes players from the festival as well as the best local musicians, also returns to The Riverwalk Inn in Neenah Saturday night.
Perhaps the best part of the tradition is that admission is free.
Fox Jazz Festival artistic director John Harmon has assembled yet another strong lineup of talent to fit this year’s theme, “Oh How My Heart Sings.”
“I’m pretty thrilled,” Harmon said. “We’ve never focused on vocals like this but it seems like time we did. We have two headliners, Sara Gazarek and Allan Harris, who are world-class singers. The people who attend will be very pleased.”
Gazarek, the Sunday headliner, is a Los Angeles-based jazz vocalist and leads the award-winning vocal jazz ensemble as a member of the University of Southern California faculty. With three highly acclaimed CD’s under her belt at the young age of 30, Sara has been hailed by the LA Times as “the next important jazz singer,” and “impeccable,” by the Winnipeg Free Press.
Gazarek will be joined by her stellar Los Angeles-based group featuring pianist Josh Nelson, bassist Hamilton Price and Grammy-winning drummer Zach Harmon, a USC graduate and John Harmon’s son.
“Zach introduced me to Sara,” Harmon said. “He has worked with her for 8-9 years since he got out of the Monk Institute. She is fantastic.”
Harris, a Brooklyn native, is an award-winning jazz vocalist, guitarist and songwriter who has performed at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York, Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center and at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. He is a three-time winner of the New York Nightlife Award for “Outstanding Jazz Vocalist,” won the Backstage Bistro Award for “Ongoing Achievement in Jazz,” the Jazz Museum of Harlem Award and the P.A.C.E Award for Jazz Excellence.
The Miami Herald described him as an artist blessed with, “the warmth of Tony Bennett, the bite and rhythmic sense of Sinatra, and the sly elegance of Nat ‘King’ Cole.” Harris’ new album, “Black Bar Jukebox,” produced by Grammy® Award-winning producer Brian Bacchus (Norah Jones, Gregory Porter), is his most compelling and comprehensive recording to date.
“I was not familiar with Allan Harris,” Harmon said. “I listened to some of his stuff and he is fantastic. He is definitely a real star and a wonderful jazz singer.”
Vocalist Janet Planet, the Fox Cities’ own international jazz star, will join Harmon on the FJF stage at 2:45 p.m. Saturday. They often perform locally as a duo and have played together in Russia and Japan.
“When I hired Janet for this year’s festival, I told her she could bring anyone she wanted in terms of her band,” Harmon said. “She said ‘I want it to be just you and me.’ I was shocked, but thrilled and honored as well.”
Another top-tier vocalist, Chris Salerno, will sing and play keyboards as she fronts Ziji, who will play in the 1 p.m. slot on Sunday.
Harmon considers Kim Richmond Quintet featuring trumpeter Clay Jenkins (2:15 p.m. Sunday) and The Amina Figarova Sextet (4 p.m. Saturday) as worthy of being headliners. Figarova’s ensemble was the surprise hit of the 2011 Fox Jazz Festival.
“I was very impressed by her 2011 performance and she will be a great set-up for Allan Harris,” Harmon said. “I like the band’s precision and their European perspective. They are an extremely gifted and well-educated group of musicians. We are really getting another headliner.”
Figarova herself has fond memories of the 2011 festival.
“I remember well that audience was very much into it,” she said. “After the performance I spoke with few people and it was obvious how well they listened to the music and to my stories. It’s a true pleasure to play for such an audience. We are looking forward to that very much!!!”
Her latest album, “Blue Whisper,” was released in 2015 to worldwide critical acclaim.
“Indeed, response is overwhelming and beautiful,” she said. “Making an album is such intimate, deep and reflecting process, and, once you’re done, it goes to the world, to listeners, and it always has and is a very special moment – the first response. This album was pretty special because some of the songs were inspired on a very different way. One of the songs that I think deserves special attention is ‘Hear My Voice.’ The inspiration to write it was very unusual. I HAD to write it, it was like a message.”
“On a January night during the Kwanza celebration I met beautiful eight year-old girl, Saliah,” she continued. “She is smart, funny, girl, but suddenly she started to speak like an older, wise person, she was questioning, very philosophically – ‘Why all this violence, why people kill each other? People are angry and upset because of this violence, we must stop this! Kids have to stay kids.’”
“I came home and wrote ‘Hear My Voice,’ and later Saliah added voice over. In the world today, were violence surrounds us. This is the most important message, and we as musicians have to be the peace diplomats. The world has to be about love and music – and that’s the main theme of “Blue Whisper”
Neenah’s Mike Kubicki has performed with trumpeter-composer Marlin McKay at two of the last three Fox Jazz Fests; this year, he will be fronting his own trio that will include two of Wisconsin’s best, bassist John Gibson and drummer Mike Malone. They will perform a tribute to bebop legend Bud Powell.
“He’s obviously earned frontman status,” Harmon said. “I admire what he does and he plays that style so well. We don’t have a lot of his level of talent in the area and we’re very lucky he’s around.”
Another band overflowing with local, top-tier talent is Salsa Manzana, who will play at 3:00 p.m. Sunday.
“They are so much fun. I love the festival atmosphere they bring,” Harmon said. “It should be a blast.”
Salsa Manzana is comprised of some the very best musicians in the area including: Noah Harmon, piano; Andy Mertens, bass; John Daniel and Matt Granatella, trumpets; Tom Vanden Avond, trombone; Mark Te Tai bari Sax, alto sax, flute; Julio Reyes, tenor sax, vocals; Mike Malone, conga; Vicky Daniel, timbales; Marisol Encarnacion, vocals; Carlos Mendez, lead vocal, maracas, guiro; and band director Jose Encarnacion, bongo and percussion.
“This is truly an honor and a privilege to play in the premier jazz festival in the state of Wisconsin, a dream come true,” Mendez said. “We look forward to bringing our salsa music to The Fox Jazz Fest. It is special because we have many members that are experienced jazz musicians, so for many of them this is a homecoming of sorts.”
“We are looking forward to beautiful weather, a festive sound and many dancers as well as a very receptive audience having fun listening and dancing to our music,” he added. “We will be introducing a new song called ‘El Jibaro y la Naturaleza’ which has a beautiful intro with agogo bells being followed by bari sax and the entire horn section. It has a Brazilian and Caribbean feel to it from the get-go.”
The full schedule:
Noon: Webster Stanley Middle School Jazz Band
12:30 p.m.: Neenah High School Jazz Band
1 p.m.: Mike Kubicki Group (tribute to Bud Powell)
2:15 p.m.: High School improv winners playing with the
Noah Harmon Trio
2:45 p.m.: Janet Planet and
4 p.m.: Amina Figarova Sextet
5:15 p.m.: Allan Harris Quintet
9 p.m.: Jam session at Riverwalk Inn in Neenah
10 a.m.: Free Clinic at Jazz Fest grounds with Sara Gazarek Quartet
Noon: St. Mary’s High School
12:30 p.m.: Notre Dame
High School Band
1 p.m.: Ziji
2:15 p.m.: Kim Richmond Quintet featuring Clay Jenkins
3:30 p.m.: Salsa Manzana
5 p.m.: Sara Gazarek Quartet