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Jazz Aspen Snowmass Academy turns attention toward group play

Stewart Oksenhorn

The common wisdom about jazz is that the form is concerned with individual expression, and that the lone artist is to be exalted.And there is more than a grain of truth to this view: an instrumentalist doesn’t need a composer, a conductor or an orchestra to make his music. Further, the essence of the music is the personal expression that comes from improvising, from an artist playing out of his spontaneous emotions.But that angle obscures an equally fundamental truth about jazz – that the music comes largely from the exchange of personal statements. Individual expression is the building block; group dynamics is the ultimate goal.Through its eight-year existence, Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ JAS Academy Summer Sessions has focused on honing the chops of individual musicians. Approximately a score or so of top student players have come – on full scholarship – for nearly two weeks of instruction from jazz masters, who have included Herbie Hancock, Nicholas Payton, the late Ray Brown and Christian McBride, the program’s artistic director.This year, the JAS Academy has turned its attention from the individual to the group. Instead of accepting application from individual musicians, Jazz Aspen sought out existing jazz combos. Beginning this past Monday, five groups, chosen from several dozen applicants, began working on band play, guided by a collection of standing combos and individual players with plenty of experience in the group playing.In addition to the instruction, the program includes a series of concerts that begins tonight. The highlight of the public events comes with JASummerNights Swing, set for Saturday at Aspen Highlands.JASummerNights Swing, Jazz Aspen’s annual benefit event, gets a new location – the base of Aspen Highlands – and a new format that focuses on group performance.”It’s more about the democracy of jazz, and less about the individual,” said Jim Horowitz, Jazz Aspen’s founder and executive producer, and a jazz pianist himself. “We wanted to point out that the highest expression of the music is when the music has a focus, an organization, a purpose. The idea is to take great musicians, put them together and have them look beyond their solo career.”Jazz Aspen also sought its own sense of order in selecting the groups. The five combos are: an English trio led by drummer Bradley Webb; the Connecticut Latin seven-piece jazz band, Insight; the Adonis Rose Quintet, a New Orleans-style outfit led by drummer Rose, formerly of Nicholas Payton’s group; the Gerald Clayton Trio, led by pianist Clayton, son of bassist John Clayton; and the Eastwest Quintet, which combines the traditions of East and West Coast jazz styles.The program also includes three vocalists – Gina Saputo, Simone Kopmajer and Gretchen Parlato – each teamed with one of the combos.The group focus extends to the instructors as well. Among the jazz masters are pianist Eddie Palmieri, who is in attendance with his quintet; vocalist Tierney Sutton and her trio; and pianist Benny Green and guitarist Russell Malone, who frequently perform and record as a duo, and have formed an occasional trio with McBride.Horowitz said that having combos learn from combos will raise the level of group playing. Sutton, for instance, will teach and perform with the trio she has been leading for 11 years.”Which, for a singer, is unheard of,” said Horowitz. “They have the most sophisticated arrangements I’ve ever heard for a vocalist.”Horowitz added that the group concept is already playing out as intended. “You hear, even on the first day, the sophistication of the arrangements. It’s not, let’s just do some free blowing.”The group emphasis is being employed to make over Jazz Aspen’s benefit. Set at Iguana’s JASummerNights Swing will feature two stages – an inside listening lounge, and a dance venue under a large tent just outside the restaurant. Each of the student jazz bands will play a set, and the musical portion of the evening will be capped with a performance by neo-swing band Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. Horowitz said that having six bands playing – as opposed to the one headliner, or freestyle jam of years past – will add a dimension of diversity.”It’s not only a fund-raiser, which it has always been,” he said. “It’s also a showcase for these groups. It’s a lot of different sounds – New Orleans, Latin, inside, outside, singers – and it’s groups that are groups.”JASummerNights Swing will also feature open bars with martinis, sake, margaritas and more; gourmet food, including sushi, Latin and vegetarian dishes and a carving station; a silent auction; door prizes and more.All proceeds from the event go to Jazz Aspen’s education programs.The JAS Academy Summer Sessions performance series opens tonight with the Tierney Sutton Trio in the Cabaret Room at the Silvertree Hotel and the JAS Academy Jam at the Blue Door, both in Snowmass Village.The Jazz Masters concert – with McBride, Malone, Green, trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, trumpeter Terell Stafford and more – is set for the Cabaret Room on Friday. Ribs & Jazz, featuring JAS Academy Bands, is set for the Hickory House in Aspen on Monday. Eddie Palmieri will close the series at the Blue Door on Wednesday, July 28. For tickets or further information on JASummerNights Swing or the Summer Sessions concert series, call 920-4996. Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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