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NEA Jazz Master Joanne_Brakeen headlines the Vermont Jazz Center’s third annual Solo Jazz Piano Festival this weekend.

The Arts

A gathering of greatness

Top players to convene at Vermont Jazz Center for its third annual Solo Jazz Piano Festival

Eugene Uman is executive artistic director of the Vermont Jazz Center. Tickets for the VJC’s Solo Jazz Piano Fest are $95 for an “all events pass” and $20 per featured concert, or $30 for both nights. Tickets to attend Saturday or Sunday’s daytime programs are $40 per day and do not include admission to feature concerts. All seats are general admission. Contact the VJC for information about educational discounts. Tickets, and a complete schedule, are available online at www.vtjazz.org and by email at ginger@vtjazz.org. Tickets can also be reserved by calling the Vermont Jazz Center ticket line at 802-254-9088, ext. 1. Handicapped access is available by calling the VJC at 802-254-9088.

BRATTLEBORO—The third annual Vermont Solo Jazz Piano Festival is a celebration of the piano in jazz.

It highlights the instrument’s ability to convey beauty and capture melody, harmony, and rhythm, all at the same time.

The Jazz Center’s weekend-long program runs April 12-14 and includes eight performances, five master classes, a Q&A session, a piano forum for juried students, and a session called Effortless Mastery by Kenny Werner.

Now in its third year, the Festival has become a treasure for lovers of music in general and is not just for pianists. Some of the greatest piano-jazz minds in the world will divulge their methods of preparation, learning, and teaching, and will also share personal narratives, with top-level jazz players woven into their colorful stories.

Attendees will communicate directly with these artists in a nurturing environment that gives the artists the space and freedom to express what they do through words (in master classes and panels) and music (in concerts).

Piano artists featured in this season’s Festival include headliners Joanne Brackeen, George Cables, Julius Rodriguez, Kenny Werner and special guests Tom Cleary (University of Vermont jazz piano instructor), Franz Robert, Cameron Campbell and Rebecca Cline (Berklee School of Music jazz piano instructor).

The structure of the event emphasizes learning about the jazz piano idiom through narrative, educational master classes, and performances.

Headliners at Cotton Mill Hill

On Friday and Saturday evening, the VJC will present headliner concerts at their Cotton Mill Hill performance space. The artists headlining these shows are some of the top jazz piano performers in the world. It is an honor to bring them to Brattleboro.

The Solo Jazz Piano Fest has emerged into a joyful collaboration between the Vermont Jazz Center and the Brattleboro Music Center: All evening concerts (each consisting of two 50-minute sets), as well as the Sunday Education Emphasis, will take place at the VJC’s Cotton Mill Hill location.

Saturday’s daytime program will take place at the BMC’s beautifully designed recital hall. This includes masterclasses by all headliners, a Q&A panel with all the artists, and 25-minute concerts by regionally acclaimed jazz pianists.

Friday evening’s performance (April 12) at the Vermont Jazz Center features headliner George Cables.

Born in New York City in 1944, Cables was initially a classically trained pianist. He attended the High School of Performing Arts and then went on to study at Mannes College of Music. As a young man, he was drawn to jazz and began studying and playing gigs around New York at the Top of the Gate, Slugs, and other venues. During that time, he toured and recorded with the legendary drummer Max Roach. His piano can be heard on Roach’s seminal album Lift Every Voice and Sing.

In 1969, Cables was the pianist for Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers for a short time and then went on to tour with tenor sax titan Sonny Rollins. Rollins took Cables to the West Coast where he took up residency. Collaborations and recordings by Cables include work with tenor saxophonists Joe Henderson, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, and trumpeters Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw.

Going way back

The longest standing relationship Cables developed was with alto saxophonist Art Pepper. Cables became Pepper’s pianist of choice, so much so that Pepper gave him the moniker “Mr. Beautiful.” Cables has recorded almost 40 albums as a leader and more than 200 albums as a sideman with some of the greatest jazz musicians of our time.

Opening for Cables will be the youngest headliner of the Festival, Julius Rodriguez. Rodriguez is best known to the younger generation for his work with rapper A$AP Rocky.

Born in White Plains, N.Y., Julius’ interest in music was inspired by musicians in church. Studying at the Manhattan School of Music Pre-College Division, Rodriguez participated in many high school music programs and competitions including the NAACP ACT-SO (where he was a four-time national medalist), the National YoungArts Foundation (where he was winner on drums and piano), the Charles Mingus Festival (he received recognition as a pianist and arranger, and first place as a bandleader), the Grammy Camp Jazz Session, as well as the Next Generation Jazz Orchestra.

In 2016, Rodriguez was selected as a member of the Betty Carter Jazz Ahead Residency at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. That year, he also was accepted into and began attending the Juilliard School for Jazz Studies on Piano.

Rodriguez has worked with a wide variety of artists including A$AP Rocky, Wynton Marsalis, Macy Gray, James Morrison, Jazzmeia Horn, Brasstracks, Nick Hakim, Carmen Lundy, Kassa Overall, Gabriel Garzón-Montano, Roy Hargrove, and many more.

Saturday’s headliner performance concert will present Joanne Brackeen, a recipient of the nation’s highest jazz honor: a National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Masters Award.

She was born in Ventura, Calif., and learned to play jazz by transcribing the improvised solos of Frankie Carle, Charlie Parker, and Bud Powell by ear while listening to a record player that was a half-step sharp, thus facilitating her remarkable ability to play comfortably in all keys.

In the 1950s, Brackeen performed with numerous luminaries in the Los Angeles scene including Ornette Coleman, Charlie Haden, Charles Lloyd, Harold Land, Dexter Gordon, Billy Higgins, and Charles Brackeen, who she then married and later divorced.

After moving to New York City in 1965, she juggled parenting four children and gigging while living in a sixth floor walkup in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. In New York, she performed with Paul Chambers, Sonny Stitt, Woody Shaw, Lee Konitz, George Benson, and many others.

Career boost

Brackeen’s career took off after landing a spot as pianist in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers (1969-1972). She later joined the groups of Joe Henderson (1972–1975) and Stan Getz (1975–1977) before leading her own quartets and trios. Brackeen’s trios have featured such noted players as bassists Clint Houston, Eddie Gómez, Cecil McBee, John Patitucci, and drummers Billy Hart and Jack DeJohnette.

Her appearances as a solo performer are exceptionally highly regarded and have been documented on numerous recordings including the legendary first volume of Live at Maybeck Recital Hall. Brackeen has recorded more than 20 albums as a lead musician and over 30 as a side-woman. Primarily self-taught, she is a valued professor at the Berklee College of Music and other noted conservatories.

Throughout her career, Brackeen has operated in a male-dominated field, breaking through the glass ceiling and becoming an icon for women in jazz. She continues to tour worldwide and has given concerts at Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, Town Hall, Avery Fisher Hall, the Smithsonian Institution, and at virtually every major jazz festival.

She received a Berklee Award for “Outstanding Achievement in Education,” an IAJE “Outstanding Educator” Award, the “Living Legend Award” from IWJ (International Women In Jazz), and the ABI award for “Woman of the Year 2001.” As Marian McPartland once said, “Brackeen, like Picasso, broke convention, and she always likely will.”

Also performing at Saturday’s feature concert will be Kenny Werner, one of the top pianists on the scene today who has played in virtually all of the highly-regarded jazz clubs and festivals throughout the world. AllMusic.com credits him with 40 albums as a leader/co-leader and over 400 entries as a sideman, composer, or arranger.

‘Effortless Mastery’

What has set Werner apart from other pianists of his level is his pioneering work with “Effortless Mastery,” a concept he developed and fleshed out in a book published by the same name in 1996.

In Effortless Mastery, Werner describes how we all have innate energies that, when unblocked, can give musicians heightened access to their own creative spirit, more ideas, and the self-permission and space to develop them. Werner developed this idea to such an extent that it was embraced by Berklee College of Music, where he now serves as the artistic director of the Effortless Mastery Institute.

Berklee’s website states that the goal of Effortless Mastery is “to help musicians play from the deepest parts of themselves and rediscover their connection to music” and Sunday’s portion of this event will include a workshop with Mr. Werner on this technique.

With these four headlining artists leading the way (along with numerous regional artists), the VJC’s third Annual Solo Piano Festival aims to illustrate the critical role the piano played in the establishment of jazz as an art form.

The instrument has continued to influence jazz’s development at every harmonic turn. If you love ragtime, boogie woogie, stride, swing, the Great American Songbook, bebop, free jazz, or complex harmonic progressions, solo jazz piano provides a fascinating and authentic lens through which to listen to all of these styles.

This year’s Festival will build on last year’s successful model, which emphasized theory and practice, especially during the Sunday portion. The education emphasis includes a “piano forum,” where three previously selected students will play for Kenny Werner and Julius Rodriguez and receive valuable feedback while the remaining participants look on.

Breaking it down

Throughout the weekend, master classes offer windows into the processes of playing jazz piano: touch, tone, technique, repertoire, and lots of stories — these master classes are not just for pianists but are a playful doorway into the lives and fascinating minds of musicians. Participants will also have the opportunity to address the artists with questions directly in the “Q&A Session” to help them flesh out what they observe.

In 2017, the VJC presented its first annual festival to honor solo jazz piano. It was inspired by the donation of a world-class quality Steinway Concert Grand piano to the Vermont Jazz Center through a generous donation from the McKenzie Family Charitable Trust.

This instrument, which was initially owned by the concert pianist and virtuoso Lorin Hollander, was fully rebuilt by technician William Ballard upon its arrival at VJC.

The experiences that have followed through the institution of the Festival have inspired such sentiments as that of Steve Merriman, who wrote that “the combination of master classes and formal performance was a truly wonderful way to organize this event. The opportunity to discover a community of kinship established through a shared love of the solo piano genre and demonstrations of that genre by a fabulous array of superlative players channeling their gifts through an extraordinary instrument make for a weekend of true piano jazz bliss.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #505 (Wednesday, April 10, 2019). This story appeared on page B1.

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