BRATTLEBORO — The Vermont Jazz Center will present its sixth annual Solo Jazz Piano Festival on Friday, April 22, and Saturday, April 23. The entire festival will be presented in person at VJC and simultaneously livestreamed for those unable to attend the performances and educational activities.
With a diverse and talented set of pianists, the festival aims to illustrate the critical role that the piano continues to provide in the development of jazz as an art form for all music lovers, not just pianists.
On the evenings of April 22 and 23, starting at 8 p.m., two headlining pianists will be featured each night in back-to-back solo sets: on Friday evening, we will hear Arcoiris Sandoval and Sullivan Fortner, and on Saturday evening, Xavier Davis and Benny Green.
On Saturday, April 23, beginning at 10 a.m., each of the four headliners will present a master class that is intentionally accessible to all music lovers, not just pianists.
Additionally, Saturday includes two short emerging artist sets, interviews, and a round-table discussion with all six artists. Topics for the panel will be selected from questions presented by in-person and online audiences.
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The Solo Jazz Piano Festival is one of the solid cornerstones of the VJC's programming. It has presented some of the world's top pianists, including NEA Jazz Masters, jazz legends, emerging artists, and piano-educators.
This year's festival features recognized artists as well as talents deserving wider recognition. The most familiar artists are Benny Green, whose recording credits include tenures and recordings with Ray Brown, Art Blakey, and Bobby Watson; and Grammy-award winning Sullivan Fortner, who is best known for his work with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and MacArthur Fellow vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant.
Exciting and highly accomplished, yet lesser-known artists headlining this festival include the co-leader of the Black Art Jazz Collective, Xavier Davis, who has recorded with Freddie Hubbard, Wynton Marsalis, and Betty Carter, among many others; and Fulbright Award-winner Arcoiris Sandoval, a trendsetting composer and arranger who records with Allan Harris and her own group, Sonic Asylum.
The festival's emerging performing artists are Roella Oloro, a British undergraduate student attending the Berklee College of Music; and Andrew Wilcox, a master's candidate in the University of Massachusetts at Amherst graduate program.
The VJC festival honors the tradition of the piano as an instrument that has stylistically and historically paved the way for other instruments. The piano's significance in the history of jazz is especially pronounced when examining the music's roots.
For example, the traditions of ragtime and blues piano were expanded and improvisation was given more emphasis in the pioneering work of the New Orleans pianist Jelly Roll Morton in the early 1900s. His arrangements moved the swing feeling forward; they featured the improvisational capabilities of his fellow musicians using new arranging styles. They showcased Morton's own pianistic virtuosity, giving him a new, public forum to demonstrate his untethered creative ideas.
The piano's richness and vast capability to convey different voices simultaneously has led to a history of artistry that is well-worth the time to investigate.
A little digging reveals a treasure-trove of recordings that prove the instrument's capacity to play orchestrally in a solo context; these recordings also demonstrate the instrument's capacity to anticipate new trends in music, specifically when related to harmonic, rhythmic, and sonic exploration.
In listening closely to the vast variety of approaches, one finds that recordings of piano music throughout jazz history give us a lens to see the instrument's tendency to create and predict new exciting trends that might just be around the corner.
One of the intentions of the VJC's Solo Piano Festival is to give audiences an opportunity to experience those trends first hand: to observe and appreciate each of the different artists' approaches, historical context, sounds, repertoires, and emotional depth while performing within hours of each other on the exact same instrument.
This year's Solo Piano Festival balances the bebop-oriented sounds of Benny Green, the focus on the Great American Songbook by Grammy-winner Sullivan Fortner, and the use of the jazz language as a vehicle for activism in the work of Xavier Davis and Arcoiris Sandoval.
This year's Festival promises to be of extremely high quality. It will give listeners a wide view of solo piano styles while still connecting to the heart and soul of jazz.