Mark Your Calendar: Monty Alexander Jazz Festival Set for 9th Year

Jazz enthusiasts rejoice! The energetic, ever-swingin’ Monty Alexander returns to Easton this Labor Day weekend for his eponymous festival, featuring an exciting lineup that boasts some—
if not the—best jazz musicians in the country.

The Ninth Annual Monty Alexander Jazz Festival will be held Friday, August 31st to Sunday, September 2nd, at the Avalon Theatre.

Dominick Farinacci

The festival kicks off Friday with a favorite, trumpeter Dominick Farinacci, who the NY Times calls a “trumpeter of abundant poise”. His most recent Avalon appearance was last November in the theatrical music experience, Modern Warrior Live. The masterpiece wonderfully demonstrated Farinacci’s versatile horn stylings and mix of international rhythms, as well as his mastery of composition and knack for re-imagining familiar songs.

Joining Farinacci is his Modern Warrior Live co-star Shenel Johns. With powerful, yet graceful vocals, Johns is known for her distinctive, eclectic style that sways effortlessly from jazz to R&B to gospel. The duo’s performance, aptly named “Lady Sings the Blues,” will celebrate the music of Dinah Washington, Nina Simone and Billie Holiday.

Shenel Johns

Saturday’s packed program begins with a community concert—a free performance that was originally established to provide an introduction to jazz, familiarizing concert-goers with the incredibly diverse and somewhat misunderstood genre.

Harry Allen

This year, the stage will welcome a young musician hastily making a name for himself in the jazz world, pianist Matthew Whitaker. Blind since birth, the 17-year-old was recently named one of seven rising stars for 2018 by USA Today network’s 201 Magazine. Adding to the long list of accolades, Whitaker’s debut album Outta the Box, which was released last year, was named “one of the best debut albums of 2017” by New York City Jazz Record. This show starts at 11 a.m.

Saturday’s matinee show highlights an extraordinary range of American and Brazilian musicians, featuring tenor/alto saxophonist Harry Allen. With more than thirty recordings to his name, Allen has been called the “Frank Sinatra of the tenor Saxophone,” renowned for his inventive tone that’s rooted in tradition.

It’s only appropriate, then, that his 2 p.m. performance be a salute to Stan Getz and the Getz/Gilberto collaboration with Antonino Carlos Jobim, which resulted in an album by the same name—it’s the first jazz album to win the Grammy Award for Album of the Year. The album’s single “The Girl from Ipanema” won the Record of the Year.

Monty Alexander

Later that evening, Monty Alexander takes the stage. Considered one of the top five jazz pianists ever, Alexander’s musical expression combines elements of the blues, gospel, calypso, and reggae. Known for his vibrant personality, magnetic charisma, and breathtaking talent, Alexander’s performance is not to be missed.

Unsurprisingly, tickets for this show continue to sell out faster each year, so heed this warning if you want to see this dynamo in action—and believe us, you do.

Brianna Thomas

Wrapping up the festival weekend on Sunday is Brianna Thomas, whose soulful voice is often likened to Mahalia Jackson—a comparison only accomplished by the most gifted singers. The performance will blend two genres, jazz and gospel—a rather fitting theme for a Sunday afternoon.

The Monty Alexander Jazz Festival is partially underwritten by the Maryland State Arts Council and the Talbot County Arts Council. Jazz on the Chesapeake is a program of Chesapeake Music. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit Jazzonthechesapeake.com or call 410-819-0380.

Vibraphonist Chuck Redd brings his “New York All-Stars” to Easton

At just 23 years old, Bebop darling Veronica Swift is rapidly gaining recognition as one of today’s best young jazz singers.

And she’s got the accolades (and awards!) to prove it, including a second-place win at the prestigious 2015 Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition and stage credits, like a solo performance at NYC’s Tribeca Performing Arts Center in 2016, followed by a headlining spot at the Telluride Jazz Festival.

Catch Swift

“She’s really taken off,” says Al Sikes, Chesapeake Music’s Jazz Committee Chairman (and producer of the Monty Alexander Jazz Festival).

From swingin’ to soulful, Swift’s flawless vocals naturally demonstrate her passion for, and innate understanding of, jazz standards—a talent that translates into mesmerizing performances.

Catch Swift on her rise to the top, when she shares the stage with renowned jazz vibraphonist Chuck Redd on Saturday, May 12th. The show, Jazz Impressions of Wonderful Melodies, takes place at 8 p.m. at the Academy Art Museum in Easton.

The performance promises to be one of Jazz on the Chesapeake’s most interesting and lively shows yet. In addition to Swift’s guest appearance, Jazz Impressions will feature some of New York’s best talent—aptly dubbed for this performance the “New York All-Stars”—pianist Larry Fuller, saxophonist Will Anderson, and bassist David Wong.

A familiar face to fans of the annual Monty Alexander Jazz Festival, Redd is a seasoned performer on the vibraphone and drums. In addition to his musical finesse, Redd is the mastermind behind many of the makeshift ensembles that grace Easton’s jazz scene, often at the behest of Sikes.

Chuck Redd

According to Sikes, Redd’s ability to seamlessly integrate musicians, who sometimes have little experience playing together, is impressive.

“I tell him I’ve got an open date, we’ll discuss themes, and he’ll pull it together,” he says. “Chuck’s never failed.”

Yet, how do a handful of musicians who’ve barely met produce such a wonderful and seemingly well-rehearsed performance?

“They have a language they share that transcends the technical explanation,” says Sikes, adding that familiarity with the Great American Songbook is key.

Along with jazz fundamentals, another essential element that provides these musicians the ability to perform together with little practice time is jazz’ improvisational nature, explains Sikes.

Still, it remains a marvel to witness on any occasion.

Unlike other Jazz on the Chesapeake concerts, Sikes approached Redd with the suggestion of adding Swift to his “All-Star” lineup.

Sikes first saw Swift perform more than a decade ago, when the then 10-year-old joined her parents—her father, the late bebop pianist Hod O’Brien, and mother, vocalist Stephanie Nakasian—on stage in Western Maryland.

Last summer, he caught a performance of hers in New York, which demonstrated Swift’s mastery of traditional swing and left Sikes determined to bring her to Easton.

And while Redd and Swift have yet to share the stage, Sikes isn’t nervous. If anything, he knows it’ll give to a more exciting, fiery performance.

“The band will swing and the vocalist will soar,” he says. “What a wonderful combination.”

Presented by Jazz on the Chesapeake, a program of Chesapeake Music, Jazz Impressions of Wonderful Melodies will begin at 8 p.m. Saturday, May 12th, at the Academy Arts Museum in Easton. General admission tickets are $40. To purchase, call 410-819-0380 or visit Jazzonthechesapeake.com.

Mark the Date: Monty Alexander Jazz Festival Returns this September

For some, Labor Day weekend can be a bittersweet occasion, symbolizing the unofficial end of summer, but for jazz enthusiasts across Maryland and beyond, it’s the most wonderful time of the year: The Monty Alexander Jazz Festival.

In its eighth year, the Easton-based festival, returns with the sensational and eponymous Monty Alexander, along with his hand-picked selection of musical companions—all newcomers, save for past festival favorite René Marie.

The festivities kick off in the evening of Friday, September 1st with trumpeter/vocalist Bria Skonberg, described by The Wall Street Journal as one of the “most versatile and imposing musicians of her generation.” The Canadian songwriter’s musicianship frequently draws comparisons to the legendary Louis Armstrong.

The fun continues with Saturday’s jam-packed schedule, starting with a free community concert at 11 a.m., featuring the United States Navy Band Commodores. The 18-member group, recognized as the Navy’s premier jazz ensemble, will perform an eclectic mix of traditional big band music and exciting jazz vocal arrangements.

Trumpeter Sean Jones and his band will delight festival goers during a Saturday afternoon performance. Since childhood, Jones’ musical vision—influenced by Miles Davis and Wynton Marsalis—has been intertwined with spirituality. In addition to mastering the art form, Jones is heavily involved in education. Most recently, he was named Chair of the Brass Department at Berklee College of Music.

The day concludes with an 8 p.m. performance by jazz vocalist René Marie. With a style that borrows elements from folk, R&B, classical, and country genres, Marie’s body of work explores the human experience. Through her creative lyricism and sensual vocal delivery, Marie offers an enlightening experience for audience members.

Considered one of the top five jazz pianists ever, Monty Alexander closes out the festival weekend on Sunday, September 3rd. The Jamaican-born musician is renowned for his vibrant personality and musical expression that combines elements of the blues, gospel, calypso, and reggae into an energetic, swingin’ performance that’s not to be missed.

Jazz on the Chesapeake is a program of Chesapeake Music. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit Jazzonthechesapeake.com or call 410-819-0380.

Easton: Home of America’s ‘Best Small Jazz Festival’

The “best small jazz festival in America”—otherwise known as the Monty Alexander Jazz Festival—is held annually in Easton. This year celebrates the festival’s seventh year from September 2nd to September 4th.

Yet despite its continuing success and ever-increasing caliber of performances, the festival was initially spurred by a simple dinner conversation between festival producer Al Sikes and Rush Moody, the past-president of Chesapeake Chamber Music (since renamed Chesapeake Music to reflect the wide variety of music presented annually).

Monty Alexander

Monty Alexander

“He said they’d talked a little bit in the past about diversifying Chesapeake Chamber Music by putting in a jazz program,” says Sikes. “And a few weeks later, he said ‘would you do it?’”

Although he was eager to see more live jazz music in Easton, Sikes initially suggested a single concert to gauge the community’s interest. Jazz pianist Monty Alexander was suggested to Sikes by a friend and the rest, as they say, is history.

The first concert, held in 2010, featured two shows: saxophonist Grace Kelly on its opening night and Monty’s headlining performance the following evening. During that Saturday afternoon, the two musicians fielded questions from audience members.

Since then, the number of performances throughout the weekend-long program has continued to increase.

“The response has been exceedingly enthusiastic,” says Sikes.

This year’s festival kicks off with “The Magic of Gershwin,” featuring pianist Ted Rosenthal and vibraphonist Chuck Redd. Bassist Max Murray and his band will perform during a Saturday morning brunch at the Tidewater Inn, and trumpeter Dominick Farinacci returns for a Saturday afternoon concert. The weekend closes with a Sunday afternoon concert by pianist Cyrus Chestnut who will be joined by Howard University’s premier vocal jazz ensemble, Afro Blue.

Headliner Monty Alexander presents “Remembering Jazz at the Philharmonic” on Saturday evening, a recreation of Norman Granz’ eponymous series.

“Circa 2016,” Sikes adds, laughing.

For those unfamiliar with Granz’ performance series that ran between 1944 and 1983, “Jazz at the Philharmonic” featured a variety of the era’s gifted musicians, including Roy Eldridge, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Nat King Cole. Similarly, Alexander’s program will showcase some of today’s predominant jazz entertainers: saxophonists Sharel Cassity and Ron Blake, bassist Hassan Shakur, and drummer Jason Brown—to name a few!

Not only has the amount of shows presented by the festival increased, but the audience continues to expand rapidly, too.

“I’m just delighted at where we are,” he adds.

Three years ago, the festival added a free community concert—this year brings in the Big Band sounds of the 23-piece Jazz Ambassadors of the United States Army Field Band—in an effort to introduce people to a genre of music they might otherwise dismiss.

“I have regarded jazz as a misunderstood music,” Sikes says, explaining that the genre crosses a wide spectrum of music. “So by opening jazz up as widely as we possibly can, I think we’re … showing [the community] what the music is about.”

Perhaps one of the most unexpected ways in which the festival has grown is its success. As an unwavering optimist, Sikes admits with a hearty laugh, that he believed bringing great jazz to the area would excite the community.

“I was surprised with the number of people and the wide variety of responses,” he says. “If you’d have asked me in 2010 if we would be where we are today, I would not have imagined that.”

And if this year’s already fast-moving ticket sales are any indication, the Monty Alexander Jazz Festival shows no signs of slowing down any time soon.

“We’d like to add more concerts. We certainly don’t want to crowd the festival weekend … so last year we moved jazz outside of the Labor Day weekend,” Sikes says, explaining the additional concert series that brought jazz to Easton earlier this year.

While the festival undoubtedly brings an economic boost to Easton, Sikes’ focus remains on the music. As such, his hope for the next few years is to bring even more great jazz to the Eastern Shore. And he’ll happily do so one year at a time.

“As for now, I look forward to the downbeat of the concert on Friday night,” he says. “Jazz is America’s gift to the world and the raison d’etre of The Monty Alexander Jazz Festival. The festival … celebrates tradition as well as new expressions that draw on the extraordinary legacy left by earlier generations.”