With a generous anonymous benefactor stepping forward to pick up the tab for the entire season, The Hartford Public Library's "Baby Grand Jazz Piano Series 2012" launches the first of its 16 free, weekly Sunday concerts Sunday, Jan. 8, at 3 p.m. with a much-anticipated encore performance by the noted, Japanese-born pianist Eri Yamamoto.
While the popular free matinee series' official motto for 2012 is "The Best Things in Life Are Free," its theme song, thanks to the Secret Santa-like donor who came up with $7,400, might just as well be "Everything's Coming up Roses."
Starting with Yamamoto, a gifted, young pianist on the rise in New York's jazz scene, the series in the downtown library's scenic atrium stretches throughout the winter into early spring on consecutive Sunday afternoons, featuring a lineup stacked with some of the best and the brightest jazz talent in the region's deep talent pool.
Ranging from Young Lions like alto saxophonist Yunie Mojica to a roaring Old Lion like pianist Emery Smith, the series lineup presents a variety of instrumentalists and styles ranging from bebop to Latin jazz, dipping into everything from songs from the Great American Songbook and jazz standards to original compositions.
Among the highlights are individual performances by such highly regarded Connecticut-based pianists as Warren Byrd and Noah Baerman, mixed with concerts featuring such top regional instrumentalists as vibist/percussionist Ed Fast, trumpeter Ricky Alfonso, guitarist Sinan Bakir and alto saxophonistKris Allen,among others.
The series, which stepped off in 2004, is very much in line with the progressive philosophy of Matt Poland, the library's CEO, whose advocacy of innovation and transparency is designed to make the newly renovated library a living, relevant, 21st Century institution that reaches out to everyone in the community with its wide-ranging programs which cherish the past but are also tuned to the present.
"The whole notion of being quiet in a library has disappeared, particularly in urban libraries. We're not about that," Poland says.
"We're about bringing people together so they can interact and together help to have a better place to live. Because 'Baby Grand Jazz' is part of our strategic plan to connect our citizens with the arts and humanities and literature, it's one of the high priorities for us here at the library," Poland says of the free jazz series that draws city residents and out-of-towners to the downtown library.
In its own unique way, the increasingly popular "Baby Grand Jazz Series," which last year drew turnouts of up to 200 (a large showing for a live indoor jazz concert in Hartford), is just one of many special outreach programs Poland oversees, of both the plugged-in and unplugged variety that make the library a free portal into the traditional arts and humanities like jazz, history and literature. Along with its traditional resources of books and various printed materials, it is simultaneously a free, electronic gateway into the brave new world of digital knowledge and the infinite potential of the Computer Age.
Yamamoto, a soft-spoken native of Osaka with an intensely expressive piano style, is typical in many ways of "Baby Grand Jazz" performers, high quality musicians who are delighted to play a one-hour concert in the cozy, intimate atrium at a classy jazz matinee which offers the best possible bargain price in town. Today's concert marks her third appearance in the series, which she enjoys for its pleasing ambience and the direct, intimate link between performer and audience.
Yamamoto, who will be accompanied by percussionist Ikuo Takeuchi, will perform original compositions which she promises will be melodic, simple and accessible, just the sort of chamber jazz that gives the series a relaxed, communal flavor that's much loved by an increasingly expanding core audience of regulars who even show up an hour early to insure getting seats upfront as close to the performers as possible.
As a seasoned series semi-regular, Yamamoto knows how to please this Sunday crowd, which is frequently made up of not just jazz connoisseurs but also those new to jazz, even some new to the library, all perhaps potential converts in-the-making to the joys of jazz and the multiple, free resources to be tapped into at the library itself.
Yamamoto's secret to success is artful simplicity and directness in lyrical expression.
"To me, melody is very, very important. If people can hum the melody on the way home from the library after they've heard our music, I'd feel, 'Ah, the concert was good," Yamamoto says from her New York apartment.
Two devout "Baby Grand Jazz" concert-goers, Lucy Marsters, of Hartford, and Harry Lichtenbaum, of Wethersfield, agree with the importance of melodic invention, especially when delivered with Yamamoto's eloquence amid the elegance of the ultra-modern library. Expressive jazz sounds, they say, complement the library's cool, contemporary architectural look, its sense of openness and alluring transparency that can literally draw you in from the downtown streets, like a mega-sized, magical, luminescent fishbowl.
Marsters and Lichtenbaum are former presidents of the Hartford Jazz Society and savvy, lifetime jazz fans. They are not merely connoisseurs of the music but also, thanks to decades of first-hand experience as concert-goers, experts in judging jazz venues.
"I go to the library's 'Baby Grand Jazz Series' all the time, quite religiously every Sunday," says Marsters who lives in the Bushnell Tower across the street from the Main Street library, one of her many favorite cultural haunts in Hartford.
"I do like songs I can hum along with, and don't really like stuff that's 'way out and overboard.' For me, the series is perfect. It's right across the street. It's free and the ambience is great! I love the library. I love everything about the library and think the jazz series is a great thing for Hartford, right up there with the ice skating rink in Bushnell Park," Marsters says.
Although Lichtenbaum is well-known for his encyclopedic knowledge of jazz, theater and the arts, he's perpetually seeking to learn something new about jazz, to personally hear a rising singer or instrumentalist whose work he can add to his library-like collection of recordings, books and cultural and historical memorabilia, most famously in-depth on all matters relating to Frank Sinatra.
"The series brings in musicians, sometimes well-known East Coast musicians that I may never have experienced before, and gives me the opportunity to connect with them. Man, if I'm taken with their playing and their personality, afterwards I Google them and find out if they have any CDs, which I'll buy because I want to continue the love affair with their music," he says.
If the sounds are great for Lichtenbaum, so is the whole, light-filled visual experience of being physically present in the Hartford Public Library, an institution that the Hartford native often frequented and loved even as an intellectually curious youngster growing up in the city's North End.
"When the sun is out, it just lights up that great space in the atrium. Oh, my God! It just lights up the place and it's fantastic," he says.
Another delight, he adds, is the mesmerizing spillover effect the music has on other patrons elsewhere in the library, especially those deep into the keyboards of the library's computer stations above the concert level on the lower floor.
"It's a beautiful open space and the way the library has been re-imagined, people upstairs above the concert area are working on their computers when the music starts. They hear the music and they run over and hang over the railings above us and listen. The music is everywhere, not just for us people in the seats at the concert.
"It might even be the first time that some of those folks peering down at us from above ever heard jazz. And the music in this series is a great introduction to jazz in a perfect setting. It's just a splendid way to spend a winter afternoon," he says, quite content to make his weekly Sunday pilgrimage from Wethersfield to downtown Hartford.
If the series is a delight for concert-goers, the library's modern ambience and its series concept also please its performers.
Ed Fast, who's focusing on vibes rather than his drum set for his Latin jazz concert Jan. 29, for example, is excited about playing the series for the first time. More than being just another nice gig, he says, he really digs the idea of presenting live jazz in the welcoming setting of an urban library free and open to everybody.
"When the library does something like this," Fast says, "it's not just a static place with just stacks and shelves of books. It's an alive, vibrant gathering place that is healthy for the community, a public forum where people can get together and interact as a community. Libraries in every town ought to look at this ambitious Hartford model and think about what a powerful way this is to bring people together," he says.
Emery Smith, one of Hartford's towering jazz patriarchs, has played in the series a number of times, sometimes backed by the noted bassist Wes Brown or, as in his April 29 concert, as a solo pianist.
"I've played it six or seven times, but it's still exciting to play in your own hometown, with a lot of people, including friends, relatives and folks I've known all my life, piling into the library to come and hear me play," Smith says.
A musician with a strong sense of the history of jazz as well as the history of his hometown, Smith says that when he sits down at the baby grand Steinway in the atrium, he thinks of the whole beautiful setting, with its resonating sense of culture and thought, as "a kind of salon, like one of those famous, 19th Century European settings, where you'd go to hear Frederic Chopin of Franz Liszt play piano."
Both Marsters and Lichtenbaum are Smith fans from way back, and have enjoyed the maestro's previous performances in the library.
Full-bodied, virtuosic ventures into bebop and standards, Smith's concerts are a one-man celebration of the art of keyboard masters ranging from Bud Powell and Elmo Hope to Thelonious Monk and Barry Harris. A two-fisted player, he's ideally suited for the rigors of a solo piano performance. His big sonic splashes and swinging surges invoke the spirits of everyone from Fats Waller to Duke Ellington, with maybe even a salon-like seasoning of Chopin or Liszt tossed in as well.
"They like to save Emery for the series' grand finale," Lichtenbaum notes, "and as far as I'm concerned they save the best for last. Emery is very much loved, and you can't fool the public because his concerts are always SRO at the series.
"Last year, he really went all out, playing an uninterrupted set, one tune seguing to another, all great and all high energy. I'm sitting there saying to myself in amazement, 'When is this man going to take a breather?' Well, he didn't and just played and played magnificently. And when he was done, the place erupted. It was absolutely phenomenal!"
For Smith, a veteran performer who's played in just about every kind of venue from fancy concert halls to funky juke joints, the series provides a salon setting for his fine art. For Lichtenbaum, it provides exciting, often excellent music, even a cozy, luminous urban refuge for thought, reflection and observation. For Poland, the innovative CEO, the jazz series is one of the library's many tools used to make it relevant, accessible and not at all like your grandfather's rather foreboding, in some cases, even fortress-like institution.
"A public library in the 21st Century is really a quintessential place to do this kind of work because our role is to bring a broad range of literacy to the public, and literacy in its broadest definition, whether it is art, music, reading, digital literacy, you name it. That's what we do and that's what a 21st Century public library is.
"It's very important for us to do programs like 'Baby Grand Jazz' and not be seen in a more traditional, stodgy, research kind of way. The public library, one of the last remaining truly democratic institutions in our nation, has to be an instrument of civic engagement," Poland says.
Jazz, an American art form rooted in the democratic mix of individual and united effort, is the ideal soundtrack for Poland's vision of the 21st Century public library as a gateway for all. With "Baby Grand Jazz" it's a swinging gateway and get-away, free and accessible to one and all.
Information: http://www.hplct.org and 860-695-6300.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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