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Ken Maiuri’s Clubland: Juke Joint Jazz, Doug Hewitt launch CDs; Leo & Anto tour



Laste modified: Thursday, May 15, 2014
Any band that covers Miles Davis’ dusky masterpiece “Nardis” has my ear. Local quintet Juke Joint Jazz performs it on its latest CD, “Live At the Arts Block” — and according to guitarist and band founder Michael Levine, the group loves the tune so much, they play it at every gig.

Which means lucky folks will definitely hear Juke Joint Jazz’s version of the haunting, swinging jazz standard when the quintet returns to the Arts Block in Greenfield on Saturday at 8 p.m. They share the bill with Ed Byrne and Eastern Standard Time (9 p.m.) and roots/reggae outfit The HeadBand (10:30 p.m.).

The Arts Block is one of JJJ’s favorite places to play. Levine calls it “a beautiful venue with brick walls, lovely art, sweet cocktail tables everywhere, fine acoustics and a wonderful (and always in tune) Steinway B grand piano!”

You can hear those fancy ivories in action all over the band’s live disc, whether on a swampy, slowed-down version of Herbie Hancock’s funky “Watermelon Man,” an easygoing standard like “On the Sunny Side of the Street” or a medley of songs by Brazilian composer Luiz Bonfá.

Juke Joint Jazz’s current lineup is aged 21 to 55 — David Kisala on sax, Ken Forfia on piano, Levine on guitar, Mark Dunlap on bass and Bruce Kelly on drums — and its collection of influences (“from Miles Davis to the Grateful Dead, from Monk to funk”) makes for an accessible and tuneful night of jazz.

“When we play at The Block, we try to make it really upbeat and fun and play a diverse repertoire that people are generally somewhat familiar with,” Levine said. “The best compliment we ever get is when people tell us, ‘I never realized I liked jazz so much.’ ”

Levine praised the Arts Block’s owner Ed Wierzbowski for being committed to enabling the local arts and music scene to flourish, as well as allowing JJJ to produce its own monthly concert event on the first Saturday of each month, the “Jazz + Plus + Series.”

It’s so named because each time out, JJJ invites along a group from an entirely different genre, “so as to cross-fertilize audiences, thereby exposing jazz folks to other types of music and vice versa,” Levine said.

It’s been a success so far, with previous months featuring strong audiences and performances from the groovy young Amherst band Who’da Funk It, the classically minded Bi-Focal Duo and the funky Free Range Cats. In May, Juke Joint Jazz will play with longtime Valley reggae outfit The Equalites, while July’s show will co-star singer/songwriter Carolyn Walker.

“This Saturday is our only ‘jazz + jazz,’ ” Levine said. “We couldn’t resist the opportunity to have world-renowned trombonist Ed Byrne and famous Swedish 9-string guitarist Jonny Johansson on the same bill with us.”

Byrne and his group, Eastern Standard Time, will rejoin Juke Joint Jazz at the Iron Horse in Northampton on June 13 for the next installment of a different regular concert series Levine is working hard to establish: Valley Jazz on the Quarters. Every three months, JJJ brings along two other local jazz groups to share the Horse’s hallowed stage. (Intertrip will round out the June bill.)

Doug Hewitt has new CD

Amherst-based multi-instrumentalist Doug Hewitt has a new CD out, “Roots In the Sky.” Seven years in the making, the album kicks off with the tour-de-force “Starshine” — total sunshine pop, bright with brass, a modern descendant of jazzy swinging late-’60s gems like The Spiral Starecase’s “More Today Than Yesterday,” Keith’s “98.6” and hints of Chicago and The Cowsills.

It’s a cosmic collection (“Is it okay to be human?” asks one song) that covers a lot of ground — progressive rock and jazz fusion (“Enceladus”), Toto-esque adult-contemporary pop (the title track), even a breezy reading of the standard “I’ll Remember April” — but a common thread is Hewitt’s penchant for angular chord progressions. He uses a more complex color palette than the typical songsmith.

“Roots In the Sky” is clearly the passionate product of a focused musician, someone trying to do his own thing. “I’ve become impatient with everything sounding the same, with no imagination behind it,” he said in a 2010 interview. “I want every song to be different. I don’t want to be pigeon-holed into one style.”

Hewitt’s new CD is available direct from the artist at http://doughewitt.net/ — or perhaps at his next show, a free full-band performance at Sam’s Cafe in Northampton on May 17 at 8 p.m.

Leo & Anto on tour

Leo Moran and Anthony Thistlethwaite of The Saw Doctors kick off their U.S. tour with a two-night stand at Harmony Hall at the Palmer Historical and Cultural Center in Three Rivers, performing on Friday and Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. The duo is planning “an intimate acoustic concert and chat” featuring hits and deep cuts from the Saw Doctors catalog, songs from solo albums by Thistlethwaite (who was a founding member of The Waterboys) and more. It’s their second U.S. tour of small venues, and fans should act fast — last time the gents appeared in Three Rivers, both shows sold out.

Ken Maiuri can be reached at clublandcolumn@gmail.com.