Bring the swing: Musicians hit the streets for 4th annual Northampton Jazz Festival

Last modified: Thursday, October 23, 2014
Organizers of the fourth annual Northampton Jazz Festival, which will take place Sept. 2-6, say bringing the music to the streets helps carry on a great jazz tradition: That’s how jazz was fostered in this country, says Paul Arslanian, one of the festival’s coordinators and the director of the Northampton Jazz Workshop, an event that will be part of the festival.

The signature event, a full day of music and related events and food, will take place Sept. 6 from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. in the parking lot behind Thornes Marketplace, 150 Main St. in Northampton. That day, the main stage, located on Hampton Avenue, will feature performances by seven bands.

Musicians on tap are some of the “most cutting-edge players, mostly from the New York scene,” said Tom Reney, host of WFCR’s “Jazz a la Mode” radio show.

Festival events begin Sept. 2 with a performance by vocalist Giacomo Gates with the Green Street Trio at the Northampton Jazz Workshop at The Loft at the Clarion Hotel at 7:30 p.m. On Sept. 3 and 4, Jazz and Food nights are planned, starting at 6 p.m., and on Sept. 5 “The Northampton Jazz Strut” will feature local and regional musicians playing in a variety of downtown venues.

From block party to festival

When the festival began three years ago it was intended to be a fairly simple block party for downtown Northampton, said organizer Bill Collins, in a phone interview. But the festival’s founder, John Michaels, and Collins quickly took that original vision and ran with it, turning it into something with greater meaning.

“We developed it into a jazz festival, which we thought was appropriate for a beautiful town like Northampton,” Collins said. The festival brings in the vibes and old taste of Northampton, which, Collins says, gets people from afar to think of the area as a tourist city, but also a special place to live.

“The notion of the festival is that there’s a desire to continue to grow the exposure of the community to jazz in the Valley,” said the festival’s marketing director, Ruth Griggs. “It’s what makes this region so very special.”

While the event’s organizers say they encourage people to visit and enjoy the culture, art and music Northampton has to offer, their main goal is to encourage listeners of all ages to enjoy the beauty of jazz, Griggs says. Jazz is a growing music genre in the Valley, and she was pleased, she adds, with last year’s record attendance of 7,000 people at the main event.

“Last year I met people who had come to the festival from Rhode Island, Springfield and Connecticut,” Griggs said.

On the main stage

Among the musicians selected to perform this year is pianist and vocalist Champian Fulton, who will bring along her quartet.

Fulton says her appearance in Northampton won’t be her first time performing at a festival, but it will mark her first time in Massachusetts.

“Thanks to my hard-working agent, I’ve done festivals in Europe, the United Kingdom, Africa, Detroit, Rochester, Connecticut and more,” Fulton said. It’s the new experience of meeting people in places she’s never traveled to before that makes performing at festivals a real treat, she says.

Fulton grew up in Norman, Oklahoma, in a house filled with jazz; her father was a jazz trumpeter who encouraged her to play at home, whether it was the trumpet at 3 years old, the drums at 5 or singing,” Fulton said. After graduating from high school she headed to New York in 2003 to pursue a degree in jazz piano performance at the SUNY Purchase Music Conservatory.

Fulton says she readily embraced jazz and its community because of her father’s music.

“Since jazz was all I ever heard in my house, I was already very much in love with it by the time I went to school and heard other genres that some of my friends were listening to,” Fulton said. From an early start, Fulton’s life became about jazz and only jazz. “I had never thought of doing anything else,” Fulton said.

As with all her performances, Fulton says, she’ll be there to have fun.

“I want my music to let the audience have a good time and hope everyone will walk away feeling happier and better than they did before the show,” Fulton said.

Fulton will perform from 4:15 to 5:30 p.m. on the main stage.

The other main-stage performers will be Etienne Charles & Creole Soul; the Seamus Blake Band; the Steve Davis Quintet; Hendrik Meurkens and Scott Mullet with the Green Street Trio; the Miro Sprague Quintet; and FlavaEvolution.

FlavaEvolution, a jazz quartet specializing in 1970s soul music, will perform from 11 to 11:45 a.m. Unlike a traditional jazz band, FlavaEvolution produces its pieces without piano or drums. With three horns and a bass the group makes a sound that fuses that of a chamber string ensemble with modern jazz. The group features Frank Newton on clarinet and soprano saxophone, Jake Weiner on clarinet and alto saxes, Dan Hendrix on the trombone and David Picchi on the double bass.

Jazz pianist Miro Sprague will perform from noon to 1 p.m. Sprague’s talent was recognized at a young age. He won many awards in Downbeat Magazine’s Student Music Awards and performed in New England before he moved to New York City in 2003. A composer and bandleader, Sprague is currently completing his fifth solo CD.

Hendrik Meurkens, virtuoso on the chromatic harmonica and the vibraphone will perform from 1:20 to 2:20 p.m. Meurkens says he taught himself to play his instruments by listening to Belgian musician Toots Thieleman’s harmonica playing. Meurkens has recorded with many artists, including Charlie Byrd, Jimmy Cobb, Ivan Lins and Monty Alexander. His compositions were featured in the Hollywood movie “Dolores Claiborne.”

Trombone improviser Steve Davis will perform from 2:45 to 4 p.m. He earned recognition for his lyrical style in the 1990s while working in collaboration with several jazz bands, such as Art Blakey, Jackie McLean, Chick Corea’s Origin and One For All. Davis was nominated by The JJA four years in a row as “trombonist of the year.”

Seamus Blake, tenor saxophonist and composer, and his band will perform from 5:45 to 7 p.m. When Blake was studying at Berklee College of Music in Boston he was asked to record with drummer Victor Lewis. After graduation he moved to New York to establish his jazz career. Blake has released six albums on Criss Cross records with his band members: David Kikoski, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Larry Grenadier, Bill Stewart, Lage Lund, Chris Cheek and Jorge Rossy.

Etienne Charles, a trumpeter and bandleader, will perform from 7:30 to 9 p.m. Charles is in his 20s and has already composed six original pieces. His pieces deliver a unique spin on Creole-oriented tunes from previous legends such as Bob Marley and Thelonious Monk.

The Expandable Brass Band will play throughout the day in downtown Northampton and on the festival grounds.

The concerts are free. For more information, including the line-up for the entire festival, visit www.northamptonjazzfestival.org.