Let's Hear It From The Girls!

If your instant visualization of a jazz musician is a middle-aged gentleman, possibly with a receding hairline, a slightly wrinkled face and a constantly tapping toe, visualize again!

Nothing could be farther from the reality of two of the most talented jazz musicians being featured in the Elkhart Jazz Festival 2013.

Both are young, very talented, very attractive and very well-versed on the subject of jazz — past and present — and undoubtedly will play an important part in its future.

The only difference is that Bria Skonberg plays trumpet and flugelhorn and Ariel Pocock can be found at the piano.

Both will be familiar to regular visitors at past EJFs.

Bria came to the 2009 EJF as a member of the west coast sextet Mighty Aphrodite, an all-girl group which was a definite plus that year. She not only played but sang. Today she leads the Bria Skonberg Quintet and has changed her “coast of residence” to New York City.

If your instant visualization of a jazz musician is a middle-aged gentleman, possibly with a receding hairline, a slightly wrinkled face and a constantly tapping toe, visualize again!

Nothing could be farther from the reality of two of the most talented jazz musicians being featured in the Elkhart Jazz Festival 2013.

Both are young, very talented, very attractive and very well-versed on the subject of jazz — past and present — and undoubtedly will play an important part in its future.

The only difference is that Bria Skonberg plays trumpet and flugelhorn and Ariel Pocock can be found at the piano.

Both will be familiar to regular visitors at past EJFs.

Bria came to the 2009 EJF as a member of the west coast sextet Mighty Aphrodite, an all-girl group which was a definite plus that year. She not only played but sang. Today she leads the Bria Skonberg Quintet and has changed her “coast of residence” to New York City.

She made the move from British Columbia in the fall of 2010. “I came to New York for its resources,” she said. When contemplating a change, “I thought of moving maybe to Los Angeles or New Orleans, but New York is the most challenging,” Bria explained, adding that, in the course of playing many jazz festivals she got to know many musicians who told her to go to New York.

Ariel Pocock at the Elkhart (IN) Jazz Festival“Music from all over the world is here,” she said. “I’ve been trying to pick and choose what to do and what to learn. I feel like a sponge, absorbing so much. I’m getting better at my instrument. I want to keep pushing myself in different ways, checking out all kinds of music, not just jazz.”

At the EJF, the quintet will be doing a lot of the arrangements Bria has put together, originals or old jazz songs done in a new and interesting way.

“I do all the arranging,” said the young blonde who could pass for a model. “The hardest part (after her move to NY) was finding musicians who are versatile enough to play a variety of styles — and who are available to play.”

She found a good fit with Random Act Records. The Florida-based company produced her last CD in April 2010. Random Act also appealed to Bria because it donates 10 percent of all on-line sales to the charity of her choice. No surprise, the Jazz Foundation of America benefits from “So Is The Day.”

“I am lucky to have this kind of opportunity at this time of my life,” Bria said. “Things are continually getting better.”

As for the future, “I would like to be identified as somebody who has ideals,” she said. “Honoring the traditions and not forgetting where you came from but still pushing the envelope.”

Ariel debuted here two years ago and instantly became one of the talented teens about whom Jazz Festival audiences have a proprietary air. She headed a trio then and now, but the 2013 musicians in the Ariel Pocock Trio are her fellow students at the University of Miami where she will be a junior and is a continuing student of jazz great Shelly Berg (also an EJF favorite!) working toward her degree in jazz performance.

Her dad David, who she describes as “very important” in her musical upbringing, was her piano teacher when she began studying at age eight. Even after more than a decade, “I’m just scratching the surface,” she said.

Although classes take up most of her time, Ariel has been performing during the summer at such prestigious venues as the Stanford Jazz Workshop and the Iowa City Jazz Festival.

The importance of music in the schools is a priority to Ariel who, through UofM, was working last year with an after-school program at a middle school in downtown Miami. This year, she will be teaching her own vocal and jazz combos and master classes at the Stanford camps.

This month — June — marks another milestone for the young pianist. Her first CD, “Touchstone,” was released. On it are “some originals as well as covers for Randy Newman and James Taylor tunes arranged for the jazz trio.”

With her focus primarily on performing, Ariel admits she likes live performing best. “I don’t prefer singing over playing or vice versa,” she said. “But I spend most of my time on the piano.”

Visitors to the 2013 EJF can hear both Bria and Ariel on a number of stages from the Civic Plaza “freebie” to the Lerner Theatre Mainstage and several other ticket-required rooms throughout the weekend.

Check the free Schedule of Events for times and places for all festival concerts.

See you at Big Time Jazzmatazz!

25 Years And 'Le Jazz' Is Still Hot In Elkhart

Looking out my window and watching my grass turn multi-shades of brown, I couldn’t help thinking what a difference the weather makes.

It’s now a July that is definitely a scorcher. On June 22, the sky was blue and clear and the sun’s warmth tempered by a lovely breeze. It was perfect weather for the official opening of the 25th annual Elkhart Jazz Festival.

Having been around since the first EJF, mostly in an “official” capacity as a reporter for The Elkhart Truth, I think I am qualified to speak to the annual changes, mostly due to the number of “stages” that were/were not available in any given June.

There is no question that the quality of the invited musicians has always been the best the budget could afford. In the more than capable hands of long-time talent coordinator Van Young, every year, no matter what the combinations, there was always something for everyone and frequently more than several somethings.

Initially, the Midway Motor Lodge was the location of at least three stages, with the midnight jam session Saturday in the pool area always a highlight of the weekend. Even when the pool turned green.

When the Midway closed — and please don’t ask exactly when that was as all my programs are in the garage — the search was on to make up for the triple loss. Various empty storefronts on — or right off —Main Street were recruited. Several were used for more than one year but two major problems I
signaled their eventual disappearance: One was acoustical and the other was comfort, for both musicians and listeners. Difficult to keep cool without air conditioning in an enclosed space in Indiana at the end of June.

Lerner Theatre in Elkhart IndianaThe next alternatives were white and portable. Tents of varying sizes were rented and erected in at least two, sometimes three, locations. One, set on the grassy knoll that covered the last vestiges of the Midway, even had plastic windows and portable air conditioners. Unfortunately, the ambience was less than desirable and the legs of the folding chairs sank unevenly into the ground, frequently leaving listeners lopsided. When one EJF chairman decided to take the event from three to two days, it seemed that the once-expanding festival was definitely on the way out.

Then came a musical lifeline called The Lerner.

It took a determined Elkhart businessman to rally a committee with internal and external financial resources. Once in motion, not only did the theater come alive, but its surroundings began to bloom again as well.

It took two years to fully restore the former Elco Theatre to its turn-of-the-century glory, but everyone agrees it was well worth the wait. Especially those EJF workers behind the scenes.

There is no doubt that the outcome of any community-wide project rises and falls on the dedication of its volunteers. And believe me, during some of the EJF’s 25 years, it took more than a little dedication.

Somehow, in spite of years of frequently blistering heat and at least one or two of torrential downpours (I recall going barefoot as the water ran above the curbs), plus internal dissention, shifting committee heads and changes in city administrations, the festival managed, like that non-stop bunny, to keep going on and on and on and on and . . .

More EJF reflections to come.

 

Elkhart Jazz Festival Back With a Bang

The old and the new mingled with great success last weekend as the 2011 Elkhart Jazz Festival rebounded from near-extinction in 2010 to an event that can only be described as an unqualified success.

Even the weather smiled — make that beamed — on the efforts of the volunteer committee that worked long and hard to resuscitate the festival which floundered almost fatally last year. Obviously, someone remembered the old adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

The near-perfect clime Saturday and Sunday made it a pleasure to stroll the several blocks that held musical venues. OK, Friday evening was a bit chilly, but nothing that a good sweatshirt couldn’t handle. Aside from that, who could ask for anything more?

No doubt the addition of three stages inside the Lerner Theatre was a big draw. It was reminiscent of the early days of the EJF, when the hotel on the now-grassy area between Main, Franklin and High Streets (sorry, to me the only Central Park is in the middle of Manhattan) contained three performance areas, plus a pub where musicians gathered “after hours” just to jam. Now the theater itself, plus two spaces upstairs created by the division of the Crystal Ballroom, allowed listeners with the proper credentials (i.e. passes) to take in all manner of music without having to leave the building.

On the Civic Plaza, the free stage offered a generous mix of big bands and smaller combos, with several groups “for free” that also played in the ticketed locations.

The torn-up section of Main Street was a blessing and a curse. It certainly was an eyesore but did prevent the appearance of an unsanctioned party bar which was definitely jarring and intrusive in several years past. Hope that will be the case even when the street returns.

All in all, this EJF lived up to its theme, “Never Better!”

FAVORITES OLD AND NEW

There were many familiar faces among this year’s invited musicians including Butch Miles, Eddie Metz, Dave Bennett, Joan Collaso, Bill Allred, Jena Mammina, Terry Myers, Pat Mallinger, Jon-Erik Kellso and my continuing favorite and fellow New Jersey-ite, Bucky Pizzarelli.

Remembering back when Bennett was the new kid on the block along with emerging jazz pianist teenage Taylor Eigsti, I have to say that one of the best things about this event is the possibility of walking into a venue and discovering something — or someone — musically new and wonderful.

This was the case with 18-year-old singer/pianist Ariel Pocock, who arrived with a list of major awards already to her credit and a growing reputation, neither of which completely prepared her audiences (which grew substantially as word spread) for her amazing ability at the piano and the microphone. Throughout the weekend, I heard her vocals described as reminiscent of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Joni Mitchell and Carmen Macrae but, bottom line, Ariel Pocock sounds/plays like nobody but herself.

Talking to the slender brunette after a set in the Lerner Ballroom 1 (the larger of the two second floor stages) revealed no sign of ego, just a quiet young lady who began on violin at age 4. “I guess I noodled around on the piano at about 8,” she said. “My teacher made the difference when I started jazz.”

Ariel Pocock plays at the 2011 Elkhart Jazz FestivalYoung Ariel listened to Mel Torme and George Shearing rather than Brittany Spears, she admitted with a chuckle, and declared Seattle “is the best place to be a high school musician.”

The opportunity to travel “is great,” she said enthusiastically, describing Japan as “super cool.” She loves coming to new places and meeting “a lot of musicians,” and admits sometimes she can practice all day and, infrequently, not at all. “But I never heard anyone look back and say I wish I had not practiced.”

Ariel doesn’t ignore the classics which she plays “for technique” and certainly can read music but obviously prefers jazz because “I like to make things up.”

In the fall, she will go from the cool and damp of Washington state to the sun and sand of Florida as a freshman at the University of Miami. The reason for the coastal shift? She will continue studying there with Shelly Berg, who also lists Eigisti among his talented students.

Ariel has another local connection. Her father David, an executive with Yamaha, has been a fan of Elkhart pianist Nicholas Roth for a number of years. It was he who was instrumental in providing the 9-ft. concert grand on which Nick played “Rhapsody in Blue” under the baton of Maestro Robert Spano during the June 16 concert which officially opened the Lerner Theatre.

For any who failed to sit in on at least one of Ariel’s EJF scheduled sets, you can check out her amazing talent on — what else? — YouTube. It won’t be the same, but hopefully she will be back next year for the Elkhart Jazz Festival’s Silver Anniversary celebration.

On Sunday afternoon, Ariel and bass player John Bany joined another festival first-timer and major crowd pleaser, Alfonso Ponticelli Swing Gitan, for a haunting Bany original titled “Gypsy Boy” for which he supplied the bass and she, the vocal.

The quartet, described as “Chicago’s premier gypsy-jazz band” was another group whose following grew throughout the weekend and which, I hope, will return in 2012. With two guitars, one violin and a stand-up bass, Swing Gitan lit a musical fire under a number of old standards as well as several originals. The term “flying fingers” does little to describe the way lead guitarist’s Ponticelli’s digits moved like lightening to deliver “Back Home in Indiana” to an enthusiastic crowd

Not surprisingly, that tune was on the playlists of many varied groups who delivered it in their own styles throughout the weekend. Needless to say, all were received with much applause.

A New Look For 2010 EJF

. . .FIVE. . .SIX. . .SEVEN. . .EIGHT. . .

We’re almost within earshot of the first Elkhart Jazz & Blues Festival . No, I’m not really wrong. There were 22 Elkhart Jazz Festivals, but this is the first one to sing the blues.

FYI: The beat actually goes down at 5 p.m. Friday with the opening notes of the Notre Dame Jazz Trio in the Knights of Columbus Hall. Free music is kicked off in high style by Truth in Jazz at 5:30 p.m. on the Civic Plaza where the evening’s lineup features the Latin rhythms of Conjunto followed by Tim Bowman, the Midwest Swing Orchestra and an “open to all” jam session.  (Free is nice, but the crazily unpredictable weather might make getting s jazz pass or session ticket a plus — no rain and no 90 degree heat/humidity inside.)

Area blues aficionados already are familiar with the sounds of Elwood Splinters, Don Savoie and Southside Denny Snyder. Ditto for jazz buffs and Danny Barber. All groups have made Among the familiar faces throughout the weekend will be Dave Bennett with his Benny Goodman-inspired clarinet (and George Raft-inspired  footwear), John Bany and his bass stirring up Jazzberry Jam and definitely the senior member of this year’s assemblage, John Paul “Bucky” Pizarelli and his just-too-marvelous-for-words guitar.

OK. So you might guess I’m kinda prejudiced, which has nothing to do with the fact that Bucky grew up in Patterson, New Jersey, just across the highway from my hometown, or that he still lives in the Garden State with his wife of many decades, or that he is the founder of a musical dynasty that includes his sons John (guitar) and Martin (bass), plus John’s wife, top cabaret singer  Jessica Molaskey, or that Bucky has been coming to the EJF probably longer than any of  the 2010 artists.

The amazing guitar man will celebrate a milestone January 9, an occasion that will be marked by an evening hosted by John and Jessica at New York’s 42nd Street Y titled “Frank and Tony and Peggy and Me: Making Music with the Great Singers — Celebrating Bucky Pizzarelli’s 85th Birthday.” It’s part of the Lyrics & Lyricists 2011 Season and if your travels take you to the Big Apple during the January thaw, it would be the place to be.

Not sure the ticket price for those concerts, but I am sure that even up close you would never be such proximity to Mr. Pizzarelli as at this year’s EJBF. Which is absolutely one of the best things about this event, be it three days or two days or more. For the price of a single session ticket ($10) you can hear  — and see — one of the real greats of the jazz world.

And if you ask very nicely, he might even play a request!

Anyway, whatever your musical tastes, there will be something for everyone downtown this weekend. It may be the Last Friday (and Saturday) but it is guaranteed to be the very best! And dancing in the street is not only permitted, it’s encouraged!

See you downtown!

THERE’LL BE SOME CHANGES MADE

Anyone who’s interested  (and even those not so much) knows by now that this year’s Elkhart Jazz Festival has a new look and a new name and may, unless providence or the City of Elkhart steps in, be the very last one as we know it.

Having been around since the first EJF more than two decades ago, and being kind of resistant to change (you know how us old foggies are!),  I’m not sure how this is going to play out, but I’ve decided to give it a chance and hope for the best.

First: This year’s event has been cut back to two days — actually, one afternoon (Saturday) and two evening (Friday and Saturday)  sessions plus a Sunday morning plaza concert by the T. Hadley Gospel Choir.

Second: There is only one free stage this year. Happy to say, however, that it will be back where it belongs —on the Civic Plaza. The others are inside at  the New Life Community  Church, the Knights of Columbus and the 227 Stage (all the same as last year) plus Mad Anthony’s and the Chamber of Commerce. This eliminates the “free” music available to those who just hung around the former tent stages without having to buy a ticket.  Oops. I forgot. There will be a second free stage featuring local musicians  in the beer tent on Main Street between Mad Anthony’s and the 523 Club. For the most part, however, if you want to hear the big names you have to pay.

Third: Making it easier to accomplish the last, ticket prices have been reduced across the board, from the  patron price (now $150) to the Jazz Pass ($85) and session passes at $35 for evenings and $20 for afternoon. This year, a $10 single session ticket will admit you to any one paid venue that isn’t over capacity. Tickets and information will be available at the Chamber of Commerce (on Main between Franklin and Marion Streets) while food vendors remain on the Civic Plaza and a beer tent (without music) on High Street.

Fourth: Some familiar names are missing in the lineup of musicians, most noticeably Tim Cunningham, who filled the Plaza and kept it jumping on Saturday night, and a service band — Army, Air Force or Navy — which frequently kicked the festival off on a high note Friday evening and could only play in a venue that was free and open to everyone. There are, however, enough excellent returnees to keep jazz fans very happy. These include Bucky Pizzarelli, this time with his quartet; Dave Bennett, also with his quartet; the Rob Parton Big Band and the Rebecca Kilgore Quartet (formerly B.E.D.).

Fifth: (And the last for today) Due to the demise of the annual August blues festival, the EJF has become EJBF, with a number of blues bands on stage throughout the event, a majority being featured in Mad Anthony’s.

SHORT TAKES ON SOME NEW ARTISTS

Actually, these artists are “new” only in the sense that it will be their first appearances at the festival. In fact, a number of them have been on the Michiana music scene for quite a while. Am thinking of the Elwood Splinters Blues Band, Southside Denny Snyder, the Notre Dame Jazz Trio and Danny Barber’s Jazz Cats.

Vocalist Jenna Mammina appeared at Goshen College as a part of its performing arts series a year or so ago while Truth in Jazz and Vibenation have been Civic Plaza performers in the past.

Hailey NiswangerAmong the “first-time first-timers” are Hailey Niswanger — a native of Houston, Texas, currently at home in Portland, Ore., she is studying jazz performance at Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music on a full scholarship. She plays alto and soprano sax, clarinet and flute and, for a young lady who just turned 20, has a dazzling list of credits on her resume as well as her own CD “Confeddie.”  Check her out Friday evening at 10 p.m. in New Life Community Church.

Tim Bowman — The Detroit native is a jazz guitarist “similar in style to Tim Cunningham,” according to EJBF press blurbs.  One of 12 children, he was inspired by a church guitarist at age 11 and moved between gospel and jazz for a number of years. For six years, he was with The Wynans as musician and music director. His voluntary hiatus from the music business was interrupted when his wife suggested he put together his own CD. That was the first of five. Tim’s EJBF debut will be at 9 p.m. Friday on the Civic Plaza.

conjuntoConjunto —  Formed in 2001 by violinist James Sanders, conjunto means “group” and the six member ensemble has roots in Chicago and brings together the rhythms of Cuban, Puerto Rican and jazz in “an ongoing exploration of the confluence of jazz and Afro-Latin standards with original compositions and arrangements,” which is more than enough to make me want to hear what they have to play beginning at 7 p.m. Friday on the Civic Plaza.

Jean Prosper Trio — Prosper, originally from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, emigrated to Canada where he studied at the Royal Conservatory. The jazz pianist and his group have released three CDs and, if you can’t get enough of his music at this festival, you can always visit the Kalewes Jazz Club which he owns in Benton Harbor, Mich. The trio makes its festival debut at 7 p.m. Friday in the Pathway Assemble of God.

NOTE: You can sample the music of these artists, as well as that of other EJBF artists, the internet via Google or YouTube.

Check the locations and times for these and all the other sessions in Thursday’s Elkhart Truth (plug for the former employer!) and check back here tomorrow!