29th Capital City Jazz Fest—What Took Me So Long??!!

Four amazing ensembles in five hours make for a quick Saturday


It didn’t take long—sometime around 11:15 Saturday morning, the juxtaposition hit me: Fifteen hours earlier I had been in the Capitol Theater, hearing a world premiere concerto for two pianos, with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. Now I was equally enthralled by the Bria Skonberg Quintet, one of the hottest groups in the contemporary jazz scene in New York—and beyond.

And this was just the beginning; the Saturday day session of the 29th annual Capital City Jazz Fest ran from 11-4. It was presented as always by the Madison Jazz Society. There was a certain symmetry to my being at the Wyndham Garden Hotel in Fitchburg; about ten years ago we went to dinner there for our wedding anniversary, and it happened to be the opening Friday night of that year’s CCJF. We got on the MJS email list, and had been to a local event now and then. I love the fact that the MJS has donated over $113,000 over the years to area school programs, and have featured the top high school jazz players with some regularity. The Madison Jazz Society was founded in 1984, and had been presenting the Capital City Jazz Fest since 1989…and somehow I was always “too busy” to make it to a single one. Now I can say I really didn’t know what I was missing.

Truth be told, I hadn’t even thought about blogging about this until just before the event. We ordered our tickets months ago, I cleared my work schedule, and off we went. It was a classic “duh” moment when I finally realized I should write about it; in fact, as the day unfolded it became obvious there was no way I couldn’t  have written about it.

The reason for that is simple: this year’s (and I suspect most other incarnations of this event) drew some of the top young performers to Madison (along with some favorite “old-timers” who can still show the “kids” a thing or two). And the opening act certainly set the tone. Bria Skonberg (pictured above, courtesy BriaSkonberg.com), is a Canadian trumpet player and vocalist who has caught even the attention of Vanity Fair (“Shaking Up the Jazz World,” they said about her). Now based in New York City, she has released multiple CDs to great reviews, received the Jazz at Lincoln Center Swing Award in 2015, runs her own “Hot Jazz” camps and festival in NYC—and flat-out nails it on her horn, whether traditional Dixieland style, ballad, or most anything in between.

Her quintet members are equally young (or younger), and bring similarly growing resumes. Saxophonist and clarinetist Evan Arntzen is a fellow Canadian, the pianist is Frenchman Mathis Picard, and Elizabeth Goodfellow started in the Air Force Band. Bassist Corcoran Holt is from Washington, D.C., but may have the best long term pedigree of the bunch: hi great-grandfather lived in High Point, North Carolina with John Coltrane, and it is said that “Trane” took a lesson or two from grandpa.

Their 75-minute set ran the gamut from standards such as “The Sunny Side of the Street” and “St. Louis Blues,” to a Skonberg original, “Have a Little Heart.” While that was a tender tune, even more atmospheric was Skonberg singing an old Django Reinhardt song, “I Am Alone Tonight.” She’s from the BC side of Canada, but tackled the French original, and had loving accompaniment from Picard and Holt. Arntzen also showed his vocal chops in “You Always Hurt the One You Love,” and Picard was turned loose solo for a Fats Waller medley.

The next act proved to be the most unusual of the day, the husband-wife duo-pianists, Stephanie Trick and Paolo Alderighi. One simply doesn’t associate one piano, four-hands with most of the jazz repertoire—but Trick and Alderighi showed us what we’ve been missing. Not surprisingly, most of their music comes from their own arrangements; they launched into Hoagy Carmichael’s “Riverboat Shuffle” and Louis Armstrong’s “Swing That Music.” Trick was already known as a modern master of stride and boogie-woogie, and a highlight of the set came when Alderighi explained (tongue in cheek of course) that as a European, imbued with the feel of a waltz, American boogie-woogie was awkward for him. So he had Trick demo a typical boogie-woogie vamp, and then explained that he had written his own type of boogie-woogie by putting it in ¾ time, like a waltz. Therefore he titled it “Booogie-Wooogie.” The piece was even more fun than the explanation.

By the time they closed with “The Sheik of Araby,” one had noticed more than once how their occasional leaving the bench to make room for a solo, or to switch from top hands to lower was reminiscent of Victor Borge’s famous routine (without the over-the-top slapstick). The enjoyment level was just as high with eyes closed.

Trick was doing double duty as it turned out, as she became part of clarinetist Allan Vache’s trio, along with drummer Danny Coots. Vache has always had roots, chops and by now, all the experience one could ask for. It was no surprise that he eventually threw in a tune from the Benny Goodman Trio (“Body and Soul,” with Alderighi giving Trick a quick break). Trick of course had no trouble sounding like a seasoned vet on standards such as “Pennies from Heaven” and “Oh! Lady Be Good”; it is almost beside the point to state for the record that Vache fully represented the great jazz clarinet tradition that Goodman established so long ago. Coots is a sensitive and marvelous drummer, and his repartee (of course, corny at times!) was as vintage as the playing. Part of what makes jazz the inimitable art form that it is came near the end of the set when Vache announced “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” Someone at the table said, “that was already played” but of course, only the tune was the same.

The last hour or so was given over to local favorites who have been around and garnered their accolades for, in some cases, over a half century. The Bob Schulz Frisco Jazz Band is the group in question; Schulz may be the best known to local folks who have been around, as he had a stint as band director at Lake Mills High School back in the 1970s. As trumpeter and vocalist he is the epitome of the style espoused by Bob Scobey. His other members are clarinetist Kim Cusack, trombonist Doug Finke, pianist Ray Skjelbred, Scott Anthony on banjo and guitar, Jim Maihack on tuba, and drummer Ray Templin.

This was pure Dixieland, and the crowd just reveled in it. They opened with a pair of Irving Berlin numbers, the second of which was the delightful “I’ll See You in C-U-B-A,” written as a response to the Prohibition era. Later in the set, Schulz brought Bria Skonberg on the stage, and she showed that she can sound as natural in vintage Dixie swing as anything else. Soon Evan Arntzen came aboard, and yet again, we had visceral evidence that, as much as jazz musicians want to please their audience, they often seem to enjoy themselves most when they just add players to the mix and let it rip.

Perhaps most amazing of all was the realization that by 4 p.m., the Festival was only half over for the players. There had been a full group of sets, Friday night, there would be another one Saturday night, and Sunday 11-4 again. And Schulz’s Frisco Band was even going to play for a worship service earlier Sunday morning. And then there was some sobering news—at least for those such as I who have waited too long to experience this: 2018 will mark the 30th, and final, Capital City Jazz Fest presented by the Madison Jazz Society. Guess where I’ll be about a year from now…but I’m going to make time for some more local jazz before then. Hope to see you there, whenever and wherever that may be.

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