Suitable venues

To gig or not to gig in Atlanta

Musicians have taken a stronger role in finding places to play instead of getting bitter about limited opportunities. This statement, echoing the do-or-die attitude of Atlanta's straight-ahead and free-jazz talent, was in fact made in reference to Chicago's plight by saxophonist and MacArthur Grant recipient Ken Vandermark (Downbeat, Aug. 2000). "There is a willingness on my part to think it possible to play the kind of music I play in the city that I live in on a regular basis," he adds.

Thanks to a small, zealous group of Atlanta promoters (e.g. Euphonic Productions) and active venues (e.g. eyedrum), freely improvised music has taken a solid foothold here. The packed house at the Variety Playhouse for the Peter Brotzmann/Chicago Tentet concert of June 28 (which included Vandermark) gives indication that a sizable audience is already in place. Their responsiveness is a positive development for Atlanta — a city notorious for playing it close to the vest. As with the more straight-ahead element of Atlanta's jazz community, any restaurant or club remains fair game for pursuance of a playing engagement. It's a lot of toil and trouble, but it boils down to this: to gig or not to gig.

While this column tends to focus primarily on straight-ahead jazz, I genuinely appreciate freer areas of music. But the fact remains: Creative improvised music — whether "free" or based on standard tunes — shall remain forever outside the mainstream. As pianist Horace Silver said, "We've always been the unwanted stepchild" — this despite (or perhaps because of) the incomparable virtuosity of the music's practitioners. Alas, another topic for another column.

At this point, tiny Churchill Grounds is Atlanta's only regular jazz club — a sad indication of the overall attitude toward the fine arts in our city of five million-plus. While we're thankful for the sporadic jazz emanating from other venues such as Cafe 290 and Sambuca, CG obviously could use some downtown/hometown competition. What about Paschal's La Carrousel? The Black Arts Festival's peripheral activity, "Nine Naughty Nights of Jazz" — recently held there — showed the potential for presenting jazz on a regular, weekly basis. At least some consolation for CG's near-monopoly lies in the fact that proprietor Sam Yi has good taste, as this month's lineup confirms.

Alto saxophonist Donald Harrison performed admirably at CG with the Swing Association some months back, but his upcoming Aug. 25 visit will feature his own heavy-hitting New York quartet of Glen Patcha (p), Vicente Archer (b) and John Lamkin (d). Harrison's most recent recording, Free to Be (Impulse), displays a hard bop-oriented foray with several deviations into Latin, semi-smooth jazz and even rap. Endowed with a beautiful, lush tone and ideas to spare, Donald Harrison will come to play.

The Atlanta International Jazz Society (404-876-4725 / Atlantajazz@artlover.com) continues to increase its presence by beginning its monthly concert series at CG Aug. 12. Atlanta-based saxophonist Dennis Springer began turning heads several decades ago with fiery solos on Jeff Lorber's excellent Soft Space album. Expounding upon the traditions of John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter, Springer's quintet of Danny Harper (tp), Ojeda Penn (p), Ramon Pooser (b) and Eddie Langston III (d) promises exciting sets displaying well-crafted, high-energy original material.

Atlanta-based guitarist Mike Kelly holds the distinction of being one of the finest improvisers in town, having honed his craft during nine years in NYC backing the likes of Al Gey and Junior Cook. Kelly also deserves kudos for creating gigs where none exist. When New York trumpet legend Richie Vitale blows into town, he and Kelly's trio of Tim Aucoin (b) and Clay Hulet (d) will hit not only CG on Aug. 11 and Sambuca on Aug. 14, but also Alpharetta's Cabernet on Aug. 10 and 1848 Wine Loft on Aug. 12. Vitale is highly regarded among knowledgeable brass players, but remains an unsung hero due to lengthy road time spent with Frank Sinatra. His most recent CD, Dreamsville (TCB), recorded live at Smalls, is both startlingly virtuosic and blatantly evocative.

Spivey Hall's Summer Jazz Series ends Aug. 19 on the highest of notes with Kenny Barron's illustrious trio of Ray Drummond (b) and Ben Riley (d). For these ears, no pianist today — jazz or otherwise — is finer than Barron. Although his latest, richly orchestrated release, Spirit Song (Verve) has received great acclaim since its January release, Barron's improvisations are such things of beauty that only the uncluttered sounds of a trio present appropriate backing. For some really sweet ear candy, check out Wanton Spirit (Verve) with Charlie Haden (b) and Roy Haynes (d). Barron's tone and dynamic approach are superlative, not unlike those of Bill Evans during Evans' prime. This will undoubtedly be one of the best jazz concerts of the year in Atlanta.

The amphitheater may be chat-stained, but plenty of great music has yet to rise above the din before the Classic Chastain Series draws to a close. Pianist Eddie Palmieri's band squares off with the Tito Puente Orchestra Aug. 9, despite Puente's recent passing. The vocal quartet known as the Manhattan Transfer, which has garnered no fewer than eight Grammys in their 26 years together, will combine material from both the pop and jazz/vocalese idioms at its Aug. 11 Chastain show, probably including, "Boy From New York City," "Birdland," "Until I Met You" and "Another Night in Tunisia." In sync with Louis Armstrong's 100th birth year, MT is currently recording a tribute album of songs associated with the seminal trumpeter/vocalist.

Last and probably least on Chastain's "jazz" stage, the Rippingtons perform their perfunctory pop-oriented stuff Aug. 23. Pumping out more CDs than IHOP serves pancakes, the Ripps have saturated the smooth jazz airwaves for longer than we care to realize. Their latest, Topaz (Peak/Windham Hill) virtually drops us off in Taos, N.M. — a sultry, dry place dear to bandleader Russ Freeman's heart. As the Rippingtons are not shy with regard to amplification, the musical results will be easily heard in spite of Chastain's conversing crowd — a most appropriate musical act for those acting up.

Incoming/Upcoming: The Georgia Theatre in Athens hosts guitarist Charlie Hunter with opener Squat Aug. 22 (www.georgiatheatre.com). The Variety Playhouse presents Project/Object, performing the music of Frank Zappa, Aug. 16. The Montreux Atlanta Music Festival presents Al Jarreau, Roberta Flack, David Sanborn, Joe Sample, and George Duke Aug. 27 at Chastain Park Amphitheater (www.atlantafestivals.com). The Robert Ferst Center hosts Earl Klugh Sept. 9 and Keiko Matsui Oct. 10. This summer's Classic Chastain series presents Tony Bennett & Diana Krall Aug. 12. The Rialto Center features Bale Folclorico Sept. 29 and the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band Oct. 13.

Inside Info: Churchill Grounds presents drummer Bernard Linnette's Quartet featuring saxophonist Howard Nicholson and bassist Rodney Jordan Aug. 18-19. Vocalist Kim Rushing appears every Wednesday and Friday at Eclipse di Luna. The Woody Williams Duo performs Wednesdays at the Cafe in MJQ. Atlanta-based vocalist Rita Graham is currently mixing her long-awaited release.

Speak Out: "I've made thousands of LP masters, and I'm glad to see the LP go. Good riddance." — recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder.

Out There: Clubs/Restaurants/Venues: Eyedrum (404-627-8436); Variety Playhouse (404-521-1786); Churchill Grounds (404-876-3030); Cafe 290 (404-256-3942); Sambuca Jazz Cafe (404-237-5299); Paschal's La Carrousel (404-523-4800); Cabernet (770-777-5955); 1848 Wine Loft (770-428-1848); Spivey Hall (770-961-3683); Chastain (404-733-4800); The Robert Ferst Center (404-894-9600); Rialto Center (404-651-1234); Eclipse di Luna (404-846-0449).

In Here: Your direct line to this column by e-mail: rozzi1625@aol.com--or voice mail: 404-296-1503. Venues, colleges, radio stations, musicians and readers are encouraged to submit listings, information and perspectives.