Sonya Kitchell gives new meaning to 'early jazz'
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., November 29, 2002) – Typically around this time of year the concert scene dies down as people turn their attention to holiday-related activities. But musicians and venue owners alike are apparently betting that music fans are looking to go out and hear live music in the next few weeks, as there are a host of concerts in and around the region – many by new bands and artists looking to get their new music heard.

It’s hard to know what more to be impressed by – the teen-age musicians swinging Kurt Weill and Horace Silver tunes, or the barely-teen-age vocalist singing standards like “Frim Fram Sauce” and “Mack the Knife” with a confidence and sophistication belying her youth. The Sonya Kitchell Band’s “Live 2002” features both. For a year now, Kitchell has been the talk of the town for her sold-out shows at the Iron Horse in Northampton, for her swinging, youthful band, and for her own songwriting, which artfully straddles the jazz-pop-rock-folk divide.

Blame it on her youth. An 8th grader at the Hilltown Cooperative Charter School, Kitchell – who performs at Club Helsinki on Sunday, December 8, at 7 -- has studied voice since she was seven. At age 10, she was invited to perform at the 1999 Special Olympics World Games in North Carolina. For the last four years, the Ashfield resident has participated in the Vermont Jazz Center Summer Program with Sheila Jordan, and has performed with a number of different jazz bands around the country. Kitchell won an “outstanding musician” award from the University Of Massachusetts High School Jazz Festival and also a scholarship to their Jazz in July summer program.

In addition to her work as a vocalist, Kitchell studies theory, dance and guitar. Possibly the youngest performer ever to headline the Iron Horse, Kitchell will undoubtedly hold the same record at Helsinki after next Sunday. Her band includes 17-year-old musicians Ben Jaffe on drums, Caley Monahon-Ward on violin, and Miro Sprague on piano, Sean Pentland, 18, on bass, and Ross Bellenoit, at 19 the band’s elder, on guitar.

Ramsay Midwood is a rootsy singer-songwriter who sounds like he has been around forever – or at least his songs sound that way. But in fact, 11 of the dozen songs on his new debut album, “Shoot Out at the OK Chinese Restaurant” (Vanguard), are originals, as is Midwood, a true original who warms up the crowd for Hot Tuna at the Egg in Albany on December 8. Midwood’s album purposely sounds like it was recorded in his garage or basement (one song, “Monster Truck,” musically quotes Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” from Dylan’s “Basement Tapes”) with a bunch of musicians who just happened to show up – but it’s an artful misconception (among the musicians who just happened to show up is Wallflowers keyboardist Rami Jaffe).

Some tunes just feature a beat-up acoustic piano, drum and fiddle, while others feature a full band. It all could have been made in 1930 or 1960 or 1990. It’s the kind of offbeat American roots music --psychedelic murder ballads juxtaposed with surrealistic nursery rhymes -- that understandably had to attract the attention of a European record label before any American label could hear it with the proper perspective – as timeless outsider music.

North Carolina is more often thought of as the home of old-timey mountain ballads and fiddle tunes, but to hear Julee Glaub sing as she does on “Fields Faraway” you would think that that there was a direct line from Charlotte to Dublin. Of course, the influence of Irish music is felt throughout old-time American folk, but Glaub, who performs at Common Grounds Coffee House at the First United Methodist Church in Pittsfield on December 7, channels the modes and rhythms of traditional Irish music without much American influence. On her CD well-known musicians including Jerry O’Sullivan and Brian Conway accompany her, but as a soloist she’s a veritable one-woman band, accompanying herself on guitar, flute, whistle and bodhran.

Although you might not know it to listen to his pastoral, new-agey compositions, pianist George Winston claims the Doors as one of his key influences, especially the signature keyboards of Ray Manzarek. On his recent CD, “Night Divides the Day: The Music of the Doors” (Dancing Cat), Winston pays tribute to that influence, finding common ground between his lush, lyrical style and Doors’ hits like “Love Me Two Times,” “Love Her Madly” and “Light My Fire,” all of which he channels through the spirit and style of New Orleans pianist James Booker. But on the more modal composition, “Riders on the Storm,” Winston is able to give full expression to his own voice and that of the Doors. Winston plays his eclectic program of Doors music, Hawaiian slack key guitar music, and his own compositions, at the Lincoln Theatre in West Hartford, Conn., on Thursday December 5, and at the Troy (N.Y.) Savings Bank Music Hall on Wednesday, December 11.

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on November 29, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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