Aardvark's avant-jazz
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., September 18, 2003) -- Big bands often imply swing-era dance music, and the Boston-based Aardvark Jazz Orchestra definitely can and does swing 1940s style, playing compositions by Mary Lou Williams and Duke Ellington, among others. But the ensemble, which gives a free concert on Friday night in Chapin Hall at Williams College (597-2736) in Williamstown, also updates the classic big-band tradition by playing new compositions by music director Mark Harvey, as well as more experimental fare by the likes of Gottschalk, Billings, and Charles Ives, whose Berkshire-based composition, “The Housatonic at Stockbridge,” will be performed on Friday night’s program.

Harvey, who is a music lecturer at M.I.T. in Cambridge and an ordained Methodist minister, plays trumpet and piano in the group, as well as writing the bands charts. He founded the group, whose sound has been likened to that of Gil Evans, George Russell, Duke Ellington and Frank Zappa, 30 years ago, and guest artists who have performed with Aardvark include Jimmy Giuffre, Jaki Byard, Sheila Jordan and Harvie Swartz. The group’s avant-garde approach is apparent on its CD, “Aardvark Steps Out,” which includes compositions called “Scamology,” described as “the hit tune from the ‘Scamarama Suite: A Tone Parallel to the IranContra Affair,’” and “Mutant Trumpets,” a conceptual piece in which the group’s trumpeters, including Frank London, Jeanne Snodgrass and Mark Harvey, explore the outer limits of their instrument’s sonic possibilities.

Don’t let that all that experimental talk scare you away from the concert – the group has also recorded settings of Duke Ellington’s sacred music, and Ellington’s ballet suite, “The River,” is on Friday night’s program. Aardvark has appeared at the Boston Globe Jazz and Blues Festival, the New Jazz Series at Jacob’s Pillow, the Regattabar, and the Equinox Music Festival, and Harvey is a winner of awards from ASCAP, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Meet the Composer-Lila Wallace/Reader’s Digest Commissioning Program.

Aretha, move over, Nicole is here

Twenty-four-year-old vocal phenom Nicole Nelson was clearly the audience favorite at the Tanglewood Jazz Festival’s mini-blues festival on Sunday afternoon of Labor Day weekend. Performing a 45-minute set of originals and R&B and soul standards with her six-piece band, Nelson was a knockout, bringing to the stage the fiery energy of Tina Turner, the soul/gospel chops of Aretha Franklin, and the jazzy instincts of Etta James. The Boston-based singer claims Roberta Flack as her greatest influence, and Nelson has been cleaning up lately at the Boston Music Awards and in the Boston Phoenix’s readers poll. Clearly a singer to catch on her way up, Nelson performs at Club Helsinki (413-528-3394) in Great Barrington on Saturday night at 9.

Sammy Brown

Berkshire singer-songwriter Sammy Brown has a long, eclectic resume in the music business, including stints with the likes of Kenny Rankin, Sally Struthers, Livingston Taylor and Pure Prairie League, among others. He’s called California and Austin home at different times, and he has fronted a country band and sung for radio and TV commercials.

All this varied experience is somehow channeled into the songs on “Kissing Booth,” Brown’s latest, self-released CD, recorded at various locations in the Berkshires and mastered at Off the Beat-n-Track Studios in Southfield. The CD of a baker’s dozen original, classic-style pop-rock and folk songs ranges from the James Taylor-like “This Angel’s Time” to the Byrds-like folk-rock of “Morning Sun,” from the traditional-style folk ballad, “Strong Wind” to the Buddy Holly-meets-the-Beatles pop of “California Fell.” Brown works in a little honkytonk swing into “Another Way,” while “Wood and Steel” recalls the English folk-rock of Fairport Convention or Richard Thompson, even as the lyrics invoke Lou Reed.

Brown is something of a one-man band, handling multiple instrumental chores on guitar, bass, keyboards, harmonica, banjo, and drums, but he also gets occasional help from drummer Andrew Crawford and guitarist Jeff Crawford. Brown performs tonight at Armi’s in Great Barrington at 10 on a co-bill with singer-songwriter Hal Lefferts.

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on September 11, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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