Hamiet Bluiett's joyful jazz
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., August 26, 2004) -- You don’t have to wait until next weekend’s Tanglewood Jazz Festival to get a dose of real jazz. On Saturday night at 9, saxophone legend Hamiet Bluiett, a founding member of the World Saxophone Quartet, makes his annual appearance at Club Helsinki ( 413-528-3394) in Great Barrington.

“I’m tired of everybody acting all serious all the time about music,” Bluiett told the Eagle in an interview in 2000. “I mean, it’s not a comedy show, but why not be joyful?” This from a musician with impeccable avant-garde credentials: a founder of BAG (Black Artists Group), the St. Louis equivalent of Chicago’s experimental AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), a bandmate of Lester and Joseph Bowie, Charles Mingus, Abdullah Ibrahim, Muhal Richard Abrams, Sam Rivers, Don Pullen, Babatunde Olatunji, and fellow saxophonists Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake and David Murray in the groundbreaking World Saxophone Quartet.

“Too much music today makes you want to go out and shoot someone,” said Bluiett. “Sure, sometimes I’m mad and it comes through, but the feelings in my music can run the gamut from joy to terror.”

Bluiett has displayed that gamut of emotions in several concerts at Helsinki over the years, as he rescues the baritone saxophone from its reputation as the Rodney Dangerfield of the sax family. In Bluiett’s hands, the baritone attains levels of eloquence never dreamed of for the unwieldy, walrus-like instrument. This is partly due to Bluiett’s willingness to extend the instrument’s range beyond what convention dictates (including squawks and squeals into the soprano range), but also a product of Bluiett’s advanced musical intelligence and free-thinking approach to group improvisation and harmonies.

“Music is exhilarating,” said Bluiett. “I have a love affair with it.”

Hector on Stilts: Catchy pop

Who knows why they left Tucson, Ariz., for the Berkshires? Who knows why they decided to call themselves Hector on Stilts? What we do know is that the cousin duo of Jeb and Clayton Colwell, who do their band business as Hector on Stilts, write vaporous, ineffable, catchy pop songs that variously recall the Beatles, Steely Dan, U2, and the Police and a host of other easygoing, harmonious artists. Maybe it’s their legacy – their fathers were the co-founders and songwriters for that golly-gee pop outfit, Up With People, in the 1970s, and the six-foot-eight-inch Jeb claims the late Anthony Quinn as his maternal grandfather. The group also claims the status of first storefront rock band to be part of the Storefront Artist Project in Pittsfield, and they have a terrific new four-song CD chock full of catchy new songs. Catch them on Saturday night at the Dream Away Lodge in Becket (413-623-8725), starting at 9. Brooklyn-based group The Minors will warm up the crowd.

Vance Gilbert: Funny folk

When it came time to try his hand at being a folksinger, Vance Gilbert discovered he had a leg up on the competition. What at first he may have lacked in the poetry department he more than made up for with laughs.

“I was playing a coffeehouse in college and had written maybe two tunes,” Gilbert, who performs on Saturday night at 8 at the Guthrie Center (413-528-1955) in Great Barrington, told the Eagle in an interview last year. “Both were bad, and I played a couple of covers, enough material to get through twenty minutes of the set.

“But I needed thirty minutes of material. And I realized I was funny, and just went with that in the midst of these quintessentially abysmal tunes. But I was really funny, and it worked, and that was it -- I was hooked. And look at me now -- I’ve gone from absolute unknown up the ranks to relatively obscure.”

Gilbert has come a lot further than that, and while he still is renowned for his riotous, improvisational wit, he has made great leaps in the poetry and songwriting department, too. He has five albums under his belt, including three on the Rounder/Philo label. His most recent album, “One Thru Fourteen” (Louisiana Red Hot Records), showcases his versatile balladry, touching down in folk, blues, rock, soul, country, jazz and pop.

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on August 26, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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