Jazz Weekend 2016

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A Weekend of Jazz, Blues and R&B

Six headliners split a two-day, two-show landmark event on May 7 & 8

By Cristofer Gross

To draw a genealogy tree of American music onto our national map, just trace the Mississippi River. With its taproot in Africa it grows north out of the Delta blues, spreading through Memphis and Nashville, where it influences country, and continues to Chicago where it spawns jazz and branches out in soul, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, hip-hop and rap.

On May 7 and 8, six extraordinary headliners will shake that tree in two historic Segerstrom Center concerts showcasing the blues, soul-jazz and R&B.

Bettye Lavette

It's a sequel to the Center's inaugural Jazz Weekend last October, with three blues giants, Bettye LaVette, John Mayall and Charlie Musselwhite, making Segerstrom Center debuts on Saturday, May 7 beginning at 8 p.m. On Sunday, May 8 at 3 p.m., three titans from R&B and soul jazz, Lisa Fischer, Gregory Porter and Dr. Lonnie Smith, return after separately contributing to recent Center jazz series landmark performances.

Singing the blues

Combining LaVette, Musselwhite and Mayall on a single bill provides a thrilling survey of blues and the influence it has had here and abroad. Mississippi-born and Memphis-raised, Charlie Musselwhite followed the same course as the music. He headed to Chicago in the early 1960s, just as 16-year-old Bettye LaVette became a hometown hit-maker through a Detroit recording industry rapidly gaining strength. Meanwhile American blues gained a firmer foothold in Great Britain thanks in large part to an imaginative 30-year-old named John Mayall.

Charlie Musselwhite

In Chicago, Musselwhite's gift for mature blues harp and vocals earned him the respect of the earlier generation of legends, including Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Big Joe Williams. It also connected him with upcoming stars of Chicago blues Barry Goldberg and Mike Bloomfield, who, after playing with Musselwhite, would form the pioneering soul-blues-rock outfit, Electric Flag, with Buddy Miles. With Goldberg on organ, the 22-year-old recorded Stand Back! Here Comes Charlie Musselwhite's South Side Band, a debut album that, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, has clearly stood the test of time. So has Musselwhite, who won the 2013 Best Blues Album Grammy® Award for Get Up!, a collaboration with Ben Harper that followed their White House performance as part of a salute to Memphis soul.

By the time a family friend recorded LaVette, she had learned about music and life in the home her parents used as a speakeasy. It gave their African-American neighbors, barred from commercial bars by segregation, a welcome spot with a well-stocked jukebox, eventually including her 1962 hit was "My Man – He's a Lovin' Man." Decades of recordings and tours followed, but she remained relatively unknown until the video of her performance at the 2008 Kennedy Center Awards went viral. Her gritty version of The Who classic "Love Reign O'er Me" shot her to a new level of popularity. The New York Times wrote, "Bettye LaVette now rivals Aretha Franklin as this generation's most vital soul singer."

John Mayall

The 78s Mayall's father had collected during the arrival of jazz a generation earlier had primed his son for the 1960s blues invasion. The pianist, guitarist, harmonica player and singer would form The Bluesbreakers, a seminal outfit with a rotating lineup that launched Fleetwood Mac, and Mick Taylor of the Rolling Stones. His Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton album, also marking its 50th Anniversary this year, is one of the era's most important. Both he and Musselwhite would be drawn to California that decade, with Musselwhite spending years in the Bay Area and Mayall turning a visit to Southern California into his groundbreaking Blues from Lauren Canyon. Still going strong, he released the critically acclaimed A Special Life in 2014 and Find a Way to Care last year.

The soul of American music

Gregory Porter

Lisa Fischer, Dr. Lonnie Smith and Gregory Porter combine a range of musical influences from blues and gospel to jazz and soul. They each also point to the influence of their mothers. Smith’s parents were performers, but he credits his mother with introducing him to gospel, jazz and classical music. With Porter’s mother a minister in Bakersfield, his childhood was filled with gospel music. For Fischer, born to a 15-year-old who died when Lisa was 17, her mother's legacy would be in the depth of feeling in the music she performed.

Lisa Fischer

She began as a solo artist, winning the Best Female R&B Vocal Performance Grammy for her album So Intense in 1992. She also became one of America's premiere background singers, and is profiled in the 2013 Oscar® -winning documentary 20 Feet from Stardom. She has toured with the Rolling Stones since 1989, providing a show-stopping duet with Mick Jagger on "Gimme Shelter." Her Center debut in October 2014 was as one of three lead vocalists in Billy Child's beautiful "Map to Treasure" tribute to Laura Nyro.

Porter's Center debut was a few months later with jazz vocalist Dianne Reeves. The singer-songwriter brought the house down with a set made up mostly of originals that showcased a vocal depth reminiscent of great '70s soul singers like Brook Benton and the poetic lyrics of a Gil Scott Heron or Terry Callier. His third album, Liquid Sky, won a 2013 Best Jazz Vocal Album and boosted him into the ranks of jazz superstar. It led Blue Note to release a two-CD compilation of previous tracks called Issues of Life: Features and Remixes.

Dr. Lonnie Smith

Smith has been a top ranked Hammond B3 player since he brought his solid R&B chops to the jazz-oriented George Benson Quartet in 1966. Within a few years he was on his own and has been developing his robust, driving style of soul jazz ever since. His 2016 release is the most acclaimed in decades. On it he works through soulful, jazz-funk arrangements of Monk, Rodgers and Hammerstein and others with Robert Glasper, Joe Lovano and Jonathan Kreisberg, the great guitarist who contributed so much to his February 2014 debut here. The album's title, Evolution, acknowledges both his far-reaching growth and that of the ever-spreading tree of American music.

These two days in May will rank among the top jazz events of 2016, so mark your calendars and set your watches for two shows and six headliners, all within 24 hours.

Cristofer Gross is a frequent contributor to Center publications.


May 7, 2016: Charlie Musselwhite, Bettye LaVette and John Mayall

Tickets: $49 and up

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May 8, 2016: Lisa Fischer, Dr. Lonnie Smith Trio and Gregory Porter
Tickets: $49 and up

For more information about the Jazz Weekend,
visit SCFTA.org or call (714) 556–2787.
Group services: (714) 755–0236

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