I felt overjoyed that the rain held off for Friday's first night of the Isthmus Jazz Festival on the Memorial Union Terrace. The Caravan Gypsy Swing Ensemble must have felt that way, too, because they were pumping out the joy when I arrived at 4:30 p.m. The quintet plays in the guitar- and Euro-centric style of Django Reinhardt's 1930-40s bands, with clarinet substituting for the traditional violin. This is fluidly swinging music that goes down easy as easy as the pitchers of Union beer on every table. The virtuosic guitars chug brightly with the drums and bass while the clarinet pours liquid gold over the whole concoction.
Caravan Gypsy Swing doesn't offer any surprises, but you don't listen to gypsy swing for surprises in 2010. You listen to lift your mood, and mine was sky-high by the end of the set.
Yes, I Am
Most-asked question of the night: "Are you saving those chairs?
Good Things Come in Threes
Next up, vocalists Gerri DiMaggio, Sally DeBroux and Jeannie Woodall showcased great composers in a series of solos and ensemble pieces, backed by a quartet. They sang luscious three-part harmonies on tunes by John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie while offering individual takes on George Gershwin and Miles Davis. The quartet even got into the act with an instrumental Wayne Shorter composition. Nobody can accuse DiMaggio who put the set together of having bad taste in songs.
DiMaggio paraphrased the message of a King Pleasure lyric for audience: "Whatever is going on in your life, have a good time." Thousands of people sitting on Terrace chairs seemed happy to follow that philosophy.
The Rough and the Smooth
As the sun began to go down at 8 p.m., the intensity amped up with tenor saxophonist Frank Catalano's quartet. The Chicagoan signed his first record contract at 17, hit the Billboard Jazz Chart a few years later, and maintains a thriving international career at 33. He cleared the air with a fierce rendition of John Coltrane's "Impressions," his cutting tone no doubt alarming hikers across the lake at Picnic Point.
Catalano comes out of the Chicago school of tenors, with an enormous sound that can be heard over Loop traffic. On jazz standards and funky originals, he combined gorgeously flowing phrases with earthy honks, squeals and blats. His music was an irresistible mixture of the rough and the smooth, and even at its most intensely modern it had a pulse you could dance to.
Wearing a T-shirt and blue jeans, Catalano had an amiable presence at the mike. In the absence of a martini, he made a toast with his water bottle and asked us to join in.
Here's to Frank Catalano, the Union Terrace, and a great first night of the 2010 Isthmus Jazz Festival.