I didn’t catch everything at this year’s Isthmus Jazz Festival, but despite the absence of a ticketed headliner for the first time, the lineup was the best yet. Friday – the first real summer night of 2011 – the Memorial Union Terrace was jam-packed. People of all persuasions perched on every available surface, from the famous metal chairs to the Union Theater steps and the tops of the low stone walls that separate levels and surround big old trees.
I arrived at 7:30 PM, just in time for the Madison Mellophonium Jazz Orchestra, the 23-piece brainchild of Rand Moore, of Drums and Moore in Monona. Florida-based bandleader Joel Kaye, a veteran of Stan Kenton’s early ‘60s big band, which featured its own mellophonium section, flew in to lead this horde of local musicians, most of them drawn, as you’d expect, from the Madison Jazz Orchestra. The bright two-hour set featured the kind of old-fashioned tunes Kenton favored – Johnny Richards’ arrangements of West Side Story and My Fair Lady, “Misty,” “My Old Flame.” Super sax solos from Jeff Sime and Bill Grahn, Ken Gleason’s mellow mellophone grooves and a short vocal set from Angela Babler of Ladies Must Swing embroidered the rich, orchestral sound.
Though the music was transporting, on the Union Terrace part of the entertainment is what happens offstage. Here’s what else caught my eye: The variety of Recall Walker T-shirts. Great big boats bobbing behind the stage – why do people need immense cabin cruisers on Madison’s little lakes, anyway? A couple in a canoe, paddling among the behemoths on their way to Picnic Point. A female mallard, flying low overhead. At a table behind me, a passel of enterprising students stacking beer pitchers into a very tall “tower of power,” precariously pouring frothy yellow liquid from the top container into their cups.
At 10 PM I watched Isthmus publisher Vince O’Hern present Tony Castañeda, whose Latin Jazz Super Group was up next, with the Isthmus Jazz Personality of the Year award. Castañeda, in fine form, seized the opportunity to dedicate the honor to the demonstrators at the Capitol. Former regular band member Neeraj Mehta, on timbales, called up the orishas with Cusito’s famous guaguancó “Habana de mi corazón” before the current sextet, plus Darren “wildman of the trombone” Sterud, who recently moved out of town, and guitarist Louka Patenaude, who’s been playing a lot with Castañeda lately, plunged into its well-loved mambo and cha-cha-cha repertory. There was joy on peoples’ faces as the spirits moved their feet.
On Saturday I made it a point to catch Jan Wheaton’s set at 4:30 – unfortunately her last with primo pianist Matan Rubenstein, who’s taken a teaching job in Vermont. At 68 Wheaton’s voice is a little less elastic than it used to be, but that doesn’t matter – she still plies plenty of range, and her delivery’s as heartfelt and soulful as ever. Tunes from her 2005 album Expressions of Love dominated the set – “Almost Like Being in Love,” “One Note Samba,” “That’s All.” Despite sunny skies I was hoping for “Stormy Weather,” too, but I didn’t get my wish. I settled for a chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream cone instead.
While up-and-coming Indianapolis trumpeter Marlin McKay set up, I watched scrawny undergraduates in bathing suits crowd the pier at the east end of the terrace; the Betty Lou Cruise passed by, going west. People all around me were desperately fingering their iPhones.
McKay, who studied with ‘60s hard bop giants like Curtis Fuller and George Cables, turned out to have a really fine feel for that funky old New York sound. With his very solid backup trio he played classic tunes by Pepper Adams and the Adderly brothers, plus an oh-so-slightly slightly Latinized take on Kurt Weill’s “Speak Low.” And, as if to complement a cool breeze that came up off the lake, McKay blew the cool, sweet strains of Carla Bley’s “Lawns.”
I left after McKay’s set. But in retrospect, I’m sorry I didn’t pick up a copy of his CD, Deep in the Cosmos, on my way out.