Summer Arts Weekend: Poncho Sanchez Brings Latin Soul to Boston

By Bridgit Brown   |   Thursday, July 26, 2012
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July 26, 2012

Poncho Sanchez (photo:

Poncho Sanchez is known as "El Conguero," or as he puts it, "The guy who plays the congas." His ensemble takes the stage at the Boston Summer Arts Weekend on Saturday evening. For nearly 40 years, Sanchez has performed on numerous stages throughout the world, earned a Grammy, and has even given birth to his own form of jazz, which he calls "Jazz soul." In a telephone conversation this week, he spoke with me about the fundamentals of Latin jazz, how to properly play the congas, his concerns about the future of jazz, and what to expect at his performance in Copley Square. He also discussed the inspiration for his latest CD, Chano y Dizzy, a tribute to two of his influences, Chano Pozo and Dizzy Gillespie.

What makes Latin jazz what it is?

Latin jazz involves Latin percussion instruments. It involves the conga drum, the timbales, the bongos, the maracas, güiros, and all other Latin instruments. It has Latin rhythms but it also has an American jazz influence. In my band, for instance, I play conga, and I have a bongo player, a timbale player, and when I sing I play the hand percussions, like the maracas and the güiro, and the shakers to give it that Latin flavor. When we play a number, usually a mambo, cha-cha-cha, bolero, or a meringue, we do it with Latin rhythm and Latin dances. I also have three horn players in the band, a trombone player, a trumpet player, and a saxophonist. We do a lot of jazz melodies with a Latin rhythm underneath.

What does the future of jazz look like to you?

That’s a tough question. Jazz, I’m very proud to say, is our music. If you were born in the United States of America, this is your music. It was born right here. Latin jazz was also born in the United States of America, when Chano Pozo met Dizzy Gillespie in New York City. I’m glad that it’s ours.

For me, jazz is music that you have to really listen to and you have to know something about it to understand what we’re doing up there, because we’re actually playing a little more sophisticated chord changes, and melodies, and harmonies, and all of that. So it’s a little more advanced, I would say, and there’s plenty of room for more fans.
We also play salsa. Salsa involves singing in Spanish and dancing, so there’s a lot of Latino people who come out to our concerts and they dance and enjoy our music. AND, with the fact that I grew up in Los Angeles in the 50s, I love soul music, and I have adapted soul music to our Latin jazz, which I call “Latin soul” music. I do some James Brown songs, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding songs, but with a Latin groove.

What can we expect to hear at your performance at the Boston Summer Arts Weekend?

We will play some of the songs from Chano y Dizzy, my latest CD. I also always like to reach back and do some of the older tunes that people always request. There are some standards that people always ask for every time I play, like “Watermelon Man,” which we recorded twice. We’ll do a combination of our older favorites and some of the new tunes also.

I interviewed Terrance Blanchard last year, when Chano y Dizzy was first released. I love this CD. How did it come about?

That CD came about when my manager suggested that I do a tribute to Chano Pozo and Dizzy Gillespie. Chano was a great Cuban conga drummer who was also a good writer. He and Dizzy got together in the early 40s in New York City and they started writing songs together. Chano was only on the American scene for about three years because he was murdered in the Rio Café in Spanish Harlem in the early 50s. There are many songs he wrote that I knew he had left us, and there were many songs that Dizzy Gillespie had written and became jazz standards, like “Night in Tunisia,” which I recorded before, and “Manteca,” a song that Chano and Dizzy Gillespie wrote together. They also wrote a song called “Tin Tin Deo.” I also do the medley of that on Chano y Dizzy, which includes all of the above as well as the very famous “Guachi Guaro” that Cal Tjader wrote. So I basically play the part of Chano Pozo on the CD, and when they asked me who I wanted to play the part of Dizzy, they started naming all of the great trumpet players in the United States. Then Terrance Blanchard’s name came up, and he had recorded with us before and had been our guest on other dates. I knew him and I knew that he was a great trumpet player and a great composer and writer.

What do you do when you’re not performing?

For me, nowadays, I love to be at home with my family in Los Angeles. I’ve been doing this for close to 40 years, and so when I have time off, I enjoy swimming in the pool at home and I also go deep sea fishing from time to time.

Poncho Sanchez’s performance begins at 5:45pm on Saturday, July 28, 2012.

Summer Arts Weekend: Sharon Shannon Brings Cool Celtic Accordion to Boston

By Kris Wilton   |   Wednesday, July 25, 2012
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July 25, 2012

Sharon Shannon (photo credit: John Soffe.)

The Summer Arts Weekend program says that Sharon Shannon has “made the much-maligned accordion ‘cool’” in her home country of Ireland. It’s easy to see why. (Though I personally have always been rather fond of the ol’ squeezebox.)

Shannon says she grew up in a family where her parents “were absolutely mad for music and they were always playing music and dancing round the kitchen,” and it wasn’t long before she and her brother and two sisters were playing along.

She’s carried on the tradition, playing concerts with such gleeful enthusiasm and abandon that any performance seems a celebration, a kind of Celtic hootenanny (if that’s not an appalling mashing of cultures) that has everyone singing and grinning and doing a little jig. Even just watching videos, the joy is infectious.

But this also isn’t the stuff of St. Paddy’s Day parties and Temple Bar tourist traps. It’s much more alive, and less pigeonholed. Her sound is unmistakably Irish, but not cliché. Songs like “Galway Girl,” written with Steve Earle in 2000, manage to sound as homey and familiar as traditional fare, but also somehow fresh.

Shannon’s also known for her wide-ranging collaborations with both Irish and non-Irish folk including Bono, Sinead O’Connor, Jackson Browne, John Prine, Steve Earle, The Chieftains, The Waterboys, Willie Nelson, Nigel Kennedy, Alison Krauss, and Shane MacGowan.

At Summer Arts Weekend, Sharon Shannon will perform on the Copley Plaza Main Stage at 2:45 on Saturday, following Dan Zanes and Friends and the Harney Academy of Irish Dance. I think it’s great scheduling–I can’t imagine anyone being able to keep their seat.

Summer Arts Weekend: Del McCoury Brings Bluegrass Back to Preservation Hall

By Scott McLennan   |   Wednesday, July 25, 2012
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July 25, 2012

Del McCoury performs at DelFest in 2008 (photo:

There’s no shortage of bluegrass fans who feel that the high lonesome sound is an American purebred.

“I was one of those guys,” confesses Del McCoury, a leading light in bluegrass for more than 50 years now. “I thought this music is different, that Bill Monroe did everything from scratch.”

Today, McCoury laughs at such a notion.

McCoury got his start playing guitar and singing in Monroe’s famed Bluegrass Boys in 1963. “I found out he liked jazz. He listened to jazz and was influenced by jazz,” McCoury says of Monroe, the father of bluegrass. “I grew to learn how all music is related.”

At 73, McCoury has shared the stage with, among others, jam band Phish and country rebel Steve Earle. Over the past year, McCoury has been enjoying an ongoing relationship with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.

Del McCoury and Preservation Hall Jazz Band

McCoury and Preservation Hall Jazz Band team up again Friday as part of the Boston Summer Arts Weekend in Copley Square. “Collaboration” is the buzz word at this new arts festival, as it lays the groundwork for artists to get involved in each others’ sets, both during the free concerts in the square and at the ticketed events at night in the Fairmont Plaza Copley hotel. What Summer Arts has in mind is akin to what happens on American Legacies, the album Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the Del McCoury Band created together last year.

The partnership took root a year earlier when McCoury performed on an album benefitting the actual Preservation Hall in New Orleans and its music outreach programs.

McCoury says both camps realized there was room for further exploration.

“There is a lot of common language between New Orleans jazz and bluegrass. When we got in the recording studio we just came up with things as we went along,” McCoury says.

With gospel songs common in both jazz and bluegrass, the standard “I’ll Fly Away” is perhaps the clearest example of common ground on American Legacies, as the song seamlessly transitions from Preservation Hall Jazz Band singer Clint Maedgen to McCoury while the horns and stringed instruments pass the melody back and forth.

Jelly Roll Morton’s “Mullenburg Joys” (or “Milenberg Joy” as it is sometimes known) is another touchstone on the album, as Monroe himself recorded the song.

As McCoury tells it, Monroe was laid up in a New Orleans hospital in 1955 after a car accident and heard “Mullenburg Joys” on the radio. About 20 years later, Monroe recorded the tune from memory.

While it’s too bad McCoury’s sons and band mates won’t be on hand this weekend, it’s no surprise why they can’t make it: they are out on tour collaborating with songwriter and guitarist Keller Williams in an expanded version of their side project, The Travelin’ McCourys. Hmmm, anybody thinking about an interesting partnership to book for Summer Arts Weekend 2013?

Del McCoury and Preservation Hall Jazz Band will be getting together at 8:30 p.m. on Friday in Copley Square and then again after midnight in the Fairmont Copley Plaza hotel’s Copley Club.

Summer Arts Weekend: Alison Balsom on Spine-Tingling Performances

By Kris Wilton   |   Wednesday, July 25, 2012
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July 25, 2012

Alison Balsom

Trumpeter Alison Balsom is about as much of a pop sensation as a classical musician can be, having released six albums, won numerous honors, reached a broad television audience, and captured the attention of women’s magazine editors for bringing glamour back to the classical stage. In the U.S., she’s appeared on Letterman and topped critics’ lists; her performance at the Boston Summer Arts Weekend this Sunday marks her Boston debut. Balsom remarked that she’s been a fan of the Boston Symphony Orchestra since she was a kid.

Did you start playing really young?

I started trumpet when I was seven. It was my dream. My inspiration was Dizzy Gillespie.

That seems an unlikely role model for a seven-year-old girl.

My mum got me a Dizzy Gillespie cassette from the library, and I was blown away by it.

Do you also play jazz?

I wouldn’t call myself a jazz musician, but I have a deep love and respect for it, and it has indirectly influenced my classical style.

Your style is so clear and pristine, which seems very different from jazz, which can be dirtier.

I’m aiming for that emotion—it doesn’t have to just sound clean, it has to sound like an emotional experience. I’m making the trumpet sound like a voice; it’s an extension of my body.

When you play piccolo trumpet, especially, it almost sounds like a woodwind, it’s so clear.

When I play, especially stuff that’s originally for woodwinds, I try to imagine that I am that other instrument. I think you’re only limited by your imagination.

I’ve noticed you play a lot of pieces that were written for, say, oboe.

And violin or voice. The trumpet repertoire, though fabulous, is fairly small. I just want to play really good music, so I steal from other instruments.

What will you be performing in Boston?

I’ll be performing an oboe concerto by Albinoni, “Shenandoah,” an old Swedish folk song, and Piazzola’s “Libertango.” And Saturday I’m joining Suzanne Vega for her finale of “Tom’s Diner,” which will be fun for me, doing something non-classical.

That sounds fantastic! A lot of people say that young people don’t get or don’t enjoy classical music, but you seem to counter that stereotype.

I think all the superficial celebrity culture eventually wears thin. People are looking for a bit more depth, a bit more nourishment, in what they listen to, what they see. That’s why classical music will still be around in 50 years, when other things won’t. My frustration is when a classical concert is done without everyone putting their heart and soul into it. Because then of course people find it boring: it is boring. But another performance can be spine-tingling. That’s what I want to communicate to people who might be a bit reluctant. It isn’t boring if it’s done well.

Preview: The Lowell Folk Festival

By Scott McLennan   |   Tuesday, July 24, 2012
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July 24, 2012

The Claire Lynch Band (photo courtesy of the Lowell Folk Festival.)

Folk music is in robust health. How else could two nationally recognized folk festivals coexist less than two hours from each other on the same New England weekend?

Well it’s not just the 100 or so miles between Lowell, MA, and Newport, R.I. that separates the equally iconic Lowell Folk Festival and Newport Folk Festivals; there are subtle differences in philosophies that make each a distinct choice for music fans.

In Newport, the programming makes connections between the very traditional aspects of folk music and its more popular appropriations. Jim James of My Morning Jacket and Jackson Browne–two of the featured performers at Newport this year–may not be folkies per se, but they certainly embrace the sturdy songwriting ideals at the heart of folk music.

In Lowell, the festival sticks to “traditional” folk, and defines such music as that which is part of a cultural life shared by an identifiable community–be it ethnic, regional, religious, occupational–and passed along by conversation and practice. The hallmark of the Lowell festival, now in its 26th year, is its ability to show how wide that definition stretches. This year, “folk” runs from Hawaiian hula dancing to Azerbaijani music played on the kamancha fiddle to honky-tonk country from Nashville.

“Me, personally, with my heritage, I’m looking forward to the polka group,” says Lowell Folk Festival spokesman Phil Lupsiewicz, referring to Pan Franek Zosia and the Polka Towners, noting the band’s unique incorporation of twin fiddles.

The festival begins Friday evening and continues through Sunday. There are six outdoor stages scattered around the blocks in downtown Lowell near Boarding House Park, Dutton Street, and Merrimack Street. Performers typically have multiple sets throughout the festival and hit different locations.

So, as Lupsiewicz advises, you can move around from the mellower, shaded St. Anne’s stage to the more frenetic dance pavilion on Dutton Street or just pick a spot and let the variety of acts come to you.

“We celebrate all different cultures at the festival,” Lupsiewicz says. “But as people have lived together they see how there are not a lot of differences, but actually a lot of similarities. The irony is we’re all people, and we all like music.”

Some picks to check out in Lowell this year include Lunasa, an Irish band that stretches the Celtic tradition with modern dynamics; singer Claire Lynch, who blends country and bluegrass influences into a rich Americana blend; guitarist Magic Slim and his band the Teardrops, purveyors of the electric Chicago blues sound; New Orleans pianist Davell Crawford, whose playing swings and sways through the rich tradition of Crescent City sounds; and Zimbabwean guitarist and songwriter Oliver “Tuku” Mtukudzi, whose work was championed by Taj Mahal and Bonnie Raitt to help him set up a foothold in this country. All of the performers went through a selection process overseen by the National Council for the Traditional Arts.

Davell Crawford (photo courtesy of the Lowell Folk Festival.)

Magic Slim (photo courtesy of the Lowell Folk Festival.)

Admission to the Lowell festival is free, and a variety of ethnic delicacies and crafts are sold at the event. Street performers, family activities, and musician workshops are also part of the weekend.

For band schedules and other festival info, check online at

Summer Arts Weekend: Real Talk with Irma Thomas, The Soul Queen of New Orleans

By Bridgit Brown   |   Tuesday, July 24, 2012
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July 24, 2012

Irma Thomas, the Soul Queen of New Orleans (Photo:

When I told Irma Thomas, The Soul Queen of New Orleans that I had been on a soul music search for a very long time and was glad to finally meet her and get her take on what it actually was, she laughed at me.

“You’ll never find what you’re looking for because it doesn’t exist,” she said. “You’ll find it when you truly understand what it is.”

Now I wasn’t born just yesterday but I needed a bit of clarity on this one. “Soul is the gem of black American music,” I said and then repeated a phrase I’ve heard over the years about soul music. “It’s the ‘real’ thing,” I said.

“Soul,” she continued, “is the satisfactory feeling that you get from doing what you love. It has nothing to do with a genre of music, and everybody has it.”

I didn’t start out trying to take the conversation down this route at all, but since it was going there, I had to ask: “Then how did soul get its name in the first place?”

“I don’t mean to make this a conversation about race,” she said, “but what happened in the 1960s, when rhythm and blues and rock and roll were in their earliest stages and in order to separate black musicians from white musicians, DJs had to put titles on music and they started calling black folks’ music “soul”, but there is no such genre as soul–it is a feeling that’s connected to the person that is doing what they love to do and that’s the soul of it all. It’s in gospel, country, R&B, rock and roll, rap. It’s the soul of the music coming through.”

I guess I should have known this, seeing that I’m a soul music fan, but you live and you learn.

Irma Thomas was officially named the Soul Queen of New Orleans by Mayor Ray Nagin in 2007, but the title has been with the respected Grammy award-winning singer since her start in the recording industry, nearly 50 years ago. For refined soul, listen to her first song, “(You Can Have My Husband But) Don’t Mess With My Man” or “It’s Raining.” Both are pure, definable soul from the vocals to the piano to the tempo. And even though The Rolling Stones popularized the song “Time Is On My Side,” Thomas released it first; in fact just months before their version was recorded. Hers is soulful; theirs is just as good but with a different feel It was common practice for songs to cross over from soul to rock and roll during the emergence of these two music forms.

Irma Thomas loves what she does, and this is why NPR featured her as one of its 50 Great Voices in 2010. “I get great joy seeing the looks on people’s faces when I sing what they like, when I know that they're feeling the song. Often times, when I’m allowed to, I take requests from my audience members instead of developing a set list of songs.”

What's your favorite Irma Thomas tune? She just might sing it for you this Friday during her performance at Boston Summer Arts Weekend, Friday, July 27 at 9:15pm on the Main Stage in Copley Plaza.

About the Authors
Bridgit Brown Bridgit Brown
Bridgit Brown is a graduate of the MFA program in Creative Writing at Emerson College ('98). She was a Fulbright Lecturing and Research Scholar in Cote d'Ivoire, West Africa, and her writing has appeared in the Boston Globe, Boston Herald, Bay State Banner, Color Magazine, Black Perspectives Now, Colorlines of Architecture, Exhale Magazine, Ibbetson Street Magazine, and Somerville Review.
Kris Wilton Kris Wilton
Kris is a freelance arts journalist who has contributed reported pieces and reviews to outlets including the Huffington Post,,, Modern Painters, Art+Auction, Art New England, New England Home, Entertainment Weekly, the Village Voice,, ARTnews, Philadelphia Weekly, Emerging Photographer, Photo District News, and RL Magazine.
Scott McLennan Scott McLennan
Scott McLennan is a music correspondent for the Boston Globe and former entertainment columnist for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. His work as taken him from the Newport Folk Festival to the New England Metal and Hardcore Festival and many musical points in between. Scott also writes about skiing for Hawthorn Publications.


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