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A Broadway Star Glistens at the Litchfield Jazz Festival

By Sarah Ellen Rindsberg

cebIt’s summertime and the living is easy. The opportunity to hear top quality jazz is also easy, thanks to the presence of the Litchfield Jazz Festival. From August 9 - 11, notes of bebop, flamenco, gospel, and a slew of other styles will fill the air with the sounds of jivey music. The headliner for the Friends of the Festival opening night gala, and sparkling introduction to the eclectic mix ahead, is Christine Ebersole, star of screen and stage. This two-time Tony award winner — for performances in 42nd Street and, most notably, Grey Gardens —  is a gifted, versatile singer and actor. When she takes the stage at the gala, Ebersole will actually be assuming one of her first roles — that of a jazz singer. When she was twenty years old, studying at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City (under the tutelage of Marty Henne), Ebersole began singing at several jazz clubs including Jimmie Daniels and Gypsy.

eber“Christine Ebersole has one of those instruments that is a composer’s dream. She can effortlessly shift from lyrical soprano to brassy belt, swingin’ jazz and everything in between. The perfect blend of technique and innate musicianship,” says musical theater composer Scott Frankel, who wrote her star role as “Little” Edie Beale in Grey Gardens specifically tailored to her versatility. Ebersole’s affinity for a life of song began early on. She has a recording of herself singing the chorus of “Jingle Bells” at the age of three. Her mother’s voice is heard saying, “Let Christine sing the chorus.” “It’s completely on pitch,” Ebersole says, proudly. Her first big break came while she was working as a waitress at The Lion’s Rock in Manhattan. “I went from waiting tables to Broadway, quite a humbling experience.”

This singer grew up listening to the music of Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, Marian Anderson, and Joni Mitchell. Today, the selections on her iPod are “pretty wide-reaching.” They include but are not limited to:  “Amadeus,” “Porgy and Bess,” Stacey Kent, Romero Lubambo, and Tower of Power. As for Chet Baker: “He’s a big influence on me,” is Ebersole’s assessment.

weinsteinEbersole’s act in the jazz festival is a byproduct of her collaboration with the violinist Aaron Weinstein (at left, picture by Steven Sussman courtesy of LJF)). In 2009, they were both invited to perform at a private party in the south of France. Afterward, during a visit to Paris, they developed a quick repartee, still evident in their playing and clever conversation. In 2011, Weinstein came up with the idea for their current show, “Strings Attached!”  “Aaron’s idea was to use the voice as an instrument, to be compatible as instrumentation,” Ebersole says.

In choosing the songs for their repertoire, Weinstein compiled a comprehensive list of titles which he felt would fit the bill. At Ebersole’s home in New Jersey, they discussed the choices and narrowed them down to the ideal set. The process was a revelation to Ebersole, who was delighted to learn several new songs. “Aaron opened up a whole ‘nother level of music appreciation, another vista, a place I had never been to before,” she muses. 

The festival takes place in a bucolic setting on the fairgrounds in Goshen, Connecticut. Whether seated on the lawn or underneath the tent, the acoustics are heavenly. Picnickers are welcome to bring their own spread or choose from a delicious menu offered by local purveyors including Lalibela Ethiopian Cuisine and The Bistro Box. Libations from Olde Burnside Brewing Company will be on tap.

cohenA hallmark of the festival is the opportunity to hear outstanding, undiscovered voices in addition to established entities. When Diana Krall appeared in 1996, she had no following. Today, she is a superstar. “We’ve formed a reputation for introducing young musicians who then turn out to be stars in the jazz scene,” Lindsey Turner, director of public relations and marketing, notes.

Turner scouts talent at jazz clubs in New York City. After hearing pianist Emmet Cohen (above right), she invited him to play at the home of one of the festival’s board members. This musician, who placed third in the 2011 Thelonius Monk International Piano Competition, is the opening act for the gala on the evening of August 9.

chetThe genres of jazz played throughout the weekend run the gamut from the Chet Baker Project with June Bisantz (at left, courtesy of LJF) to the Eddie Palmieri Latin Jazz Band. As Turner points out, just as all operas are not Wagnerian, jazz comes in all sorts of tones, with one or more guaranteed to please even the most discerning palate. The line-up includes: artist-in-residence Gary Smulyan (below), Gregory Porter, The Val Ramos Flamenco Ensemble, Papo Vazquez Mighty Pirates Troubadours, and the Don Braden Quartet.

garyIn addition to live music, the festival will also include live art which will incorporate a quintessential characteristic of jazz: improvisation. On Saturday, graffiti artist Ryan Christensen will create a jazz-inspired mural on the fairgrounds. Artists and artisans will also appear, displaying their wares. Works will include jazz-themed sculpture, prints, and photography. The festival’s Visual Artist-in-Residence: Danielle Mailer, daughter of Norman Mailer, will be showing her metal sculpture and paintings.

Altogether a variety of ingredients for one sassy weekend indeed.

Litchfield Jazz Festival
August 9 - 11
Goshen Fairgrounds
Goshen, CT

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