Bassist Richard Davis' star power should draw a big crowd to Isthmus Jazz Fest at the UW Memorial Union June 20-21, but the event is also a chance to celebrate other acts that keep the genre alive close to home and around the world.
The free fest kicks off Friday on the Terrace with a performance by the High School All Stars (4:30 p.m.), some of the area's best and brightest young players. Next is a set by Caravan Gypsy Swing Ensemble (6 p.m.), a guitar-driven act that follows in the footsteps of gypsy jazz legend Django Reinhardt. A talented trombonist leads the Darren Sterud Orchestra (8 p.m.), which includes local stars like Johannes Wallmann on keys and Rob Dz on vocals. Closing out Friday's Terrace lineup, the 11-piece Madisalsa (10 p.m.) specializes in dance-friendly Latin jazz forms like mambo, bomba and merengue.
There will be two sets indoors at the newly renovated Fredric March Play Circle on Friday. Emeritus UW music professor and avant-garde pianist Joan Wildman (7 p.m.) is Madison jazz royalty. A consummate composer and performer, she will present adventurous new material with a quartet. Bring your own instrument to the Madison Jazz Jam (9 p.m.), a chance for improvisers of all levels to wow the crowd.
Saturday's lineup on the Terrace begins with big band ensembles from Madison College (noon), Edgewood College (1:30 p.m.) and UW-Whitewater (2:45 p.m.). Vocalist extraordinaire Jan Wheaton (4 p.m.) celebrates 50 years on Madison's jazz scene, where she's distinguished herself with stylish interpretations of standards.
Saturday in the Fredric March Play Circle, pianist Dave Stoler (9 p.m.) displays his elegant touch in a trio setting. And the New Breed Jam Session (10:45 p.m.), imported from the Cardinal Bar, features bassist Nick Moran, pianist Paul Hastil and percussionist Michael Brenneis.
-- Jessica Steinhoff
Expect a dramatic performance from UW Jazz Orchestra on Saturday when it teams up with daring trumpeter Vern Sielert on the Terrace (6 p.m.). In addition to teaching at the University of Idaho, Sielert has performed with the Illinois Symphony and the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra.
Tenor saxophonist Frank Catalano, performing Saturday at the Terrace (9:30 p.m.), thinks like both a jazzman and a rock star. This talent has led to gigs with Destiny's Child, Carlos Santana and Wilco, among others. The Chicago-based artist's 2008 album, Bang!, features groovy hip-shakers like "Damn Right" and mood-setting romantic numbers like "My One and Only Love." In concert, he might also draw on Topics of Conversation, an in-the-works project with drummer Paul Wertico of the Pat Metheny Group. Catalano says each song on Conversation is completely improvised and "represents a mood or cityscape."
Jazz pianist Willie Pickens has stirred hearts and minds over the past five decades, starting with an appearance on Eddie Harris' 1961 record Exodus. This opportunity opened the doors to gigs with history-makers like Marian McPartland and Elvin Jones. Whether he's covering a Billy Strayhorn classic like "Lush Life" or delivering a gospel-inspired version of "Here I Am Lord," his playing is impressive and impassioned. A Chicago public school teacher turned Northern Illinois University professor, he clearly wants to pay it forward. Watch for this generosity of spirit on Saturday at the Wisconsin Union Theater's Shannon Hall, when he performs the headlining concert with bassist Richard Davis (7:30 p.m.).
-- Brian Palmer