Pittsfield CityJAZZ Festival returns with Grammy-winning bassist McBride, singer Swift

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PITTSFIELD — About five years ago, Christian McBride's annual residency at Village Vanguard in New York City was extended from one week to two.

"It gave me the option and the privilege, frankly, to experiment with different groups," the six-time Grammy Award-winning jazz bassist told The Eagle by phone Wednesday.

One of those collectives became New Jawn, the quartet featuring Josh Evans on trumpet, Marcus Strickland on saxophone and Nasheet Waits on drums. Since 2015, McBride has been playing with the group, which will cap Berkshires Jazz Inc.'s 14th annual Pittsfield CityJAZZ Festival. There will be a twist: Waits is unavailable, so drummer Billy Hart has agreed to fill in for the 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 13, show at The Colonial Theatre.

"It's wonderful a jazz legend lives like five blocks away from me," McBride said of Hart.

McBride isn't one to shun new configurations. By 2015, he had been playing with his trio and his quintet, Inside Straight, for the previous four years and was ready for a change.

"Those groups had very distinctive sounds. I don't want to say I had enough of that sound because that would sound too dire, [and] I still love playing with each of those groups," he said. "But there was another kind of group, maybe a more raw, sort of abstract group that I was looking to play with."

He had a sound in his head.

"That sound was without a piano," he said.

The Pittsfield concert will feature almost exclusively original music from the group. It precedes the release of New Jawn's eponymous debut record on Oct. 26. A big band of students from Herberg Middle School and Reid Middle School will open for the quartet. The show closes out a jazz lineup in Pittsfield's Upstreet Cultural District that spans multiple weekends, beginning Friday, Oct. 5, with "Jazz About Town." The three-day "jazz crawl" will feature a steady stream of local jazz musicians performing at restaurants and other district venues. While Mission Bar + Tapas, for instance, now regularly hosts jazz acts, North Street wasn't always kind to the genre before the first festival in 2005, according to festival chairman Edward Bride.

"You could go weeks without hearing live music in downtown Pittsfield. And you could go months without hearing live jazz," said Bride, who also serves as the president of Berkshires Jazz Inc. "So, we'd like to think we started something."

The organization doesn't measure success solely by attendance.

"If we were only seeking to have more people in the seats, there are a lot of safe choices that we could make," Bride said.

In other words, the festival attempts to get creative with its lineup, not just aiming for big-name performers. McBride's philosophy is similar when he curates the Newport Jazz Festival, one of the most prominent jazz festivals in the world. The festival has booked major acts that suggest a broad interpretation of jazz, but McBride also makes sure to land a healthy dose of those who don't deviate from jazz's roots.

"You have your big-name ticket people, but in the middle of all that, you have to present some people that represent the best of jazz," said McBride, who succeeded the legendary George Wein after assuming his current artistic director position in 2016.

Veronica Swift may soon fall into both categories. The 24-year-old jazz singer had been scheduled to perform at last year's CityJAZZ Festival before she was invited to tour with trumpeter Chris Botti instead. The past year has been spent performing with similarly acclaimed artists. At 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 12, she'll open the weekend of headliners with the Berkshires Jazz All-Star Trio, belting at The American Legion on Wendell Avenue.

"I think [she] is going to be the next big thing in jazz," Bride said.

The New York City-based Swift is excited to get a second straight invitation to the festival, which her mother, jazz singer Stephanie Nakasian, has participated in previously. Swift said that appearing with Botti on PBS was one of the highlights of the intervening year.

"I'm just getting to perform with legends, and they treat me like one of the cats," she said.

The festival has helped launch other careers with its annual Jazz Prodigy concert.

"The idea there is to present a young talent that probably few people, if any, have ever heard of," Bride said, noting that the chosen artists haven't recorded commercially.

Gabriel Severn will play at this year's concert, set for 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 10, at the Berkshire Athenaeum. The 13-year-old electric bassist is inspired by Jaco Pastorius, playing the "Havona" solo in a popular YouTube video two years ago.

Today, hip-hop, rock and electronica are influencing many up-and-coming jazz musicians, according to McBride.

"I find that there are a lot of groups that are incorporating that. That's not new; that's what every generation does. They embrace the popular music of their generation, and they blend it into the traditional music," the bassist said.

McBride can appreciate the power of attending a festival that showcases both new and traditional sounds. In the mid-1980s, he watched Miles Davis and B.B. King at Philadelphia's Mellon Jazz Festival, the first festival he recalls ever attending. At the event, he saw double bassist Slam Stewart play just months before his death.

"That was a thrill," he said.

CityJAZZ Festival officially ends with a jazz brunch at Dottie's Coffee Lounge on Sunday, Oct. 14; the establishment will also host a jazz brunch on Oct. 7.

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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