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Litchfield Jazz Festival

Jazz's Mario Pavone Draws On Boyhood Memories For His Sounds

Waterbury-Born Master Musician Performing At Litchfield Jazz Festival With Nine-Piece Ensemble

By OWEN McNALLY

Special to The Courant

10:39 AM EDT, July 31, 2014

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What the taste of a small rich cake called a madeleine was for triggering a famous flood of memories in French novelist Marcel Proust's classic "Remembrance of Things Past," the sound of the accordion is for the celebrated, Waterbury-born, avant-garde jazz composer/bassist and bandleader Mario Pavone in his latest, groundbreaking CD, "Street Songs."

"I always wanted to do something with the accordion," Pavone explains in his new album's liner notes, "a reflection of my growing up in post WW II industrial Waterbury. I can still recall the sound of those Italian, Portuguese and Polish accordions — that front stoop music."

Pavone presents his memory-inspired, adventurous new work with his tightly knit nonet (nine-piece) ensemble at 1:45 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 10, a highlight of the star-studded Litchfield Jazz Festival. Celebrating its 19th season, the nationally acclaimed festival, whose varied lineup for 2014 ranges chronologically from the phenomenal, 24-year-old singer Cecile McLorin Salvant to the venerable, 79-year-old trombone titan Curtis Fuller, runs Aug. 8 through  10 on the Goshen Fairgrounds, Goshen.

At 73, Pavone, who's enjoying a long winning streak with his constantly varied, inventive recordings over the past decade, is at his creative peak. A master who has collaborated with not only groundbreaking luminaries like Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith and his first boss, Paul Bley, he also works regularly with a new generation of cutting-edge players like Tony Malaby and Gerald Cleaver. With his latest work, his project for the accordion called "Street Songs," Pavone lets his imagination play with memory. Memory is his vehicle for creating something fresh and alive by tapping into nostalgia for his early boyhood days as an Italian-American kid growing up in a loving, melting-pot neighborhood.

"It really did start as a memory thing," Pavone says of his decision, as a composer and arranger, to embrace the accordion sound, a concept inspired by that "front stoop music" of yesteryear.

While accordion is a mother lode for invention in tango music — most famously in the works of the Argentine composer and bandoneon player Astor Piazzolla —- and a vibrant source of joy in folk music, it is hardly the first instrument that pops into your mind in any word-association game with cutting-edge jazz.

But for Pavone, who loves to mix and match the instruments he composes for in his diverse ensembles, the magnetic appeal of the accordion was rooted, at least unconsciously, in his psyche going back to his boyhood days in Waterbury. That close encounter with street music occurred years before he'd get hooked on Miles Davis, John Coltrane and other jazz gods.

A late starter in jazz, he didn't fully discover and fall madly in love with the music until he was a freshman at UConn. What got him hooked was that he had a friend in a West Campus dormitory who had a roomful of vinyl jazz classics.

Given a key to this room, Pavone had 24/7 access to a treasure trove of modern jazz LPs that he listened to for hours.

In that formative freshman year at UConn — when he also heard Coltrane recording live at the Village Vanguard —- Pavone was set to study pharmacy, but eventually switched his major, earning his degree in industrial engineering.

Along with those evocative memories of sounds of accordion street music, the new CD comes complete with a vintage photo of Pavone, who's maybe 4 or 5 years old, posing by the Pavone family car parked in the driveway. It's an artifact recalling the deep Waterbury roots of a musician who has long since traveled the world and played famous venues.

During his childhood Waterbury was an industrial city, known universally as The Brass City.

"My uncle started a small electro-plating firm. My father became a master gold-plater for the space age industry. My uncle's small business fed into American Brass, Chase Brass and Copper, big Waterbury companies. Brass was everywhere. There were always these metal pieces lying around the house," Pavone says.

Except for a violin playing great-grandfather who lived in a small town outside of Rome, there weren't any working musicians in the family. And until Pavone was in his 20s and had made his lifetime commitment to jazz, it didn't seem that he'd become a professional musician.

At age eight, the future maestro had a short-lived encounter with studying the clarinet in elementary school. It didn't work out. As a kid of 14, he had a job at a pharmacy down the street from his house on Baldwin Street. Although it mostly meant jerking sodas and routine tasks, the part-time job was a preview of his initial but later thwarted plan to study pharmacy at UConn.

Musically, he got turned on to R&B while going to Waterbury's Leavenworth High School, a predominately black school where his African-American buddies hipped him to the real R&B.

Rich Childhood Influences

For young Pavone his neighborhood had everything, including a budding, older jazz guitar player and fellow Waterbury native named Joe Diorio, who lived nearby. Later in Pavone's young adult years, Diorio, who was by then an established player, encouraged him to pursue music as an instrumentalist rather than just as a devout listener. After hearing Diorio play in a Chicago jazz spot, Pavone was so inspired that upon returning home to Waterbury, he rented a double bass and took a couple lessons with Bertram Turetzky (a noted bass soloist/teacher).

Among many forever nurturing benefits from the Waterbury connection, Pavone met his future wife and love of his life, Mary, while both were going to the UConn branch in Waterbury.

Among the musical benefits, of course, was the "front stoop music," which may well have implanted the seeds for his adult artistic passion for diversity, freshness and spontaneity, lifetime hallmarks of his original music.

With his latest work, he has memorialized a vintage slice of Waterbury's urban and ethnic culture through the art of his signature, cutting-edge style, showcasing his original voice by performing with and writing for his own distinctive ensembles.

For the studio recording, Pavone leads a sextet whose offbeat instrumentation features the expressive Adam Matlock on accordion. And, in another step off the beaten path, the CD features not just one double bass, as you might ordinarily expect in a jazz group, but two, with Pavone joined by double bassist Carl Testa. It's a piece of Pavoneian string theory that doubles your pleasure by giving you twice as many double bass lines to contemplate.

"Street Songs," which is yet another landmark recording for Pavone on the progressive Playscape label, features nine of his original compositions with the maestro leading his sextet featuring himself and Testa on double bass; Dave Ballou, trumpet and flugelhorn; Peter Madsen, piano; Matlock, accordion; and Steve Johns, drums.

Pavone wrote the arrangements for five of the compositions, including an affecting piece called "The Dom," which, through his employment of dynamics and ascending and descending figures uses sound to stimulate memory. With its poetic play with the dreamy effects of approaching or receding sound, it's Pavone's well-seasoned, Proustian piece of a musical madeleine concocted to evoke rembrances of things past.

Pavone's pieces are witty dialogues crackling with fresh, mercurial ideas twisting and turning, starting and stopping, seasoned with lots of interplay and the serendipitous spirit of dance mixed with tension and release. Sometimes edgy, sometimes hypnotic, always very much alive, alternately mellow and upbeat, often mysterious, always wending down a dreamy garden path where surprises are guaranteed.

His total conversion to jazz at age 24, occurred at John Coltrane's funeral on a steamy summer's day in 1967 at St. Peter's Lutheran Church in midtown Manhattan. Emotionally, spiritually and musically charged, the funeral service has been called one of the most cosmically moving events in jazz history. It's what Pavone calls "a transformative experience."

"It was just this most moving thing. Everybody in the world was there. It was packed. Behind me were Albert Ayler playing and Ornette Coleman playing up in the balcony section. And up on the stage… you really couldn't get close to the altar because there were so many people packed in the church. It was so hot, and I believe it was an open casket.

"There definitely was the heat and an aura… The whole event seems very blurry and chaotic. Yet it's very spiritual in my mind and was deeply transforming. And that was it for me. I had left my brief case on the social service desk office. I never went back. There was no notice. I just said I quit."

A New Chapter Begins

Like being reborn, Pavone entered the jazz life, a kind of instant and total immersion followed by a life-long commitment.

"Within six months, I was touring in Europe with pianist Paul Bley…I didn't even know where C was on the A string. It was phenomenal, but I had great ears. Paul just said, 'You've got to come to Europe.' And that was it," says Pavone, a deeply modest man, especially so as his artistry becomes increasingly recognized.

Multi-faceted, Pavone is also a photographer and a painter. Over the years, he's designed a couple dozen album covers for Playscape, a much-respected Indie label founded by one of his many collaborators, the noted guitarist/composer Michael Musillami.

So for the Litchfield performance—or what Pavone calls the final incarnation of his living, breathing, evolving accordion project — he fields this starting nine: himself and Testa on double bass; Matlock, accordion; Matt Mitchell, piano; Steve Johns, drums; plus the four brass players, Dave Ballou, cornet and flugelhorn; Leise Ballou (Dave Ballou's wife), French horn; Peter McEachern, trombone; and Gary Buttery, tuba.

For all his challenging works' abstract qualities, plain, old-fashioned human emotion is still a crucial element in Pavone's artistry.

"It's virtually the raison d'etre for me. To me, the work starts with a feeling. So it's all feeling for me. I'm a modern composer, but everything is still measured for me against all my love and my experience in hearing that great era of music, say from 1955 to 1965, that I loved.

"I'm just one of those blessed, lucky persons in the world to have discovered jazz, and starting at a late age back then, to still think that I could do it. I'm humbled by the fact that I have been able to do it. And, with the support of my wife Mary, and being aggressive and ambitious myself, I'm just trying to keep it going."

For the Litchfield Jazz Festival's schedule, tickets and ticket prices go to litchfieldjazzfest.com or call 860-361-6285.