Spring jazz concert brings swingin’ sounds to peninsula

Caribbean dreams

Posted: Thursday, May 11, 2006

Judging by types the concerts typically pitched by the Performing Arts Society, one may imagine the group as one populated by classical music fans who promote classical music shows for other classical music fans.

Well, it is and they do. But that isn’t all they do.

This year will see the group’s fourth foray in jazz with a season-closing cabaret-style show, featuring the sounds of the Anchorage-based John Damberg Latin Jazz Quintet.

“Our group does try to bring a variety of music to the peninsula,” said Dick Troeger, the show’s co-producer. “It’s mostly classical, but we try to mix it up with a little jazz in the spring.”

The jazz-and-dance mixer complete with hors d’oeuvres and a no-host beer and wine bar is a good way to loosen up and prepare for green-up, he said.

“It’s kind of a night club setting, very informal,” Troeger said. “You can dance if you want, or just sit back and listen.”

He also pointed out that the cabaret concert has grown in popularity over its three-year history.

Concertgoers who attended the first three shows are in for an entirely different sort of swing, however. The first three shows had the Melissa Jazzmom Fischer Quartet, a group fronted by Anchorage vocalist/pianist Melissa Bledsoe-Fisher playing jazz standards with a contemporary feel.

This year, calypso will be the order of the evening.

Damberg, a University of Alaska Anchorage percussion instructor, composer and longtime performer, brings the sounds of salsa, the steel drums of the Caribbean and the Latin swing of South and Central America to bear with his group. The Quintet also features UAA flute instructor Laura Koenig, guitarist Mark Manners, bassist Dirk Westfall and drummer Cameron Cartland.

Damberg’s flair for Latin rhythms has a long history. Since 1985, Damberg has been from Miami and Los Angeles to as far south as Caracas, Venezuela, on cruise ships as a performer or tour director.

His time on the ships not only helped hone his improvisational talents on the vibes, steel drums and marimba, but it also gave him the chance to visit the regions from which the intoxicating, danceable rhythms came. At every stop, there was music to be heard, he said.

“Wherever I go, I’m always into the music thing,” he said, pointing to exposure to Caribbean sounds from his parents as a cause for the fascination fueling his musical career.

“I’ve always been a rhythm buff, so when you think about it, that kind of music, the rhythm is the foundation of everything else that goes on with the music.”

Which is not to say that the Quintet sticks to Latin jazz standards — during performances or in the studio. A collection of

Damberg’s songs called “Angie’s Samba,” was released in 1998 and last August, the quintet released “JoMaLa Jazz ‘Azure,’” a CD with original songs from both Damberg and Manners.

The new disc, he said, showcases the work of the group’s three long-term members, Damberg, Manners and Koenig, who now have 10 years of performing together from which to draw on. Manners and Damberg wrote the songs and Koenig’s improvisational skills added depth to the compositions.

“(JoMaLa”) sort of ranges from calypso to funk to a couple of jazz waltzes, there are some straight-ahead swing things, there’s three or four funk tunes, a hip-hop tune ... it’s really a collaboration.”

The show should play out with about three-quarters original songs and one-quarter cover tunes, but it won’t be predictable.

“As far as the repertoire, nobody else does what we do,” Damberg said. “So many groups that do jazz, they just do the standards, which is OK, but you just end up doing the same thing all the time.”

Another reason the salsa is fresh for the Quintet is the variety of musical life lessons brought to the group and the music they make by the group members. California-born Koenig comes with experience performing in Australia and England. Manners is a veteran performer on the country and rock circuit with a lifelong interest in jazz and jazz performance and a large stable of guitar students to keep him on his toes. Westfall is a jazz pro who put in time with the U.S. Air Force Academy’s Falconaires Jazz Ensemble, and Cartland is a former student of Damberg’s hand-picked for the group.

The members have something in common, Damberg said, that helps each contribute: they’ve all jumped through what Damberg calls “the four stages of musical development.” The first stage is learning how to play the instrument; the second is finding heroes to emulate; and the third is about putting in performance time. The last stage opens the doors to true artistic expression, he said.

“The fourth stage is taking all this knowledge you’ve garnered and using your own sense of creativity to make music of your own,” he said.

The John Damberg Latin Jazz Quintet performs at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Kenai Merit Inn. Tickets are $35 and available at River City Books, Sweeney’s Clothing and Northcountry Fair in Soldotna and Already Read Books, Charlotte’s Restaurant and the Kenai Merit Inn in Kenai.

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