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Welcome to Philadelphia Jazz Project

It Is Electric

Written by: Sharon Chestnut


Ok, we all know it; That heady feeling when we recognize a tune but realize that it is about to be taken into an entirely different direction.  We listen, poised to enter a landscape, which, while familiar, will deliver new insights in the nature of sound and the mind where sound synchs up and if we are lucky, the human heart itself. We await the signal to move, to nod, tap or twitch  snap fingers in time with whatever pulse can be discerned and trusted ….  The tracks of a bass line or drum or left hand chords no less standard than rails which convey trains forward at high speed across some precarious turns to a new place on the map.

That feeling.. that tension…  as a line of melody is re-focused, suspended over a structure which will be violated again and again, and yet keep its integrity. That feeling is electric. Hearings this music in this mode requires an act of faith: on the part of the audience who must believe in order to keep listening, and likewise faith of those who keep time… the players whose mantra must always be.. “Yes I believe I believe that it this bird will soar.. that this will hold together…”  as the lines of the chart sweep us off the page, past the rules and right out the door ….opening up room for the imagination to work, play, whine, howl, taunt,  enhance and enchant.

That is Jazz.

That spirit was very much in evidence at the event held August 19th, at The Free Library, where the Philadelphia Jazz Project invited the audiences behind the curtain into the heart of a creative process to witness one of the most mysterious and intimate aspects of the art form:  the crafting of works in progress.

The programs title, DivaNation bespoke the somewhat remedial premise of  showcasing  “the diverse and developing community” of women singing Jazz in Philadelphia. Though gender was the framing device, the real business of DivaNation was to display and engage the broad range of options; moods, tone and character that vocal performance offers within the Jazz idiom. The singers gathered in from a dizzying array of backgrounds and ages and they delivered a sparkling array of surprises, mastery, and heartstopping brinkmanship.


Tuesday evening’s line up began with Lotus Barron a winsome young person whose capture of the “Whatever Lola Wants..” bore no evidence of the fact that she has just passed her 16th birthday. Her delivery was spot-on: matter of fact, bemused and more than bit ironic.  Wearing an almost demur yellow sheath, she radiated poised composure ..… an accomplished attractive woman informing the object of her desire that he has no fate beyond surrender to her intentions..  Vocally she is already sophisticated… able to color and control her instrument without apparent  effort. And her sense of fun is very feminine and appealing… rendering the usual fierce, sexually vampish overtones totally yesterday and even a bit sad by comparison.  This Lotus will get what she wants we are assured and she will do so without the fleshly  exhibitionism of a dominatrix … or a pop icon.  One can only marvel at what her life will look like as she advances her gifts….  It will be a wonder to watch.  But one of the evenings biggest surprises came during the Q & A when she disclosed that she had only recently discovered that the stage was her natural home.

At the other end of the spectrum, was Ella Gahnt - a seasoned, glowing veteran whose fluid vivisection of the 1980 Police hit, “I’ll Be Watching You,” exposed the bones of Sting's lyrics.

Again and again singers stepped forward, delivered goods which were vibrant, patently distinct… and often represented a significant step outside their personal comfort zone.  

Whether it was acapella artist, Bethlehem Roberson, finding her groove amongst piano accompaniment to deliver a searing kaliedoscopic rendition of Peggy Lee's, "Black Coffee."

Or the unique vocal quality of newcomer Liz Filantes.

Or Barbara Montgomery’s newest chart for a Maria Muldaur song about advice gleaned from Bessie Smith via dream visitation.

Or performance artist, Gretchen Elise bringing audience participation (a hallmark of her work) onto the stage and “collaborating” a number of the ladies into a backup choir  for her  quirky narrative about a girl quenching a thirst on a hot hot hot hot hot summer day...

Or  the absolutely riveting and performances of Jakeya Sanders and Saudah Al-Akbar, in all cases challenge and triumph nudged each other back and forth across the stage.. and in the process the beating heart of Jazz was laid bare for all to hear.

Brava Ladies.


DivaNation is Coming to Mandell Theater, September 12 and 13th.

For more details: Click here.


Sharon Chestnut is a veteran of studies in philosophy, fine art, theology and organizational dynamics. She has served professionally as teacher, organizer, project consultant and strategic planning gadfly. She writes in service of her lifelong vocation to raise awareness of demonstrable processes which engender creativity, fuel intellectual acumen and encourage spiritual growth.


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Tags : SharonChestnut DivaNation LotusBarron EllaGahnt Bethlehem BarbaraMontgomery LizFilantes GretchenElise JakeyaSanders SaudaAlAkbar DenaUnderwood KendrahButler MandellTheater


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