August Jazz Guide: Top picks for live jazz in Philly this month
Daniel Bennett Group | photo by Beatriz Ota

Who says jazz isn’t summertime music? Sure, the pickings are generally slim with most of the institutions that present the music in off-season hibernation until next month, but the August calendar is surprisingly loaded with enticing options. And while the genre can lean towards dark, formerly smoke-filled (still so in spirit) nightclub swing or cerebral avant-garde complexity, much of what’s happening this month is seasonally appropriate – maybe not quite the musical equivalent of beach reading (we can’t quite compete with the pop world for that), but still a bit breezier than the norm.

Case in point: the Daniel Bennett Group. The New York-based trio – saxophonist Bennett, guitarist Nat Janoff, and drummer Matthew Feick – will be performing two free shows in Philly this month celebrating the release of their latest album, Sinking Houseboat Confusion – one at the Philadelphia City Institute Library on August 8 and the second at Paris Bistro in Chestnut Hill on the 11th. The album title nicely captures the band’s quirky, cinematic eccentricity, which jolts their edging-on-avant sound off its axis with sudden shots of surf rock and buoyant folk. Bennett writes melodies that are as brain-naggingly catchy as anything you’ll hear on a festival stage this month, with an oddball sense of humor that’s rare on jazz bandstands.

Speaking of genres bleeding into one another, drummer Will Calhoun has made a career out of maintaining that fluidity. He’s of course best known as the man behind the kit for Living Colour, a band that burst into the Headbanger’s Ball consciousness via the back door of the NYC Downtown scene and the Black Rock Coalition. But jazz was Calhoun’s first love, and he’s recorded several recent albums that stick relatively straightforwardly to the genre. In August he’ll release Celebrating Elvin Jones, which obviously pays homage to the legendary drummer of the classic John Coltrane Quartet. He’ll veer back a bit on August 11 at Alma Mater, though, when he’ll bring his WMV Project to the Mt. Airy spot as the third edition of Modern Renaissance Jazz’s monthly series. The first two installments were both a blast, with Detroit barnburner James Carter blowing a raucous set to a packed crowd in June and Wycliffe Gordon charming a somewhat more intimate one in July. This show’s particularly special, though, as Calhoun will be joined by his Living Colour bandmate, guitarist Vernon Reid, and bassist Melvin Gibbs, a BRC veteran who played alongside Reid in drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson’s ground-breaking Decoding Society. This one should shred no matter what genre you might think it is.

A former child prodigy who has also taken a few stabs at head-bobbing pop songwriting, saxophonist Grace Kelly is a resolute crowd-pleaser. That sunny demeanor has landed her some high-profile TV gigs, including a recurring spot in Jon Batiste’s band for Stephen Colbert’s Late Show and a seat in the band for the Maya Rudolph-Martin Short variety show revival (if that’s still on). She’ll swing down to South for the weekend on August 12 and 13. If you’re looking for something a little meatier, Orrin Evans’ “What’s Happening Wednesdays” series continues through the month, highlighted by powerhouse drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts on August 24 and trombonist Reggie Watkins paying homage to his late mentor Jimmy Knepper on August 31.

No one does audience participation better than the Sun Ra Arkestra, who will take their cosmic caravan to Spruce Street Harbor Park, wrapping up the pop-up park’s concert series on August 25. 92-year old bandleader Marshall Allen always likes to take the interstellar big band on processionals through the crowd, so given the winding paths of Spruce Street’s urban beach, who knows where they’ll end up?

Finally, if you want to get into an ice cold swimming pool it’s best to just dive in, so why not get back into the more severe side of the music the same way? To close out the month and lead into the fall, Fire Museum returns from a monthlong hiatus at Da Vinci Art Alliance with Tipple, the trio of Norwegian saxophonist Frode Gjerstad and NY-based players Kevin Norton (drums/vibes) and David Watson (guitar/bagpipes). As is usual with Gjerstad’s ensembles, the trio practices an aggressive brand of improvisation, with an offbeat palette courtesy of Norton’s vibes and Watson’s bagpipes. They’ll headline a stacked bill with cellist Daniel Levin and the duo of sound artist Lea Bertucci and saxophonist Bhob Rainey.

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