by Lisa A. Chase
photos Maurice D. Robertson
Paul Brown must have been smiling down on Bushnell Park as Kitty Kathryn and the Paul Brown Tribute Ensemble kicked off the Monday Night Jazz Series’ 50th anniversary celebration. Accompanied by Norman Gage on baritone sax, Alex Nakhimovsky at the piano, James Daggs on bass and drummer Michael Scott, Jr. driving the rhythm, Kathryn stylized memorable jazz standards including “Mean to Me,” “I Got It Bad,” “Just Friends” and “Foolin’ Myself.” The band’s musical chemistry and tight harmonies were a vivid reminder of just how deeply Paul Brown influenced a generation of Hartford musicians. Kathryn invited the crowd to sing along with the band’s encore performance, a rendition of the ever-popular “Personality.” A co-founder of Monday Night Jazz and longtime Middletown resident, Kathryn’s satiny melodies reminded everyone why she’s one of Connecticut’s musical gems.
A “half-time” ceremony featured Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin commemorating the Jazz Series’ 50-year mark and presenting Brown’s daughter, Cherie C. Brown-Gonsalves, with the city’s letter of recognition. For the headlining act, trumpeter Haneef Nelson took the stage with the Paul Brown Legacy Band, with jazz legend Bill Saxton just off stage, waiting to join as the featured tenor saxophonist. The band’s repertoire, including jazz standards and Nelson’s original compositions, showcased the considerable talents of Frank Kozyra on tenor sax, pianist Zaccai Curtis, bassist Matt Dwonszyk and Ben Billelo on drums. From Kozyra’s silky tenor notes to Billelo’s snapping drum rhythms, Curtis’ impeccable agility at the piano and Dwonszyk coaxing deep tones from the bass, the band embodied the best of Brown’s musical spirit. The Miles Davis showpiece “Milestones” and Nelson’s composition “Cloudy Visions” displayed band members’ versatility as both solo artists and tightly-connected ensemble players.
When Saxton joined the band for “Speak Low,” the electricity of his tenor saxophone’s dark, low-register notes was palpable. “The Way You Look Tonight” featured Saxton with Dwonszyk and Billelo, followed by “Sail Away,” and Saxton’s energetic rendition of “You Stepped Out of a Dream” with Curtis, Billelo and Dwonszyk. The final performance of one of Thelonius Monk’s classics was a fitting tribute to Brown, with tenor saxophonist and recent Hartt School graduate Mike Casey joining Saxton and the band. A direct beneficiary of Brown’s mentorship, Casey studied under Brown at the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts. The bright energy of Casey’s playing vividly illustrated why fostering young jazz talent is Brown’s – and the Monday Night Jazz Series’ – greatest legacy. As the audience sat transfixed under the light rain falling over Bushnell Park, Gonsalves’ declaration that “jazz brings everyone together” could not have rung more true.