Rhythm, blues and all that Jasssz
As founding drummer of the Allman Brothers Band, Jai Johanny Johanson - affectionately called Jaimoe - has performed at hundreds of music festivals all over the world.
But when he and his Jaimoe's Jasssz Band play a headlining set Sunday at Mystic Shipyard West as part of the inaugural Mystic Blues Festival, it'll mark only the third time in his career he's gigged in the region.
"It's strange because I've lived on the other side of Connecticut for 22 years and like it (in the southeastern part of the state)," Jaimoe says. "It's nice. But I've only played there a few times, at the Garde in New London and at Mohegan Sun with (Allman Brothers guitarist) Derek (Trucks). Those are beautiful venues and beautiful areas. I think this festival is a great idea."
Other acts headlining the event - which takes place today through Sunday at a variety of venues throughout Mystic, Westerly, Groton and Stonington - include Grand Marshal James Cotton and his Superharp Band, Jim Weider and PRoJECT PERoLAToR, the James Montgomery Band, Johnny Nicholas and Hell Bent, Sugar Ray & the Bluetones and Roomful of Blues. (See mysticbluesfestival.com for a comprehensive schedule of bands, venues, and ticket options.)
Though it's called Jaimoe's Jasssz Band, suggesting a pun on the original spellings of "jazz," the outfit plays a dizzying amalgam of musical styles that emphasizes the expansive parameters of blues-based music - which include soul and R&B, country, rock and, yes, jazz.
"Jazz is American music - but so is the blues, and all the music that came after blues is somehow related to it," Jaimoe says.
When he formed the Jasssz Band, Jaimoe wasn't looking for particular musicians; he wanted a particular sound. He says, "I knew I wanted a trumpet and sax, and I knew I wanted players that could go in a lot of directions - or, basically, any direction I felt like going in at any time."
Having played with so many artists over the years, Jaimoe ultimately fleshed out his dream band with keyboardist Bruce Katz, bassist Dave Stoltz and horn/reed men Kris Jensen, Reggie Pittman and Paul Lieberman.
But it all came together when Jaimoe ran across a lesser-known soul guitarist/singer named Junior Mack - whose voice and style imprinted the versatile group with a distinct R&B flair. Their debut album, "Reniassaince Man," is a showcase of stunningly played and infectious American music.
"They're a perfect fit for Mystic Blues and what we're trying to do," festival co-founder Chris Leigh says. "A lot of people have a preconceived idea of 'blues' - that it's pretty narrow - but it's much more than that."
Indeed, while the core of blues music is based around the idea of a 12-bar, I-IV-V chord structure, that general template over the years has become a bouncy theoretical trampoline that suggests all sorts of tangents and explorations. As such, forms like boogie-woogie, jazz-blues, Western swing, Delta blues, jump blues, R&B, gospel blues and swamp blues have evolved. Similarly, core blues are also distinguished by specific sounds and styles indigenous to cities and regions: Chicago blues, Memphis blues, Texas blues, St. Louis blues, Detroit blues, Kansas City blues, Louisiana blues and West Coast blues - just to name a few.
And while all of these forms will not be represented at Mystic Blues, a nice variety of styles will.
Leigh explains, "Originally, we had an across-the-board wish list of people I wanted to invite. We drew up an itinerary and started asking if artists were interested. You have to consider budget, travel, venues, set times and so on. Confirmations and maybes start coming in, and you have to redraw the schedule a half a dozen times. But once the contracts started getting signed, we realized we had some big names in a lot of styles."
Bob Christina, a seasoned musician with serious cred in the Westerly blues scene, was integral to acquiring talent, according to Leigh. "He's got tons of connections in the Rhode Island and New England blues scenes, and that was invaluable," Leigh says.
Part of the original idea of the festival, too, was to include local and regional artists and to give them an opportunity to share stages with touring stars. In that context, area musicians will not only have support slots for the big headlining shows but will also be on display at a variety of host venues/clubs.
Of course, in the true spirit of a multi-day/night event, Leigh says there will food trucks and refreshment possibilities, artist and festival merchandise kiosks, and a Saturday morning music workshop.
"Plus, one of the main inspirations for having the festival was for fans and visitors to enjoy Mystic and Westerly and the area communities - to get out and see our shops and restaurants as well as enjoy the music," he says.
HOW TO BUILD A BLUES FESTIVAL
While Chris and Amy Leigh are credited with the concept of the Mystic Blues Festival, Chris says the best luck they had was aligning themselves with creative, hardworking colleagues.
"I can't tell you how lost we'd have been without our amazing partners and volunteers," Chris says.
After discussing the festival in theoretical fashion for months, organizers held an initial meeting last December.
Chris says, "Jeff Marshall from Mystic Shipyard, Bill Dougherty from Olde Mistic Village Art Cinemas and Mark Connolly from the Knickerbocker were all there - along with several other business and civic leaders. And when we walked out, the whole thing was laid out. Obviously, we had to go get the artists. But the concept was there.
"I mean, within 12 hours, Courtney Moore (of Mystic advertising agency) CNB Creative came back with the logo. That's my advice: surround yourself with amazing people."
IF YOU GO
What: The First Annual Mystic Blues Festival
When: 5 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m. Saturday and Sunday
Where: Headliner venues are Mystic Shipyard West, 100 Essex St., Mystic; the Knickerbocker Cafe, 35 Railroad Ave., Westerly; and Olde Mistick Village Art Cinemas, 27 Coogan Blvd., Mystic. There are also several host venues throughout Mystic, Westerly, Stonington and Groton.
Tickets: $42.25 Fri. and Sun., $52.50 Sat. at Mystic Shipyard stage (Mystic Shipyard tickets must be purchased in advance); $25 Sat. and Sun. at Olde Mistick Village Art Cinemas stage; $42.50 Fri.-Sun. at Knickerbocker Cafe stage; several free show at various venues.
For a good cause: All festival profits after expenses benefit the Center for Home Hospice Care in Norwich and Home & Hospice Care of Rhode Island.
Important parking note: For concerts at Mystic Shipyard West, parking will be at Fitch Senior High School, 101 Groton Long Point Road, Groton - where you check in, get your bracelets, and take a shuttle.
For more information, complete schedules and venues: mysticbluesfestival.com
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