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‘Jazz Along the Charles’ Review: Remake, Retrospect, and Reunion

The Zoe Murphy Collective performs at “Jazz Along the Charles” on Oct. 7.
The Zoe Murphy Collective performs at “Jazz Along the Charles” on Oct. 7. By Courtesy of Robert Torres/Celebrity Series of Boston
By Cindy Zhang, Contributing Writer

25 jazz groups performing the same songs at the same time in the rain is both an exceptionally rare sight, and one recently present at “Jazz Along the Charles.” On Oct. 7, the Charles River Esplanade hosted “Jazz Along the Charles,” a free jazz event open to all, with more than 100 musicians playing a Boston-inspired set list of music composed by women. The set list was co-curated by Zahili Zamora — a pianist, composer, and assistant professor at Berklee College — and saxophonist and composer Ken Field.

With songs such as Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car,” Berklee College of Music alumna Esperanza Spalding’s “I Know You Know,” Nnenna Freelon’s “Circle Song,” and “Last Dance,” which was popularized by Donna Summer, this uplifting afternoon showcased the vibrancy of Boston’s jazz scene. The world got to experience the first performance of “Bay Warriors” by Terri Carrington, a Medford native and three-time Grammy winner. A sudden rain greeted the start of the song, but the audience’s zeal was undiminished. As part of the commission, Carrington created the song to honor the resiliency of Bostonians today while acknowledging the history of Massachusetts when it comes to the struggles faced by Indigenous people. Her work further brought attention to female artists and their connections with Boston.

The Charles River as the place for this jazz event also garnered a certain appeal. Jen Mergal — the James & Audrey Foster Executive Director of the Esplanade Association — noted that even Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect behind the initial sections of the esplanade, expressed in his 1886 plan for Boston’s parks that the primary objective of a park is to evoke an effect akin to music.

Jazz has not traditionally been a space for women, and the curators made it clear that they wanted to improve the representation of female composers and musicians from Boston, particularly those who are well-known in history. One example was through various performances of “Fast Car,” the first single from Tracy Chapman’s self-titled debut album, which earned her a Grammy in 1989 for best female pop vocal performance, as well as nominations for record and song of the year. She pursued her studies at Tufts University and launched her career in Boston. Different bands breathed new life into this song’s longing to escape. The beauty of this project was certainly the dialogue between multiple subgenres of music. The Women in World Jazz project were also among the female artists featured at the gathering, introducing the compositions of female composers, poets, and lyricists from around the globe.

In addition, the set list featured Havard students and alumni. One of the hits, “Willow Weep for Me,” was composed by Ann Ronell, a songwriter and lyricist who graduated from Radcliffe College in 1927. Ronell was struck by the beauty of the willow trees on campus as a student, an impression that inspired her aforementioned and most well-known song. Julian A. Miltenberger ’22, a Harvard alum who was a part of the Harvard/Berklee dual degree program, performed as a drummer and composer from the J.P. Heston Quartet. At Harvard, Julian studied the relationship between folkloric Afro-Cuban drumming traditions and creative music in the U.S. under the guidance of his mentor Yosvany Terry.

Jazz has a reputation for being experimental, wide-ranging, and unrestrained. Mirroring this aspect of jazz, attendees had the freedom to explore the event however they liked. Taking a stroll along the Charles River, one could appreciate the soothing sounds of the saxophone wafting away and find moments of contentment, for instance. As the progressive acoustic string band Acoustic Nomads performed the “Circle Song,” the audience was seen swaying to the beat. Their joy radiated, making the Saturday afternoon shine. The bands also, at times, improvised. This event provided an atmosphere where anyone could feel welcome to take part in, experiment, and explore.

What makes this event especially valuable was the opportunity for people to come together and create positive, shared moments. All the way through the two-hour performance, each band played a song of their own selection and thanked the crowd for attending. Each of them promised to meet the audience again next year.

The celebrated “Jazz Along the Charles” was an excellent illustration of the cultural legacy and the vibrant music community found in Boston. It was amazing to witness the variety this city holds, with musicians of all ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds coming together out of a shared passion for music.

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