If you’ve ever wondered what’s meant by the “Boston jazz scene,” this is your weekend to find out. On Sunday, from 2 to 4 p.m., 25 separate ensembles will be playing at different locations along the Charles River Esplanade, for free, as part of the Celebrity Series of Boston’s Public Performance Art Initiative. The bands will encompass as broad as possible a notion of what constitutes “jazz” — from swing and bebop to funk, New Orleans brass band, Afro-Latin, and avant-garde.
“We liked the idea that the project could highlight the very rich, rich history of jazz,” showing both “the range and diversity of jazz but also the range and diversity of musicians we have here in Boston,” says Celebrity Series executive director Gary Dunning. The event, he says, continues the organization’s desire “to provide projects that engage the public and invite them to participate in a unique way.”
In the past that’s meant events like the popular “Street Pianos Boston” (2013 and 2016) and “Let’s Dance Boston” (2015 and 2017). But there’s a difference: Those events were truly participatory, inviting passersby to sit at any of dozens of pianos placed all over town, or to join in a variety of free dance lessons. “Jazz Along the Charles” is not an open jam session, which, in any case, would be difficult to organize on the scale that the Celebrity Series envisioned.
Instead the bands have been asked to play, in sequence, a curated set list of compositions that all have some Boston link. That means 25 bands playing the same 16 songs, more or less simultaneously. (Each ensemble has the option to play a final song of their own in each of the two nine-song sets.) That concept led to the event’s subtitle: “A Walkable Concert.”
“[This] turned the normal concert experience around,” says Dunning, “where you might go to a venue and sit in your seat and watch various performers come onstage and go offstage.” Instead, the audience is mobile, moving through the “concert” at their own pace. And whereas in a conventional music festival, listeners have multiple options among many stages, in this case, bands and styles will change, but the songs will remain the same.
“You can experience the concert in 25 different ways,” says Dunning. And “if you have the legs for it,” he says, you can keep walking the loop for two hours.
The selection of songs was left to Ken Field, longtime Boston musician, radio host, and leader of the progressive New Orleans-inspired Revolutionary Snake Ensemble (who are not playing the event). Consulting the collective encyclopedic knowledge of fellow WMBR radio hosts John Pollack and Brother Wayne and Outpost 186 impresario Rob Chalfen, Field came up with a list in which each song has a Boston connection by virtue of “title, composer, or backstory,” and presents possibilities for improvisation. It has also meant a diversity of eras and styles. So Duke Ellington’s “I Got It Bad (and That Ain’t Good)” qualified because it was a feature for Cambridge-born Johnny Hodges, as do Boston band Morphine’s “The Night” and the Standells’ “Dirty Water.” (The complete set list, and Field’s program notes, are available at the Celebrity Series website.)
Each musician is puzzling out the set list in his or her own way. Eric Hofbauer, playing solo guitar, said that some tunes — like “Dirty Water” or James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James” — provide the most freedom because jazz musicians rarely, or never, play them. “They’re wide-open canvases,” he says. He’s found the greatest challenge in canonical pieces like “I Cover the Waterfront,” because “I want to break them out of the conventional jazz-guitar stuff.”
The singer Monica Pabelonio says that she was more challenged by pieces like Benny Carter’s 1946 “Back Bay Boogie,” because it didn’t fit her quartet’s more modern approach. On the other hand, she was gratified for the chance to rearrange Chelsea-native Chick Corea’s “500 Miles High,” a song she knew well but has never performed. As for “Dirty Water,” she says, “We thought it would be fun to stick with the original interpretation.”
The simultaneous set list concept potentially shifts the conventions of “jazz concert” into the realm of performance art. “The reality,” says Field, “is that no single audience member will be able to experience all 25 bands playing the same tune.” Still, audiences get a chance to hear esteemed veterans like Tim Ray, Charlie Kohlhase, and Yoron Israel, along with relative newcomers like Pabelonio.
For Dunning, the event is about Boston and jazz, and also about the nature of performance. “If we can introduce audiences to a different way of looking and seeing and hearing things, then I think we’re pursuing our mission.”
Jazz Along the Charles
Sept. 23, 2-4 p.m. Free. Charles River Esplanade, Boston. 617-482-2595, www.celebrityseries.org