PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
April 22, 2008

Finding Common Ground

by Jim Newsom

When the Virginia Arts Festival added the Port Folio Weekly Music Series to its lineup in 2005, Editor Tom Robotham’s idea was to present music that crossed genres or knew no boundaries at all. This year’s series opener at the Granby Theater Thursday night certainly meets that criterion.

“It was an idea I had,” Joe Burgstaller told me in a recent telephone conversation, “to draw jazz and classical influences together, but not going too far left or too far right; to make it really accessible but really creative at the same time.”

The highly regarded trumpeter was talking about the Burgstaller-Martignon NYCrossover Quartet, the group he’ll be fronting here this week.

“That’s a long name I know!” he laughed. “Everyone who’s heard our new CD, that’s in the mixing stages right now, has just gone crazy over it.

“There’s a suite called Blue Mozart. About three years ago, when I wanted to put this together, I wondered what it would be like if we put arrangements of classical Mozart and read his poetry over it. Then we would do our jazz interpretations and rearrangements.

“Mozart was a prolific writer. He wrote volumes of letters and poems; I don’t think the guy ever slept! There were filthy poems, but of course I couldn’t use them in concert. But about five percent of them are Johnny Carson-esque humor, which is really what I love. That was when humor had so many different layers, it was sophisticated. And that’s what these Mozart poems are—sophisticated, multi-level humor.”

As part of Thursday night’s concert, Tom Robotham will read three of those poems over the quartet’s arrangements of Mozart material.

“He’ll read over the original classical,” Burgstaller explained, “then we’ll launch into the jazz versions.”

For many classically trained musicians, the thought of adding improvisation is daunting. Not so for Joe.

“I’ve been doing it since I was five,” he said. “I’m a ‘tweener’—most classical musicians think I’m a jazzer and most jazzers think I’m a classical musician. This vexed me for years, but I decided to just embrace it. And that was an impetus for starting this group. I wanted to have a forum where I got to do all the things that I didn’t get to do anywhere else. And I wanted to take the audience along for the ride.

“If you’re going to have a public conversation with 3,000 people every night, you better find some common ground that you’re both passionate about, albeit from different viewpoints. You have to find a way to present it in a way that the audience can really love what you’re presenting. You have to take them on a journey, and the journey has to start with a common ground. That’s the philosophy behind what we’re doing.”

Thursday’s show will be a homecoming for the 1988 Kempsville High School graduate. Though he was born in Chicago, he moved to Virginia Beach with his family when he was eight years old. He was already blowing his horn.

“I was playing harmonica when I was four,” he said. “In preschool a brass quintet came and visited, just made up of parents, and we had a day of trying instruments. I picked up the trumpet, and I could play it right away. That was when I was five. I bugged my parents for a year, and after a year they figured out it was not going away so they got me a cornet since I couldn’t reach the valves on the trumpet.

“Something just clicked and I could play a scale right away. Of course, I was too young to officially be in the band, but I auditioned for the band director on harmonica. He asked if I had any musical skills, and I did!”

He put those musical skills to work while in high school, playing with the Virginia Opera’s orchestra when he was fourteen and honing his jazz chops with Gary Gompers’ Junior American Jazz Ensemble. He continued his music studies at Arizona State University before heading off to the Big Apple.

“I went straight from Tempe to New York,” he said. “I’d never been to New York, but I won an audition with an avant-garde troupe called the Meridian Arts Ensemble. We were known for playing Frank Zappa, commissioning works, doing art rock and mixing jazz and classical. We traveled around the world.

“I did that for six years, but about three years in I realized that living in New York was kind of expensive and it would be nice to have a second revenue stream.”

Over the next few years, Burgstaller became one of the country’s busiest soloists with a program he developed in tribute to trumpet legend Rafael Mendez:

“Mendez was known as the world’s greatest trumpet player in the ‘50s and ‘60s. In fact, he was one of Doc Severinsen’s heroes. I did this for four years, and a lot of the places I went were the same places where he and Doc had played. A lot of the same people were in the audience!”

In 2001, he joined the Canadian Brass.

“It is a lot of fun,” he said. “They’ve built up quite a following and I’ve really enjoyed playing for those audiences. I introduced the music of [Astor] Piazzolla into the group a couple of years ago, and that became a hit.”

Besides working with the Brass and the NYCrossover Quartet, Joe Burgstaller shares the wisdom he’s gained from his experiences in the music business with students at Peabody Institute, where he is a member of the Distinguished Visiting Faculty.

“One of the things I teach,” he said, “is that improvisation is a very broad term. For a conservatory musician, as soon as they get into the spirit of improvisation, they learn how to approach any music as if it’s their own. Not just reading off a piece of paper, but they can really infuse it with their soul.”

And that’s just what he and his bandmates will do at the Granby Theater Thursday night.

“The guys I have with me are really incredible,” he said. “Hector Martignon just got nominated for another Grammy in the Latin Jazz category this year. Hans Glawischnig is Chick Corea’s current bassist, just amazing, and my old friend John Ferrari is one of the most versatile percussionists you’ll ever hear; he can play anything.

“We’re tapping into something, this overall pulse that’s going on. I’m thinking this is the right way to go.”

Burgstaller-Martignon NYCrossover Quartet
Thursday, April 24 – 7:30 pm
Granby Theater
282-2800; www.virginiaartsfest.com

copyright © 2008 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.