Spotlight Central
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Spotlight Central

The Charlie Apicella Quartet featuring Don Braden LIVE! at the Grunin Center

By Spotlight Central. Photos by Love Imagery

Music lovers at the Jersey Shore know that a New York City jazz club isn’t always the most convenient place to enjoy great live jazz. As such, in-the-know Jersey jazz fans are seated inside Toms River’s Grunin Center for the Arts this Sunday, May 22, 2022 afternoon anticipating a concert by the newly minted jazz ensemble, The Charlie Apicella Quartet featuring Don Braden.

Charlie Apicella was voted one of the top jazz guitarists in both the 84th and 86th DownBeat Readers Poll. Hailing from Hudson, NY, as a high school student, Charlie was inspired by musicians including B.B. King, Wes Montgomery, and Jimi Hendrix, and he obtained his first guitar during his senior year.

While studying at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, Apicella took music classes with multi-instrumentalist and composer Yusef Lateef. He also studied with Pat Martino, was trained as a historian by Archie Shepp and Dr. Billy Taylor, and was given advice about his nascent musical career after meeting one of his original guitar idols, B.B. King.

Apicella went on to perform and record with jazz legends including Dave Holland and Sonny Fortune and, also, to become the leader of his own jazz band, Charlie Apicella and Iron City.

Inside the Grunin Center auditorium, Sandy Josephson of the New Jersey Jazz Society welcomes the audience to today’s show, promising, “It may be cool in here but the music will be hot!”

The crowd applauds when the members of the quartet — Charlie Apicella on guitar and banjo, Don Braden on saxes and flute, Avery Sharpe on bass, and Carmen Intorre, Jr. on drums — take their places on stage. Apicella counts off the group’s opening theme song, “In Walked Basie,” and the band begins to play.

As they perform, Apicella says, “It’s an honor to be here with you. Some of you know me as the leader of Iron City, but this is the ‘maiden voyage’ of our new quartet.”

The ensemble launches into the Basie standard, “Corner Pocket,” where Apicella’s fingers fly over his guitar’s neck on this swinging number. His muted 1950s-style guitar sound floats out over the crowd as Avery Sharpe’s bass walks and Carmen Intorre, Jr. rides the cymbals. The crowd applauds for Don Braden’s tenor solo, the sparkling clear sound of the band delighting jazz lovers in the audience.

The crowd applauds and Apicella recalls, “Last February, I put out my Classic Guitar album,” announcing, “From that record, here’s my tribute to Miles Davis called ‘Four.’” On this swinging arrangement, Braden solos with quick runs up and down his tenor as the music builds with intensity. Apicella accompanies Braden by chording and strumming with his thumb and fingers before taking the reins and soloing, elaborating on the tune with tasty licks and setting audience members’ toes to tapping.

Braden switches over to soprano saxophone and Apicella picks up a tenor banjo as he reveals, “I love Ma Rainey — ‘The Mother of the Blues,’” noting, “You won’t be able to tell if this song is from yesterday or 100 yesterdays ago.”

Launching into their rendition of Rainey’s 1928 recording, “Black Eye Blues,” Braden handles the melody on soprano sax as Apicella’s strums short staccato chords on the banjo.

Sharpe takes the spotlight with a unique solo, strumming the strings of his upright bass and filling listeners’ ears with a warm, clean sound which elicits avid applause.

Apicella acknowledges, “I love Billie Holiday. This is my favorite song of hers, and it’s her favorite, also,” before he’s left alone on stage to perform a solo guitar rendition of “Some Other Spring.” Sitting on a stool, Apicella plays his instrument softly and sweetly, strumming quickly while adding rich, resonant chords and picking at times on this lyrical arrangement.

The musicians retake the stage for another Miles Davis selection, “Tune Up,” where Sharpe’s bass, Intorre, Jr.’s drums, and Apicella’s guitar start off this upbeat tune. Braden enters on sax playing the sweet and clear melody. Apicella takes over with a thoughtful guitar solo as the song builds in intensity and dynamics. Braden is featured on a tenor solo, the notes rising over the audience in a cascade of sound.

Intorre, Jr. pounds the drums, his cymbals crashing as the intensity builds and the group ends with a flourish to large applause.

Apicella talks about his studies with Yusef Lateef, revealing that bassist Avery Sharpe was in Lateef’s band from 1990 to 2013. Here, the quartet performs a pair of Lateef numbers from the Flute Book of the Blues, “Flute Blues in C, #1” and “#2,” where Braden’s talent on flute is recognized.

The group follows up with a highlight of the set — their performance of “Morning,” a Yusef Lateef piece from 1958 which has Intorre, Jr. playing with his hands on a madal, a special drum from Nepal. On this modal tune in 6/8 time, Sharpe plays an ostinato on his bass, Intorre, Jr.’s cymbals add to the rhythmic undercurrent, and Apicella’s guitar work is hypnotic. Sharpe plays his bass below the bridge before moving up and down the instrument’s fingerboard, strumming quickly at times and alternating the strumming by knocking on the body of his instrument to create novel rhythms and timbres. The crowd expresses its approval for the performance with whistles, hoots, and applause.

Sharpe and Intorre, Jr. leave the stage so Apicella and Braden can duet on the Grant Green number, “Blues for Charlie.” Sitting on a stool center stage, Apicella plays his guitar softly before Braden joins him on the tenor, the pair providing a velvet robe of sound that envelopes the audience. The duet moves forward with Braden’s sax playing a tremolo accompaniment to the soft picking and chords of Apicella’s guitar as music lovers in the crowd tap their toes and gently nod along.

For the group’s final number, Sharpe and Intorre, Jr. return and all four musicians perform the Apicella original, “Big Boss.”

Featuring quick guitar picking, tight bass playing, smooth saxophone work, and a tasty percussion part with rolls, cymbal rides, and crashes, the instrumentalists meld their individual lines into a single cohesive piece. Apicella deftly solos fingering intricate runs on his guitar before the band ends with a slow roll and the crowd responds with hearty applause.

With his closing theme, “Iron City Theme: Savin’ All My Love,” playing behind him, Apicella thanks the audience and the musicians in his band before inviting the audience to come see them again as they play “up and down the Jersey Shore” on this maiden voyage of their new quartet.

To learn more about Charlie Apicella, please go to ironcity.nyc. For info on upcoming Jazz on a Sunday Afternoon performances at Toms River’s Grunin Center — including David Ostwald’s Louis Armstrong Eternity Band on June 12, 2022 — please click on grunincenter.org.

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