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Opening night for Federal Jazz Project

A brand new American play by Richard Montoya prominently features local jazz stars.

I had the privilege of attending opening night of Federal Jazz Project on April 12, so I thought I'd pass on some observations -- although, I'm certainly not a theater critic.

In case you haven't heard, Federal Jazz Project is the brain-child of actor/playwright Richard Montoya who wrote the play 15 years after being inspired by witnessing the jam-session dynamics of trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos.

San Diego Rep director Sam Woodhouse was intrigued and he commissioned Montoya and Castellanos to move forward.

As a jazz writer, I've mostly been disappointed in the attempts to portray jazz musicians in film and other media. Clint Eastwood's "Bird," forgot to tell us why we should care, the '60s play "The Connection," suffered from the drug clichés of the time, and even Spike Lee (who should have known better) botched "Mo Better Blues," with laughable inaccuracies.

This result was substantially different.

FJP represents the most seamless and organic blend of music with acting that one could imagine. The music, and Castellanos' trumpet aren't tossed in for effect -- they are wholly integrated into the story.

The story itself is sprawling and ambitious. Montoya's script is hilarious even as it deals with dead-serious issues like racism, war and the inequities of sister cities San Diego and Tijuana. I thought the actors were superb. Montoya plays a bunch of roles equally well, but he really shines as El Poeta, his principal character. Joe Hernandez-Kolski tears into the role of Kidd, and Mark Pinter's Sally was almost eclipsed by his appropriate send-up of Lawrence Welk. Keith Jefferson takes on the conflicted soul of Jules and nails it.

The script spans 60 years and multiple plotlines, and could have bogged down under the weight of its own ambition--thankfully, the brisk directorial pacing from Woodhouse avoids this-- the time seemed to fly by.

Now to the music. From the first strains of solo trumpet, Castellanos imbues this production with nuance and luxuriant detail, often foreshadowing or supporting the emotions being played out on stage. The band, featuring bassist Rob Thorsen, drummer Fernando Gomez, saxophonist Ian Tordella and pianist Irving Flores act as a wonderfully tight unit on ensemble features like "Geritol," and "Chula Juana."

Lorraine Castellanos has never sounded stronger and more confident than on "No Me Digas Nada," and "I Thought About You," and tap-dancer Claudia Gomez's gravity defying choreography earned the cheers she got each time she put foot to floor.

It says something about the generosity of Castellanos that in the jam-session portion of the show, he invites local players to shine. On opening night, there were four: civilians Patrick Escalante on trombone, Christopher Hollyday on alto saxophone with U.S. Marine's Matt Hall and Charlie Arbelaez on 'bone and sax ( in dress blues no less). Each player got several choruses to show their stuff and the audience loved it.

Federal Jazz Project is playing now through May 5, downtown at the Lyceum Theater.

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I had the privilege of attending opening night of Federal Jazz Project on April 12, so I thought I'd pass on some observations -- although, I'm certainly not a theater critic.

In case you haven't heard, Federal Jazz Project is the brain-child of actor/playwright Richard Montoya who wrote the play 15 years after being inspired by witnessing the jam-session dynamics of trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos.

San Diego Rep director Sam Woodhouse was intrigued and he commissioned Montoya and Castellanos to move forward.

As a jazz writer, I've mostly been disappointed in the attempts to portray jazz musicians in film and other media. Clint Eastwood's "Bird," forgot to tell us why we should care, the '60s play "The Connection," suffered from the drug clichés of the time, and even Spike Lee (who should have known better) botched "Mo Better Blues," with laughable inaccuracies.

This result was substantially different.

FJP represents the most seamless and organic blend of music with acting that one could imagine. The music, and Castellanos' trumpet aren't tossed in for effect -- they are wholly integrated into the story.

The story itself is sprawling and ambitious. Montoya's script is hilarious even as it deals with dead-serious issues like racism, war and the inequities of sister cities San Diego and Tijuana. I thought the actors were superb. Montoya plays a bunch of roles equally well, but he really shines as El Poeta, his principal character. Joe Hernandez-Kolski tears into the role of Kidd, and Mark Pinter's Sally was almost eclipsed by his appropriate send-up of Lawrence Welk. Keith Jefferson takes on the conflicted soul of Jules and nails it.

The script spans 60 years and multiple plotlines, and could have bogged down under the weight of its own ambition--thankfully, the brisk directorial pacing from Woodhouse avoids this-- the time seemed to fly by.

Now to the music. From the first strains of solo trumpet, Castellanos imbues this production with nuance and luxuriant detail, often foreshadowing or supporting the emotions being played out on stage. The band, featuring bassist Rob Thorsen, drummer Fernando Gomez, saxophonist Ian Tordella and pianist Irving Flores act as a wonderfully tight unit on ensemble features like "Geritol," and "Chula Juana."

Lorraine Castellanos has never sounded stronger and more confident than on "No Me Digas Nada," and "I Thought About You," and tap-dancer Claudia Gomez's gravity defying choreography earned the cheers she got each time she put foot to floor.

It says something about the generosity of Castellanos that in the jam-session portion of the show, he invites local players to shine. On opening night, there were four: civilians Patrick Escalante on trombone, Christopher Hollyday on alto saxophone with U.S. Marine's Matt Hall and Charlie Arbelaez on 'bone and sax ( in dress blues no less). Each player got several choruses to show their stuff and the audience loved it.

Federal Jazz Project is playing now through May 5, downtown at the Lyceum Theater.

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