Portrait in Jazz Sextet/ Credit: Dan Busler Photography

When a new jazz series debuts in Needham next month, music lovers will be tapping their feet to the rhythms of some of the finest musicians in the Boston area. The Jazz in the Sanctuary series kicks off with the Portrait in Jazz Sextet, performing May 4 at Christ Episcopal Church. 

“I’d like Needham to be known for its music and arts and culture,” said Michael Niden, who created the series with help from other members of the church. “I’m hoping this series is another opportunity to bring great music to town.”

The sextet will play jazz standards and American songbook classics by Duke Ellington, George and Ira Gershwin, Jimmy Van Heusen, Lerner and Lowe and other composers. The show also will feature original compositions by band leader Brad Ellenberg. 

 “I wanted a band that had wide appeal, and I felt if it made me feel like dancing in the living room, they were good,” said Niden. “This band has fantastic arrangements and a singer, and it plays original music, which is hard to find.”

The night of entertainment will have a far-reaching effect beyond Needham. All profits after expenses will help pay the salary of a teacher who runs a music program in Lazil, Haiti, a farming village southwest of Port-au-Prince the church has aided for about two decades. The great majority of Haitian primary schools depend on funding from churches, NGOs and other non-government entities. 

“When we visited the school, the students gave us a concert and there was tons of energy and joy,” said Margaret Pantridge, a member of the church’s Jazz in the Sanctuary and Haiti Music Program committees.

Although only two concerts will take place this year, Niden said he knows successful endeavors usually start small. In 2012, he and Moe Handel founded the Great Hall Concert Series, which now has four often sold out shows a year in Powers Hall featuring a variety of musical genres.

Deirdre Pederson/ Credit: Dan Busler Photography

“At first, the Great Hall series was pretty small in terms of our budget and everything else, but it’s really grown,” said Niden, who did marketing, sales and programming for the series.. “My goal now is to build up a client base for the jazz series. If we can do two successful concerts this year, we can do more the following year.”

With its excellent acoustics, beautiful stained glass windows and comfortable pews, the church sanctuary is a wonderful place for a concert, said Niden. Professional lighting and amplification will be added. 

“The most important thing is getting people together, and what better way than with music,” said Niden, who grew up in Needham and has been a church member for decades.

Ellenberg, the band’s founder, composer and guitarist, said audiences can expect to hear jazz that incorporates elements of bossa nova, blues, swing and jazz rock, and that showcases the musicality, collaboration and creativity of the five instrumentalists and one singer. 

“I like to change it up, so there aren’t too many pieces in the same style, tempo or key. But it’s always standards, as well as original compositions,” said Ellenberg, who studied jazz at Berklee College of Music and jazz composition at New England Conservatory of Music. “For all performances, I see how the flow goes and there’s a lot of diversity.”

Since Ellenberg started the band in 1993, it has grown from a trio to a sextet and released three albums, with a fourth coming this year. He chose the name Portrait in Jazz in honor of one of his favorite albums by pianist Bill Evans. The five musicians play trumpet, flugelhorn, tenor sax, woodwinds, guitar, bass and drum, and will be joined by vocalist Deirdre Pederson. Pederson was a Westborough High School student eight years ago when Grammy nominee Michael Feinstein selected her to participate in his American Songbook Academy and perform in his concert at The Cabot Theater in Beverly. 

“Every night the audience gets a different story because improvisation happens on every song,” Ellenberg said. “It’s an iconic aspect of jazz. We’ve been playing together for so long that we’re tuned to each other and have connections on a personal and musical level. I feel like we’re sharing something of ourselves and bringing people on a musical journey. That’s what I hope people in Needham will experience when they hear us.”

The first concert of the jazz series will be May 4 at 7:30 p.m. at Christ Episcopal Church, 1132 Highland Ave. Parking is available across the street in the library lot. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased at www.ccneedham.org/jazz-in-the-sanctuary

Jody Feinberg is a retired reporter who has lived in Needham since 1985

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