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Cat's a Bear
Erie, Pennsylvania

Musical Sanctuary

Jazz returns to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation.  Can we get an amen?

By John Chacona, contributing writer

In the '70s and early '80s, the musical Dark Ages of live performances in Erie, one of the few places to hear serious live music was the Unitarian Universalist Congregation on Perry Highway.

Chamber music and jazz were most often heard, but the Unitarian Universalists in Community program embraced a wide range of styles.  Then, for some reason, the programs became scarcer before ceasing altogether in the late '80s.

"We did a lot of classical music, and the audience for that was shrinking," Peggy Richardson told me.

A former director of the program, Richardson is in the happy position of witnessing a rebirth of performance at the congregation, as well as a rebirth of the building itself.

Buttressed by a recent building project that dramatically increased the size of the congregation's building, the facility's musical program is once again flourishing.

"People are more mobile [now] and more willing to drive to places to see things that they're interested in," Richardson said with more than a measure of relief.

Among those things have been the Readers Theater from Erie Playhouse, which presented "In and Out of the Garden," and several weeks ago, Dafmark Dance Theatre's "Dust to Ashes."  This weekend, jazz will ring out in the new sanctuary with the dense and propulsive contemporary jazz of Tito.

A quintet of saxophone, piano, guitar, bass and drums, Tito improvises in the great jazz tradition, but feels rhythm in a subtly different way than most local jazz groups.

It starts in the rhythm section where bassist Tony Stefanelli and drummer Joe Dorris dig deep grooves that owe as much to rock and R&B as to jazz

On top, saxophonist Phil Papotnik, who came up through many area rock bands, combines the best of both traditions.  After a particularly blistering set a few years ago, I complimented Papotnik, only to receive a modest disclaimer.

"I'm really not a jazz player," he told me.  "I'm kind of learning on the job."

Don't believe him.  At his best, he's a gripping, passionate soloist.

The other two solo voices belong to guitarist Frank Singer and pianist Basil Ronzitti.  Singer, a graduate of Boston's Berklee School of Music, is also familiar with the populist side of music, being a long-time member of Erie's tribal love-rock aggregation One World Tribe.  But every Berklee guy knows harmony inside and out, and much of Tito's harmonic density undoubtedly comes from Singer's fingers.

Ronzitti is no slouch in this regard, either.  A friend of mine and former student of Ronzitti's described a typical Basilian assignment:  To improvise over the harmonies of a piece by Bartók.  Ronzitti should enjoy playing on the congregation's Steinway concert grand, a gift of the Clarence Beyers Fund.

But the real gift of this concert, co-sponsored by JazzErie, is to the audience, who can look to the future with this welcome addition to Erie's musical life.

Tito will perform Sunday at 7 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation, 7180 Perry Highway, one mile south of the Erie Zoo.  Tickets are $5 general admission, $3 for members of JazzErie or the Erie Art Museum.  For details, call 864-9300.

Tito has two self-released CDs available.  Both "In Search of a Revolution" and "Tito in Wonderland" feature the group's dense, driving sound with the added treat of drummer Joe Dorris' subterranean vocals.  In a noirish star turn reminiscent of Tom Waits, Dorris growls out his lyrics with tongue firmly in cheek.

The band has recently visited the studio, taping material for a third CD  Both current CDs are available at Romolo Chocolates (bassist Stefanelli is also a chocolatier), as if you really need an excuse to visit that temple of gustatory delights.