Now in its 30th year, the Tri-C JazzFest Cleveland has always prided itself as much on its educational offerings as its concerts. The festival's Web site touts it as "the largest educational jazz festival in the country." This emphasis on preserving the music through education may account for the heavy tribute slant of its yearly programming. TCJF often throws in with a handful of big names who tip their caps to past generations rather than featuring the current movers of the music. But that's part and parcel of the festival circuitthere's a collective suffering from fits of nostalgia. And, to be sure, jazz in Cleveland can be a hard enough sell without having to battle over name recognition. So while jazz freaks (or at least one) might rather see headliners like James Carter, Nels Cline, Roy Hargrove, Todd Sickafoose and other notables who are pushing the music forward, this probably isn't a viable recipe in the rust-belt home to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. That considered, TCJF strikes a good balance between presenting marquee names like George Benson, Dave Brubeck (whose show was regrettably postponed until June, due to illness) and Dave Koz to draw the masses, while offering the jazz faithful peeks at emerging artists, lesser-known but wonderful avant-garde acts, interesting musical hybrids like the "Jazz Meets Hip Hop" series, local jazz luminaries and legends little-recognized outside jazz circles.
April 24: George Benson
George Benson kicked off this year's festival at the Allen Theatre with his touring Nat "King" Coletribute show. The guitarist got things started with a crowd-pleasing take on his 1970s hit "Breezin,'" before switching hats to run through 11 popular tunes from the Cole discography, including "Mona Lisa," "Unforgettable" and "Nature Boy." Benson, backed by a string orchestra, lowered his R&B tone to match the timbreoften eerilyof his hero. There were passages that transported the listener back to a mid-'50s Cole recording session.
Singer Janie Kluger, who directs the tour's new group of backing vocalists in each town, joined Benson on "Unforgettable" and "When I Fall in Love." But while flaunting excellent technical skills and range, Kluger overwhelmed the music at times, blasting into operatic orbit and descending with flashy twirls. Benson was best left to his own devices. He strapped on his guitar after Kluger's departure and tore off a jumping take on "Route 66," which featured a barroom piano solo from Randy Waldman.
After the Cole hits Benson turned to his own, pleasing the crowd with straight-ahead renditions of a handful of his popular songs from the '70s and '80s. Scaled down to his core backing group of two keyboards, bass, a second guitar and drums, Benson certainly got the audience's attention, as they clapped and sang along. But the show's tenacious hold on jazz almost slipped away completely. Benson's comping and soloing were strongparticularly on the closer "Into the Night," which found the guitarist firing off his most angular statementsbut the music as a whole was pop- and soul-tinged R&B. Great musicianship, great singing, but a somewhat suspect kickoff to a celebration of the music we call jazz.
April 25: Marion Hayden
Detroit bassist Marion Hayden led this year's installment of the festival's Women in Jazz series at the Mt. Zion Congregational Church. Filling out Hayden's trio were Ellen Roweon piano and GayeLynn McKinney on drums. They continued in the tribute vein, honoring April babies Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Carmen McRae. Unfortunately, 2008 Cleveland Jazz Legend honoree Evelyn Wright, who was set seemingly to fill Ella's shoes for the afternoon, was forced to sit out with an illness. Erin Kufel handled Billie's songs and Marsha Newman sang favorites from McRae's repertoire.
Of the two, Newman came across as the more emotive and playfulwhether on a swinger like "Bye Bye Blackbird" or more tender fare like "The Man I Love." Her last offering, "How Long Has This Been Going On?" was her best. She bent and stretched the word "all" like a piece of licorice and revved "buzzzzzzz" head on into a door-slamming "click!"
Kufel was hurt by the venue's sound system and acoustics (or, at least, her lack of familiarity with the setup). Her singing loaded the speakers and pierced ears. As a result "Lover Man," her mellowest song of the afternoon, was likewise her best, allowing subtleties of phrase to come through instead of flatten out in the din.
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