April In Cleveland: The Tri-C JazzFest
Cuyahoga Community College
For the past 23 years, April in Cleveland has meant jazz, not only for those who like to listen to the music but for those youngsters trying to make sense of it all by receiving the sage wisdom handed down by the masters. Now considered the country’s preeminent educational jazz festival, Tri-C JazzFest is chock full of concerts, master classes, jam sessions, student ensemble competitions, and scores of other jazz related events that run the course of the festival’s ten days. Utilizing a number of venues, both on the campus of Cuyahoga Community College and around town, the major concerts presented by JazzFest covered a lot of ground stylistically, pleasing a wide variety of tastes and preferences.
Thursday, April 11th- The Dave Douglas New Quintet
Speaking of the transcendent nature of art, the late Art Blakey once summed it up by stating, “Music is supposed to wash away the dust of everyday life.” That being the case, trumpeter Dave Douglas and his quintet of heavyweight contenders swept the place kitchen clean as they opened the festival’s round of concerts at the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art. Over the course of about two hours, one got the feeling on several occasions that present reality gave way to a new consciousness via the yarns imparted by Douglas, tenor man Chris Potter, keyboardist Uri Caine, bassist James Genus, and drummer Clarence Penn.
Covering original material from his latest release, The Infinite, Douglas and crew expanded upon the weighty structures. Possessing the control and pacing of a classically trained artist, Douglas tended to speak in long tones that spilled over bar lines, while Potter alternated wild arpeggios with extended phrases chock full of space. Explaining how the melody for “The Frisell Dream” came to him in slumber, Douglas’ solo would make reference to Mingus’ “Weird Nightmare” and Monk’s “Epistrophy.” Potter then answered with a chortle of his own. An extended romp prior to the encore brought forth the most telepathic moments as the tempo became a polyrhythmic wash anchored so splendidly by Penn and Genus.
Friday, April 12th- Wayne Shorter Quartet, JazzFest/NOJS Jam Session
Friday evening’s show found people buzzing with much anticipation. As for the last time that Wayne Shorter had been in Cleveland no one really knew, but the crowd was grateful for the ability to catch a glimpse of the 68-year-old jazz superstar who in a return to form was back visiting his acoustic roots with youngsters Danilo Perez, John Patitucci, and Brian Blade on hand. In fact, the lobby filled with capacity more than an hour before the show was even set to start, as people rallied for spaces up front for what would be a general admission-seating arrangement.
Following delays and a late start, Shorter and crew took to the stage for a generous performance that flowed in a stream-of-consciousness manner. Gone were the typical formalities of head and solos, sublimated by a collective interplay chock full of twists and turns, with Shorter sputtering short bursts of ideas before giving way to the heady undercurrent propelled so enigmatically by Blade. Even when short snippets of familiar melodies would appear, such as with “Go” and “Juju,” they would quickly fly away like will-o’-the-wisps. While the unabated joy that Perez, Blade, and Patitucci put on view was clearly palpable, the audience was mixed in their response, either elated by the technical pyrotechnics of left a bit empty by the detached emotional component.
Right after Shorter’s set, the Northeast Ohio Jazz Society held a jam session at the newly opened Hilton Garden Inn. In addition to pianist Jerome Saunders and his trio, the house was filled with youthful talent and one could take great pride in knowing that the future of jazz seemed just a little brighter with this generation there to carry on the tradition. Both Danilo Perez and the Clayton Brothers popped in to play a few tunes and to check out the local scene. Perez stayed until the last note, with his giddy enthusiasm and support obvious to the many students who were on hand.
Saturday, April 13th- Christian Howes/Rez Abbasi Group, Randy Weston’s African Rhythms Sextet
Although the jam session had me out way past 2 AM, there wasn’t much time for rest as the main stage and auditorium on campus prepared to fill Saturday afternoon with jazz and more jazz. Student ensembles held forth continuously in the main lobby and a spicy buffet of ribs and other delicacies allowed patrons a chance to relax and have a snack later in the afternoon. Inside the smaller main stage theatre, a 2 o’clock performance by the Christian Howes-Rez Abbasi Group brought with it a modest crowd and once things got cooking you had to wonder why the hall wasn’t filled to capacity.
Howes, most recently featured with piano whiz D.D. Jackson, plays a hybrid electric violin and his dynamic personality and technical brilliance has won over even those who find violin an unlikely medium for jazz. Classically trained from an early age, Howes creates lines of great intricacy, building momentum while swaying back and forth and putting his face and upper body through some wild contortions. To put it simply, he’s really something to see as well as hear. Along with guitar slinger Rez Abbasi and organist Gary Versace, Howes explored a variety of moods with an advanced and often funky base providing the structure, not unlike the forward-looking Blue Note records of Larry Young from the late ‘60s. Cleveland saxophonist Bobby Selvaggio also took to the stage and several of his sublime compositions were featured over the course of a dynamic and dynamite set.
Although the Clayton Brothers would be featured with their own quintet for a 5 o’clock show, I decided to take a break in preparation for the return of the illustrious Randy Weston later in the evening. This would mark Weston’s third appearance at the festival and I rekindled fond memories of his previous stays in town. As far back as ten or twelve years ago, he had played a solo performance at a Sunday afternoon brunch that almost seemed like a private affair, a more recent offering saluting the contributions or trombonist and arranger Melba Liston just prior to her untimely death.
Fronting what he calls his African Rhythms Sextet, Weston brought with him regular collaborators T.K. Blue on saxophones and flute, Benny Powell on trombone, Alex Blake on bass, and Neil Clarke on percussion. As an added treat, prophetic tenor saxophonist Billy Harper filled out the front line. Several of Weston’s finest charts provided fodder for the evening, with T.K. Blue’s delicate flute work illuminating a darkly romantic “The Healers.” Alex Blake amazed everyone as he strummed his bass with great abandon, almost like caressing a guitar, throughout combustible solos in both “African Sunrise” and “Blue Moses.”
Weston had some fine moments of his own during a elegant medley of “Hi Fly” and “Body and Soul.” Harper, in what would be a rare appearance as a sideman and an even rarer one in Cleveland, combined his own deeply mystical outlook with Weston’s efforts to conjure the spirit and rhythms of ancient ancestors. It made for a profoundly rewarding musical experience that left an impact on an appreciative throng of admirers.
These highlights are just a few from the ambitious schedule that kept Cleveland jazz fans hopping this spring. For more information and to obtain a limited edition CD sampler featuring the music of various JazzFest 2002 artists, visit www.cleveland.com/jazzfest.
View the Cleveland Tri-C JazzFest photo gallery.