Tri-C JazzFest Cleveland 2012: Days 1-5
Each year JazzFest programs what it dubs its "Debut Series," a concert or two or three that introduce young artists to the greater Cleveland audience. This year that program consisted of back-to-back sets (albeit across town from one another) by bassist Ben Williams and his Sound Effect group, and saxophonist Marcus Strickland's quartet. And due to the illness of Sound Effect pianist Taylor Eigsti, the bands turned out to be nearly identical: Strickland's piano man, David Bryant, played both sets, leaving only Williams' guitarist Matt Stevens and the different bodies behind the trap sets to separate the two.
The guys played first under Williams' leadership at the Greg L. Reese Performing Arts Center in the East Cleveland Public Libraryan acoustically resplendent, intimate venue that traditionally stages some of the festival's best concerts. And for free. Even with the return of winter temps, lines began forming an hour in advance outside the library. Williams and crew made it worth the wait.
Featuring music from his 2011 album State of Art (Concord), the bassist led with an insistent melodic presence that waltzed effortlessly into the spotlight for solos. In his hands the strings and fingerboard grew supple, giving up easy-flowing lines more readily associated with guitar than double bass. His extended solo intro to the closera cover of Michael Jackson's "Little Susie"was a self-contained gem; a gracefully orchestrated improvisation of the first order. Stevens served as something of a foil to this grace, probing the group's music with ringing chords or deep-cutting slashes. On solos, after biting into a passage and finding entry, the guitarist would unleash clear but fat notes that would run brightly at the music's core. To Strickland's sax he might serve as counterpoint, as when playing the bridge to the saxophonist's verse on "Part-Time Lover," or consort, as when the pair shared the melody on the opening of "Dawn of a New Day." Strickland, for his part, was more restrained and angular here than he would be later that night at the helm. He often handled the melodies at the open and close of numbers, but would test the waters on solos, not unlike Stevens, before wailing. Bryant's tumbling style majestic chordal constructions filled by the quick scurrying or unfolding of clipped notes while effective within themselves, didn't quite gel with the musical whole. A matter of familiarity, no doubt, as he was completely in his element, later, behind Strickland. Drummer John Davis kept things thundering, but operated mainly in support, aside from his snappy opening to the "Night In Tunisia"-sounding "November," wherein Davis soloed over Williams' hand-drumming on bass and the thumps issued from Stevens' guitar.
Less than two hours later Strickland led Bryant and Williams back on stage at the Black Box Theatre, an intimate, edgy new space housed within the Tommy LiPuma Center for Creative Arts (to be officially dedicated April 26) on the Tri-C Metro campus, a facility jointly created and led by the College and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. This time around Strickland's twin brother E. J. manned the drums.
Despite the similar personnel, it was evident from the opener "Mudbone," a tribute to Richard Pryor from Marcus Strickland's Triumph of the Heavy, Vol. 1 & 2 (CDBaby, 2011), that something different was afoot here. Strickland spit notes from his tenor and growled over Bryant's spiraling lines that now felt wholly at home. In his first solo, Bryant's repeated notes and jagged chordal overlays cut satisfyingly into Williams' less melodic- centered support. On "Etymology," a new Coltrane-esque composition by Marcus, Bryant traced the chords with scurrying notes, his lines and the strong drumming attack morphing into sheets of wire mesh. Marcus blew tight, echoing spirals from his alto, increased the velocity but maintained solid articulation.
And so the set went, with the band remaining tight through four additional tunes: "Ne Me Quitte Pas," played, as the saxophonist was pleased to point out, in the same key as Nina Simone had done it; "Surreal," another tune from Triumph, this one inspired by Picasso's "Seated Bather" and featuring a beautifully realized bass solo from Williams; Charlie Parker's "Bloomdido" that found Strickland's saxophone attack leaning toward Bird's and Bryant's pleasantly spacious like Monk's; and "Lilt," a final number from Triumph that had each of the guy's strutting his walk, just as the song's title would have it.
This cross-town double set made for a fine conclusion to festival's first weekend.
All Photos: Matt Marshall