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2017 Tri-C JazzFest Cleveland

C. Andrew Hovan By

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2017 Tri-C JazzFest Cleveland
Playhouse Square
Cleveland, Ohio
June 22-22, 2017

Although the Newport and Reno festivals have had a longer track record, there are many intriguing connections between the Detroit and Tri-C jazz festivals, both of which are celebrating their 38th birthdays this season. Fostering a strong educational component, both concerns sponsor associated events throughout the year. Furthermore, Tri- C's current director Terri Pontremoli served many years as the artistic director for the Detroit festival. This might have some bearing on the current direction she has taken the Cleveland festival. In 2014, festivities moved from the main college campus to the Playhouse Square theater district, as well as moving from an April event to one in June. By doing so, a free outdoor component could be part of an otherwise ticketed festival.

This year the giant outdoor stage featured seventeen regional acts over the course of two days. Nonetheless, with a packed schedule of paid indoor concerts concurrently running all day Saturday, it might have proven a bit too much competition for the event's own good. It is almost as if there were two distinct crowds on hand, one casually taking in whatever was happening on the free stage and the other with tickets in hand for Saturday's cavalcade in the theaters. Another idea popular with Detroit's fans is the talk tent featuring interviews and discussions with the artists. In its debut this year in Cleveland, it didn't appear to quite hit the momentum it deserves as a viable activity.

Although this reviewer has spoken these words about this festival before, they bear repeating. Be it a caveat of the college or the big-name sponsors, there seems to be a tendency in recent years to put much more emphasis on big shows with artists of limited jazz appeal. As such, the following commentary does not include coverage of performances by Boney James, Norman Brown, Chris Botti, or Boz Scaggs. In addition, it should be noted that most of the indoor performances were set up in two-hour blocks, pairing like artists for their own separate, hour-long sets. While packing in a lot of music, it also meant for a particularly long day on Saturday without much down time for breaks or sustenance.

Friday evening's main event was billed as Terence Blanchard's Blue Note Sessions. With a title that was a bit misleading, Blanchard elucidated how director Taylor Hackford gained the services of the trumpeter for his film The Comedian. A fan of the classic Blue Note sound, Hackford explained that he wanted something in a similar vein for the soundtrack. Much of what the sextet played consisted of untitled scores from the film, although Blanchard set up most of them by describing the associated scenes in the movie. Added to the front line, alto saxophonist Khari Allen Lee and tenor great Ravi Coltrane made the most of their time in the spotlight. Wisely, Blanchard offered Kenny Barron a featured spot, with the pianist joining forces with bassist David Pulphus and drummer Carl Allen on a gorgeous reading of "Isfahan." A titillating idea that just so happened to jell surprisingly well, the brief set went off without a hitch, with Coltrane stealing the show on several occasions.

Giving a nod to female jazz musicians, the first pairing on Saturday's schedule were separate sets by vocalist Alicia Olatujah and Jane Bunnett with her group Maqueque. Up first was Olatujah, a singer relatively new on the scene and who seemed to touch on many styles throughout her performance. Not so much jazz-based but shaped by soul stylings, Olatujah's best moments came with her update of Michael Jackson's "Human Nature" and a jubilant take on Djavan's "Serrado" complete with Portuguese lyrics.

Although her work at times can be mercurial while being emotionally detached, Jane Bunnett has never found a better showcase for her talents than in the group of Cuban women that make up her sextet Maqueque. Everything from the writing to the musicianship was nothing short of exhilarating during this, one of the best sets of the festival. Pianist Danae Olano was a marvel, throwing down montuno riffs with the same fluency as she rendered her classically-imbued solos. On bata, congas, and cajon, percussionist Magdelys Savigne added just the right textures to the ensemble, while offering inspired vocals on "Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone." Violinist and vocalist Elizabeth Rodriquez formed a simpatico front line with Bunnett, who split her time between soprano saxophone and flute.

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