Now in its 27th season, Cleveland's Tri-C JazzFest continues to balance artistic and financial considerations with a line-up this year that placed an emphasis on piano jazz. Much lamented was the absence of Latin Jazz night, a popular mainstay of the festival for several years now, which has become a separate event staged in the fall. In its place were several acts destined for crossover appeal including performances by Diane Schuur with the Caribbean Jazz Project, Yellowjackets, Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, and The Manhattan Transfer. Missing too were those bold shows that have previously tapped the repertoire of a particular jazz icon in a unique or novel setting. Past festival highlights along these lines have included the premiere of Mingus' "Epitaph and last year's rediscovery of the charts from the iconic Gil Evans' Orchestra Plays the Music of Jimi Hendrix
A treasured performer who has made several unforgettable appearances in Cleveland over the years, pianist Randy Weston officially launched the festival by offering a forum for the Ganawa Master Musicians of Morocco. The evening's program consisted solely of gems from the pianist's past, opening with "African Sunrise, which found reedman T.K. Blue offering a blistering alto solo and Alex Blake strumming his bass much like a flamenco guitarist. Although brief in duration, Weston's solo on "Night in Medina was evidence that the pianist is still one of the most talented living progenitors of a style that combines elements of bop and Monk with those indigenous African rhythms that have been a major part of Weston's muse since the early '50s.
For the closing jam, the audience was literally brought to its feet as the Ganawan musicians, along with T.K. Blue and trombonist Benny Powell, left the stage to amble up and down the aisles second line style. As he did throughout the evening when giving the stage to the Ganawans, Weston did not participate in these ebullient moments, preferring to revel in the excitement from afar.
Tapping current trends, a good-sized audience whetted their appetite for the adventurous with the Cleveland debut of Jason Moran and the Bandwagon. Continuing to refine his approach, Moran offered a first-rate performance that ran the gamut from collective improvisation to stride while hinting at influences such as Jaki Byard and Andrew Hill. Key to the trio's ability to navigate the complexities of a three-way conversation are the highly flexible roles of the bass and drums, Tarus Mateen and Nasheet Waits proving to be quick on the draw and in sync with Moran's fertile imagination.
Elsewhere around town, the festival's nine-day run included free concerts that presented music as good as anything heard at the other ticketed events. A Saturday afternoon show offered a double bill with drummer Neal Smith's trio featuring pianist Rick Germanson and bassist Dwayne Burno along with Eric Person & Meta-Four, a contemporary ensemble with one foot squarely in the tradition and another stepping into the future, saxophonist Person making a strong impression on soprano and via his sagacious compositions.
Serving as the festival's artist-in-residence, pianist Mulgrew Miller wrapped up the fest while debuting a new trio that owed much to the highly musical drumming of Rodney Green. Introspective on such numbers as a cordial "My Foolish Heart, Miller also tapped the blues for his gospel-inflected original "When I Get There, later becoming more effusive on an incendiary romp through "Relaxin' at Camarillo. Exploring a variety of moods in a nearly perfect set, Miller provided testimony to the fact that he remains somewhat underappreciated even among those cognizant of his previous achievements.
C. Andrew Hovan
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