31st Annual Tri-C JazzFest Cleveland

Matt Marshall By

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31st Annual Tri-C JazzFest Cleveland
Cleveland, Ohio
April 15-25, 2010

In its 31st offing, the Tri-C JazzFest Cleveland followed a familiar yet engaging formula. One that, over the years, has made it the largest music festival in Ohio and the largest educational jazz festival in the country. The clinics and workshops for local musicians, as well as performances by local high school and college bands, remained intermixed with shows by international stars. And throughout its 11-day run, while offering at least a taste of all that jazz has to offer, the festival still maintained a distinct Cleveland flavor.

April 16: Happy Birthday Henry Mancini!

A bit of luck befell the festival this year. After previously scheduled Broadway singer Vanessa Williams canceled in January, organizers picked up singer Monica Mancini's tribute show to her late father. As fate would have it, Friday also happened to be the 86th anniversary of Mancini's birth. So the night at the Allen Theatre was touted as a birthday celebration for one of Cleveland's famous native sons.

Sean Jones

The Cleveland Jazz Orchestra got things underway. Led by emerging trumpeter Sean Jones, the band favored upbeat swing versions of a variety of Mancini compositions, including "Cheryl's Theme" from the film Sunset, the title song from Breakfast at Tiffany's and the dreamy, majestic "Theme From Mr. Lucky." A list of jazz stars new and old were trotted out to spark the music and crowd alike. Jones traded solos with local sax star and orchestra member Howie Smith on the opening number, then brought out another rising young trumpeter from Cleveland, Dominick Farinacci, who lent his flugelhorn to the second piece. Pianist Mulgrew Miller and saxophonist Ted Nash entered for "Lujon" and carried the ballad down moody, rain-soaked streets. Miller exercised an impossibly supple touch on the keys, pouring forth choruses of milky favor. Trombonist Wycliffe Gordon came on for "Breakfast at Tiffany's," but didn't really get groovin' till a few tunes later (with a charging statement that squeaked, pitched, rolled and growled), following on the heels of clarinetist Paquito D'Rivera, who thrilled the audience with his woodwind gymnastics and gregarious personality. Guitarist Royce Campbell, who played in Mancini's band for 19 years, entered for "Dreamsville," and stayed on for most of the night, occasionally picking (or thumbing) out vibrant, Wes Montgomery-like solos.

Monica Mancini

Monica Mancini's pianist Mamiko Kitaura and the singer's husband, drummer Gregg Field, joined the band after the intermission, leading the orchestra through the Pink Panther theme, while the animated feline pranced on the screen behind the musicians, before giving way to clips from several of the famous Inspector Clouseau movies. Mancini herself came on to sing "It Better Be Tonight." And with a full, able voice, she continued to run through a number of her father's hits, including "Two for the Road," which featured D'Rivera's clarinet, "Charade," "Dear Heart," "Days of Wine and Roses" and "Moon River." But the highlight was a wild rendition of Henry Mancini's surging, iconic theme from the Peter Gunn TV show, which allowed all the aforementioned guests ample room to strut their wares. It provided a rousing blast to an otherwise nice, if overly sentimental, tribute from daughter to father.

April 17: Women In Jazz

After missing last year's installment of the festival's long-running Women in Jazz series, singer Evelyn Wright was back in fine form at this afternoon tribute concert to Brazilian guitarist/composer Antonio Carlos Jobim at the Mt. Zion Congregational Church. Also on the bill were singers Pat Harris and Marsha Newman. The three each ran through a trio of Jobim songs in the opening set, backed by a quintet under the direction of guitarist Gary Edwards. Harris proved the most capable and at home singing in Portuguese, losing none of her expressiveness—in fact, increasing it—when she did so. Newman also gamely switched to Portuguese in parts of "Sadness." But both singers labored a bit in blending soul/R&B/gospel vocal styles with Jobim's bossa melodies, the result at times sounding flat and disjointed. (Their efforts were certainly not helped any by continuing technical problems with the microphone.) Only Wright was able to fully inhabit the maestro's humid but breezy hymns, infusing them with the metal urgency and desperation of the American city. The band was solid in support throughout and offered up several funky electric bass solos by Kip Reid, echoing guitar comps from Edwards, and many sharply rendered piano solos by Jackie Warren, who reached her height with an extended clamoring statement on the penultimate "How Insensitive."

Evelyn Wright

April 17: The Roots

After seven years of featuring a Jazz Meets Hip-Hop show at its festival, Tri-C went full-fledged this time around, inviting the innovative, Grammy-winning group The Roots to perform at the Allen Theatre. And, as anyone who has followed The Roots' music would fully expect, the group's performance didn't lack for a crossing of musical boundaries and ideas—the hallmark of the shelved (at least for a year) Jazz Meets Hip-Hop series. Combining thundering drums and percussion, keyboard, rock guitar, electric bass and sousaphone with rap and soul/rock vocals, The Roots blasted out a non-stop stylistic amalgamation that showcased the individual chops of the group's members—skills only hinted at on their studio efforts.

While as highly regarded for their songs' lyrical content as for their musical diversity, some of that vaunted social-consciousness and critique were, honestly, lost in the high-decibel output (unless you already knew the words), but the power of their presentation and, again, the blending of various vocal traditions were a treat of the live performance. MC Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter was the man up-front, rapping hard and fast through band fixtures like "Web," "Star/Pointro," and "Get Busy," but also the blues lyrics of Willie Dixon and Bo Diddley. Guitarist Kirk Douglas handled much of the backing vocals as well as many soul refrains that countered and nicely played off Trotter's raps. Brief quotes—both vocally and with his guitar—from Guns and Roses' "Sweet Child of Mine" and Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song," were nice, humorous departures.

While the music rarely stopped (and when it did the musicians froze in the moment, looking like figurines stuck in a lighted shadowbox, until released by the next song), the seventh number cleared the stage of all but drummer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson and percussionist F. Knuckles, making for an extended drumming battle that played to and thrilled the crowd, especially as it rose from its steady beating to crash out a multidimensional duet/duel that closed the battle with a fury. Sousaphone player Damon Bryson lent the freshest dimension to the rap outfit simply by being on stage. But he was also, perhaps, the biggest showman and most active member of the group, running and bouncing around the stage—several times leaping onto ?uestlove's drum stand—with an exuberance that would have made you think his large instrument were made of tinfoil.

April 18: Theo Croker / Gerald Clayton

The free Debut Series concert at the Greg L. Reese Performing Arts Center in the East Cleveland Public Library has become a JazzFest staple. Kicking off the show this year was a quartet of Oberlin grads led by trumpeter Theo Croker. With a deep, full tone recalling Ron Miles, Croker favored slow trills that often worked in consort with electric bubbles gurgling from keyboardist Sullivan Fortner's Fender Rhodes. On piano, Fortner launched forceful, angular attacks that included classical and Latin shifts as well as strumming of the instrument's strings. While the group stuck mostly to original Croker compositions, including the swirling "Meditations," wild "Transcend" and anthemic ode to President Obama, "Change," it also gave an inspired reading of "My Funny Valentine" that started from a sensitively fragile, warbling trumpet solo and steadily grew darker until succumbing to a mournful piano passage.

Theo Croker

Sporting a bow tie he claimed he wore only to undo coolly during the show, pianist Gerald Clayton and his trio took the stage shortly after Croker. Aside from "Major Hope," the group's six-tune set stuck to material from Clayton's 2009 release Two-Shade (Decca), but expanded the pieces considerably. "Sunny Day Go," which closed the show, was particularly stretched, at least doubling the 6:45 length of the recording. Such space allowed Clayton ample room to display his emerging voice, one he pounded out with abandon, testing ideas, shifting focus, pushing for more. This didn't always lead to success, and some of the pieces were, perhaps, stretched beyond their means. But there's little question that Clayton, while still a work-in-progress, is a major talent. And his intentions of fulfilling his promise were in full view on this afternoon. Bassist Joe Sanders and drummer Justin Brown, retained from the Two-Shade recording, thundered admirably behind the pianist, often exchanging laughs and nods of approval. Yet it was hard to shake the sense that this was Clayton's gig. That, while the trio's music meshed, the pianist nevertheless was (or was wishing to be) a player apart.


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