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35th Annual Tri-C JazzFest Cleveland

35th Annual Tri-C JazzFest Cleveland
C. Andrew Hovan By

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Playhouse Square
Tri-C JazzFest Cleveland
Cleveland, Ohio
June 26-28, 2014

For the first time in 35 years, Cuyahoga Community College's annual jazz festival received a major makeover via the shift from a two week event in April to a three day happening in June. Also key to this paradigm shift was a move of all concerts downtown to the newly rededicated Playhouse Square. With the second most significant theater district in the country next to New York City, Cleveland boasts four beautifully appointed theaters right in the heart of downtown and the twelve ticketed concerts were spread among these venues during the weekend festivities.

If the main shows didn't provide enough food for thought, there also happened to be seventeen free shows spanning several genres that mingled with various food venders in the US Bank Plaza. In its spirit and attempt to establish a wider awareness of the music, the set up mirrored what takes place along Woodward Avenue during the Detroit Jazz Festival. That's probably no coincidence, seeing that JazzFest director Terri Pontremoli recently served a five-year stint as director of Detroit's festival before returning home to her native Cleveland.

The festival kicked off with a Thursday evening performance by Sean Jones and his quartet, which was then followed by artist-in-residence Christian McBride taking the stage with the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra. Throughout Friday and Saturday a range of styles filled the bill, including a sold out set by Gregory Porter, the Latin stylings of Raul Midon, and a performance by fusion icons Marcus Miller and Dave Koz.

This reviewer's Friday evening started with a set by John Scofield and his group Uberjam. The guitarist cheery picked some of the best tunes from the group's recent album Uberjam Deux and it proved to be a well-rounded recital that never did manage to wear out its welcome even with the plethora of electronic effects.

"Cracked Ice" provided the type of groove that Scofield thrives on, with Avi Bortnick providing the wah-wah effects as a support. Drummer Tony Mason's slamming two and four anchored "Boogie Stupid," while Scofield closed his eyes and let loose a string of his signature bop-inflected runs. By contrast, the reggae vibe of "Dub Dub" offered some of Scofield's most melodic work of the evening and "Endless Summer" struck a chord akin to vintage Metheny Group material, thus making it one of the crowd pleasers of the set.

For the second half of the show, the stage was struck and a party atmosphere ensued with the appearance of Trombone Shorty and his group Orleans Avenue. Shorty, whose real name is Troy Andrews, managed to stir up the crowd like he has done previous times at the festival, but his range of emotions is quite narrow and everything seemed to steam along on one setting. For what it is, the crowd definitely responded favorably, but save for a nostalgic take on "Sunny Side of the Street," much of the evening was filled with high octane blasts that were fueled by a decidedly rock inspired muse.

Rounding out Friday evening's offerings was the return of Eddie Palmieri and his orchestra. Making his third appearance at the festival, the 77-year-old dynamo shows no signs of slowing down and his ten piece ensemble lit up the night with its incendiary grooves. Lead singer Herman Olivera is somewhat of a powerhouse himself, able to enunciate the trickiest of Spanish lyrics with grace and enthusiasm. Although seemingly modest by outward appearances, tres player Nelson Gonzalez was featured at length on two occasions and played with nothing less than inspired abandon.

Also integral to the presentation were bassist Luques Curtis and trombonist Conrad Herwig. As Eddie led the band from behind his keyboard, Curtis could be seen smiling from ear to ear, his foundation being the buoy in a sea of musical commotion. A regular of the Palmieri fold for over 30 years, Herwig's solos were full of urgency, particularly on the iconic centerpiece of the set, "Azucar Pa' Ti."

The next day got off to a rocky start as a crowd bursting at the seams was forced to wait in the lobby for a late sound check to finish, delaying the start of Eliane Elias set by almost an hour. The pianist/vocalist then took the stage for a brief recital that seemed just a bit too trite to really stand out beyond the type of presentation heard in a typical cocktail bar. The Brazilian numbers like "Chega De Saudade" and "So Danco Samba" were the pick of the lot, while the Chet Baker-related material from her latest album was much less effective. As bassist Marc Johnson seemed almost aloof and blasé, drummer Rafael Barata would get to stoke the fires on a few occasions, his extended samba jams among the few highlights of the set.

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