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Charlotte Jazz Festival 2019

Charlotte Jazz Festival 2019

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Charlotte Jazz Festival
Charlotte, North Carolina
April 29 -May 4, 2019

Longtime Charlotte, North Carolina jazz fans have fond memories of JazzCharlotte, a free outdoor weekend jazz festival that ran for eight years from 1986 to 1993. A spinoff from the popular SpringFest, it was a Fall festival that included stages presenting jazz, blues and gospel. Among the wide range of performers: flutist Herbie Mann, touch guitarist Stanley Jordan, blues performer Taj Mahal, pianist Dave Brubeck, The Modern Jazz Quartet, saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera, pianist Les McCann and saxophonist Eddie Harris, South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, New Orleans legend Dr. John, pianist Ahmad Jamal, the Count Basie Orchestra (led by saxophonist Frank Foster), pianist Ramsey Lewis, jazz guitar legends Herb Ellis and Barney Kessel, Ethiopian singer Aster Aweke, saxophonist Lou Donaldson, and pianist Don Pullen.

That festival managed to survive the pullout of a major sponsor and a change of venue. But 1994 saw a move to the nearby Carowinds amusement park grounds and an admission charge, a blow from which the festival never recovered. When the idea was resurrected in 2015 by Blumenthal Performing Arts they grew the festival gradually, incorporating a mix of free and paid admission concerts. The whole idea was suggested by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who has been involved as a performer all along. It's a model similar to the one followed by the Montréal International Jazz Festival, although on a smaller scale.

Monday, April 29

Calvin Edwards Trio

Charlotte guitarist Calvin Edwards kicked off the festival's Lunch Hour Jazz Performances series, free outdoor shows from local and regional acts at the Jazz Pavilion at Levine Center for the Arts downtown, with his organ trio (although the festival labelled the first paid concert as the kickoff concert). The Pavilion is an outdoor stage with a tent surrounding the stage and a tent roof providing the audience protection from sun and rain— although it was not sufficient for the torrential thunderstorm on Saturday (more on that later). This is a classic soul jazz trio, but with a modern touch: think George Benson (or possibly Norman Brown), rather than Jimmy Smith. Edwards has the Benson bit of scatting with his guitar down, and his wireless connection to his guitar amp gave him the freedom to walk freely around the stage and into the audience.

Like Benson in his early days, he sings only part of the time. He sang "The Nearness of You" in traditional standard style, although they went up-tempo for the guitar solo. "Over The Rainbow" (from the movie The Wizard of Oz) continued the standards. But the funk tune "It's A Shame" (from The Spinners) brought things back into more contemporary stylistic territory, with significant contributions from organist Samuel Obie and drummer Fred Dunlap. The set concluded with a vocal version of Brook Benton's "Rainy Night In Georgia," a song that connected with everyone in the audience, jazz fans or not.

Tuesday, April 30


Airstream is a fusion jazz band based in Charlotte that has been active since 2006. Currently made up of guitarist/composer Andre Ferreri, keyboardist/composer Mark Stallings, electric bassist Dave Vergato, and drummer Alfred Sergel IV, their music recalls models like Weather Report and Pat Metheny. But it's a kinder, gentler version of fusion: core soloist Ferreri is currently playing a semi-hollow guitar with no electronic effects, so the sound is somewhat closer to mainstream jazz than the classic models. Stallings contributed a tune with a lovely unaccompanied piano introduction, as well as a lyrical fretless bass solo from Vergato.

"Intercontinental" featured an 11/8 riff, and a drum solo by Sergel in call-and-response with the band. Ferreri joked that the audience didn't know about the time signature, but neither did the band. Maybe they'd play it better next time! They played the title tune from their most recent album Relatively Speaking (Laser Records, 2018), as well as "First Impressions." Another original, "Velvet Flowers" featured a bridge with a hard Latin groove and a grooving solo from bassist Vergato. The band played one cover for contrast: Horace Silver's funky "The Jody Grind" (the title tune of Silver's 1966 Blue Note Records album).

Wednesday, May 1

Ariel Pocock Quartet

Pianist/vocalist Ariel Pocock and her quartet mainly focused on American standard songs. The languid, bluesy swing of "You Won't Be Satisfied (Until You Break My Heart)" featured her vocals. The song has a long history, having been introduced by Doris Day, then covered by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, and others. "My Shining Hour" found her at the center of the stage, singing a duet with featured guitarist Keith Ganz, which included a scat duel between guitar and voice. Cole Porter's "So In Love" was recorded on her album Living In Twilight (Justin Time Records, 2017), and returned to full band format.

Her version of Willie Nelson's "Crazy" began with a free rubato trio opening (with Ganz, double bassist Paul Creel and drummer Kobie Watkins, who led his own band later in the festival). Pocock initially overlaid her vocals, a remarkable display of grace under pressure. The band finally slid into a clear song form at the bridge. "Come What May" was given a Latin arrangement, featuring an extended (very fast) piano solo, a convincing shift in focus from the leader. It also included guitar and double bass solos. Pocock's original "Will I Ever Be In Love Again" was a ballad with deliberate nods towards The Great American Songbook. "I Thought About You" found Pocock strictly on vocals again, accompanied by the trio. The group played a swinging instrumental blues to close. There would be more from Pocock as pianist later in the festival.

Camille Thurman and The Darrell Green Trio with special guest Wynton Marsalis

Saxophonist/vocalist Camille Thurman was named a Rising Star by DownBeat Magazine. She considers trumpeter/Jazz at Lincoln Center director Wynton Marsalis to be her mentor, so it was not surprising to hear a program with a mainstream jazz bent. But the first tune was an original: "Origins" was fast bebop, with Thurman's tenor saxophone the main focus. Her playing has a warm tone, reminiscent of someone like bebop player Dexter Gordon, with even a hint of Swing era players like Coleman Hawkins. The standard "My Heart Belongs To Daddy" was played upbeat, with a Latin feel, and included a fine unaccompanied double bass introduction from Devin Starks.

Thurman recently began a project revisiting composer/pianist Horace Silver's trio of vocal albums for Blue Note Records collectively titled The United States of Mind (1970-72). Her first vocal of the concert was "Love Vibrations," immediately establishing her voice as a more powerful emotional instrument than her saxophone (despite her considerable saxophone technique). There was another lyrical double bass solo as well. "Forever Is a Long Long Time" was introduced by trio leader Darrell Green's unaccompanied drumming with mallets. Thurman introduced her original "In Due Time" as a conscious blending of Brazilian music and bebop. After a vocalise introduction with only drum accompaniment the theme was indeed an intricate bebop samba. Here as elsewhere pianist Keith Brown shone as both accompanist and soloist.

Guest trumpeter Wynton Marsalis was introduced, and the band launched into an up-tempo Latin arrangement of saxophonist Sam Rivers' beautiful "Beatrice." Marsalis' playing was impeccable, as it was for the rest of the set. The standard "September In The Rain" was another vocal feature, with Marsalis contributing a muted trumpet solo. The standard "The Nearness of You" began with the infrequently-performed verse, unaccompanied, and benefited from another muted trumpet solo. "Bye Bye Blackbird" was another vocal, very fast! The performance included scatting, and call and response with the trumpet. An exciting end to the set, with sung goodbyes and player credits.

This concert was the first in the Jazz Garden Tent at Romare Bearden Park, a unique venue with amenities far beyond the usual tent (chandeliers, for example). The official festival program called it the kick off event, as it was the first of the formal ticketed concerts.

Thursday, May 2

Laura Reed

South African vocalist/multi instrumentalist Laura Reed (now based in North Carolina, and also active in Nashville) played the first show of the Jazz at the Pavilion series, a series of evening free concerts. Her style draws freely from rock, funk, blues and jazz, and she's a firecracker. Her backing band was making its first appearance in this configuration, but sounded like they had been together forever. "Silver Lining" was a funk-pop tune, but with the unusual addition of Reed's ukulele. "Wake Up" was propelled by a Motown beat, but her homage to Billie Holiday on "Fine And Mellow" stayed in traditional territory (with the modern touch of Reed walking through the audience with a wireless microphone).

Reed picked up an acoustic guitar for the original bossa nova from her album The Awakening (Five Foot Giant, 2014), followed by the vibrant 70s funk of her single "Shine." The arrangement of the Gershwin standard "Summertime" got a funk backbeat, while "Struggle" (also from the album) was a rousing Gospel anthem. The final number was an homage to the Alan Lomax field recording that was Reed's introduction to the blues. She picked up a harmonica, then quickly switched to another in the correct key, joking "they all look the same." She and the band launched into "Lord I Just Can't Keep From Crying." Reed was just as convincing as blues harp player as she had been singing in all of the previous styles. The entire set was a terrific demonstration of passion and energy.

Havana Nights with Gino Castillo & the Cuban Cowboys

Back to the Jazz Garden Tent for a night of hot salsa with conguero Gino Castillo (based in Charleston, South Carolina) and his band, a sextet with two tenor saxophonists (Eric Schoor & Michael Quinn) , piano (Venezuelan Abdiel Iriarte, also musical director), bass guitar (Jake Holwegner), timbales/percussion (Matthew Kilby) and the leader on congas. The group has a weekly residency in Charleston. The set began with a definite nod towards having two tenor players at a jazz festival: "Tenor Madness," Sonny Rollins' famous duel with John Coltrane. Castillo announced that there was space in front of the stage for dancing, and the band was accompanied by La Quinn Mims (a salsa dancer/instructor from Houston, Texas) who was soon were out in the audience recruiting partners.

Cuban songs constituted most of the remainder of the set, vocals with several band members singing the coro call and response backup. The first was a mambo, followed by an arrangement of another well-known song. Castillo said that every Cuban music show was bound to include a version of "Guantanamera." After 40 years of playing it, the band decided to combine it with a cha-cha, resulting in "Chanchanamera." Not just a novelty, the arrangement presented a truly novel view of the standard, with the original song clearly recognizable. The Bill Withers song "Just The Two Of Us" featured both saxophonists in different roles: Michael Quinn on vocals and shekere, and Eric Schoor playing flute.

The groove was the main thing. But both saxophonists (Schoor especially) heated things up with powerful solos all night, as did pianist Abdiel. And a salsa performance would not be complete without percussion spotlights. Castillo announced the final tune "Que Bola?" ("What's Happening?") with a final injunction for the whole audience to dance. Many followed the call, including this reporter. Salsa is great for listening, but it's even better for dancing!

Friday, May 3

JazzArts All-Star Youth Ensemble

Local arts organization JazzArtsCharlotte has been promoting jazz in Charlotte for ten years, and there has always been a substantial educational component. The JazzArts All- Star Youth Ensemble is composed of some of the best young players from the program: Veronica Leahy, saxophone; Aron Stornaioulo, guitar & vocals; Lovell Bradford Jr, bass; Taylor Scott- Whiteside, vocalist; and DJ Bellinger, percussion.

They opened with the funky groove of organist Richard "Groove" Holmes' "Sweatin.'" Aron Stornaioulo's creative arrangement of pianist/composer Thelonious Monk's "Epistrophy" featured his vocals on the head, with baritone saxophone. Pianist/composer Chick Corea's "Windows" is an early classic of his, which featured Leahy on flute. The standard "There Will Never Be Another You" included guitar and saxophone trading fours in the established bebop style. Saxophonist John Coltrane's "Lonnie's Lament" was modeled on saxophonist Kenny Garrett's version.

Vocalist Taylor Scott joined the band onstage for "Centerpiece," a song written by Harry Edison and Jon Hendricks, most associated with the jazz vocal group Lambert. The performance included another section of trading fours, this time between alto saxophone, guitar and drums. Composer Duke Ellington's "Mood Indigo" followed, then John Coltrane's "Like Sonny." The performance of saxophonist Sonny Rollins' "rhythm changes" tune "Oleo" (i.e. a song based on the chord changes of "I've Got Rhythm") included a little girl dancing at the side of the stage. Apparently she did not get the memo that bebop was forbidding, abstract music. The closing standard "All The Things You Are" was sung by Stornaioulo, featuring a bit of George Benson-style scatting along with his guitar.

Very impressive young players: in the words of The Who, the kids are alright.

The festival included additional educational components. On Saturday the Loonis McGlohon Young Jazz Artist Competition gave young players the opportunity to compete for scholarships provided by The Leon Levine Foundation, with judging by musicians from the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. And there was a Jazz Band Showcase on the Jazz at the Pavilion stage which featured local college big bands, opened by the University of North Carolina at Charlotte band led by Will Campbell.

Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra Presents Wynton Marsalis' Spaces featuring dancers Jared Grimes and Myles Yachts

Spaces combines modern dance with big band jazz in a delightful exploration of the animal kingdom, portrayed in movement and sound. Debuted in 2016, the piece has 10 movements, each representing a different animal. Music director/trombonist Chris Crenshaw introduced each movement from the stage (filling in for composer Wynton Marsalis, who did not appear in this performance). The script explored the archetypal nature of the animals, making frequent reference to folklore. Dancers Myles Yachts (a "jookin" dance artist) and Jared Grimes (a tap artist) further illustrated the portraits with movement, frequently interacting with the music and the orchestra members.

"Ch-Ch-Ch-Chicken" began this colorful set of program music, accompanying very expressive "chicken" dancing, including a rhythmic tap solo. "Monkey In A Tree" built to a chattering cacophony at one point, and featured a solo from trumpeter Marcus Printup. "Pachyderm Shout" was the elephant movement. The introduction made reference to elephants as the first trumpeters, inspiring Crenshaw to ad-lib "who wrote this script?" The writing featured the low instruments, emulating the slow movement of these massive animals. The introduction to "Leap Frogs" mentioned that frogs often portend bad news, and mentioned famous frogs like the Muppet Kermit. The dancers took the leap frog title to heart, making ever more extravagant leaps. "Mr. Penguin Please" described penguins as the most sociable birds. The dancers donned black jackets and hats to imitate the bird's tuxedo-like camouflage, and once again took the animals movements as their starting point. Victor Goines was featured on clarinet.

After an intermission, "Like a Snake" portrayed the male sexuality and virility, as well as the evil, deceptive nature as the animal is often portrayed. Soloists were flutist Ted Nash and tenor saxophonist Camille Thurman. "Those Sanctified Swallows" celebrates the great distances these birds travel to return home. "A Nightingale" depicts what is arguably the most musical of birds. Nightingales sing all night as well as at daybreak, and have a large repertoire of songs, making them the bird most like jazz musicians. Solos from trumpeter Ryan Kisor and alto saxophonist Ted Nash sung their own songs. "King Lion" takes its inspiration from the fierce warrior nature of the animal, who must fight to retain dominance. It included a remarkable tap danced "drum solo," and piccolo soloist Sherman Irby. "Bees Bees Bees" concluded the suite. Bees are often thought of as a bridge to the sacred world, and in contrast to the lion, the queen runs the show. The music made deliberate reference to the famous Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov composition "Flight of the Bumblebee." Instead of imitating bees, the dancers emulated a bee attack!

Spaces is a rich score, with space for broad tonal color and humor. It could certainly stand alone in an audio recording, but the presentation is immeasurably enhanced by the dancing. It is a musical and visual treat in concert.

Sharp Nine Sextet

Sharp Nine Sextet is named after the Sharp Nine Gallery Jazz Club, a long-standing club in Durham, NC that is part of the nonprofit Durham Jazz Workshop (which promotes jazz education and performance). The members hail from all over North Carolina (or used to, at the time the group was formed): Will Campbell (alto saxophone & arrangements); Dave Finucane (tenor saxophone); Evan Ringel (trombone); Ariel Pocock (piano); Jason Foureman (double bass); and Rick Dior (drums).

The set began with saxophonist/composer Wayne Shorter's "United," which gives a good indication of the group's modern jazz bent. Two of Will Campbell's compositions were included. "The Swinger and the Saint" is definitely a swinger, with an arrangement that gives the impression of a little big band. "Autumn Fall" is lighter and more lyrical, but still with swing at the forefront. Both appeared on The Unhinged Sextet's Don't Blink (OA2 Records, 2017), which documents Campbell's skill and familiarity with the sextet format.

Pianist/composer Horace Silver's "Gregory is Here" (the charming bossa nova composed to celebrate the birth of his son) showed another side of the band. The set concluded with the Cole Porter standard "Night and Day" (with substitute changes by saxophonist Joe Henderson). Strong playing by everyone, but it was especially notable for showing a very different side of Pocock's piano playing from the performance earlier in the week with her own quartet—one with more energy (and technique) on display.

Saturday, May 4

Groove 8

Groove 8 was founded in Charlotte in 2005 by a group of experimental jazz musicians interested in pursuing funk-based music. They are an octet with three saxophones, guitar, electric bass, drums, and conga/percussion. "RPM"—the title tune of their album RPM, Volume One (Self Produced, 2018)—demonstrated their brand of hot instrumental funk, spotlighting Tony McCullough's wailing alto saxophone solo and a keyboard coda from Jah Will Pinson rich in polyphony: almost like anthemic prog rock.

"The Dream" introduced McCullough's sweet falsetto vocals, and a soul side of the band. "Time And Place" went into Afrobeat territory, and at one point saxophonist Eric Paine played tenor and soprano saxophones simultaneously (like Rahsaan Roland Kirk). The second-line strut of "Bourbon Street" was dedicated to New Orleans, and the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Finding themselves with three minutes to fill, the group showed their experimental roots by improvising their final piece: a Latin groove and a melody line that sounded like they had been playing it forever.

Groove 8: rarely has a band name been so descriptive.

Tim Scott and Friends

Drummer Tim Scott programmed this set as a homage to the great hard bop quintets, opening with the exciting Art Blakey and the The Jazz Messengers arrangement of composers Juan Tizol and Duke Ellington's "Caravan" from Caravan (Riverside Records, 1963). Scott introduced the band: pianist Howard McNair, double bassist Chris Sharp (a left-handed player, something rarely seen), trumpeter Lynn Trissett, and saxophonist Marcus Jones. Saxophonist/composer Wayne Shorter's "Witch Hunt" from Speak No Evil (Blue Note Records, 1966) was introduced by an unaccompanied alto saxophone solo. Similarly, an unaccompanied double bass solo introduced pianist/composer Herbie Hancock's "Dolphin Dance" from Maiden Voyage (Blue Note Records, 1965),

Back to the Jazz Messengers book next, with pianist Bobby Timmons' "Moanin'" from Moanin' (Blue Note Records, 1959). An unaccompanied piano solo introduced Herbie Hancock's "Maiden Voyage" (the title tune of that album), surely one of the most iconic tunes of the era. The set closed with Wayne Shorter's "Yes Or No" from Juju (Blue Note Records, 1965), which Scott introduced with an unaccompanied drum solo. A terrific selection of classic hard bop tunes, this performance was a treat for fans of the era—and hopefully an introduction for audience members new to this music.

The Gentlemen of Jazz, and rain!

The Jazz Garden Tent hosted three sets led by members of the Lincoln Center Orchestra on the final night. But before the evening began, nature intervened with a torrential thunderstorm. Unlike some festivals, this one is not entirely reliant upon good weather. But weather this bad had an impact beyond the capacity of the covered outdoor spaces. It forced the Jazz at the Pavilion show into the much smaller Knight Underground nearby (the speakeasy-themed basement space that hosted the late night jams on Friday and Saturday). And it delayed the show in the Jazz Garden Tent at Romare Bearden Park. The stage area took on a lot of water, despite the substantial roof and siding surrounding it. The audience was greeted by a team of technicians attempting to dry off the grand piano! The decision was taken to start the show acoustically.

Paul Nedzela Quartet

Baritone saxophonist Paul Nedzela took up the challenge, which required shortening his set, as well as leaving out some of the louder tunes (not to mention making announcements without the aid of a microphone). Vibraphonist/pianist Victor Feldman's swinging "Lisa" opened, with pianist Dan Nimmer going above and beyond by reaching inside the piano to unstick damp piano hammers. The original "A Call Beyond" was second, followed by pianist/composer Herbie Hancock's "Empty Pockets" from his debut album Takin' Off (Blue Note Records, 1962). But first there was a brief pause to unstick some wet sheet music. Saxophonist Charles McPherson's "Horizons" was next: this was certainly a "deep cuts" selection, which was further illustrated by the song "Portrait of Jennie" from the movie of the same name.

Nedzela had already acknowledged Nimmer, so he introduced double bassist Yasushi Nakamura (definitely the MVP of the set, having to work the hardest to be heard acoustically—especially with a festival bass) and drummer Rodney Green. Nedzela switched to soprano saxophone for the original "Third Quarter," demonstrating equal skill with the smaller horn. Brazilian composer and multi-instrumentalist Hermeto Pascoal provided the next tune, a piano/baritone saxophone duet. The set ended with pianist/composer Chick Corea's "Humpty Dumpty" from The Mad Hatter (Polydor, 1978). The whole performance was memorable: a rare opportunity to hear jazz in its original acoustic state, and a testament to the flexibility of Nedzela and the members of his quartet.

Kenny Rampton Octet presents "The Paradise Blue Suite"

A long intermission gave the technicians enough time to refresh the stage setup, making it safe to restore amplification and stage lighting. JLCO trumpeter Kenny Rampton presented a suite of original music composed for award-winning playwright Dominique Morisseau's play Paradise Blue. The play is about a Detroit trumpeter named Blue; Rampton introduced each of the four movements with a description of the characters and action in the play.

"Clyde's Lament" depicts Blue's father Clyde, also a trumpeter, and founder of The Paradise jazz club. Clyde does not actually appear in the play, but his personality underlies much of the action. "Pumpkin Seed" is about a character named Pumpkin, the most positive character in the play. It begins in 3/4 time in a major key (happy sounding), but moves into 4/4 time with blue notes to reflect the richness of the character, as Rampton came to understand her. "Silver Spider Walk" describes a femme fatale named Silver, who is like a Black Widow spider: all of the men she knows wind up dead. Finally, "Blue's Changes" depicts Blue finding his own way with Clyde's melody, illustrated by call and response from trumpeters Ryan Kisor and Marcus Printup. There was a full orchestration of the theme, followed by a return to the bluesy bass ostinato and a free-sounding horn conversation.

Rampton noted that the suite was not long enough for a full set. So the band played composers Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn's "Big Fat Alice's Blues." The JLCO arrangement was designed to give the brass a rest, and this one likewise featured the saxophones. The set concluded with a rare vocal from Rampton: "On The Sunny Side Of The Street" which has been strongly associated with fellow trumpeter Louis Armstrong.

Carlos Henriquez presents "Dizzy Con Clave"

Double bassist Carlos Henriquez closed the concert with a tribute to bebop trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, a pioneer in integrating Cuban rhythms with modern jazz. The band was a nonet: flute & vocals; tenor saxophone; trombone; two trumpets; piano; double bass; and two percussionists (congas & timbales). Several band members also contributed to the vocal coro, singing call and response with the lead vocalist. The set began with the obvious starting point, the classic "Manteca." Arguably the foundation of Afro-Cuban jazz, it was co-written by Dizzy Gillespie, Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo and arranger Gil Fuller.

Gillespie's "Kush" was played in an Afro-Cuban 6/8, and featured pianist Rodney Rodriguez, followed by "Grooving High." The ballad "Con Alma" was played as a danzon, and included trumpeters Jonathan Powell and Ryan Kisor in call and response. Gillespie's second most well known composition "A Night In Tunisia" featured a duel percussion solo, an exciting addition to an always-exciting piece. The set concluded with "Be-Bop," another core Gillespie composition, which also included a dual percussion solo.

Some of these Gillespie compositions are obvious choices for Afro-Cuban treatment. But even the ones that are not sounded completely natural with these arrangements and this group of players. An exciting end to the festival. The whole evening proved that the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra embraces a much broader array of approaches to jazz than is commonly assumed.

Photo Credit: Brian Twitty

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