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Charlotte Jazz Festival 2019

Perry Tannenbaum By

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With his customary cool, Marsalis mostly contented himself with narrating the proceedings from his seat in the back row with the other top brass. He stood up from that perch just once during his hosting chores, and interestingly enough, set off his signature trumpet pyrotechnics during "Old Man Blues," with [Wycliffe] Gordon engaging in battle and the whole trumpet section whipping out two-tone derby hats to wah-wah the out-chorus.
Patina Miller, The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, The Future of Jazz Orchestra, Maria Muldaur, Carlos Henriquez, Paul Nedzela, and Donna Hopkins
Charlotte Jazz Festival
Charlotte, NC
May 1-4, 2019

Presented by the Leon Levine Foundation and staged by Blumenthal Performing Arts, the Charlotte Jazz Festival is continuing to grow incrementally in its fourth season. Despite some egregious rookie mistakes—the opening two-day fest in 2016 fell on the first two nights of Passover!—this year's model ran like a Cadillac. Or perhaps it's better to say a Lincoln, since the influence of Wynton Marsalis and members of his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra has permeated this young-and-growing celebration since the beginning.

Rising vocalist and JLCO saxophonist Camille Thurman headlined the 2019 festival's kickoff event at Romare Bearden Park with the Darrell Green Trio and a guest appearance by Marsalis. Hanging around for a second night, Marsalis and some other venerable vets meshed with The Future of Jazz Orchestra at Knight Theater in a lively Duke Ellington retrospective. Marsalis was gone on the following night at the Knight, but his melodies lingered on in a concert-length performance of Spaces by the JLCO and two featured dancers, Jared Grimes and Myles Yachts.

Then on the final night, while Tony Award winner Patina Miller was delivering an electrifying tribute to North Carolina icon Nina Simone, three aces from the JLCO sidled over to the Jazz Tent at Romare Bearden Park, each leading his own combo in a straight-ahead marathon that played on for nearly five hours. That immersion, collectively titled "The Gentlemen of Jazz," was preceded the previous evening by "Ladies Sing the Blues"—ladies first, right?—which had nothing to do with either Lady Day or JLCO but plenty to do with the blues.

Bracing for the evening-long immersions on the last two nights, we began with The Future and the Duke, a new show that was headed to the Big Apple the following night. From the outset, with three horns—including Wycliffe Gordon's slide—launching "Black and Tan Fantasy," and plunger mutes sprouting everywhere, the show was ready for primetime. Among the elders, it would be Dan Block who would get the most solo space, particularly when he put down his tenor sax and picked his clarinet, as he did early on in "Stompy Jones."

With his customary cool, Marsalis mostly contented himself with narrating the proceedings from his seat in the back row with the other top brass. He stood up from that perch just once during his hosting chores, and interestingly enough, set off his signature trumpet pyrotechnics during "Old Man Blues," with Gordon engaging in battle and the whole trumpet section whipping out two-tone derby hats to wah-wah the out-chorus. Anchoring the rhythm section, bassist Rodney Whitaker played the most notes among the blue bloods, but the he split his time behind the upright with Endea Owens, one of the most promising of the young bloods.

Appropriately referencing Duke's first bassist in his introductory remarks, Marsalis programmed showcases for both Owens and Whitaker in "Portrait of Wellman Braud" and "Dancers in Love." Covering the '20s through the '40s before intermission, the band mostly stuck with familiar titles like "The Mooche," "Caravan," "Cottontail," "Sophisticated Lady," "Rockin' in Rhythm," and—after an apt anecdote about young Billy Strayhorn—"Take the A Train." Great intro to the Duke for newbies in arrangements suffused with authenticity.

Dealing with the '50s through the '70s after intermission, The Future was more eclectic and adventurous. Here we had "Royal Ancestry" from Duke's tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, "Anitra's Dance" from his adaptation of Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite, and a couple of samplings from his film score work, including "Almost Cried" from Anatomy of a Murder. Rarest and most unexpected of all, the concert ended with a dip into The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse and, after the hip reference to Marshall McLuhan as the Duke's inspiration, "Chinoiserie." Young Julian Lee excelled here on tenor sax, his second triumph of the evening after evoking memories of Ben Webster in "Cottontail."

Other standouts among the young lions included Patrick Bartley Jr doubling on alto sax and clarinet, Ben Cohen on bari, trumpeters Jumaane Smith and Noah Halpern, and trombonist Jeffery Miller. Gabe Schnider mostly strummed rhythm, but when he got the chance to solo on "Caravan," the guitarist delivered, and whether it was the "Dancers in Love" duet or the iconic "A Train" intro, Sean Mason was a consistent delight at the piano.

With Donna Hopkins, Deva Mahal, and Maria Muldaur playing title roles, the "Ladies Sing the Blues" triple header proved that the blues can be a very mixed bag. Hopkins and her youthful rhythm section took us down a "Dirty Alabama Road" in one song that was bluesy in a Joplinesque sort of way—Janis, not Scott—and mostly kept a torch-song tempo for her most distinctive originals, "Keep Talking Love" and "Heart Full of Love." Her guitar licks also had an edge that kept her blues-rock groove burning.

Muldaur came to the Jazz Tent with a bigger sound and naughtier intentions. Except for the flower that still adorns her hair, most people who remember Muldaur from her hit 1973 single, "Midnight at the Oasis," would be surprised at how the years have altered the artist. Her entire set distilled the spirit of her most recent album, the Grammy Award-nominated Don't You Feel My Leg (The Naughty Bawdy Blues of Blue Lu Barker)—until the obligatory "Oasis."

The irony is that, if you had explored the eponymous album where "Oasis" first appeared, you would have found Muldaur singing the very same Blue Lu and Danny Barker "Feel My Leg" blues at the dawn of her recording career, backed by a battery of horns and Dr. John twiddling the keys. So the real evolution is in the singing voice, evident in the first notes of "Georgia Grind," starting off her Barker family tribute. Considerable grit there, with the full mileage of all those years.
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