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Sarasota Jazz Festival hits 40 - under the stars

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It took an extra two years to get there, thanks to the pandemic. The Jazz Club of Sarasota's long-running jazz festival, held its 40th evening concert series March 16-19 with a wide range of talent—and a new venue.

The bulk of the festival was moved from indoor venues in and near downtown Sarasota to Nathan Benderson Park, right next to the facility's world-class rowing facility—where sprint rowing teams sometimes could be seen slicing through the water in training sessions.

With a full moon in view as the evenings progressed, the 2022 festival carried a most-appropriate theme: “Swinging under the stars.” (Wednesday night's opener featuring Houston Person & Friends, and John Pizzarelli & Catherine Russell, was moved indoors to Riverview Performing Arts Center because of a rainy weather forecast).

The scheduling gods enabled me to attend the final two evenings—and the music was splendid.

Friday night

Guitarist Russell Malone opened the Friday concert with the festival's house rhythm section, La Lucha. The Tampa-area trio – pianist John O'Leary III, bassist Alejandro Arenas and drummer Mark Feinman – adapt themselves well to every musical situation.

“I was here two years ago to play for you, but everything got canceled,” Malone told the crowd. After the COVID 19-related festival lull, he was happy to be back playing again.

His thick chords dominated extended takes of jazz and Great American Songbook fare. His solo introduction and coda added intimate melodic beauty to Burt Bacharach and Hal David's “Alfie.” The festival's music co-director, clarinetist Ken Peplowski, joined the fun for Malone's final number, the Benny Goodman quartet staple “Avalon.”

Pianist Shelly Berg's trio with Arenas and Feinman joined Tierney Sutton for the Friday night finale. The Los Angeles-based singer's exquisite creativity was on full display a she tackled material from her Sting Variations project, including “Driven to Tears” and “Fragile.”

She dedicated her take on “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” to March 2020—the month when the pandemic shut down the music industry—and pretty much everything else. Peplowski returned for Sutton's set closers: ethereal takes on a pair of Antonio Carlos Jobim compositions—“Retrato em Branco e Preto” (also known as Zingaro or Portrait in Black and White), and “Triste” (Wave).

Saturday night

La Lucha opened the festival finale. This adventurous unit puts its own stamp on a wide range of music, and does it well. Material from the band's 2020 Arbors Jazz debut, Everybody Wants to Rule the World, dominated the set.

Their groove and extended improvisations on the Tears for Fears title track, David Bowie's rock classic “Space Oddity” and Patrick Swayze's “She's Like the Wind” from the Dirty Dancing soundtrack were downright gorgeous.

Peplowski joined them for Arenas' tune “Por La Tarde” and saxophonist Houston Person joined for the trio's tribute composition “Blues for Houston Person.”

Before they were done, Cuban-born trumpeter Arturo Sandoval and his band transformed the closing set into a joyous Latin jazz dance party. Shifting between his horns, vocals, piano and a bit of percussion, Sandoval brought heat, exotic rhythms, intensity and sheer joy to the stage.

Highlights included his takes on Cuban composer Moisés Simons' 1933 hit son-pregón “El Manisero” (The Peanut Vendor) and Clifford Brown's jazz chestnut “Joy Spring,” the latter with an added Latin flair.

He also walked into the audience to share a gentle take on Charlie Chaplin's ballad “Smile.” The band closed things out with an original that was rooted in Cuban jazz but also had the propulsion and feel of Afro-pop, underscoring how close the world is when it comes to its music.

The Jazz Club of Sarasota gave its annual Satchmo Award to Shelly Berg, who this year became the festival's co-music director. He was honored for his lifetime contributions to jazz as a performer, arranger, educator, producer and broadcaster.

He's been a passionate jazz educator since the late 1970s. In addition to leading the University of Miami's Frost School of Music for the past 15 years, Berg is music director of The Jazz Cruise. He's a past president of the defunct International Association of Jazz Education.

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