Jazz is unpredictable. So is Mother Nature.
During the 2004 Jacksonville Jazz Festival, the two joined forces for an extended jam session along the banks of the St. Johns River. Sometimes it was musical bliss, other times it was a soaking mess.
But the music still swung like crazy.
For four days beginning April 29 and ending May 2, a total of nearly 22,000 music lovers were treated to all kinds of jazz at five different venues in downtown Jacksonville, Fla. — Metropolitan Park; the Jacksonville Landing; the Ritz Theatre and LaVilla Museum; the Adam's Mark Hotel; and the Florida Theatre. Unfortunately, without the aid of cloning technology, it was nearly impossible to cover every single act that performed. So here is just a sampling of what transpired.
Friday night at the Ritz
When trumpeter Theo Croker was asked which artist he was most looking forward to seeing at the festival, he named the guy who played right after him at the Ritz Theatre — pianist Marcus Roberts.
"I always looked up to him," Croker said before the show. "I always miss him [perform]. Now’s my big chance to hear him."
Joined by Roland Guerin on bass and Jason Marsalis on drums, Roberts, who has been blind since he was 5, dazzled the audience with his amazing technique on compositions mostly from jazz’s early years.
He took Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer" and turned it into something completely different — he sped things up for a few measures, returned to the original tempo, and later gave it a bossa beat. Roberts also put his touch on a few Jelly Roll Morton tunes, Duke Ellington's "Take the Coltrane," and Joplin's "Real Slow Drag," from the opera "Treemonisha."
Croker's 15-member big band kicked off the evening. He doodled on the trumpet for a couple of minutes before the band jumped into the Miles Davis classic "Milestones." Before the band played the first two movements of John Coltrane's masterpiece, "A Love Supreme," Croker told the audience that they would be playing the song "spiritually."
"That's all we can handle," Croker said. "This piece is hard."
Croker's band, which performed Duke Ellington selections at last year's festival, only had two rehearsals as a whole; most of the practice was handled individually.
It's not enough that Croker is taking classes toward his jazz performance degree at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio; he wants to try touring when the semesters are in full-swing.
"I want to work every day of the year," Croker said. "I get lots of ideas in my head."
It was a reunion of sorts for Croker and tenor saxophonist Napoleon Andrews; they hadn't played together in about four years. They knew each other from their younger days in Leesburg.
"I’m happy to be back," Andrews said.
Andrews is now a senior at the University of North Florida majoring in corporate finance, but music hasn't left his side.
"I’ve been doing it all my life," Andrews said.
A sunny, soggy Saturday at the park
When Joe Gilman, the winner of the 2004 Great American Jazz Piano Competition, took to the stage at Metropolitan Park noon Saturday, a few clouds could be seen in the sky. By the time saxophonist Branford Marsalis played his last note around 6:30 p.m., the heavens opened up for another round of rain, forcing festival officials to cancel the rest of the evening's acts. In between the rain drops, concertgoers who set up their lawn chairs and blankets on the park's grassy area got to hear very diverse sounds of jazz.
After Gilman's set, the Poncho Sanchez Latin Jazz Band — which featured Sanchez on congas; a blazing horn section; and a rhythm section featuring auxiliary percussion — took to the stage, playing such Latin numbers as "Ven Pa Bailar," "Sambia," and "Conmigo."
"If the weather holds up, we'll be all right," Sanchez told the audience. Mother Nature listened.
During the hour-long set, several people felt the urge to dance to the sounds of Sanchez's band. Sanchez and company took a funky turn with its rendition of James Brown's classic "Out of Sight," featuring blistering solos from the horns.
Just before 3 p.m., the showers rolled in as vocalist Michael Bublé started his set.
"Jacksonville rain or shine, baby," Bublé told the audience. At one point, he told the thunder to "shut up."
Backed with a four-piece horn section and rhythm section, the energetic Canadian crooner took on shades of a young Frank Sinatra as he sang swing standards as "All of Me," "Come Fly with Me," and "The Way You Look Tonight."
A throng of teenage girls gathered near the fence separating the VIP seating area. The instant they saw Bublé walk to the front microphone, the screams ensued. He then asked his fans if they wanted to come in closer to the stage; security personnel eventually let them in, and they all huddled under the canopy to escape some of the rain.
Just before the band finished "Summer Wind," lightning knocked the power out. Two girls seated up front shouted to the band to keep playing, that they didn't need microphones. During the lull, Bublé decided to head down to the audience and sign autographs. Soon enough, the power was restored, and Bublé returned to the stage to snap off the slinky "Fever."
By contrast, vocalist Lizz Wright didn't have quite the energetic wit with the audience like Bublé did. She didn't employ any dance moves or jokes. She just sang her heart out.
"We’ll try to have a good time real quick," Wright told the crowd.
The rain let up as Wright performed songs from her debut album "Salt," which included the funk-laced spiritual "Walk With Me Lord," "Soon as I Get Home," and put more Latin back into "Open Your Eyes, You Can Fly." She also put her stamp on Eden Ahbez's "Nature Boy." Deanna Witkowski, the winner of the 2002 Great American Jazz Piano Competition, tickled the ivories during Wright's set.
Around 5:30 p.m., Branford Marsalis' quartet took to the stage —- Marsalis on tenor and soprano saxophones, Joey Calderazzo on piano, Eric Revis on bass, and Jeff "Tain" Watts on drums.
"Hi there," Marsalis told the audience. "Thank you for sticking around."
They jumped into the Latin-tinged "In the Crease," with Watts goading the others along during their extended solos. As the quartet played the slow bossa nova feel of "Ruby and the Pearl," the rain and lightning returned from its break. Sadly, because of the weather, Marsalis was the last to perform at Metropolitan Park that day. Jazz fans would have to wait until Sunday to refresh their fill of the music, which included performances from Keiko Matsui and George Benson.
Still, with musicians of this caliber on Saturday, six and a half hours of jazz at the park are better than none at all.
Reprinted with permission from The Villages Daily Sun, Lady Lake, Fla.