Cuyahoga Community College
April 2-13, 2003
Now in its 24th season, the nation’s premier educational jazz festival gets things swinging in Cleveland, a town better known for rock and roll, for a few weeks every spring. This year’s program was as eventful as in previous years, a fact that seems even more significant considering the woes of our post 9/11 economy. Putting in time with the youngsters as “artists in residence” were drummer Dennis Mackrel and trumpeter Terrence Blanchard, along with a bevy of local jazz talents. As has been the case for several years now, the most interesting concerts from a jazz purist’s standpoint have been the ones that take place at clubs or the smaller halls on the Tri-C campus. This was even more so the norm this time around, as the big ticket events skirted ever so dangerously close to music with a marginal jazz interest, namely the double bill with Al Green and Lizz Wright and a fusion extravaganza with Jeff Lorber, Gerald Albright, Richard Elliot, and Marion Meadows. These are not the kind of gigs one usually associates with traditional jazz fests, but I’m sure they helped pay the bills for what is certainly a huge undertaking each year.
Among the highlights this year, a savvy performance from the Greg Osby Four took place at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland. As a venue, this spot has its problems, but the set-up this year in terms of sound and lighting was superior to previous efforts. Osby was debuting a new group of young lions that had been on the road for just a week or so prior to this gig. With Matt Brewer on bass, Mike Moreno on guitar, and Damion Reed on drums, Osby opened up with the familiar standard “Bluesette,” proceeding to make the piece his own with the type of angular and quirky lines that have marked his work since the M-Base years. As for his unusual choice in tunes, he commented that these kinds of standards were like “old hats that we wear like new accessories.”
The Andrew Hill ballad “Ashes” gave Osby more than ample space to flex his chops as a balladeer, an area that in the past has been a weak link for the alto man. Another “old hat” worthy of sporting, Lou Donaldson’s “Alligator Boogaloo” kept its funk outlook but was expanded immeasurably by Osby’s smart arrangement, one that also varied the solo order for a bit more variety. The only real misfire was a stab at Joni Mitchell’s “Ethiopia” which seemed to lose its way, meandering off base and eventually wearing out its welcome.
As for Osby’s cohorts, guitarist Moreno was probably the least distinctive of the lot with a reticence that made him blend far too much into the background. By contrast, drummer Damion Reid was both a pleasure to hear and see, his head bent down in dogged concentration as he navigated such gems as “Jitterbug Waltz” and the closing Charlie Parker opus “Big Foot.” Although this group still doesn’t have the idiosyncratic edge of previous Osby incarnations, namely his last ensemble with Jason Moran, it has potential to develop into a solid forum for Osby’s creative muses.
Although he’s recently signed with Blue Note Records and continues to make a name for himself as a composer of film scores and the like, Terrence Blanchard’s evening set at Tri-C’s main auditorium was a mixed bag in more than one way. Following his a cappella reading of “Amazing Grace” which got things under way, the trumpeter and his sextet cut a wide path through a program of hard bop ditties and a few world music items that found guitarist Lionel Loueke humming along with his guitar lines and throwing in what sounded like some Swahili phrases to boot. On a whole, it was the guitarist’s efforts that seemed the most unusual and superfluous. On a Brazilian tune by Ivan Lins, Loueke’s guitar took on an odd and muted color that was somewhat less than flattering of his limited scope as an improviser.
Although a bit derivative, Blanchard was heard at his best on a piece written for a documentary on artist Fred Brown. With a head very much in style with classic Ornette lines of the ‘60s, the piece also allowed stand in tenor man Walter Smith to flex some Shorterish chops of his own. As with Osby’s band, Blanchard’s drummer, Eric Harland, was responsible for creating much of the fire needed to spur things on. Still, there was a sense of self-indulgence on a whole that proved a bit too much to overcome in terms of audience interest.
Doing a complete 360, drummer Matt Wilson had no trouble keeping his fans entranced with his every move, the shame being that no more than a couple dozen people made it for his quartet’s two sets in the tavern at the Beachland Ballroom. Saxophonists Andrew D’Angelo and Jeff Lederer blended perfectly throughout, each one having his own particular style as well. While Lederer was the more introverted of the pair, D’Angelo (clad in a bright red jumpsuit with various adornments) created contrast with a hyper kinetic personality that even found him jumping up and down and landing on his knees in an attempt to reach for certain notes. While as demur as Lederer, bassist Yosuke Inoue was no less intriguing as a group member, integrating comic quotes along the way.
Both sets featured music from the quartet’s new release Humidity , along with some new material and a few old favorites too. Wilson was a marvel to watch; both in terms of his technical proficiency and the unusual ways he manipulates his drum kit for various special effects. At one point, for instance, he put his jacket over the ride cymbal and threw smaller crash cymbals on the snare and each of the toms. He also freely beats the sides of the drums and taps with his fingers for a more delicate sound. As a composer, he has some wild ideas, like the marching band riff that set up his recitation of Carl Sandburg’s “Choose.”
Wilson’s band knows how to have fun and the way they freely mix jazz styles is certainly refreshing, as witnessed by a run through Tadd Dameron’s “Our Delight.” While tenor man Lederer broke forth with an Ayleresque romp in his solo statement, bassist Inoue included a quote from the pop standard “Laura” that broke up more than a few attentive listeners in the crowd. It would be the band’s grand finale though that really turned heads. As Matt explained before heading off stage, he wanted to bring out an old friend who was a rock drummer from way back. The next thing you knew, there was Matt with a frizzed-out wig and sleeveless T-shirt, twirling sticks and hitting the crash cymbals that had been raised considerably by D’Angelo just prior to the drummer’s reappearance. To say that these guys can do just about anything is an understatement, not to mention the fact that their appearance at this festival was a coup of major proportions.
Although cut from a very different cloth, no less invigorating was a performance by David Murray and the Gwo-Ka Masters at the smaller Theatre stage back on the Tri-C campus. While this reviewer had been impressed by Murray’s gig in Toronto this past January at IAJE, it was this set in Cleveland that proved to be the most together in terms of group chemistry and individual artistry. As the story goes, the roots of this ensemble go back to 1977 when Murray met Guadeloupean natives Guy Konket and Klod Kiavue. The pair would accompany the saxophonist to Guadeloupe for several gwo-ka ceremonies; all-night rituals of drumming, singing and dancing that take place in open fields. Since then the collaboration has resulted in two albums, the most recent being Yonn-De.
In addition to drummers Konket and Kiavue, this edition of the band included trumpeter Hugh Ragin, guitarist Herve Samb, bassist Jaribu Shahid, and trap drummer Hamid Drake. Although the set lasted over an hour, it was comprised of just four numbers, expansive jams that allowed Murray, Samb, and Ragin to stretch out at length and ride the colossal grooves set down by the rhythm section. With a hip two-chord vamp, “Yonn-De” initiated a feisty jam that found Ragin at his most lyrical. Closing with a funky blues-inflected number, Murray shouted not only on his horn, but also in a series of vocal choruses delivered with a raunchy and totally appropriate attitude. Throughout, Murray was at the top of his game, belting out boisterous phrases that gained further momentum through the sheer rhythmical weight provided by Shahid and Drake. It was quite something to witness in person and it’s doubtful that anyone went home disappointed.
Visit the Tri-C JazzFest 2003 photo gallery .