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.