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Tri-C JazzFest Cleveland 2012: Days 1-5

Tri-C JazzFest Cleveland 2012: Days 1-5

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Days 1-5 | Days 6-12
33rd Annual Tri-C JazzFest Cleveland
Cleveland, Ohio
April 16-April 29, 2012

In the weeks leading up to the 33rd Annual Tri-C JazzFest Cleveland, the town was abuzz with rock 'n roll. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies were back in Cleveland—as they are now every third year—with the grand ceremony scheduled for the weekend before JazzFest. So with all the excited handwringing over a possible Guns N' Roses reunion (or an even more anticipated public brawl amongst the band members), there seemed little time to worry about jazz concerts. And for Clevelanders motoring beneath billboards touting popular stars Diana Krall and Aretha Franklin, there was little to shock their systems to the realization that an entire festival dedicated to jazz was just on the horizon.

Now over the past few years there's been a fair amount of bellyaching in certain circles about the demise of the jazz festival, generally. It's another chapter in the decades' old narrative that rises time and again to yelp wild prophesies of jazz's demise at the hands of whatever musical interloper might currently be storming the—seemingly crystal—gates of America's holy music. Too many non-jazz acts are populating festival stages, the story goes. Before long rock, pop and hip-hop artists, along with a coven of as yet unimagined musical philanderers, will have muscled all proper jazz musicians from the stage, and all that will remain is that vaunted name jazz, flapping from a wind-torn festival banner in the clearing smoke.

To be sure, the shrill cries of doom, silenced either by some mode of acceptance or the slamming of bunker doors, have been overblown. But that's not to say they haven't raised a legitimate gripe. At this year's festival in Cleveland, those left behind in the wake of the jazz prophet's waning cadence might scan the list of headliners—Krall, Franklin, Esperanza Spalding, David Sanborn, "Smooth Jazz All-Stars"—and wonder if the jazz focus hadn't blurred too much in a desire to court the favor—and money—of popular taste. Still, drummers Jack DeJohnette and Matt Wilson were both on the bill, each bringing intriguing groups to town. Sanborn and his B-3 trio, featuring Joey DeFrancesco, were paired with Trombone Shorty's outfit in what promised to be an interesting evening of clashing styles. Young innovators Reuben Wilson and Marcus Strickland were both set to play on the festival's first Sunday. And, as ever, there was to be a strong local presence, led by the likes of Sean Jones, Ernie Krivda, Paul Samuels and Dominick Farinacci. So all was hardly lost. And the big names of popular consumption might just help pay the bills, ensuring that this jazz festival would surge on in the home of rock 'n roll.

Chapter Index
  1. April 16: Paul Samuels 4, The Tri-C Jazz Trio +
  2. April 19: Esperanza Spalding
  3. April 21: Aretha Franklin
  4. April 22: Ben Williams and Sound Effect; Marcus Strickland

April 16: Paul Samuels 4, The Tri-C Jazz Trio +

The festival got underway at the Brothers Lounge, located in the near-west suburb of Lakewood. A nice, diverse crowd filled the club's music room and was treated to a relaxed, fun evening of jazz from some of the stalwarts of the Cleveland jazz scene. The Tri-C Jazz Trio + (keyboardist Ivory Joe Hunter, bassist Demetrius Steinmetz, drummer Ray Porello, plus guitarist Bob Fraser and saxophonist Chris Burge) kicked off the evening with a playful set that included takes on Cole Porter's "I Love You," The Beatles' "Norwegian Wood," "The Rainbow Connection" and Jaco Pastorius' "Three Views of a Secret."

Hunter led the affair, at least from the mike, handling song introductions and such from his tucked-away position behind the keys in the rear of the small stage. But Fraser and Burge were out front and often took the leading solos, before giving way to Hunter's springy keys. "Norwegian Wood," one of a few tunes arranged for the band by Fraser and one of the more intriguing interpretations of the evening, moved from Hunter to Burge to Fraser, each offering a solo introduction that kept the familiar tune cloaked in mystery until the whole band came together as one. "Three Views" followed and found Burge, who had, by and large, kept to the easy, relaxed feel of the group, finally giving way to impassioned, body-twisting statements.

Paul Samuels 4 took the stage on the heels of this lift in energy. Led by drummer Samuels and veteran Cleveland bassist Glenn Holmes, the group also featured guitarist Dan Wilson, a 2006 graduate of Hiram College, who subsequently earned a master's at Youngstown State University in 2009, and saxophonist Alex Cummings, a current student at Oberlin.

The band played many of the Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter and Ornette Coleman tunes heard on Samuels 2006 release Speak (Doc City Music), with the drummer maintaining a tightly woven layer of percussive sound to undergird and propel his mates. Wilson was a wonder throughout the set, unraveling extremely rapid lines of single notes that maintained an almost surreal individualistic clarity. The group perhaps shown most brightly on "Ruby, My Dear," with Cummings adopting something of a Coleman Hawkins approach (if on alto) for deep, emotive statements over Samuels' brushes. And space opened for Holmes to take an extended, nicely constructed solo. Burge was pulled back on stage for the encore and fired loose another impassioned solo on "Bags' Groove." It was a fitting, rollicking end to a fun night of music, and a great kick-start to two weeks' worth of jazz in Cleveland.

April 19: Esperanza Spalding

This was the second stop on bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding's Radio Music Society (Heads Up, 2012) tour, and it played to a sell-out crowd at the 800-seat Tri-C Metro Auditorium. Eschewing the music from her previous releases, Spalding and her 11- piece band stuck to Radio Music's R&B-funk-jazz fusion, performing all the songs from the March release, save the Portland, OR tribute, "City of Roses." While perhaps not fitting some purist idea of a "jazz show," the live performance of these songs did incorporate a lot more jazz-oriented fills than are heard on the record. And the crowd was behind Spalding's latest groove from the beginning.

A large boom box stage prop lit up to start the show. Its dial turned through an array of talk and music radio stations—none of them too inviting—before giving way to the live RMS band: a trio of saxophones, a pair of trombones and trumpets, guitar, drums, piano/keyboards and two backup vocalists, that guided the lithe bassist on stage to a funky version of "Us." On the Radio Music songs that followed, Spalding and crew, with the aid of arranger Greg Hopkins, fashioned a satisfying meld of R&B and big band music. Though extended solos were not in order, room was given for individual expression. Jef Lee Johnson turned in a grubby, almost metal guitar solo on "Smile Like That," trumpeter Igmar Thomas blared admirably on several tunes, most notably "Endangered Species," and saxophonist and crowd favorite Tia Fuller traded with Spalding's bass and vocals on the lead-in to "I Can't Help It," the pair dishing about love's twists and turns in the culmination of a narrative Spalding had been spinning through word and song since the show's beginning.

"Black Gold," called at the set's midpoint, garnered an immediate response from the audience, and it fulfilled every expectation, sailing with a relaxed but powerfully exultant groove that captured both the anthemic and personal qualities present in the song's lyric. Spalding followed with an a cappella rendition of "Land of the Free"—replete with an added lead-in—that, despite following the big sound of the preceding number, kept all the energy in the room, while dialing in the agony of injustice through a soft, but angst- scratched throat that accentuated the song's harsh angles. This fed naturally into "Vague Suspicions," a cry against the indifference to war (and the conflicts being waged in our name in Afghanistan and beyond, specifically), rendered with full band and sparse then aggressive bass playing from Spalding in the upward charge to the song's finish, where the singer smiled coyly over the opiate punch line: "Next on Channel 4, celebrity gossip."

After this emotionally intense trio of songs, the energy—not surprisingly—dropped a bit. But it was raised steadily over the next few numbers, resulting in an impassioned playing of "Endangered Species," the 1985 Wayne Shorter tune, now with added lyrics by Spalding that warn of the dangers from human-induced global climate change. A cheery "Radio Song," with orchestrated audience participation, closed the set, before Spalding returned alone with acoustic bass for an encore. Citing inspiration from Dave Holland and Betty Carter, Spalding accompanied herself in singing "Look No Further," a performance that found her in thinner, more rubbery voice—reaching toward Carter—while also exercising her considerable soloing chops, scatting, and weaving beautiful bass-vocal counter melodies. She ended the song by repeating the words of lyricist Ted Koehler: "Let's Fall in Love, Let's Fall in Love, Let's Fall in Love..." A final cooing enticement, perhaps, for any holdouts to come in and embrace jazz, regardless of their chosen entrance.

April 21: Aretha Franklin

The R&B theme continued (interrupted by the Friday night "Smooth Jazz All-Stars" show, featuring Gerald Albright, Walter Beasley and Brian Simpson, among others) when Aretha Franklin took the stage at the State Theatre. The introduction by Lauren Onkey, VP of Education and Public Programming at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—one that touted Franklin primarily for her Rock Hall induction—again gave some cause for concern that this festival might be slipping away from a dedicated celebration of jazz. But the grand, 3,200-seat venue had only a few open spots when the lights went down. And judging by the (automatically) enthusiastic response Franklin garnered from the audience throughout the two-hour show, few there seemed concerned about the event's jazz merit.

Waltzing on stage more than a half-hour late, Franklin was nonetheless in a spirited mood, pumping her right arm to the roof on the opener "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher" and pointing down to audience members on "Share Your Love With Me." From there the evening played out in a mix of booty-shaking R&B and slow-burning soul numbers, including "Chain of Fools," "Day Dreaming" and "I Adore You." Though Franklin's voice thinned a bit over the course of the evening, she held back nothing, leaping repeatedly into the higher registers to the delight of a house full of listeners ever eager to soar right along with her. She twice made a conscious effort to include recognized jazz tunes, taking on "Skylark," complete with stretched vowels, dips and rolls, and James Moody's "Moody's Mood for Love," which found the Queen of Soul stuffing gobs of words into the broad, easy strokes emanating from the horn section—a butting-of-heads effort that never quite worked.

After nine songs, Franklin sat down behind the piano and proceeded to demonstrate that, at 70, she's still no slouch working the ivories. She accompanied her vocal flights with intricate rolling melodies and took a solo on the "Still Water Runs Deep/Bridge Over Troubled Water" medley. This pairing, with much soul swooning and choral pumping from the backup singers, proved the highlight of the set—an inventive reworking of the Paul Simon classic in the spiritual idiom that has lost none of its verve over the years. But its disintegration into extended gospel wailings, with several in the crowd gladly waving along with testifying arms, signaled the beginning of a long goodbye that would severely test limits of endurance two songs later on "Freeway of Love." Here Franklin's choreographed exit from the stage stretched endlessly to repetitive R&B tones. (The extension did, however, give Cleveland saxophonist John Klayman the opportunity to wail searing solo lines over the thumping din.) Franklin came back for the inevitable "Respect," then left with a final hearty wave from the wings, a towel already draped over her shoulders as if she'd just gone 15 rounds in the ring.

April 22: Ben Williams and Sound Effect; Marcus Strickland

Each year JazzFest programs what it dubs its "Debut Series," a concert or two or three that introduce young artists to the greater Cleveland audience. This year that program consisted of back-to-back sets (albeit across town from one another) by bassist Ben Williams and his Sound Effect group, and saxophonist Marcus Strickland's quartet. And due to the illness of Sound Effect pianist Taylor Eigsti, the bands turned out to be nearly identical: Strickland's piano man, David Bryant, played both sets, leaving only Williams' guitarist Matt Stevens and the different bodies behind the trap sets to separate the two.

The guys played first under Williams' leadership at the Greg L. Reese Performing Arts Center in the East Cleveland Public Library—an acoustically resplendent, intimate venue that traditionally stages some of the festival's best concerts. And for free. Even with the return of winter temps, lines began forming an hour in advance outside the library. Williams and crew made it worth the wait.

Featuring music from his 2011 album State of Art (Concord), the bassist led with an insistent melodic presence that waltzed effortlessly into the spotlight for solos. In his hands the strings and fingerboard grew supple, giving up easy-flowing lines more readily associated with guitar than double bass. His extended solo intro to the closer—a cover of Michael Jackson's "Little Susie"—was a self-contained gem; a gracefully orchestrated improvisation of the first order. Stevens served as something of a foil to this grace, probing the group's music with ringing chords or deep-cutting slashes. On solos, after biting into a passage and finding entry, the guitarist would unleash clear but fat notes that would run brightly at the music's core. To Strickland's sax he might serve as counterpoint, as when playing the bridge to the saxophonist's verse on "Part-Time Lover," or consort, as when the pair shared the melody on the opening of "Dawn of a New Day." Strickland, for his part, was more restrained and angular here than he would be later that night at the helm. He often handled the melodies at the open and close of numbers, but would test the waters on solos, not unlike Stevens, before wailing. Bryant's tumbling style— majestic chordal constructions filled by the quick scurrying or unfolding of clipped notes— while effective within themselves, didn't quite gel with the musical whole. A matter of familiarity, no doubt, as he was completely in his element, later, behind Strickland. Drummer John Davis kept things thundering, but operated mainly in support, aside from his snappy opening to the "Night In Tunisia"-sounding "November," wherein Davis soloed over Williams' hand-drumming on bass and the thumps issued from Stevens' guitar.

Less than two hours later Strickland led Bryant and Williams back on stage at the Black Box Theatre, an intimate, edgy new space housed within the Tommy LiPuma Center for Creative Arts (to be officially dedicated April 26) on the Tri-C Metro campus, a facility jointly created and led by the College and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. This time around Strickland's twin brother E. J. manned the drums.

Despite the similar personnel, it was evident from the opener "Mudbone," a tribute to Richard Pryor from Marcus Strickland's Triumph of the Heavy, Vol. 1 & 2 (CDBaby, 2011), that something different was afoot here. Strickland spit notes from his tenor and growled over Bryant's spiraling lines that now felt wholly at home. In his first solo, Bryant's repeated notes and jagged chordal overlays cut satisfyingly into Williams' less melodic- centered support. On "Etymology," a new Coltrane-esque composition by Marcus, Bryant traced the chords with scurrying notes, his lines and the strong drumming attack morphing into sheets of wire mesh. Marcus blew tight, echoing spirals from his alto, increased the velocity but maintained solid articulation.

And so the set went, with the band remaining tight through four additional tunes: "Ne Me Quitte Pas," played, as the saxophonist was pleased to point out, in the same key as Nina Simone had done it; "Surreal," another tune from Triumph, this one inspired by Picasso's "Seated Bather" and featuring a beautifully realized bass solo from Williams; Charlie Parker's "Bloomdido" that found Strickland's saxophone attack leaning toward Bird's and Bryant's pleasantly spacious like Monk's; and "Lilt," a final number from Triumph that had each of the guy's strutting his walk, just as the song's title would have it.

This cross-town double set made for a fine conclusion to festival's first weekend.

Photo Credit

All Photos: Matt Marshall

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