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Tri-C JazzFest Cleveland 2015

C. Andrew Hovan By

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Although they would actually go on way over an hour past the slated show time, this reviewer's first music of the day would be provided by trombonist Wycliffe Gordon and his International All-Stars. Opening with Ellington's "Pie Eye's Blues," the quintet indeed sported a cast with varied backgrounds, yet their electrifying message proved to be universal in appeal. With Gordon belting out the vocals to "On the Sunnyside of the Street" and "Bourbon Street Parade" you couldn't help but bask in the joy of this indigenous music given a fresh coat of paint by the ensemble.

Playing both tenor saxophone and clarinet, Adrian Cunningham was every bit the able sparring partner to Gordon, while drummer Alvin Atkinson, Jr. dazzled with his enthusiasm, flipping his sticks and grooving along in the best second line tradition. His feature on the closing "Caravan" even found the drummer utilizing some wordless vocals to establish the mood before Gordon let loose with a volcanic statement of his own.

By contrast, vocal ingénue Cyrille Aimee went for a smoky and less incendiary set that was also somewhat less engaging overall. Mixing in pop ditties, with jazz standards and her own quirky originals, Aimee follows in the spirit of her native France and the swing style of Django Reinhardt. The unique flavor of her group comes from the use of two guitarists, one on electric and the other on acoustic. The Doors' "People Are Strange" lived up to its title with an odd rendering by Aimee. Much more successful was a quicksilver romp through "Love Me or Leave Me" and the lovely duet with bassist Shawn Conley on "I'm in the Mood for Love." In the final analysis, Aimee's muse is an acquired taste to be sure.

In his first Cleveland appearance, vibraphonist Warren Wolf left no doubt that his jazz credentials are strictly top-notch. Classically trained, Wolf has lately been establishing himself via a string of excellent releases on the Mack Avenue label and just recently took over the vibe chair of the San Francisco Jazz Collective. With a trio of like-minded compadres, including Clevelander Theron Brown on piano, Wolff straddled between the vibes and Fender Rhodes piano. He skillfully set the mood for Bobby Hutcherson's "Montara," a beautiful peace that Wolf used to cast a nod to one of his inspirations. Yet, Wolf managed to make it his own, his improvisations unfolding in a logical and musically variegated manner.

On the flipside of this double bill would be a tribute to Ray Brown led by pianist Benny Green in a trio with John Clayton and Jeff Hamilton. Since his days with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers in the '80s, Green has proven to possess an encyclopedic knowledge of the jazz piano legacy. In more recent times, he has renewed his efforts in a manner that makes his performances ignite with sheer intensity and displays of technical brilliance.

One of his mentors, the late bassist Ray Brown gave Green an excellent stage for his development and he paid his appreciation with a stimulating set that was easily the highlight of the entire festival. Brown's arrangement of "The Summer Wind" provided an archetypical framework for this trio's use of dynamics, tempo, and mood setting. You could almost hear a pin drop while the trio voiced "Lil Darlin'" with a know-how that only comes with the mastery of what drummer Kenny Washington calls "the adult tempo." And for a taste of that Nawlins second line groove, Hamilton stoked the coals of "Gumbo Hump," while Green dazzled with a hard driving statement of his own.

Back over at the Palace, the evening hours were ushered in by west coast luminary Pete Escovedo and his Latin Jazz Orchestra. Making this event a special one was the celebration of Escovedo's eightieth year on the planet and the addition of daughter Sheila E. and son Juan Escovedo to the percussion ranks. Add to the mix guitar icon Ray Obiedo and saxophonist Justo Almario and you have the making a magical evening. If it not for the fact that rows of seat literally met the front of the stage, impromptu dancing would have been the order of the night.

Closing out the festival would be yet another double bill. Up first, Trinidad native Etienne Charles and his Calypso Review would tap a world beat vibe dominated by the steel pan of Leon "Foster" Thomas. On trumpet and congas, Charles would lead the ensemble through its paces, although his own time in the spotlight was somewhat limited. Vocalist Keith Prescott would dominate the middle part of the set, including an overblown and unnecessary effort to get a crowd of listeners down front to dance. The music had its moments, but they were far too few to make the set memorable.

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