Deep Roots at the Heart of Tri-C’s Spring Fling
In his short statement before introducing Diana Krall to a sizable crowd, producer Tommy LiPuma commented on how important it was for him to have “a legacy to leave behind” as well as how much he looked forward to having something “to come back to.” His references were made in regards to the dedication of the Tommy LiPuma Center for the Creative Arts, which took place under pomp and circumstance right in the middle of the 33rd Annual Tri-C Jazzfest Cleveland. The iconic producer and Cleveland native’s $3 million endowment had made possible the establishment of a state-of-the-art learning facility that will offer a range of opportunities for arts students.
From April 19–29, Cleveland jazz lovers were served a healthy dose of music that functioned as a homecoming for another local hero as well. Terri Pontremoli, who had served as artistic director for the Detroit International Jazz Festival the past several years, returned to put her own personal stamp on a festival that had seemed to lose its focus in more recent times. From a sold-out opening night featuring Esperanza Spalding to the closing set by TCJF Soundworks, the schedule dished up a breadth of styles to suit most fans, but the emphasis on mainstream artistry was firmly at the core of the festival’s offerings.
Easily one of the most talked-about shows of the fest, drummer Matt Wilson’s Arts and Crafts delivered a set that hit all the bases in terms of its ability to speak to the seasoned listener as well as the novice. Within the casual setting of the Black Box Theatre, one couldn’t help but get up close and personal with Wilson and his ensemble, who drew much of their material from the band’s latest release, An Attitude For Gratitude (Palmetto). Trumpeter Terell Stafford still flies under the radar as a talent deserving wider recognition. Telling his story with dramatic punctuations on the Ornette-ish Wilson original “Bubbles,” he spoke in whispered tones on the ballad “Cruise Blues.”
Gary Versace’s organ gives Arts and Crafts much of its color, and this was best heard on a sagacious reworking of Jaco Pastorius’ “Teen Town,” where the melody was delivered in unison by Versace and bassist Martin Wind. A generous host, Wilson entertains via the music and humorous banter. His playing is melodic and supportive at the expense of superfluous histrionics, a rarity among drummers these days. The finger-snapping “Feel The Sway” capped off a most ebullient performance.
The next night brought another accomplished drummer and bandleader to town, NEA Jazz Master Jack DeJohnette. Like Wilson, he has a knack for putting together the right musicians in the service of a musical whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. “One For Dolphy” seemed tailor made for Don Byron, who actually played more tenor sax over the course of the evening than his signature clarinet. One of DeJohnette’s better-known pieces, “Ahmad The Terrible,” got an update with Byron’s tenor and David Fiuczynski’s guitar voicing the melody. Pianist George Colligan tastefully integrated his electronic keyboards into the mix and even picked up his pocket trumpet for a solo on “Blue,” a DeJohnette original from the drummer’s Gateway oeuvre.
Longtime colleague Jerome Harris held the anchor firm with his acoustic bass guitar, allowing plenty of room for DeJohnette’s own dramatic statements. At one point, his bass drum marked four to the bar while both hands fired off lightning snare riffs and then colorful accents on the toms. With his double-neck guitar, Fiuczynski switched between more conventional sounds and microtonal runs that hinted at Middle Eastern origins. As diverse and genre-bending as it sounds, somehow it all worked, much to DeJohnette’s credit.
As the festival wrapped up, the closing weekend brought with it big-name shows that were well attended. A Friday night double bill kicked off with the David Sanborn Trio. Sanborn has always been a blues-based performer capable of navigating a variety of styles and genres. Pairing up with organist Joey DeFrancesco has fostered an even stronger jazz sensibility from the alto man, recalling one of his major influences, the late Hank Crawford.
Having cherry-picked numbers from their album Only Everything (Decca), DeFrancesco and Sanborn’s 60-minute set was chock-a-block full of the kind of feel-good music that you can’t help but enjoy. Sanborn joked at one point that he was “just filler” between the organ solos and often gets so involved in listening to Joey that he forgets to play himself. No doubt the organist knows how to build a solo, but Sanborn is no slouch, either, hitting those buttery highs on classics like “The Peeper” and Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel.”
Switching from an after-hours club atmosphere to a rock-arena vibe, Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue’s first two numbers brought some puzzled looks to the faces of the uninitiated. While “St. James Infirmary” is as repertory as it gets, Shorty and the guys gave it a salsa groove that was nothing short of genius. The electricity was palpable as guitarist Pete Murano let loose with a Santana-like solo that was all too brief. All the while, drummer Joey Peebles was a blur of motion with his bushy head swaying back and forth to the beat.
As the group segued into “On The Sunny Side Of The Street,” Shorty fired off a trumpet solo that climaxed with a remarkable display of circular breathing, holding one note for what seemed like forever. Just as the tension reached its peak, that held note would resolve into a quicksilver run and the crowd would roar with appreciation. True to the band’s heritage, an encore included “Down By The Riverside,” done in true second-line fashion. A smart pairing, this was another highlight of the festival.
By contrast, the next evening’s set by Diana Krall and her quartet was understated to the point of working against its own good. No doubt, Krall seemed much more personable than in the past, stopping several times to speak of her kids and early influences. She also threw in “I Was Doing Alright” and “Exactly Like You,” two of the perkier numbers of the night. In the middle of the set, however, she sent the band offstage and performed a few rambling solos, the best of which were brief takes on the Fats Waller vehicle “If You’re A Viper” and “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter.” Both brought to the fore the pianist’s stride chops.
The latest incarnation of Krall’s ensemble includes mainstay Anthony Wilson on guitar, along with Detroit heavyweights Robert Hurst on bass and drummer Karriem Riggins. Wilson received a lot of solo space and made the most out of each opportunity. Riggins and Hurst were a bit more restrained, and one couldn’t help but feel this might have been preordained by Krall herself. With a preponderance of ballad tempos, a few more sparks scattered throughout might have made the evening more memorable.
—C. Andrew Hovan