Danilo Pérez, Somi and Regina Carter headlined the 29th edition of the DuPont Clifford Brown Jazz Festival, which ran from June 21–24 in Rodney Square in downtown Wilmington, Delaware. The fest showcased the global musical inventions and dimensions of musicians from three continents —from the French harmonica player Frédéric Yonnet to the New Orleans/Brooklyn-based High and Mighty Brass Band—in a free and fun setting.
Named in honor of the legendary trumpeter and native son Clifford Brown (1930–1956), whose home is but a few blocks away, the festival used to run for seven days, with jam sessions at local clubs and special performances at the palatial Winterthur Estate in suburban Greenville. For much of its existence, Tina Betz was the prime mover of the fest. In recent years, however, the festival has scaled down, and in Betz’s absence, it featured more smooth jazz. Thankfully, Betz is back at the helm as the city’s Acting Director of Cultural Affairs and Festival Curator, and she put together an intelligently programmed festival.
A video clip of Clifford Brown’s television appearance on the Soupy Sales Show in 1956, on which he performed “Oh, Lady Be Good” and “Memories of You,” set the tone for a study in Brown. So it was fitting that ebullient, hometown trumpeter Gerald Chavis, who is one of the few remaining students of Brown’s legendary teacher, Robert “Boysie” Lowery, kicked things off, leading a specially assembled big band consisting of musicians from the Wilmington-Philadelphia area, including another Boysie pupil, alto saxophonist Jaleel Shaw.
Blessed with a bravura trumpet sound that is more evocative of Woody Shaw than Brown, Chavis, who also leads the Wilmington Youth Band, performed what could be called “The Clifford Brown Mixtape”: a pleasing potpourri of blistering and buoyant Brown-associated selections including “Wee-Dot,” “Jordu,” “Daahoud,” “Sandu” and “Joy Spring.” Ecuadorian/Costa Rican vocalist Isabel Crespo provided a bold and brilliant reading of Benny Golson’s immortal tribute “I Remember Clifford.”
If Chavis is a first-generation disciple of Brown, then Florida’s Theo Croker is a second-generation Brownie acolyte. But when you look at Croker’s face, you’ll see his grandfather, the great trumpeter Doc Cheatham. Croker has been one of the more promising young lions on the scene, with two CDs under his belt, Afro Physicist (OKeh/Sony Masterworks) and Escape Velocity (OKeh), as well as an EPK, DVRK Funk. His group consists of tenor saxophonist Anthony Ware, pianist Michael King, bassist Eric Wheeler and drummer Jonathan Barber. The group took no prisoners with their swing-at-the speed-of-bop set, which featured Joe Henderson’s classic “Shade Of Jade,” the anthemic “We Can’t Breathe,” a poignant take on the Brown-associated ballad “What’s New” and an extended version of “The Real Episode.”
The St. Louis-born Alicia Olatuja, who sang for President Obama’s second inauguration, was an example of a modern singer with a firm grasp of jazz, performing a uniquely syncopated rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature,” a velvet take on Chaka Khan’s “Love Me Still” and an infectious, Brazilian-beat performance of “Serrado” from her 2014 CD, Timeless (World Tune).
And then there was Somi, the American-born daughter of East African immigrants whose musical sensibility comes from her unique African-American identity, which comes through on her last two CDs, The Lagos Music Salon (OKeh) and Petite Afrique (OKeh). The albums chronicle her time in Nigeria, and pay homage to the African immigrant businesses on Harlem’s 116th street, which are vanishing due to gentrification. Backed by a quicksilver quartet featuring keyboardist Toru Dodu, guitarist Liberty Ellman, bassist Keith Witty and Delaware State University alum Otis Brown III on drums, the barefoot, classically trained singer purred, pleaded and screamed over the peppery and textural Afro-beats on “Am I Black Enough For You?,” the moody “They’re Like Ghosts” and her soul-stirring version of Nina Simone’s “Four Women.” (Rechristened “Four African Women,” the song extended Simone’s sonic portraits to include sisters from the Diaspora.)
The festival also provided two excellent avatars of the African musical diaspora in Latin jazz. Panamanian pianist-composer Pérez—a superbly mentored musician who worked with Dizzy Gillespie and has been a member of Wayne Shorter’s quartet for nearly 20 years—brought his Panama-centered “global jazz” to the stage with longtime cohorts drummer Adam Cruz and bassist Ben Street. Buoyed by Cruz’s Latin pulsations and Street’s anchoring basslines, Perez’s “Panama 500” danced with his country’s Afro-indigenous dance rhythms, and his centennial shout-out to Thelonious Monk featured riveting renditions of “Evidence,” “Think Of One” and “’Round Midnight.”
Brooklyn bandleader-pianist Arturo O’Farrill is the son of the great Cuban pianist-arranger Chico O’Farrill. The junior O’Farrill’s poetic and extremely propulsive piano drives the smaller octet version of his Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra. At the festival, the son offered up an expansive cross-section of Afro-hemispheric swing, including Oscar Hernandez’s “Rumba Urbana”; O’Farrill’s five-part “Despierta Suite,” which included hints of funk, disco and gospel elements; Gabriel Alegria’s “El Sur,” which featured Afro-Peruvian rhythms; and Astor Piazzolla’s festive Afro-Cuban/Argentinean “Tanguanco”—made all the more enjoyable because it was O’Farrill’s birthday.
But it was the Detroit-born violinist and MacArthur Fellow Regina Carter who took the town, with the kind of artistic virtuosity that approached Brownie’s Olympian heights. She performed selections from her latest recording, Ella: Accentuate The Positive (OKeh), which celebrates the singer’s centennial.
Backed by drummer Alvester Garnett, guitarist Marvin Sewell and bassist Chris Lightcap, Carter swung with swagger, her dynamic lines smoothed out with a down-home twang and laced with classical precision. Her lithesome playing was especially evident on title track, the marching “Crying In The Chapel” and the Muscle Shoals-metered “Undediced.”
But it was the non-Ella selection, “New For N’awlins” a 15-minute workout that featured Garrett’s in-the-pocket solo that brought the audience to its feet. There is already wide expectation that the upcoming 30th edition of the festival will be as fulfilling as this one. DB