It’s always a good idea for a jazz musician to remain authentic and “in the moment.”
That seemed to be the overall message that pianist Ellis Marsalis, guitarist Russell Malone and guitarist-vocalist John Pizzarelli conveyed with their respective bands at the 18th annual Twin Cities Jazz Festival, held June 23–25 in St. Paul, Minnesota.
There was a potent mix of high humidity, high anticipation and high adrenalin that filled the air at Mears Park that June weekend, helping to build momentum for the non-stop intensity and ever-shifting grooves from these versatile and respected jazz masters.
Despite the challenges associated with sweltering heat and string instruments, the musicians didn’t sweat the small stuff.
The broader connecting thread between all three sets was rhythmic surprises. There was flexibility and a spirit of openness as each band eloquently articulated its ideas. Virtuosity, passion and soul were all there.
Marsalis, 81, set the tone for the festival on June 24 with a mixture of elegance and artistic integrity. The 2011 NEA Jazz Master opened with his original composition “Twelve’s It.” You could hear the profound depth of his sound and his command of the music, which unfolded with grace and incredible strength. If you closed your eyes and listened, you could imagine a very young man playing—or perhaps a man who’s very young at heart.
One of the musicians who has benefited from Marsalis’ mentorship over the years is drummer Stephen Gordon, who has played drums in the pianist’s ensemble for more than four years. Gordon made his first trip to the Twin Cities fest a memorable one, sharing the experience with bandmates Jason Stewart (bass) and Derek Douget (saxophone), who has played with Marsalis for more than a decade.
Marsalis’ song introductions were just as elegant as his playing. Before starting a tune, he’d preface it with an engaging story or anecdote. The set had numerous standouts, including covers of “Delilah,” “Mozartin,” “My Favorite Things” and Wayne Shorter’s “One By One.”
Marsalis let his sidemen shine and stretch out, especially during the latter song, to the audience’s delight and amusement. These musicians clearly had true chemistry, gracefully building on each other’s ideas and solos. As well they should—the group just recorded a quintet album (in June) and plan to support it with an upcoming tour.
On June 25, the festival’s programming was a triumph of guitar, with both Malone and Pizzarelli performing exuberant, joyful sets. Their outdoor shows reflected a hybrid of genres—a mix of jazz, soul, pop and r&b. These guitarists are clearly not fans of limitation.
The substantive improvisational nature of the set produced by Malone, drummer Willie Jones III, bassist Luke Sellick and pianist Rick Germanson inspired the leader to spontaneously compose a rockin’ bluesy tune right on the spot. Toward the end, playing his Ibanez FA 300 guitar, he even added a bit of Jimi Hendrix flair.
But it was Malone’s love songs from his recent HighNote album, All About Melody, that showcased his talent for playing with a vocal feeling. The band’s technical prowess, seriousness and sophistication made for a thoroughly memorable performance.
Love songs and standards were also featured in Pizzarelli’s set. No stranger to the Twin Cities jazz audience, he gleefully quipped, “We’ve got a great little spot here.” The formidable interpreter of song—accompanied by bassist Mike Karn, pianist Konrad Paszkudzki and drummer Kevin Kanner—ran through a extensive playlist that ranged from Bob Dylan to the Beach Boys to a trifecta of Duke Ellington compositions.
It was hard not to be in awe of 24-year-old Paszkudzki, who crafted an appropriately Ellingtonian feel during a rendition of “Satin Doll,” a catchy tune that eventually turned into a sing-along—one of many in the set.
Also noteworthy was “Silly Love Songs” from Pizzarelli’s 2015 Concord release, Midnight McCartney. “Love doesn’t come in a minute/ Sometimes it doesn’t come at all,” Pizzarelli sang with conviction.
Marsalis, Malone, and Pizzarelli were definitely feeling the love in the Twin Cities. “I hope to come back,” Marsalis said at the end of his set, showing his appreciation. “But not at wintertime.”