Tri-C JazzFest Shows Flair for the Dramatic


Trombone Shorty closes out the Tri-C JazzFest on June 24.

(Photo: Courtesy Tri-C JazzFest)

Jazz of all stripes ruled the theaters of Playhouse Square during the 44th annual Cuyahoga Community College JazzFest, held June 22–24. Food trucks and sound stages lined a block of Euclid Avenue in downtown Cleveland, Ohio, as local talents rocked outdoor stages and Montreal’s mesmerizing and amusing Sax-O-Matic went with the flow. Even the weather cooperated.

This edition of Tri-C JazzFest felt especially dynamic. There was puppetry. There was a surround-sound exhibit memorializing the work of recently passed titans Wayne Shorter and Pharoah Sanders. There was musical expression, from the hard-rock worldbeat of Angelique Kidjo to New Orleans blaster Trombone Shorty, the Cleveland market’s jazz favorite whose band closed the event.

Here are some reports from key JazzFest shows.

Vocalist Kidjo and bassist Richard Bona kicked off JazzFest 2023, their performance lifting the 997-seat Mimi Ohio Theatre audience to its feet multiple times. Kidjo is a force field unto herself, coaxing, cajoling and commanding through her passionate vocals and ecstatic, sexy dancing — not to mention her advocacy for women, democracy and her native Africa. Fascinating that she began her electrifying set with “Crosseyed And Painless,” one of two Talking Heads songs she reanimated with her own, unique energy. Cool that she paid homage to salsa queen/role model Celia Cruz, and her generous duet with the gifted Bona on her “Choose Love” was a highlight. Bona, meanwhile, presented an hour of musical entertainment that never lagged. His Havana men Osmany Paredes, on piano, and Ilario Bell, on drums, rocked the house from the start.

A double whammy of a different sort rocked the Ohio on Evening 2. Like the Kidjo-Bona bill, this Friday night show was transporting. It affirmed why there’s such buzz about Samara Joy: She is an astonishing singer well on her way to being a sensational, all-around entertainer. It also reaffirmed Christian McBride as a masterful, eclectic bandleader.

Over an hour and 10 minutes, Joy led her supple trio through a mélange of tunes from Linger Awhile, her 2022 Grammy-winning album. She swooped. She soared. She dove in and out of a grab bag of American song, referencing influences including the Great American Songbook, Etta James and Thelonious Monk. She told funny, almost shy stories about her new relationship with stardom. She sparked several standing ovations. No surprise; Joy is the new Aretha.

As JazzFest mainstay McBride acknowledged, he wasn’t happy to follow Joy. Not a problem. His set was exciting and characteristically diverse. Sparked by the muscular saxophone of Nicole Glover, Savannah Harris’ immersive drums, Ely Perlman’s penetrating guitar and Mike King’s keyboard cascades, McBride had nothing to worry about. “Brouhaha,” a new, hard-funk tune with McBride at his most aggressive and infectious, ended the set.

This edition of JazzFest crested Saturday night when jazz earworm creator Herbie Hancock took over the sumptuous, 2,714-capacity Connor Palace Theatre. Hancock filled the house with his upbeat personality and a raft of tunes dating back to the ’60s. His band was hot: Lionel Loueke on guitar, James Genus on bass and Jaylen Petinaud, on drums, representing the new generation.

The band created a soundscape that was loud but not oppressive; barbed, yet smooth. The origin of some of the sonics was hard to trace. Blame Loueke, whose guitar spanned the conventional and the spacy. It was liquid whether Loueke played it straight or through some transforming device.

Highlights included an “Overture” featuring snippets of Hancock tunes from his long career; a leisurely, affectionate tribute to Wayne Shorter in Terence Blanchard’s shapely arrangement of Shorter’s “Footprints”; the samba-ballad “Come Running To Me” featuring vocodered and harmonizered vocals by Hancock and effects master Loueke, and a brawny Genus solo on the jam song “Actual Proof.”

The set ended with “Chameleon,” Hancock’s indelible hit from the 1973 album Future Shock. Not only did Hancock wield his keytar like a Star Wars lightsaber on the funk classic, he put it to bed with a rockstar leap. At 83, Hancock still acts like a kid. That’s a compliment.

Another show that packed them in on Saturday was Steve Smith and Vital Information, featuring the formidable Smith on drums, Manuel Valera on panoramic keyboards and Janek Gwizdala on bass. It was dramatic. It was technically impeccable. It was fusion, with a dab of progressive rock in Valera’s widescreen pianistics.

But as the set wore on, the tunes began to sound interchangeable, prompting some audience members to leave before the long set ended. For all of its prowess, the Smith show at the 500-seat Allen Theatre may have overstayed its welcome. DB

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