Concert review: Cleveland's Tri-C JazzFest

Spirit and joy mark the 33rd annual event

Spirit and joy marked the April 16-29 Tri-C JazzFest Cleveland, a rewarding thicket of performances spanning a sold-out Esperanza Spalding concert April 19, a spotty Aretha Franklin show April 21, and a polite, eclectic “evening with” Diana Krall April 28. Dedicated to Tommy LiPuma, a Cleveland native who became a major record executive, the festival’s 33rd iteration played out in various venues including the eastern branch of Cuyahoga Community College and several theaters in PlayHouse Square. LiPuma marked the occasion with a pithy, warm speech at the April 26 unveiling of the Tommy LiPuma Center for Creative Arts at Tri-C, greatly facilitated by his donation of $3 million.

Diana Krall with bassist Bob Hurst at the State Theatre, Tri-C JazzFest, Cleveland, 4-12
By Jeff Forman/Tri-C JazzFest
Matt WIlson performing with his band Arts & Crafts, Tri-C JazzFest, Cleveland, 4-12
By Jeff Forman/Tri-C JazzFest
Kellylee Evans, Olivet Institutional Baptist Church, Tri-C JazzFest, Cleveland, 4-12
Ernie Krivda, The Hermit Club, Tri-C JazzFest, Cleveland, 4-12
By Janet Macoska/Tri-C JazzFest

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The festival delivered a blend of the cutting-edge and the popular, from Matt Wilson’s Arts & Crafts to the Smooth Jazz All-Stars with Peter White, Brian Simpson and Incognito thrush Maysa. Mainstream concerts like a David Sanborn-Trombone Shorty bill coexisted with master classes by Jack DeJohnette and Jimmy Owens, and the festival didn’t lack for local talent—or fresh faces. It spread beyond downtown to venues such as Olivet Institutional Baptist Church in Cleveland’s impoverished Fairfax neighborhood, where vocalists Ki Allen and Kellylee Evans held high-energy court, and the East Cleveland Public Library, where bassist Ben Williams, 2010 Thelonious Monk Competition winner, mounted an animated concert April 22 also featuring guitarist Matt Stevens, pianist David Bryant, drummer John Davis and saxophonist Marcus Strickland.

The most successful vocal show was free, with Cleveland singer Allen, followed by the headliner, Toronto vocalist Evans. Their April 21 bill, a homage to Nina Simone at Olivet Baptist, felt like a revival meeting. Allen, who has astounded Cleveland audiences for more than 20 years with her well-upholstered, expressive voice, led an all-star local group including long-time collaborators Bob Fraser on guitar, drummer Ron Godale and pianist Dave Thomas. Allen and Fraser cast a spell so intimate it was almost embarrassing in a rapturous “Wild Is the Wind,” and she and Thomas, who quoted both J.S. Bach and Fats Waller, went acrobatic and florid on a wonderfully entertaining “If I Should Lose You.”

Allen was a tough act to follow, but Evans did—and more. A lanky, self-styled “rock star” who easily roams a venue to bond with her audience, she turned Olivet into a rally, standing on a church pew shouting “power” at the end of a sinuous take on “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” a tune written for Simone that became a rock hit for the Animals. Evans honored both artists—and genres—in a unique, enthralling way. The ovations were deserved for her and drummer Mark McLean, bassist Francois Moutin and sonically fearless guitarist Marvin Sewell. “I don’t think I’ve ever performed for so many black people,” Evans said. Laughter shook the house. “I have to do more free concerts.”

That day’s trophy show was “An Evening With Aretha Franklin,” featuring the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame diva in front of a very large orchestra. Franklin started nearly 50 minutes late. Her show was, to put it kindly, freewheeling. Her gospel interlude and piano playing were dandy; so was “Skylark,” “Daydreaming” and her recasting of B.B. King’s “Sweet Sixteen,” a track from her 2011 album, the Wal-Mart exclusive A Woman Falling Out of Love. But the arrangements overwhelmed the songs, and her deployment of aerobic and superfluous young dancers and a poor selection of photographs were irritating. The show never flowed. Franklin’s voice remains glorious, but her taste is gone. As is most of the thrill.

On the instrumental front, the house was packed for the free Ben Williams and Sound Effect concert April 22 showcasing Williams’ recent CD, State of Art. Standouts included a velvety, barbed take on Woody Shaw’s “Moontrane,” Williams’ conversational and brooding “November” and a recasting of Stevie Wonder’s “Part Time Lover” that sagged in the middle but ended strongly. Davis and Williams were particularly empathetic (Davis smiled throughout), Stevens turned in stimulatingly angular solos, Bryant played lots of the right notes and Strickland offered precise power.

That evening seemed like a continuation of Williams’ set when Strickland, Williams, Bryant and Marcus’ twin brother, E.J., performed in Tri-C’s small, acoustically perfect Black Box Theatre. With E.J. on drums (leader Marcus: “He’s somebody I’ve known since the womb”), Strickland served up one of the most electrifying sets of the festival. Not only did the Miami native honor Richard Pryor in the funky opener “Mudbone,” he channeled a riveting blend of the turbulent and the mellow in “Etymology,” an as-yet-unrecorded tune he wrote on a long, sleepless flight to Bangkok. His improvisations were ribbon-like, his nimbleness astonishing. The set showcased his tenor on the sensual “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” and his soprano shone on the pixyish “Surreal,” a bright homage to Picasso. Strickland, who can honk like a Texas tenor, stings like a bee at the same time.

Back on the local front, West Side saxophone mainstay Ernie Krivda filled PlayHouse Square’s endearingly oddball Hermit Club with “Thunder From the Heartland” April 24. This edition of “Thunder” also featured the cosmic piano of Bobby Floyd, a Columbus icon; tart Chicago trumpeter Brad Goode; surprisingly unpredictable Indianapolis guitarist Bobby Broom; Pittsburgh bassist Jeff Grubbs; and Detroit drummer Renell Gonsalves. Krivda, whose Blues for Pekar CD garnered widespread acclaim in 2011, led these Midwestern all-stars through two generous sets. Krivda’s palaver was easy, the audience appreciative, the presentation thankfully tight. The highlights of the first set included Wes Montgomery’s sassy “West Coast Blues” (Broom’s solo was lean and well-structured, Goode’s pointed and penetrating) and Krivda’s deeply funky original, “Great Lakes Gumbo.” Krivda can be long-winded, but his solos were to the point and on the mark.

More adventurous and modern than Krivda’s assemblage, if no less passionate: the Jack DeJohnette Group April 26 at the Tri-C Metro Main Stage Auditorium, which seats about 800 but drew only about half that. The veteran drummer led an unusually diverse band: rock-oriented David Fiuczynski on double-neck guitar, keyboardist George Colligan, bassist Jerome Harris and Don Byron on clarinet and saxophone. The group played DeJohnette’s cerebral, fascinating works for an hour and a half, and could have gone longer.

The tunes bristled with quick time changes, extraterrestrial harmonics and drama. While Fiuczynski and Colligan provided most of the color, Harris—and a disappointingly reserved Byron—humanized the show with their facial expressions and occasional vocal accents. DeJohnette’s tunes, particularly a tempestuous “Ahmad the Terrible,” with its complementary but contradictory melody lines, Fiuczynski’s oriental solo and Colligan’s synthesizer ululation, and “Soulful Ballad,” sparked by Byron’s thick tenor, were quirky and witty.

The evening of April 28 belonged to Diana Krall, the thoroughbred jazz icon from Alberta, Canada. Backed by drummer Kariem Riggins, guitarist Anthony Wilson (Gerald Wilson’s son) and bassist Robert Hurst, the coltish Krall performed an eclectic set including a spare take on Bob Dylan’s “Simple Twist of Fate,” Fats Waller’s “If You’re a Viper,” a frisky update of Gene Autry’s “Don’t Fence Me In,” and for an encore, “So Nice (Summer Samba),” a gentle bossa nova. She kibitzed between songs, lavished praise on mentor Tommy LiPuma (who has produced most of her albums), spent a tad too long unplugged, and occasionally seemed distracted. Nevertheless, Krall turned in a generally winning set.

The final night showcased The Tri-C JazzFest Soundworks band in two satisfying sets at Nighttown, the Cleveland Heights jazz club mecca. The front line was John Klayman on tenor sax, Chris Anderson (also emcee) on trombone, Sean Jones on trumpet, and Howie Smith on alto and soprano saxophones. Backed by Cleveland native Chip Stephens on piano, the sturdy and inventive bassist Glenn Holmes, and up-and-coming drummer Chris Baker, the band capped this festival in rousing fashion. Klayman is a talented improviser whose fleshy solos uncoil with absorbing logic; Anderson plays like he’s in church (and writes mean, knotty tunes like “Unsettling Nature,” the closer); Jones is a virtuoso who can scream like Maynard Ferguson and growl, muted, like a latter-day Rex Stewart; and Smith, a resolute modernist who can also wail the blues, is simply the most adventurous saxman in the city. Stephens writes robust, twisty tunes like “Chip’s Blues” and the bittersweet “Sadness and Soul.” His keyboard playing is remarkable, its bedrock the blues, its top end giddily rhapsodic. Besides the Stephens tunes, the highlights were Smith’s sneaky, crepuscular “Off the Mark,” a super-funky take on Donny McCaslin’s “Second Line Sally,” and Michael Brecker’s inexorable strut, “Take a Walk.”

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