Tri-C JazzFest Cleveland

Loueke, Lovano, Frisell, Cole, Feinstein and more highlight this sprawling week-long fest

Bills of Dr. John/Aaron Neville and Natalie Cole/Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra bracketed Cuyahoga Community College’s 34th annual Tri-C JazzFest the week-plus of April 19-27. A virtually non-stop presentation featuring artists of promise and pedigree, the festival kept downtown Cleveland hopping late into the night. Like last year’s iteration, it aimed to revive the popularity of jazz by threading it with pop and suggestions of rock.

Dr. John at Tri-C JazzFest 2013
By Janet Macoska/Tri-C JazzFest
Aaron Neville at Tri-C JazzFest 2013
By Janet Macoska/Tri-C JazzFest
Lionel Loueke at Tri-C JazzFest 2013
By Jeff Forman/Tri-C JazzFest
Natalie Cole, Tri-C Jazz Fest, 2013
By Jeff Forman/Tri-C JazzFest
Joe Lovano, Tri-C Jazz Fest, 2013
By Jeff Forman/Tri-C JazzFest
Bill Frisell, Tri-C jazz Fest, 2013

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Largely concentrated in PlayhouseSquare, Cleveland’s theater district, the festival spanned pop-jazz icons like Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack and Neville, the American Songbook torchbearer Michael Feinstein and the supple pop singer Natalie Cole, her setting the big-band jazz stylings of the Clayton-Hamilton powerhouse. Cole bookmarked this year’s JazzFest like Diana Krall did last year’s.

It also featured local musicians like Hammond organ legend Eddie Baccus Sr., a soul-jazz legend who more than 50 years ago played piano behind Roland Kirk in long-gone Cleveland jazz joints, and younger area natives like trumpeter Dominick Farinacci, now a New York resident like JazzFest magnet Joe Lovano.

An expressive, creative tenorman, Lovano comes from the east side suburb of Euclid and was treated to a “60th birthday bash” (complete with a proclamation from Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson) on the last day of the festival. The bash featured numerous professionals, family members and local stars like Ernie Krivda, a similarly robust tenorman who teaches at Tri-C.

The biggest days were the Saturdays. On the afternoon of April 19, the Robert Glasper Experiment performed, followed by the Kenny Garrett Quintet, in gigs at the 1,000-seat Ohio Theatre. That night, “Smooth Jazz All-Stars” Marc Antoine, Richard Elliot, Keiko Matsui, Marion Meadows, Phil Perry and Brian Simpson played the 3,400-seat State Theatre.

On the afternoon of April 26, Bill Frisell’s Beautiful Dreamers, followed by the Lovano “bash,” played the 514-seat Allen Theatre. That night, the Cole-Clayton-Hamilton juggernaut played the State.

Smaller acts performed at the college’s downtown campus; the Cleveland Heights club Nighttown hosted a tribute to Dexter Gordon featuring Javon Jackson; and the Lionel Loueke Trio sold out the 200-seat lobby of the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, a striking new facility designed by trophy architect Farshid Moussavi.
In addition, various student combos from Tri-C and groups from as far away as Detroit performed in lobbies throughout the festival, which began with an opening-night party in the State Theatre lobby prior to the Dr. John-Neville bill.

Clinics also peppered the week-plus, led by the likes of pianists Orrin Evans and Aaron Diehl, vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant and Anat Cohen, the charismatic Israeli clarinetist whose April 24 concert with the Rimon School Jazz Ensemble of Tel Aviv made Tri-C Metro Auditorium the place to be that Wednesday night.

Here are mini-reviews of some notable 2013 JazzFest acts:

The festival began a tad tepidly, despite its New Orleans promise. Resplendent in an electric blue suit, Dr. John commandeered the Ohio’s stage with tunes recent and hoary. His voice was fine, his attitude cool, especially on the recent “Locked Down” and “Revolution” and the indelible “Right Place, Wrong Time.” But his keyboard playing seemed tentative, and the set failed to gain momentum despite the strenuous efforts of bandleader and trombonist Sarah Morrow, whose cries of “Dr. John! Dr. John!” seemed more desperate than enthusiastic.

Still, Dr. John’s set was livelier than Neville’s. The man looked great, in dark suit and cream-colored fedora, and his voice is as pretty as ever. But it seems to have lost the power that gave his 1966 hit, “Tell It Like It Is,” such urgency, and he relied too heavily on My True Story, his sleepy Blue Note debut of doo-wop and R&B covers. God knows that material is great, but Neville tailored it instead of occupying it, despite expert help from the Aaron Neville Quintet, particularly his brother Charles Neville on sax.

The Robert Glasper Experiment was disappointing. For one thing, the sound system failed for the first 15 minutes. For another, Glasper’s tunes seemed formless, even listless. Groove-heavy and shapeless, they were hard to distinguish from one another, though a long piano solo by Glasper, along the lines of Bill Evans’ old “Peace Piece,” was lovely, and the super-cool multi-instrumentalist Casey Benjamin burned on saxophone on another, funkier cut. But drummer Mark Colenburg slammed the beat into numbness, and overall the group looked cooler (particularly the shaded Benjamin) than it played. Glasper’s nominally subversive, effectively marketed Black Radio record is ambitious and may well be stylish, but his show proved there’s no substitute for substance.

What was exciting about Anat Cohen’s show with the Rimon student group was that at several points it showcased three strong women as jazz missionaries: Cohen, Rimon pianist Shay Portugaly and the unique singer Tali Rubinstein, a Rimon alumna now at the Berklee College of Music who also plays an array of recorders. Her deployment of that instrument laid to rest the notion of the recorder as a beginner’s toy.

In a program stressing originals like tenor saxophonist Ori Jacobson’s “The Tune” or interpretations like bassist Nadav Shapira’s recasting of the Israeli folksong “Go and Explore Your Land,” the eight-piece Rimon band performed far more professionally than one would expect of so young a group. Keep track of musicians like drummer Vogev Gabay, trombonist Ido Meshulam and guitarist Tal Yadin. They even turned “Hello, Dolly!” into an arch, rousing finale.

The Lionel Loueke Trio show featuring the sly Benin guitarist with the smiling Michael Olatuja on bass and the joyous John Davis on drums may have been even more electric than the Cohen-Rimon gig. From the moment the lanky Loueke took to the MOCA Cleveland floor, people were in the groove. Armed with only a guitar (granted, it didn’t lack for effects like harmonizers and splitters) and occasionally synthesized voice, Loueke seamlessly melded lead and rhythm in a fantastic show that ended all too soon.

The trio focused on material from Loueke’s latest album, “Heritage,” which was produced by Robert Glasper, whom Loueke praised. Among its highlights, particularly live: “Bayyinah,” a Glasper tune performed with extraordinary ferocity, Loueke’s synthesized guitar cueing Olatuja’s plummy lines and prompting a beautifully integrated Davis solo. Loueke’s sensibility is global, though his roots are West African. His show was so electrifying it had much of the audience on its feet, the better to witness the creation of exemplary worldbeat jazz-rock. The Loueke date was the perfect jazz shot for MOCA Cleveland, a very jazzy building that anchors the city’s increasingly hip Uptown district off University Circle.

The following night featured Michael Feinstein in “The Gershwins and Me,” filling half the house at the Ohio Theatre. It was a good show, allowing the affable, versatile Feinstein to tell Gershwin stories and Jewish jokes as pianist Tedd Firth, bassist Tom Hubbard and drummer Ray Marchica punctuated his patter.

For the most part, the Feinstein show was seamless. He handled microphone glitches with aplomb (“Come on, you’re in the union. Earn your money”); delivered gorgeous versions of “S’Wonderful” and other “S’” songs associated with Gershwin buddies Fred and Adele Astaire; treated a showpiece from Porgy and Bess operatically; and conjured the spirit of Danny Kaye. The show was perfect for a well-heeled crowd whose members lined up enthusiastically after the gig to buy a signed copy of Feinstein’s 2012 book, The Gershwins and Me.

The following day, the understated and protean guitarist Bill Frisell delivered gorgeous jazz with fellow Beautiful Dreamers Eyvind Kang on viola and Rudy Royston in drums. In a carefully designed set heavy on Paul Motian songs, Frisell explored new, weird Americana.

Frisell’s Beautiful Dreamers traversed a hushed take on Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times,” a spirited rendition of Monk’s “Misterioso,” Motian’s ultra-modernist and angular “Dance,” a bluesy “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” and “Old Man River,” the Jerome Kern tune that caps “The Great Flood,” the remarkable Bill Morrison documentary about the Mississippi River flood of 1927 for which Frisell wrote the stunning score.

The Frisell date also featured a guest appearance by Lovano, with whom Frisell worked in Motian’s groups starting in 1981. They made beautiful music on “Hot House,” a bebop classic by Cleveland native Tadd Dameron.

“Hot House” was the bridge between the Frisell and Lovano sets. The latter was far more prolix, featuring professionals like Lovano’s young bandmates from Us Five, world percussionist and longtime buddy Jamey Haddad, family like kid brother Anthony and uncle Carl (drums and trumpet, respectively), the great Cleveland drummer Carmen Castaldi and, of course, the ubiquitous tenorman Ernie Krivda. Introducing Lovano: Tommy LiPuma, the great producer whose name is immortalized in Tri-C’s new Tommy LiPuma Center for Creative Arts. LiPuma, who introduced several other artists during the festival, also presented Lovano with a “jazz legend” award. No wonder Lovano said he’s celebrating his birthday all year.
Lovano’s gregarious, user-friendly and heavily localized set also featured his wife, Judi Silvano, who shone on Lovano’s “Golden Horn,” which highlighted Haddad on a hand drum he balanced on his left leg. (Besides conventional saxes, Lovano performed on the aulochrome, a double soprano saxophone a Belgium instrument maker invented for Lovano, and a Hungarian relative of the soprano sax called the taragato, which looked like a wooden soprano).

Among the surprises: a mesmerizing medley of Castaldi’s “Mirror” and Lovano’s “Ayler Moments” featuring Castaldi and bassist Ron Smith, and “Folk Art,” with Lovano’s current band, Us Five. The clincher, however, was the finale, “Blues in the Closet.” It wasn’t so much the performance as the aggregation. Besides Lovano and Krivda, the Bud Powell chestnut featured trumpeter extraordinaire Kenny Davis, blind B3 patriarch Baccus, storied bebop drummer Greg Bandy and vibraharpist Ron Busch. All are names on the Cleveland jazz scene. All have played with Lovano for decades.

The JazzFest ended spiritedly with Natalie Cole, headlining a bill that the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra launched. The orchestra was remarkable. Not only did conductor-bassist John Clayton do Mingus’ “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” reverentially, tenormen Rickey Woodard and Charles Owens soloed with verve, and drummer/co-leader Jeff Hamilton never failed to swing precisely and elegantly. This is one classy big band.

Just how classy came clear when Cole’s rhythm section worked its way onto the stage for a set featuring, of course, Cole on “Unforgettable”; her homage to “Uncle Frank” Sinatra in “The Best Is Yet to Come”; a nuanced and unexpectedly rich take on Jack Jones’ “Lollipops and Roses”; and a clutch of tunes from her upcoming Latin album, Natalie Cole en Espanol. The coltish Cole was in fine voice and seemed at ease in this demanding setting. The audience couldn’t get enough of her.

In response to a standing ovation, she came back to encore with “Let There Be Love,” setting up a fiery exchange between her increasingly insistent vocals and an assertive Clayton-Hamilton Orchestra that more than rose to the occasion. The final duel between Cole and lead trumpeter Bijon Watson smoked, bringing the 34th annual Tri-C JazzFest to a dramatic and satisfying end.

Home page photo of Lionel Loueke by Jeff Forman/Tri-C JazzFest.

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