02/25/02

The Philadelphia Festival of Jazz 2002

The Painted Bride Arts Center is one of Philadelphia's great cultural institutions, hosting a multicultural variety of performance and visual arts at its wonderful Old City location. In particular, the Jazz on Vine series is the longest continuously running jazz series in Philly and has been responsible for bringing some of top-notch jazz musicians to town. While the Painted Bride hosts a few world-renown Philly bandleaders each year, the center has never hosted a festival dedicated to the wide array of styles and talents the city's scene is teeming with.

Unlike more avant-garde Philly fests Collective Voices and the University of Pennsylvania's Jazz Legacy series, the Bride's concerts also included some more mainstream contemporary units. Broken up into two three-set bills, the afternoon bill (which I missed due to scheduling conflicts) featured drummer Ronnie Burrage, trumpeter Jafar Barron and vocalist Barbara Walker leading ensembles. After a two-hour intermission, the Painted Bride reopened with sets from the Craig McIver Ensemble, G. Calvin Weston's Big Tree and Rick Iannacone's Character We.

Big Tree provided the most intense and captivating set of the evening bill. The seven-piece funk/jazz group, self-described as "experimental pan-Afro garde," scorched its way through a 50-minute set. Led by Weston, who played with Ornette Coleman's Prime Time in the '80s, Big Tree is a mix of jam-band aesthetics, sweaty funk and free-jazz passion. With Weston on trap drums, plus Tony Cosby on hand drums and Jack Spiker on various percussion, the rhythmists created enough syncopated racket that at times it was easy to forget that there was a six-and-a-half foot tall man with one dreadlock blowing like crazy on tenor. Known for his ranting poetry and hyperactive blowing, saxophonist/ Philly legend Elliott Levin usually has a dominating presence in bands. With the tightly composed pieces and competition from six others, Levin didn't steal the show; that honor belonged to Weston himself. While hammering out impressive rhythms, Weston also found time to frequently sing, shout and spit straight up in the air. Big Tree came out smoking from the beginning and by the end of the set the entire audience felt like they had had a workout.

Following Big Tree's percussion tumult isn't an easy task, but Craig McIver was certainly up for it. Like Big Tree, McIver's septet included three percussionists, but the comparison pretty much ends there. McIver's set began with a seven-minute drum solo that had Weston and Cosby standing on the side of the stage a little slack-jawed. Best known for his associations with Bobby Zankel, Max Roach, and Odean Pope, McIver teaches at a number of schools, including his own, Drumming and Percussionist Academy. Included in his band were two of his students, Terry Moore on marimba and Jane Sennett on castanets. Although she didn't stay for the entire set, Sennett's performance on the percussion instrument was subtle and appropriate. The remainder of McIver's band was sharp, too. Bassist Mike Boone, tenor saxophonist Ben Schachter, trumpeter John Swana and pianist Elio Villafranco, all leaders of their units, gave McIver's band a very proficient sound that was a welcome cool down lap after Big Tree.

To round out the bill, guitarist Rick Iannacone, McIver's counterpart in the Bobby Zankel trio, played with his band Character We. Contrary to rumors and reports, Iannacone told the Painted Bride audience that he never played with Sun Ra. While Sonny may have been from Saturn, Iannacone and his music may be from another galaxy completely. He did, however, dedicate a piece of music to Arkestra percussionist Samurai Celestial. Iannacone's band features an odd lineup that includes Swana on electric trumpet, bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma, drummer Adam Guth and Charles Cohen on "Buchla music easel." With Cohen controlling a table full of various electronics and Swana blowing through the brass family's answer to the Casio synth, Character We couldn't help but have a total sci-fi feel. While the innovative sound showed some promise at times, Character We never hit a cohesive stride to make the music compelling.

While it didn't quite match the Collective Voices Festival or many of the UPenn shows, the Painted Bride's inaugural day-long display of local talent was certainly the best cross-sampling of the different styles among Philly's current scene.

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