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John Hollenbeck’s Claudia Quintet at the Earshot Jazz Festival

Donald Harrison

The Charlie Parker Jazz Festival almost bit the dust a couple of years ago, but thankfully it remains one of the highlights of New York’s summer jazz calendar. After several memorable runs in Tompkins Square Park in the East Village, the festival morphed into a two-day affair, keeping its original home but adding another: Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park. Now it spans the island of Manhattan, from Charlie Parker Place on Avenue B to the streets near where Minton’s Playhouse once stood.

This year’s lineup boasted the great Jimmy Heath on both days. The downtown portion, on August 22, also featured Frank Morgan and Kenny Garrett (altoists bridging the generations) as well as drummer Terri Lyne Carrington. The uptown portion, on August 21, could well have been canceled thanks to torrential afternoon rains, but the storm let up in time for Rachel Z and her trio to take the stage, about 30 minutes late. “You have to study Bird or you can’t play jazz,” Z rightly told the crowd before embarking on a bright reading of “Anthropology.” Unfortunately, bassist Chris Luard and drummer Bobbie Rae were a clunky, unswinging pair. As the set progressed, with tunes like “Confirmation” and Sting’s “Fragile,” one longed to hear Z, a strong pianist, with a fiercer rhythm section.

Singer Vanessa Rubin was in better hands with Danny Grissett on piano, Lonnie Plaxico on bass and Alvin Atkinson on drums. Starting with “Out of This World” and a crafty arrangement of “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” Rubin had a discernable impact on the crowd, even though nearly everyone was clutching an umbrella and unable to applaud. (The rain continued on and off through the afternoon; the audience might have been twice as big, at least, on a clear day.) Tackling multiple modulations on “If I Should Lose You” and subtle dynamics on the Stephen Sondheim ballad “Loving You,” Rubin put a personal, modern slant on an otherwise mainstream style.

Altoist Donald Harrison had an exciting young trumpeter in Christian Scott, and a solid rhythm team in pianist Dan Kaufman, bassist Dwayne Burno and drummer Carl Allen. James Browne of the club Sweet Rhythm (who split emcee duties with Sheila Anderson of WBGO-FM) billed Harrison’s set as a trip to New Orleans, and “Duck” didn’t disappoint. There were echoes of funk and soul-jazz in the intricate opener, “Free to Be.” There were tips of the hat to Charlie Parker: the blues “One for Bird” and the rhythmically reconfigured “A Night in Tunisia.” Finally, there was a Mardi Gras-inspired blues that found Harrison chanting energetically in a Crescent City patois. When the groove reached boiling point, Harrison and Scott, both clad in fine suits, began to dance around the stage, horns silent but flailing.

But in the best-for-last department, Jimmy Heath closed out the afternoon with a septet performance of “Bird Is the Word,” an original suite commissioned by New York’s CityParks Foundation. Joining “Little Bird” were Antonio Hart on alto, Sean Jones on trumpet, Vincent Gardner on trombone, Jeb Patton on piano, Kiyoshi Kitagawa on bass and Winard Harper on drums. In a brief prelude, the horn players sang the “Bird Is the Word” theme, which had a dark, hymn-like quality not unlike the first movement of A Love Supreme. What followed was less a suite than a series of self-contained tunes, beginning with a brisk rhythm changes head. The horn men were back singing, briefly, on a melodic straight-eighth piece (with Heath on soprano). Then, one by one, they tore the house down with incendiary solos on a slow gospel-tinged blues. Winard Harper, who easily secured drummer-of-the-day honors, stirred the crowd with his solo on the calypso finale. What a pleasure it must have been to hear the repeat performance downtown, on a cloudless Sunday.

Originally Published