The U.S. Bank Saint Louis Jazz & Heritage Festival debuted in 2001, marking the first time this metro area-which has given the jazz world such luminaries as Miles Davis, Clark Terry, Jimmy Blanton, Oliver Nelson, Jimmy Forrest, Oliver Lake, Lester Bowie and many others-had an annual festival event dedicated to jazz. Based in the nearby St. Louis County suburb of Clayton at Shaw Park, the two-day event has had its ups and downs in terms of attendance since its debut. Last year’s low turnout was due in large part to the hot and humid weather conditions-torrid even for St. Louis in the summertime.
The Festival has also struggled a bit in finding the right combination between contemporary and smooth jazz acts and more straightahead and traditional fare. The 2006 event, held June 23-24, seemed to find exactly the right balance point in terms of its musical lineup, and also benefited from some amazingly balmy weather conditions with highs in the 80s, gentle breezes and low humidity on both days.
Friday evening’s main stage headliners, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Dr. John (pictured), focused attention on the rich tradition of New Orleans music-and the plight of Big Easy musicians in the wake of Katrina. Saturday’s lineup spotlighted David Sanborn, the Clarke/Duke Project and vocalist Lizz Wright. Fine sets by a host of top local musicians and singers at the Fest underscored the fact that the St. Louis music scene continues to produce fine talent.
The Preservation Hall Jazz Band lineup included many longtime regulars such as John Brunious and Frank Demond. But bassist Ben Jaffe, who has taken on the role of executive director of Preservation Hall as well as heading up the efforts of the New Orleans Musicians Hurricane Relief Fund, was replaced by Walter Payton, Jr., father of Nicholas Payton and a mainstay on the New Orleans scene for many years. Payton brought a bit of bop flavor to the proceedings, quoting Monk’s “Straight, No Chaser” at one point in the concert. But for the most part, the band focused on predictable tunes such as “Basin Street Blues,” and “When the Saints Go Marching In”-which evolved into a second line parade by several of the musicians through the crowd, complete with a couple of costumed dancers in full New Orleans Social Club regalia.
Dr. John and his backing trio, Lower 911 (John Fohl on guitar, David Barard on bass and Herman Ernest III on drums), closed out the first night of the Fest with a strong set that spanned his lengthy career, from the early “Night Tripper” voodoo funk of “I Walk on Gilded Splinters” to covers such as “Dream” from his recent tribute to Johnny Mercer, Mercernary, and a funky take on Louis Jordan’s “Saturday Night Fish Fry.”
An emotive, Latin-tinged version of “Sweet Home New Orleans” received a strong response from the crowd, as did his own familiar hits, “Right Place, Wrong Time” and “Such a Night.” If the good Doctor had brought along a horn or two to add some accent and swing, things would have been perfect. But Dr. John and his backing trio did what they came to do.
St. Louis singer Denise Thimes opened Friday’s main stage performances, showcasing her fine voice on dynamic versions of “Peel me a grape,” “Sunny” and “I Love Being Here With You.” On the much more intimate Soul School stage-a tented area seating approximately 300-pianist/vocalist Carol Schmidt and trombonist Lamar Harris both showcased bands filled with talented St. Louis musicians. Schmidt, a faculty member of the Webster University Jazz Studies department, featured other faculty members such as guitarist Steve Schenkel, Michael Parkinson on trumpet, bassist Rick Vice and Paul DeMarinis on sax-playing everything from Zappa, Wayne Shorter and Les McCann to original tunes. Harris, playing trombone and flugelhorn, led an eclectic group featuring talented vocalist Brian Owens and bassist Eric Warren through a set that mixed jazz with contemporary soul, funk and electronica.
The weather was even better on Saturday, and the Craig Russo Latin Jazz Project opened the main stage entertainment with an afternoon set that was pleasant and swinging-but a bit lacking in terms of intensity and dynamics. Maybe the weather was just too good, and the crowd too laidback at that point in the afternoon.
Things certainly picked up for the Clarke/Duke Project set later that day. Touring together for the first time in 15 years, keyboard legend George Duke and bass wizard Stanley Clarke cranked up the energy level with a set that featured plenty of technical virtuosity and showmanship-and some fine musical interludes as well. Despite daunting sound problems (at one point early in the set, Duke told the crowd, “Welcome to our sound check”), the pair turned in impressive versions of “Oh Oh,” a version of “Sweet Baby” that included some edgy scatting by Duke, and, of course, the obligatory “School Days” featuring a lengthy bass solo by Clarke. Backed by dynamic drummer Ronald Bruner, Jr. and synth player Phil Davis, Duke and Clarke kicked the large crowd into overdrive with a funky version of “Reach for It,” followed by an even funkier take on Parliament’s “Mothership Connection.”.
David Sanborn (who grew up in the nearby suburb of Kirkwood) attracted the biggest crowd of the entire fest, and turned in a strong set that encompassed tunes from throughout his lengthy career. Backed by an outstanding band-including drummer Gene Lake, son of St. Louis music great Oliver Lake-Sanborn was in strong form on alto sax, turning in well-crafted takes of “Coming Home Baby,” “Maputo,” “Chicago Song” (which he stated he should re-title in honor of St. Louis) and a tender version of “Smile,” dedicated to his mother.
Vocalist Lizz Wright closed the main stage proceedings with an intimate set that featured plenty of music from her two Verve releases, Salt and Dreaming Wide Awake. Working with two guitarists, a bass player and a percussionist-and often performing with just the backing of a single guitar-Wright had plenty of room to display her vocal prowess. Her versions of Neil Young’s “Old Man” and the standard “A Taste of Honey” were highlights, and “Walk With Me, Lord” underscored Wright’s gospel roots.
Sets by local musicians overlapped the main stage sets, making it impossible to catch every act. Seven-string guitarist Rick Haydon and the fellow musicians from the Jazz Studies faculty of the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville Jazz Ensemble- including bassist Tom Kennedy, keyboardist Karen Baldus and drummer Miles Vandiver-performed several tunes from Just Friends, Haydon’s recent recording with John Pizzarelli.
The sixth annual U.S. Bank Saint Louis Jazz & Heritage Festival was a success artistically and at the box office. Hopefully, future editions of the festival will continue this success and expand the jazz lineup.