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Review: Springfield Jazz and Roots Festival

Bringing a community together with crowd-pleasing music

Charles Neville, Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival 2015
Deva Mahal, Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival 2015
Donald Harrison, Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival 2015
Donald Harrison (l.) and Dr. Lonnie Smith, Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival 2015
Dr. Lonnie Smith, Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival 2015
Dr. Lonnie Smith, Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival 2015
Steven Bernstein, Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival 2015
Dawning Holmes, Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival 2015
Detroit Brooks, Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival 2015

The second annual Springfield Jazz and Roots Festival in Massachusetts showcased international jazz artists, local musicians, poets and aspiring younger musicians in an all-day free event. The main stage, set up in historic Court Square, faces the Springfield District Court and Symphony Hall. Perfect weather, great food and drinks, T-shirts, an art tent, farmer’s market and non-profit community groups lined the perimeter. New England Public Radio sponsored the all-day performances in the nearby Old First Church, and NEPR hosts Tom Reney of “Jazz a la Mode,” and “Jazz Safari” host Kari Njiiri served as emcees throughout the day.

One of the main goals of organizer Kristin Neville, executive director of Blues to Green, is to not only attract and introduce younger audiences to jazz, but also to present younger performers. Enriching and helping to foster youth appreciation of jazz the previous night, Charles Neville and Donald Harrison also gave a master workshop at the Community Music School of Springfield to students. Emphasizing the importance of jazz in school communities, kicking off the festival on the main stage was the Charles M. Greenlee Ensemble, joined by Sci-Tech students of the Community Music School of Springfield. Other young performers included the Khalif Neville Tree-O, playing in the Old First Church. Their enthusiastic performance featured recent Pioneer Valley Performing Arts high school graduates Khalif Neville on keyboards, Eli Heath on bass and current senior Brahm Masla on drums.

Midday Latin-jazz and salsa from Jesus Pagan and the Conjunto Barrio kept the crowd moving for the whole set. They referenced Tito Puente’s classic “Oye Come Va” and the 1965 Joe Cuba Sextet track “El Pito” quoting “I’ll never go back to Georgia” in a crossover of Afro-American and Latin versions of Dizzy Gillespie’s 1940 “Manteca.”

Next up on the main stage and performing in Springfield for the first time, Deva Mahal, daughter of legendary bluesman Taj Mahal and a Springfield native, brought her own emotional and ecstatic blend of soulful blues and R&B to the stage. Her powerful and deeply engaging lyrics stirred the crowd. “I don’t usually play the guitar but my daddy gave me this,” she said, grinning.

The Jeff Holmes Quartet performed original pieces, such as “Macaroons” and “Of One’s Own,” the title track from their CD. They also performed a playfully arranged interpretation of the popular standard “So Long Farewell,” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music. Dawning Holmes, on vocals, performed Mahalia Jackson’s “I’m on My Way” and a B.B. King tune, “Never Make Your Move Too Soon.”

Boston-based saxophonist Elan Trotman acknowledged his diverse musical interests with interpretations of music by Earth, Wind and Fire, Grover Washington Jr. and Sonny Rollins. In addition, he performed original songs, such as “Trade Winds,” inspired by his Barbados roots. Onstage with him was Tomo Fujihito on guitar, Kareem Thompson on steel drums, Mark Copland on keyboards, Zach Rochester on electric bass and drummer Anthony Steele. Toward the end, Trotman also performed a crowd-pleasing classic, a powerful blues-nuanced version of Stevie Wonder’s 1980 reggae-funk anthem “Master Blaster (Jammin’).”

Bassist Avery Sharpe began his set discussing female leaders, the “She-roes,” and the Civil Rights movement. He wanted to bring more attention to a lesser-known figure, the guitarist and singer-songwriter Sister Rosetta Tharpe, whose music helped bring gospel to the mainstream and was influential in the birth of rock ‘n’ roll. His set was aptly titled “Sharpe Meets Tharpe” and featured saxophonist Charles Neville, vocalists Heshima Moja and Angel Rose, and the New England Gospel Choir, led by conductor Kevin Sharpe. Both the vocal performances of Moja and Rose were particularly powerful and inspiring.

One of the main events of the evening was New Orleans native Big Chief Donald Harrison, who bounced between playing saxophone, congas and vocals. Also joining him on stage was “the most soulful brother in jazz,” Detroit Brooks on guitar, Tabari Lake on bass, Joe Dyson on drums and Zacciai Curtis on piano. Playing original tunes as well as crowd-pleasing covers, including James Brown’s “Sex Machine,” he easily energized the crowd. Later, joining him on stage was legendary Hammond B3 organist Dr. Lonnie Smith. This much-anticipated guest was greeted with tremendous enthusiasm from the crowd and performers alike.

In his set, during which he played with Donald Harrison and accordionist Lonnie Gasparini, Smith played the beautiful “Pilgrimage,” but also dedicated a piece to Fats Domino.

Concluding the festival were Henry Butler/Steven Bernstein & the Hot 9, who played a dynamic interpretation of Jelly Roll Morton’s “Wolverine Blues,” and other New Orleans-rooted tunes. Butler kept everything moving with his agile and colorful piano work. Their superb energy and musicianship kept the crowd engaged and wanting more.

The event was multi-purposed. Obviously, bringing quality jazz to a diverse section of local community is the main draw, and they did come. Throughout the day, performers expressed the value of jazz as a historical and social medium. Event organizer Kristin Neville sees this as part of a much broader mission to enrich and encourage artistic and entrepreneurial development in Springfield. Working with different partners, the hope is to bring attention to possibilities for economic growth and sustainability. Moreover, by enabling the community to collaborate in the festival, the music provides a more organic and exciting experience, making jazz and the Springfield Jazz and Roots Festival a part of the transformation of this city.

Originally Published