Review: Charlotte Jazz Festival 2019
By Perry Tannenbaum
Presented by the Leon Levine Foundation and staged by Blumenthal Performing Arts, the Charlotte Jazz Festival is continuing to grow incrementally in its fourth season. Despite some egregious rookie mistakes – the opening two-day fest in 2016 fell on the first two nights of Passover! – this year’s model ran like a Cadillac. Or perhaps it’s better to say a Lincoln, since the influence of Wynton Marsalis and members of his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra has permeated this young-and-growing celebration since the beginning.
Rising vocalist and JLCO saxophonist Camille Thurman headlined the 2019 festival’s kickoff event at Romare Bearden Park with the Darrell Green Trio and a guest appearance by Marsalis. Hanging around for a second night, Marsalis and some other venerable vets meshed with The Future of Jazz Orchestra at Knight Theater in a lively Duke Ellington retrospective. Marsalis was gone on the following night at the Knight, but his melodies lingered on in a concert-length performance of Spaces by the JLCO and two featured dancers, Jared Grimes and Myles Yachts.
Then on the final night, while Tony Award winner Patina Miller was delivering an electrifying tribute to North Carolina icon Nina Simone, three aces from the JLCO sidled over to the Jazz Tent at Romare Bearden Park, each leading his own combo in a straight-ahead marathon that played on for nearly five hours. That immersion, collectively titled “The Gentlemen of Jazz,” was preceded the previous evening by “Ladies Sing the Blues” – ladies first, right? – which had nothing to do with either Lady Day or JLCO but plenty to do with the blues.
Bracing for the evening-long immersions on the last two nights, we began with The Future and the Duke, a new show that was headed to the Big Apple the following night. From the outset, with three horns – including Wycliffe
Gordon’s slide – launching “Black and Tan Fantasy,” and plunger mutes sprouting everywhere, the show was ready for primetime. Among the elders, it would be Dan Block who would get the most solo space, particularly when he put down his tenor sax and picked his clarinet, as he did early on in “Stompy Jones.”
With his customary cool, Marsalis mostly contented himself with narrating the proceedings from his seat in the back row with the other top brass. He stood up from that perch just once during his hosting chores, and interestingly enough, set off his signature trumpet pyrotechnics during “Old Man Blues,” with Gordon engaging in battle and the whole trumpet section whipping out two-tone derby hats to wah-wah the out-chorus. Anchoring the rhythm section, bassist Rodney Whitaker played the most notes among the blue bloods, but the he split his time behind the upright with Endea Owens, one of the most promising of the young bloods.
Appropriately referencing Duke’s first bassist in his introductory remarks, Marsalis programmed showcases for both Owens and Whitaker in “Portrait of Wellman Braud” and “Dancers in Love.” Covering the ‘20s through the ‘40s before intermission, the band mostly stuck with familiar titles like “The Mooche,” “Caravan,” “Cottontail,” “Sophisticated Lady,” “Rockin’ in Rhythm,” and – after an apt anecdote about young Billy Strayhorn – “Take the A Train.” Great intro to the Duke for newbies in arrangements suffused with authenticity.
Dealing with the ‘50s through the ‘70s after intermission, The Future was more eclectic and adventurous. Here we had “Royal Ancestry” from Duke’s tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, “Anitra’s Dance” from his adaptation of Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite, and a couple of samplings from his film score work, including “Almost Cried” from Anatomy of a Murder. Rarest and most unexpected of all, the concert ended with a dip into The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse and, after the hip reference to Marshall McLuhan as the Duke’s inspiration, “Chinoiserie.” Young Julian Lee excelled here on tenor sax, his second triumph of the evening after evoking memories of Ben Webster in “Cottontail.”
Other standouts among the young lions included Patrick Bartley doubling on alto sax and clarinet, Ben Cohen on bari, trumpeters Jumaane Smith and Noah Halpern, and trombonist Jeffrey Miller. Gabe Schnider mostly strummed rhythm but when he got the chance to solo on “Caravan,” the guitarist delivered, and whether it was the “Dancers in Love” duet or the iconic “A Train” intro, Sean Mason was a consistent delight at the piano.
With Donna Hopkins, Deva Mahal, and Maria Muldaur playing title roles, the “Ladies Sing the Blues” triple header proved that the blues can be a very mixed bag. Hopkins and her youthful rhythm section took us down a “Dirty Alabama Road” in one song that was bluesy in a Joplinesque sort of way – Janis, not Scott – and mostly kept a torch-song tempo for her most distinctive originals, “Keep Talking Love” and “Heart Full of Love.” Her guitar licks also had an edge that kept her blues-rock groove burning. Muldaur came to the Jazz Tent with a bigger sound and naughtier intentions. Except for the flower that still adorns her hair, most people who remember Muldaur from her hit 1973 single, “Midnight at the Oasis,” would be surprised at how the years have altered the artist. Her entire set distilled the spirit of her most recent album, the Grammy Award-nominated Don’t You Feel My Leg (The Naughty Bawdy Blues of Blue Lu Barker) – until the obligatory “Oasis.”
The irony is that, if you had explored the eponymous album where “Oasis” first appeared, you would have found Muldaur singing the very same Blue Lu and Danny Parker “Feel My Leg” blues at the dawn of her recording career, backed by a battery of horns and Dr. John twiddling the keys. So the real evolution is in the singing voice, evident in the first notes of “Georgia Grind,” starting off her Barker family tribute. Considerable grit there, with the full mileage of all those years.
Going with the flow of her gravellier sound, Muldaur is less about the elegant, exotic innuendo of “Oasis” these days and more about such brash blues-singer declarations as Danny Barker’s “Loan Me Your Husband,” Vernon White’s “Leave My Man Alone,” Andy Razaf’s “Handy Andy,” and Blu Lu and Danny’s “Never Brag About Your Man.” In her robust intro to the Barkers’ opus, Muldaur made the connection between its advice and Sippie Wallace’s “Don’t Advertise Your Man,” with the appropriate nod to Bonnie Raitt.
On the bandstand, special dimensions emerged in live performance that don’t come through your earbuds via your iPhone. The heat and drama of “Loan Me Your Husband” were exponentially increased when Muldaur aimed her pleas directly at a matron seated in the second row of cabaret tables, maybe eight feet from the stage, and to watch David L. Harris soloing on “Trombone Man Blues” was way more than sexually suggestive when you saw the instrument’s sliding actions and heard its powerful moan. The audience definitely got the thrust.
Between Hopkins and Muldaur, we had to pass on Mahal in order to catch the Marsalis suite at Knight Theater. It was an early-evening, family-friendly concert that contrasted wholesomely with the risqué after-dark fare that was awaiting us back at the Jazz Tent. Each of the 10 segments was modeled on the sounds and movements of animals. Marsalis and his orchestra presided over the music while two dancers, tapster Jared Grimes and jook meister Myles Yachts, served up the moves – and, in Grimes’ case, additional percussion.
Yes, it had the elemental qualities of the LolliPops children’s concerts that Charlotte Symphony performs, and you can make a superficial comparison with Camille Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of Animals, a staple at such concerts. An equally apt analogy can be drawn between Spaces and Serge Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. While there isn’t a narrative binding the creatures of the Marsalis menagerie together, there is definitely a tasty script introducing each of the critters.
Beginning with the observations on the chicken – most prevalent creature on the planet (if you count eggs), complexity of expression, ability to achieve REM sleep, closest living relative to T-Rex – you could tell that Marsalis and/or his ghostwriter had meticulously and whimsically researched their subjects, not pausing to dumb things down for the small fry in the audience. Surrounded by these pithy intros and the marvels performed by Grimes and Yachts, the JLCO struggled to capture our attention, even when their charts proved to be clever and resourceful.
When a brass player reared up with a sousaphone for “Pachydrem Shout,” Yachts danced circles around the whole band, making elephantine silhouettes on the upstage curtain along the way. Uncannier were Yachts’ backlit wrigglings during “Like a Snake,” the jook artist’s outstretched arms looking like a serpent slithering through the dancer’s body. The dance duets may have been the most formidable barriers to band recognition, especially when the most kid-friendly of them for “Leap Frogs” was followed by a surprise costume change, tux jackets and bowler hats for a waddling “Mr. Penguin, Please.”
The levity was leavened with a lyrical interlude. Tranquility overtook “Those Sanctified Swallows” long enough for Dan Nimmer’s piano, Carlos Henriquez’s bass, and Ted Nash’s piccolo to make an impression. Then for the Marsalis ode to “A Nightingale,” described as not only the most tuneful of birds but also the most akin to jazz musicians in their nocturnal habits, the dancers laid out so the band could shine. It was also an opportunity for Grimes and Yachts to rest up for the sunnier, more upbeat closers.
Grimes drew the solo spot for “King Lion” (actually about a lioness) with plenty of roaring from the brass, but the best moments in his dance were the percussion battles with drummer Charles Goold. Marsalis pushed the hoofers even harder for the concluding “Bees, Bees, Bees,” as the hornmen brought out kazoos to get a frothy hum going. When muted horns took up the drone, both Grimes and Yachts kept up with the frenetic pace, easily their best-coordinated duet of the night.
Three of the JLCO guys hung around the Queen City as headliners in the “Gentlemen of Jazz” concerts on the last night of the festival. It promised to be a revealing test for the Jazz Tent, since thunder and lightning were already prowling the metro area when we hit the highway. By the time we arrived for saxophonist Paul Nedzela and his quartet, it was evident that we weren’t going to gauge the effects of rumblings in the skies or rain on the roof. It was probably the weather, though, that was messing with the electronics.
Something was obviously wrong with the lights onstage, since Nedzela, on baritone for a luscious “Portrait of Jenny,” seemed to be in shadow compared with the ladies on centerstage the night before. Thanks to the miracle of acoustic instruments, we didn’t learn that the sound system wasn’t working until my wife Sue and I were exiting for the concert at the Knight. The last three compositions we heard before then were stellar, especially “Third Quartet,” where Nedzela switched from soprano back to bari for a ruminative duet with pianist Dan Nimmer, another holdover from the previous night. Chick Corea’s “Humpty Dumpty,” with Nedzela blazing on baritone, sent me out smiling.
When we returned, the bandstand was teeming with musicians, and the juice was back on for lights and sound. Like Spaces and the Ellington retrospective, Carlos Henriquez’s Dizzy Gillespie tribute, Dizzy Con Clave had Jazz at Lincoln Center fingerprints all over it. The entire set of Gillespiana, in fact, replicated titles released on the RodBros label last year under Henriquez’s name – and recorded at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola.
Except for trumpeter Michael Rodriguez and trombonist Marshall Gilkes, the octet joining Henriquez on the bandstand were not the same, so they brought fresh – and different –energies to the music.
This was especially true of Jeremy Bosch, who not only added his flute to the instrumental palette but also served as prime voice on the vocals, beginning with the opener, a spirited “Manteca” that demonstrated Henriquez’s con clave approach.This was especially true of Jeremy Bosch, who not only added his flute to the instrumental palette but also served as prime voice on the vocals, beginning with the opener, a spirited “Manteca” that demonstrated Henriquez’s con clave approach.
Numerous times, conguero Marcos Torres and drummer Marc Quinones clashed and bashed in spirited percussion orgies. Rodriguez and Gilkes were predictably prodigious in the horn section, but the ringers got their licks in as well. The seemingly diffident Jonathan Powell suddenly began exchanging trumpet volleys with Rodriguez in “Con Alma,” always sounding like he was playing a fifth higher, and Felipe Lamoglia rose up with a mighty tenor sax rant in “A Night in Tunisia.”
In a set that also included “Groovin’ High,” it was hard to pick a favorite, but “Kush” was easily the most revelatory piece I heard. Where has this gem been hiding out? Nor was there any arguing with the leader’s choice of “Bebop” as his closer. Fast, exhilarating and brassy, the chart provided Henriquez and pianist Robert Rodriguez with ample spaces to shine before the rousing out chorus.
To catch Patina Miller in concert, we had to sacrifice Kenny Rampton’s octet and the suite the trumpeter has crafted from the music for a recent off-Broadway production of Dominique Morisseau’s Paradise Blue. Understanding that Rampton partisans might feel just as strongly about their choice, we did not regret ours. There was a special homecoming vibe to the occasion, especially for Miller, who hails from nearby Pageland, SC. Lusty whoops gushed forth from the orchestra seats when Miller mentioned her hometown, and she invited her mom onstage to sing a duet on one number.
Heightening that warmth – and enthusiasm – was the tribute to Tryon, NC, native Nina Simone. From the outset of “Feeling Good,” it was plain, despite the disparity between Miller’s silvery voice and Simone’s husky contralto, that the two-time Tony Award nominee for her leading roles in Sister Act and Pippin (winner) had an affinity for the gospel-folk-blues icon and an appreciation of her legacy. The question of whether it took contralto depth to plumb the emotional depths of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” was quickly settled in Miller’s favor.
Backed by a quartet that included James Sampliner at the Steinway, Perry Smith on guitar, Gregory Jones behind the upright, and Joe Nero at the drums, Miller also proved she could swing some jazz in “My Baby Just Cares for Me” before the gospel-flavored duet on “Nobody’s Fault but Mine.” Astutely, Miller lightened the mood after Mom’s exit with “Marriage Is for Old Folks” before dialing the intensity back up – way up – with “Wild Is the Wind.”
That was our first glimpse of the summit of Simone essentials that Miller would ascend at the end of her journey. Meanwhile she roamed among less intense fare like “See-Line Woman” and “Love Me or Leave Me.” It was when she slowed the pace for “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl” that you could sense Miller was headed for the high country. We were already in rarefied air when she sang “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” but then came a trilogy of Simone affirmations at the heart of her legacy.
In a breathtaking rush, “Mississippi Goddam” reached the pinnacle, followed by “Four Women” and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” No reaction at this year’s festival came close to the thunderous applause and the standing ovation that greeted Miller’s final emphatic “Goddam!” Her rage was so raw and, after more than 50 years, Simone’s words still rang so true – defiantly addressing this historical moment. Adding to the awesome spontaneity of this ovation was a lightning bolt of discovery: so many of the people, young and old, who sprang to their feet, galvanized by “Mississippi Goddam,” were hearing it for the first time in their lives.
Obviously, they needed to.