Reviews & Opinions

Jazz Road Trip by Gary Finney

Gary Finney at the StudioThe 36th annual Tri-C JazzFest was a two-day, marathon of virtually non-stop music, upon four stages. Director Terri Pontremoli organized fourteen ticketed performers along with nineteen free, outdoor performances, and numerous workshops in the children’s area. Cleveland’s Playhouse Square district was awash with music, chef’s delicacies and beverages; some to quench your thirst and some to whet your appetite for the smorgasbord of music.

Wycliffe GordonTrombonist Wycliffe Gordon

Your intrepid jazz road-tripper’s sampling began with the quintet led by trombonist Wycliffe Gordon. Leading off with Duke’s “Pie Eye’s Blues,” Gordon swung mightily over a Purdie-style shuffle laid down by drummer Alvin Atkinson and bassist Yasushi Nakamura. A slow-build solo from reed-man Adrian Cunningham, on tenor, created some near perfect tension and release, leading into the piano solo. The band dropped out so that pianist Ehud Asherie’s solo was truly solo.

Eventually, Atkinson began snapping his fingers in accompaniment, encouraging the audience to join him. As the clicking of fingers grew louder, Asherie’s solo climaxed, ushering the full band back in and the piece concluded with the band trading fours with Atkinson.

Gordon, a Georgia native, embraces jazz’s New Orleans tradition, with Louis Armstrong being his guiding light. Satchmo didn’t write either “(What Did I Do To Be So) Black And Blue” or “On The Sunny Side Of The Street,” but had a significant hand in putting both on the musical landscape. Gordon, mimicking Armstrong’s gravely style, sang both of these numbers during the set, with the former being played in the style of a funeral dirge with prominent blues inflections.

During the latter tune’s trombone solo, Gordon’s gritty tone provided so much traction for his trademark growling, that I nearly expected him to break into “Tiger Rag” at any moment.  “Way Down Yonder In New Orleans” found Gordon switching to trumpet, where his tone was fat and brassy, and Cunningham blew gustily on clarinet. Again, the audience was included, on this stop-time tune, to shout out the song title, during the momentary breaks.

The set ended with Gordon playing slide trumpet along with trombone on “Caravan,” which by its end had morphed into “C Jam Blues.” Atkinson, who proved to be a comic showman throughout the set, established the exotic polyrhythm over which this familiar melody merrily bubbled along. At tune’s end, Gordon encouraged a scatting call-and-response with the audience, which grew more ridiculously complex with each exchange, until the only response the joyous crowd could offer was to burst into laughter.

Cyrille Aimee (see video above.)

Cyrille AimeeSinger Cyrille Aimee’s stage persona continues to grow, which made this, my third time hearing her, just as exciting as the first, two years prior. Opening with “It’s A Good Day,” the twin guitar, Roma influenced sound of her band was bubbly and bright. Make no mistake, this cheery songbird can chirp like a Wood Thrush. Whether singing seductively in her native French on “Nuit Blanche” or in dreamy English on “Bamboo Shoots,” a song that floats like a warm summer breeze, she had the audience in the palm of her hand from beginning to end.

Beaming with obvious pride each time that her guitarists Michael Valeanu on electric (jazz) and Olli Soikkeli on acoustic (gypsy) soloed, her body movements weren’t merely theatrical; her passion for the Roma/Django Reinhardt style of jazz emanates from the marrow of her bones. Cyrille’s improvisational abilities are formidable. “Nuit Blanche” found her solo beginning as a soft humming of notes, which eventually built to a torrent of full blown scatting that undoubtedly raised goose bumps on more than a few listeners’ necks.
The slow, floating tempo of The Doors’ “People Are Strange” can camouflage this tune, for those who have never previously heard her perform it. She sings the lyrics with a sense of wonderment, as though with the innocence of a child. Singing the second verse of the song in French, along with that non-traditional tempo, went a long way into making this tune her own. In duet with her bassist, Shawn Conley,
Cyrille was teasingly sultry as they played “I’m In The Mood For Love.” Conley and drummer Dani Danor supplied a breakneck temp for “Love Me Or Leave Me” that featured blistering one up-man-ship from guitarists Valeanu and Soikkeli, bringing to mind some of those legendary exchanges between John McLaughlin and Paco de Lucia. Ending with her signature song “One Way Ticket,” Cyrille’s Indian singing bowl established a mesmerizing drone as she sang lyrics recounting a train trip through the subcontinent. By the song’s end, the band was churning like a steam powered locomotive, as Cyrille’s out-chorus was so impassionedly hair raising that the emotional impact surely put a hard-to-breathe lump in many audience members’ throats. Whew!

Warren Wolf & the WolfpackWarren Wolf & the Wolfpack (video above).

Vibraphonist Warren Wolf assembled a quartet which included pianist Theron Brown, bassist Anton DeFade and drummer George Heid. Wolf is an unabashed devotee of melody, of which, his set was a willing captive. His fleet mallet work on the opening tune’s melody was jubilant, and by the time of his first solo, those mallets were such a blur that I had to remind mtself that he was playing with only two, not four. Two mallet master Milt Jackson is Wolf’s most promine (nt influence, and like Bags, he improvises with the melody, not the chord changes, in mind.

That was readily apparent on Thad Jones’ lush ballad “A Child Is Born,” where Wolf’s pace was especially thoughtful as he caressed the lyricism of this tune in an appreciative way. Brown’s solo turn was equally mellifluous, as Wolf comped for him on electric piano (Wolf is equally adept on piano and at the drums). DeFade and Heid provided a soulful swagger on “Stardust,” which was the epitome of patience, as they never rushed the proceedings. Hoagy Carmichael would have admired this rendition.

Wolf’s proclivity to strike the vibes hard was satiated on the set closing tune “Gang Gang.” The bass and drums provided the churning drive, while Brown’s playing fulfilled Wolf’s strictest requirement; always be in complementary service to the soloist. That forceful manner of striking the vibes was never plodding, as again, Wolf’s mallets were a stroboscopic blur of motion.
John Clayton/Ray Brown TributeRay Brown Tribute, featuring Benny Green, Jeff Hamilton and John Clayton.

While sets of music were to continue for at least three more hours, your intrepid reporter’s final set to attend was a tribute to the late bassist Ray Brown. Pianist Benny Green had the classiest of accompaniment from the well-oiled duo of bassist John Clayton and drummer Jeff Hamilton. Hamilton was Brown’s drummer from 1988 to 1995, and Clayton and Green both played with Brown for the legendary three-basses gig at Sculler’s in Boston, which was captured on the 1997 “Super Bass” album.

Green’s indebtedness to Bop icon Bud Powell was betrayed in his flourishes, at inhuman speed, across the width of all eighty-eight of the piano’s keys. Additionally, he has always embraced an old-school tradition of learning the lyrics to tunes from the great American songbook, so as to interpret them as faithfully as possible. This served the trio well, as the set included everything from “Summer Wind” and  “Lil Darlin” to “J.A.D.A.,” “Gumbo Hump,” and “Tanga.”

Clayton was the epitome of dignity and class throughout, whether serving as the foundation or soloing, as was the case on his amazing arco solo on “Lil Darlin,” where his bow’s speed, while jaw-dropping, never once approached gratuitous grandstanding. Hamilton’s drumming had a fluidity of movement that is absent in today’s younger drummers. Gracefully swinging at all times, his subtle splashes across the kit always complemented his trio-mates and his classic use of brushes, on the ballads, is nearly a lost art.

Green was afforded a solo piece, which he didn’t name at its conclusion, but surely sounded like “My One And Only Love.” In turns banging out enthusiastic runs and cascades, counterbalanced by delicate introspection, Green’s authenticity to the tradition of swing and blues components were always in plain sight. And this suited his senior partners just fine.

Tri-C Jazz Fest continues!

After thirty years of relatively consistent formatting and recently reinventing itself with new venues, a new calendar month, and outdoor opportunities for pro bono music, Cleveland’s Tri-C JazzFest should stay on the radar for many years to come; for musicians and jazz fans alike.


July 28, 2015