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 Saturday, 25 October 2014
Festival Jambalaya: Sizzling Jazz in the Twin Cities PDF Print
Written by Andrea Canter, Contributing Editor   
Wednesday, 29 June 2005
Article Index
Festival Jambalaya: Sizzling Jazz in the Twin Cities
Page 2
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Henry Johnson - Photo by Andrea Canter
The 2005 Twin Cities Hot Summer Jazz Festival hit a few snags before the first set: Long-running sponsor KBEM Radio has been struggling financially since winter, when its major funding source (Minnesota Department of Transportation) announced it would drop its contract. With a revised, downsized contract negotiated this spring, the station is alive but has significantly curtailed operations, including the elimination of live broadcasts during the festival. The next blow was the recent and sudden closing of the local Copeland’s franchise downtown. Copeland’s has provided a key venue throughout the festival as well as serving as a major sponsor. Undaunted, festival producer Steve Heckler found last-minute support from Dixie’s. Somehow, it all came together again, and the 2005 festival drew good crowds throughout its two-week, multi-venue run. The rains of May and June stopped in the nick of time; suburban audiences had more opportunities than ever before to hear the best of regional and national artists; young lions and old cats tangled and jammed in the great free and open spirit that defines jazz.


The only frustration that accompanies this festival is that one can’t do it all; especially during the final four days when the festival takes over three blocks of Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis, you have make some tough choices. Overlapping start times gave the fleet-footed some chance to catch the end of one set and the beginning of another, but at times four or even five stages were engaged simultaneously. Yet there is no better demonstration of the vibrancy of the local jazz community! The following reflections are but a glimpse of the immense range of talent and styles celebrated during the festival.


Hot Saxophonics

Over a ten-day period, the HSJF offered more than a half dozen sax virtuosos in leading roles, from a 17-year-old prodigy to a 75-year-old legend. At the Dakota, local saxman/educator Doug Little led his quartet through two nights of high spirited, mostly original compositions, celebrating not only the festival but the long-awaited release of Little’s new recording, Phoenix. With visiting Italian piano master Giacomo Aula, the ever-elegant bassist Jeff Bailey, and explosive drummer Kevin Washington, the Doug Little Quartet sizzled through new compositions and original contributions from Aula. A highlight was Little’s medley, starting out on solo tenor with “The Nearness of You” that morphed into a duet with Aula; he then moved into a duet with a brilliant bass from Bailey (“Dancing Cheek to Cheek”); Washington entered with a solo burst yielding to a sax/drum duet on “No More Blues,” with the quartet finishing with a hard driving, tempo-shifting Brazilian tune. Little was hardly done for the festival, however, as he brought his other working band, the Cuban tinged Seven Steps to Havana, to the stage at Peavy Plaza a few days later.


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Charles McPherson Photo by Andea Canter
Across the river in St. Paul, one of the torch bearers of bop saxophone played the weekend at the Artists Quarter as well as an outdoor set at Mears Park Saturday afternoon. At 65, alto virtuoso Charles McPherson shows no sign of slowing down, blowing his horn sweet and cool and turning standards into intricately embroidered tapestries, always accessible, always soulful. And he could not have asked for a better supporting cast than Peter Schimke (piano), Tom Lewis (bass), and Kenny Horst (drums). Seems like a good ensemble for a new “Live at the Artists Quarter” recording!


Back at the Dakota, the week of June 20 was filled with great music, much of it coming from tenor sax artists. Andy Farber and Jerry Weldon are mainstream tenorists deserving of far more recognition. Farber is a hard swinging horn player with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra as well as a prolific arranger and composer. And as he proved Monday night, he is also a first-class entertainer, providing humorous commentary throughout his sets. The audience was rather sparse but the arrangements were anything but, and with the classy local rhythm section of Laura Caviani (piano), Gordy Johnson (bass) and Phil Hey (drums), the quartet roared through blues and bop standards, Farber picking up his alto on “Come Fly With Me” and rendering a soulful “Body and Soul” on tenor.


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Photo by Andrea Canter

A few nights later, Jerry Weldon returned to the stage where he stunned the audience attending Joey DeFrancesco’s May gig with the Heatin’ System band. With a hybrid band featuring Chicago-based keyboard genius Jon Weber (seen throughout the festival in all sorts of formats) and hometown heroes Gordy Johnson and Joe Pulice, Weldon swung his ax with more power than Paul Bunyan, exuding joy and passion in every note (especially a very hot “Falling in Love With Love”). And Weldon was just getting underway during this Thursday “Jazz Night Outing”, taking apart the Peavy Plaza stage with the same band on Friday night, then strolling down the block to sit in with Patty Peterson’s ensemble, which this weekend featured cousin Tommy Peterson of the Tonight Show Band on tenor. The two tenors sparred through a superlative reading of “Embraceable You.” Although I missed it, I heard later that Weldon walked down to the Millennium and jammed into the night.


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Photo by Andrea Canter
At 17, Alex Han wasn’t quite the youngest sax player to appear at Peavy Plaza, but his Saturday night set demonstrated why many regard this Arizona high school senior as the Young Lion of the future. Already a veteran of Lincoln Center (with Paquito D’Rivera), the Blue Note in New York, and the Montreux Jazz Festival, Han played with amazing poise and youthful energy, backed by—who else but Jon Weber on piano? along with Gordy Johnson and bass and the equally busy Kevin Washington on drums. His range was well demonstrated, from his spiraling cadenza on Footprints to his sweetly melodic “You’ve Changed,” while he also introduced us to his composition chops with “Triadic,” a funky tune with all the hip-hoppy exuberance of his generation.


From adolescent to septuagenarian, Saturday night’s bill on Peavy Plaza ended with a set from the grand tenor master Benny Golson. Backed by Jon Weber, Tom Lewis, and Phil Hey, Golson proved to be quite a storyteller, with and without his horn, entertaining the overflowing audience with tales of musicians and compositions, and with his mellow tone. His solo intro his I Remember Clifford was a workshop on how a memorial tribute should begin, and Weber’s solo showed his sweet and gentle side.


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Photo by Andrea Canter
Kathy Jensen provided the closing sax set on Peavy Plaza on Sunday afternoon, backed by her Kathy J Band—Dave Jensen on trumpet, Chris Lomheim on piano, Jay Young on bass, and Joe Pulice on drums. Playing mostly tenor, she took “My One and Only Love” solo, transitioning into “I Mean You” with the full quintet. Calling on her student, 16-yaer-old alto player Owen Nelson, Jensen grabbed her alto and the two engaged in some effective repartee on “Straight, No Chaser.”


There were other fine examples of saxophone throughout the festival—Dave Karr on baritone with Mulligan Stew, and on tenor with The Five; Doug Haining on sax and clarinet, leading the Twin Cities Seven; Dan Kusz’s smooth tenor on Peavy Plaza; Josh Brinkman’s funky horn in the company of Chill 7 and Chris Thomson’s tenor/soprano bringing engaging improvisations to the Kelly Rossum Quartet, both at Mears Park; and countless sax players with the Big Bands and Minnesota Talented Youth jazz bad.


Keyboards –Grand and Portable

The HSJF always showcases local pianists, many of whom provide back-up duties for other bands and vocalists throughout the festival; and usually there’s at least one or two Hammond B-3 sets as well.


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Photo by Andrea Canter

Three “imports” provided multiple opportunities to re-acquaint audiences with their talents during the festival. Jon Weber plays this festival so often and in so many capacities that he has unofficially earned the title of House Pianist for HSJF. Based in Chicago and with a list of credits and compositions that goes on and on, Weber first played the suburban stage in Plymouth on June 22, twice appeared with Jerry Weldon, later backed Alex Han and Benny Golson, led jams at the Millennium Hotel lounge after hours Friday and Saturday, and on Sunday filled an open slot with a rollicking solo on Peavy Plaza, taking requests and demonstrating his unmatched ability to play any tune, any style, and in most cases, rattle off birthdates and other trivia about the composer or composition. His “Sweet Georgia Brown” with Benny Golson may have even out-Oscared Peterson.


From Berlin by way of his native Italy, the Twin Cities again welcomed Giacomo Aula, playing multiple venues with his Midwest Trio (featuring several pairings of bass and drums), holding keyboard duties for the Doug Little Quartet, and teaching at the Twin Cities Jazz Workshop, culminating in a performance by student musicians at the Dakota on festival Sunday. Aula first appeared in the Twin Cities last year during the HSJF, with the Doug Little Quartet, and is the featured guest performer on Little’s newly released recording, Phoenix, as well as one of the four pianists on Gordon Johnson’s recent Trios Volume 3.0. At the Dakota last week with Gordon Johnson and Jay Epstein, Aula played many of his own compositions, including “Augusta” and “Canzone Per Nina Rota”; his style is clearly informed by a Romantic, classical foundation, yet, unlike many European pianists/composers heard here recently, Aula truly swings and suppresses none of his passion. His touch can be delicate or raucous, his layered improvisations seem to meld a combination of Tyner, Evans and Mehldau into a unique voice.


Also back for a return visit—at two separate venues a few hours apart—was Shahin Novrasli, an engaging pianist from Azerbajian whose lyrically spiraling phrases were remininscent of the acoustic sides of Esbjorn Svensson and Tord Gustavson—cerebral, melodic, almost lulling. While this style seemed to get lost in the air currents of the expansive Peavy Plaza, the intimate Millennium Hotel lounge seemed a perfect context to relax and let Novrasli’s mellow explorations sink in.





 
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