The 21st Annual Mellon Jazz Festival produced by the Central Pennsylvania Friends of Jazz got off to a flying start the weekend of June 15 in capital city, Harrisburg, PA. The 3-day event centered at the Hilton Hotel drew hundreds of jazz enthusiasts where headliners and local jazz musicians satisfied every jazz appetite. While the Hilton was central to the weekend festivities, the whole city supported this year's tribute to Louis Armstrong with a Jazz Walk-a-thon at 15 sites, all within walking distance from the Hilton. The event also included free clinics, a midnight all-star riverboat jazz cruise, historic films, photography exhibit, jazz in the sanctuary, and a Father's Day jazz brunch with Dexter Gordon tribute.
President for the ambitious Friends of Jazz Organization, Ray Bogardus, announced the successful completion of its first Youth Jazz Workshop at the Lebanon Valley College where thanks to the John Fedchock Quartet and other local clinicians, inspiring, young musicians an opportunity to learn and grow in their pursuit of jazz. One such jazz camp attendee, 13-year old drummer, Joe Shattls, sat in for a few numbers with pianist, Steve Rudolph, and other weekend concert musicians in an early evening jam at Hilton's Plaza Grill.
Main concerts over the weekend included Ahmad Jamal, the Nicholas Payton Quintet, Vanessa Rubin and her trio, John Fedchock Quartet, The Dave Weckl Band, Tim Warfield, Gerald Wiggins, Either/Orchestra and the Navy Commodores, but the entire city was filled with local jazz musicians performing at various clubs within 3 blocks of the Hilton Hotel.
JOHN FEDCHOCK QUARTET
Jazz trombonist, arranger and composer, John Fedchock, served it up neatly with Allen Farnham--piano, Dave Ratajczak--drums and Dave Finch--bass. Presently, John is leader, composer and arranger of New York's 16-piece big band and is a favorite among Down Beat's Readers Poll in the big band category. He keeps busy performing and serving as a member of the board of advisors for the International Trombone Association, as well as traveling around the country conducting workshops and clinics at various universities. He has toured with Monk, Gerry Mulligan and Louie Bellson's Big Bands. Selections from John's recent CD "Hit the Bricks" (Reservoir) and other uniquely, original compositions included "The Third Degree," "This Just In," (a very tight arrangement of "Just in Time")--- a Tom Harrell tune, "Moon Alley," and a ¾ - time, brilliant rendition of Coltrane's "Giant Steps."
The most stunning show stealer was Concord's, Allan Farnham. He dazzled the audience with his stunning command of the keyboards and every solo was gangbusters! The set continued with a slow swinging "Cool Customer," a romantically haunting "If You Could See Me Now," finishing up with "Brazilian Fantasy." John has a real forte for presenting old standards in a magic way without losing their original appeal.
NICHOLAS PAYTON QUINTET
Nicholas Payton blew the lid off along with Tim Warfield--tenor sax, Antony Wonsey-piano, Reubin Rogers-bass and Adonis Rose-drums. Their quintet was extreme high energy and every musician gave their all with every number. When each musician shines, you've got one helluva band.
Payton dressed to the nines in black suit, bright red silk tie and handkerchief wailed his Grammy award winning hot licks, New Orleans style, and laid it out to a response of cat calls and whistles from the audience. If you haven't seen Payton in concert, it may surprise you to get a taste of his between song humor and cajoling about other members of his musical team. He always looks so serious in his photos, but he has a great sense of humor on stage.
Songs included a few selections from Payton's previous CD, Nick@Night, but where he really shined was in performing selections from his most recent and best CD to date, "Dear Louis." That kind of legendary Armstrong styling is serious stuff. In addition, the quintet did an exceptional rendition of "Love Walked In," and an original arrangement of "I Remember You," very slow and "Flamingo-esk" sure-fire crowd pleaser. What a treat! With the exception of one number that was a Mr. Toad's Wild Ride to planet Testosterone, (Antony Wonsey), the performance was a high-energy balance of the best of Nicholas Payton.
When I first heard Vanessa Rubin's "Soul Eyes" it knocked me out. Here was a lady that could knock out a standard in the tradition of all those lovely ladies of jazz, since departed. Her following CD tributes and attributes were cause to sit up and listen. This night her performance with Aaron Graves-piano, Richie Goode-bass and Yorbon Israel-drums, left me puzzled. Vanessa's exploration into a Cassandra free form, world-styling, jazz venture was unexpected. Thank goodness I knew the lyrics or I wouldn't have recognize most songs she sang. There wasn't the faintest hint of original melody and improvisation was replaced by exploration into the unknown. Selections were way too long and as I squirmed in my seat waiting for each song to end as she vocalized on strange atmospheric notes, I looked around to see others doing the same thing. She utterly crucified "Corcovado." Her finest selection was ?If I Should Lose You,? and just as I thought, ?yeah, now this is the goods,? she finished up her set with a Stevie Wonder song set to a Poinciana rhythm in dedication to Ahmad. Go figure!
To give you a clue about her performance, afterward outside the concert hall a vendor was playing "Soul Eyes" in his booth and a customer standing next to me asked the vendor, "Wow, who is that singing, she is really terrific?" When the vendor told him it was Vanessa Rubin, the guy replied, "The lady we just saw in concert? No way, you're kidding me!"
When you see a performance by a legendary artist like Ahmad Jamal who has 50+ years of jazz tucked under his belt, you can be sure it will be memorable. You're catching a glimpse of jazz history. It's watching, remembering and seeing the perfected art of man who has always been true to his form. Only now, it's nostalgic and brings a feeling of gratitude to see him in the golden years of his musicianship. It's a wonderful thing.
Joining Ahmad in this most exemplary concert was James Cammack-bass, and James Johnson-drums. James and James are exceptional musicians and couldn't have been more perfectly blended with Jamal in a delicious blend of material displaying all Ahmad's diversity of whimsical flurries and bold striking contrasts.
It was all there, from "Night Mist Blues" and "Poinciana," to "Where Are You" and the Paris recordings. Two outstanding jazz musicians and one jazz legend in perfect form, to a crowd of 850 appreciative fans who will long remember and count this performance among one of the best they have ever seen.
Ahmad will be appearing at the North Sea Jazz Festival in The Hague in July with Cammack and Johnson and is sure to thrill European audiences as well with his historic jazz artistry.
The Central Pennsylvania Friends of Jazz Organization, their sponsors and volunteers continue in this, their 22nd year, to provide the best possible exposure to thirsty jazz fans throughout Central Pennsylvania and beyond.