In a city where jazz is not necessarily one of the national past times, Houston manages to hold its own in spite of benign neglect, especially when it come to showcasing some outstanding jazz related events. Although they may be few in numbers, the concerts and festivals that highlight jazz are well-worth a view. One such event is the Trinity Jazz Festival, where spirituality and jazz come together under one roof.
Already in its third year, the festival is a combined endeavor that brings some of the finest musicians in jazz to a church setting for three days of festive activities. There are two evenings of music and one Sunday morning of worship combined with a jazz mass. From the onset, the Trinity Episcopal Church has managed to pool its resources and those of the community in a very positive manner. Inspired by the church's rector, Father William Marshall, the festival has accomplished two important objectives. First and foremost, the rector has been able to highlight the relationship between jazz and spirituality. The genre is rooted in the gospel tradition. In addition, seldom seen musicians perform in a manner that titillates the palates of jazz hungry Houstonians. 2004 was shown to not be any different in approach! Not only did the festival feature a host of local and national talent, students and faculty members from Houston's High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (HSPVA) took to the stage as well. Others performing for the first time included the Pamela York Trio, Delfeayo and Jason Marsalis, as well as Jason Moran. The inclusion of that star-studed array of national talent was a definite treat; however, watching HSPVA's students and faculty members was even more prolific.
The Pamela York Trio featuring bassist Lynn Seaton, drummer Sebastian Whittaker and Ms. York on piano was the opening act for the Marsalis Brothers. The trio's approach to jazz on the evening of February 6 was an assortment of standards and blues oriented selections. Canadian-born Pamela York is the ultimate pianist. Her performance set a precedent for what was to become one of the finest displays of pure unadulterated jazz ever seen in Houston. The trio performed a cornucopia of tunes ranging from those of Gershwin to Pamela York originals. Pamela has a subtle style about her, yet she is able to draw her audiences in with each melodic note. Before becoming a jazz artist Pamela was a classically-trained musician, which in some ways has allowed her to ebb and flow with a high degree of appeal. Her touch on the keys is light and effortless, yet she is a ble to convey her message with a voice and style that is uniquely hers. While playing tunes made famous by some of the legendary masters, Pamala York makes her own statement without being a pretender. She and her band of merry men were a perfect match for transitioning to the skills of the Marsalis Brothers.
Jason and Delfeayo Marsalis hail from the heart and soul of jazz related activities. Born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, the birthplace of jazz, these two individuals are members of what can be considered a dynasty. Their father Ellis Marsalis is a noted educator and musician in his own right. They also have an older brother by the name of Wynton Marsalis who is world renowned as a jazz educator, recording artist and the director of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Collectively, the Marsalis family follow a tradition steeped in history. As practitioners of America's only original art form, Jason and Delfeayo Marsalis showed the crowd of 400 at Trinity Episcopal Church the art and soul of bop, mainstream and straight ahead influences. Jason's skills on drums provided a unique blend of percussive rhythms that boded well with his brother's trombone dynamics. The two of them collectively, along with bassist David Craig and pianist Bob Henschen cleared the path for a jazz activated sound energy ray of music. Augmented by the works of such notable musicians as Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and original tunes from Delfeayo and Jason, the highly ecletic setting and acoustics of the church set a tone that was extremely delightful and enjoyable. The stage presence and essence of Delfeayo and Jason Marsalis brought together the sheer joy of jazz, as well as a display of musical art Houston aficionados find unprecedented by most standards. Throughout the entire performance, one thing stood out in the minds of most individuals in attendance, this was smooth jazz of a very different sort. More importantly, Jason's and Delfeayo's music was all about tradition.
One of the most important features of the 3rd Annual Trinity Jazz Festival was its salute to HSPVA. As a part of that recognition process, students and faculty members also performed during the evening of February 7. As a point of reference, the future of jazz may be found in educating our youth about the legacy and rich tradition of America's only original art form. Since 1971 HSPVA has guided and directed students towards professional careers as musicians and educators. The program has also focused upon increasing the awareness of jazz in all of its flavors. When participants in the school's highly rated course of study performed that night, in some ways the future of jazz seemed to be in the making. The students were from a variety of backgrounds and cultures, yet they were able to display skills well beyond their years. What was just as profound were their writing skills. Not only did they play compositions written by some of jazz's best musicians, they also played original tunes they had composed themselves. Taking jazz to an adult level was what their playing was all about. They did so with grace, skill and professionalism which gives rise to the future of jazz in a very big way. But as if one magical moment was not enough, the HSPVA faculty members came on board after the students. They let it be known why their students were as fantastic as they were. The faculty's approach to jazz was just as focused. With the influences of jazz as an art form to guide them, they delved into some of the same traditions taught to their students, but with one exception. Collectively, their overall professional experience that has included stints in concerts and clubs in various locales with some of the best, removed a few of the rough edges exhibited by their students. That is not to say there was something lacking in their performance, it is merely an indication of their lack of experience. The faculty musicians consisting of a pianist, drummer, saxophonist and bassist were very homogenous, and they proved to be a great opening act for Jason Moran.
Anyone who knows anything about pianist Jason Moran's short career does realize that he has been heralded as the next Thelonious Monk. Classically trained and a product of HSPVA, Jason combines the influences of classical music and jazz. His rich dynamic piano sound is dominated by his percussive keyboard attack, yet he also has the ability to tone his music down ever so slightly. Jason is the consummate artist. What began as an activity and an outlet during his youth has evolved into a burgeoning career as a jazz musician. His appearance at the 3rd Annual Trinity Jazz Festival was exceptional and inspiring. With the salute to HSPVA serving as a back drop, Jason's appearance exemplified the importance of jazz education. As a former participant, Moran served as a role model for the program. With that being said, it seemed appropriate that his performance was solo. Without a band, he talked about why he played the piano as a youth and how important the instrument was to him. He played his brand of jazz while also acknowledging the musicians that influenced him along the way. Jason also paid homage to his parents and the unlimited support they gave him while honing his craft. Watching the artistry of Jason Moran in action showed the promise of jazz to come. During the latter part of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, numerous jazz legends were identified. Since that time, few have have even come close to status as a legend. In retrospect, Moran may become one of the most influential figures of the 21st century. One thing is certain, he is definitely worth watching.
All in all and by most standards, the 3rd Annual Trinity Jazz Festival proved to be a success. With the salute to HSPVA and performances by the Marsalis Brothers, Pamela York, Jason Moran, HSPVA students and faculty members, the Trinity Episcopal Church gave jazz a point of view from a unique and emotional perspective. In combining the personal intimacy of jazz with the spirituality of one's faith, everything universal belonging to jazz came together as one. Hopefully these type of opportunities will proliferate in a city not known for its appreciation for jazz. In the mean time, the support for such educational programs as HSPVA and others like them will continue to elevate the consciousness of jazz in the 4th largest city in the United States.