“We come here to uplift you” said Monty Alexander, as he opened the seventh Jazz festival in his name, at the beautiful Art Deco Avalon Theatre in Easton this Labor Day weekend.
Attending any of the 5 concerts over the weekend, you came away uplifted if not delirious with joy.
The starter concert on the Friday evening was a tribute to George Gershwin led by pianist Ted Rosenthal with Chuck Redd the “local lad” and vibraphone virtuoso supported by Martin Wind on bass and Tim Horner on drums. A selection of iconic Gershwin numbers included a moving and powerful rendition of “Rhapsody in Blue” from Rosenthal’s charts topping 2013 CD. In the festival tradition of introducing new and exciting new musicians, Ted brought on two Juilliard students the Anderson twins, Peter and Will, playing brilliant clarinet and tenor sax with the memorable “The Man I Love”. The second set included a wonderfully melodic and soulful arrangement of “I Love You Porgy” featuring a Rosenthal and Redd duo, culminating in a storming finale of “I Got Rhythm” with the full ensemble of musicians.
The clouds and rain of Saturday morning were blown away by a massive wall of sound from the magnificent US Army Jazz Ambassadors led by Chief Warrant Officer Daniel Wood. This 19-member ensemble, formed in 1969 has some of the most talented jazz musicians in uniform. They played a full spectrum of Jazz classics including a section of traditional “Dixieland” Jazz. Master Sergeant Martha Lewis was the vocal jewel in the bands crown, indeed the whole festival, singing memorable numbers including the Sinatra classic “Birth of the Blues”.
For those who enjoyed brunch at the Tidewater Inn there was a musical feast of Jazz from the local Amber Quartet led by bassist Max Murray with Jeff Antonik , Alan Blackman and Frank Russo playing great classics like Ellington’s “Take the A Train”.
Dominick Farinacci the young internationally celebrated trumpet player and his band starred in the Saturday afternoon Avalon concert with Kevin Bales on piano, Jerome Jennings on drums and Jonathan Mitchell on bass. Mathias Kunzly produced highly innovative percussion work using a multitude of instruments from African drums to car keys and bicycle parts. Farinacci played an eclectic selection from Armstrong and Garner to the Gypsy Kings. But the Tom Waites number “Soldiers Things” proved the most evocative and haunting number, with a slow and soulful delivery that highlighted his world class mastery of the trumpet.
Monty Alexander walked onstage with his famous lime green Melodica to a rapturous reception on Saturday evening for his signature headliner concert. With obvious affection he introduced his long serving bassist, Hassan Shakur and drummer Obed Calvaire before launching into a medley of classics from Ellington to Basie which received a thunderous applause. Monty reminisced about his Jazz career and paid special reference to the legendary vibraphone playing of Milt Jackson before introducing Chuck Redd, the local Maryland drum and Vibes virtuoso who then played several numbers including the classic Jackson “Bags Groove” with such style and skill it prompted Alexander to say “I closed my eyes and could hear Milt playing again”. The second set was described by Monty as a “Swinging blow-up session” and in typical Alexander inclusive style he invited on stage Dominick Farinacci on trumpet, Ron Blake and Sharel Cassity on sax and Jason Brown on drums. This ensemble jammed into a stream of favorite tunes including a version of Mancini’s Pink Panther theme. One spare mike stood on stage literally at a height of about 7 feet until yet another surprise was sprung …
Monty introduced the legendary trumpet player Jon Faddis. The imposing physical presence of Faddis walked onstage looking as cool as a cucumber and looked at the players as if to say “ok what you got”. Faddis started a solo on Ellington’s C Jam Blues and the volume, pitch and purity was truly spectacular as he blew high notes never designed for a trumpet, while Farinacci looked on in awe and appreciation.
The amazing 3 hour concert finished with the full ensemble plus Cyrus Chestnut the highly acclaimed Baltimore gospel pianist playing a duet on piano with Monty, a perfect finale to a very memorable concert which drew a standing ovation lasting several minutes.
The final Sunday afternoon concert kicked off with Howard Universities premier vocal jazz ensemble Afro Blue. The 8 piece mixed a cappella group covered a wide range of genres from Marvin Gaye to Charlie Chaplin with complex and exquisite harmonies and towering solos…this was truly an orchestra of voices.
Cyrus Chestnut concluded the weekend festival with a masterful classical, jazz, blues and gospel piano concert ranging from an adaption of Chopin’s Prelude Opus 28 in C minor to a thunderous rendition of the Gospel Classic “Jericho”. Assisted by bassist Herman Burney and drummer Neal Smith and Afro Blue in the final number “New Day”,
Chestnut rocked the 2016 Monty Alexander Easton Jazz festival into the jazz concert history books.
Monty Alexander is a great showman with an acute vision of what makes a good jazz festival GREAT. His ability to field an eclectic group of world class performers is why this festival is attracting more fans and more diverse attendees every year. Easton continues to deliver yet another annual jewel with this Jazz Festival.