JAZZ FEST HIGHLIGHTS
THE FIRST LADY
Tia Fuller, the first lady of Mack Avenue Records, is a bona fide jazz saxophonist. Her current album, Decisive Steps, is her best so far. Saturday afternoon at the Absopure Riverfront stage, her quartet gave an outstanding performance, playing selections from the new album. Fuller showed that she is a democratic bandleader, giving pianist Shamie Royston, bassist Mimi Jones and drummer Randy Royston a fair share of the spotlight. Royston, Fuller’s sister, played a picturesque solo on “Windsoar.” On “Decisive Steps,” Mimi Jones walked the bass like a family pet. Fuller had some noteworthy moments, trading with the drummer on “Clear Mind,” and making her horn sound emotional on the ballad “I Can’t Get Started.” By the end of the tune, tears streamed down the side of her sax.
Multi-reed player and bandleader Salim Washington & the Harlem Arts Ensemble played an eclectic set at the Mack Avenue Pyramid stage. The ensemble is cross-generational, and employs a few familiar faces such as the multi-gifted trombonist Frank Lacy and guitarist Keith Owens. This is a jazz ensemble impossible to typecast because Washington likes to mix things up, which he did successfully performing obscure material by Andrew Hill, Sun Ra and George Duke. What a diverse set-list! The ensemble handled the material by those jazz luminaries skillfully, but Washington’s ensemble seemed right at home, too, performing his original works “Elder Washington” and “Recognition.” The clever jazz pianist Pamela Wise managed somehow to work in some boogie-woogie licks during his soloing on “Elder Washington.” On “Recognition,” viola player Melanie Dyer proved her overall net worth. Lacy was the most colorful and entertaining member; he kept right on blowing and improvising although the sound engineer had a tough time adjusting the volume on his microphone. Washington has a scholarly understanding of the inner workings of the tenor sax. He solos were like musical lectures.
Pepper Adams acolyte Gary Smulyan and the last be-bop king pianist Barry Harris put their chops together for a tribute to the godfather of the baritone sax Pepper “The Knife” Adams. According to jazz lore, Adams’ jazz running buddies nicknamed him “The Knife” because he sliced up many jazz saxophonists stupid enough to challenge him at jam sessions. Smulyan and Harris performed compositions Adams either wrote or had a hand in immortalizing. Smulyan and Harris opened the tribute with “That Freedom,” a 16 bar blues composed by the recently departed Hank Jones. Then they followed up with one of Adams’ originals, “Musing.” Overall, it was the type of picture-perfect performance fans of Smulyan and Harris have grown accustomed to. Smulyan played like Adams’ spirit blessed his horn before the gig.
Trumpeter Terence Blanchard‘s band is made up of hungry younger jazz musicians, who gladly shoulder the bulk of the band’s workload. At the Carhartt Amphitheatre stage, Blanchard delegated most of the soloing to tenor saxophonist Brice Winston, drummer Kendrick Scott, bassist Joshua Crumbly and pianist Fabian Almazan. The Cuban-born pianist played as if he were the boss. His mannerisms and phrasing were akin to Keith Jarrett during Jarrett’s heyday. Winston, a rugged tenor player wolfed down the changes to “A Time to Share” and “Him or Me” like a hungry man eating a home-cooked meal. Blanchard’s solos were brief and fabulous. He played hunched over with the bell of his trumpet almost kissing the stage floor. His bandmates behaved as if they didn’t mind being overworked.