Jazz Review: The 2017 Monty Alexander Festival by John Malin

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Labor Day weekend in Easton has become established over the last eight years as a great destination for Jazz lovers as the Monty Alexander Jazz Festival (MAJF) has grown in stature and popularity.

Friday, September 1st, marked the start of this year’s festival in the Avalon Theatre with a magnificent performance from Bria Skonberg and her band. Bria drifted onto the stage trumpet in hand, saluted the audience and blew up a storm with a version of Louis Armstrong’s “Swing That Music.” Supported by the “holy trinity” of piano, bass and drums, Bria played a range of jazz styles from traditional New Orleans through to modern Jazz and Blues, playing numbers from Dizzy Gillespie, Django Reinhardt and Hoagy Carmichael before moving on to Nat King Cole’s “Revenge” and the beautiful French song “I Am Alone Tonight” by Lucienne Delyle. Listening to Bria singing in perfect French I imagined a young Brigitte Bardot with a voice like a honey glazed stiletto purring and cutting through lyrics with a surgeon’s precision. The support piano work of Matisse Picard was both original and technically outstanding, providing a perfect complement to Skonberg’s trumpet.

The second set included some of her own original work including a haunting swing number “Wear And Tear” featuring a beautiful muted trumpet solo. The set concluded with a moving delta blues style vocal “I Love You But I Can’t Have You” with Bria singing in a soulful rich voice and playing ever ascending horn riffs in a question and answer style vocal and instrumental. The Avalon audience loved it. Bria Skonberg was fabulous…watch this space Jazz fans.

Saturday’s events began with a wall of sound from the U.S. Navy Band Commodores, led by Bill Mulligan. We usually listen to amplified individual instruments but to hear an 18-piece band in a small theater is an unforgettable experience. The band played an eclectic range of jazz classics with instrumental solos from most all of the players and a selection of songs from Ella Fitzgerald, celebrating the centenary of her birth. Kristine Hsia, the vocalist, finished with an original and beautiful arrangement of “Georgia On My Mind.” Bill Mulligan, bandleader and a virtuoso sax player, produced a fabulous big band sound with these world-class musicians and the Avalon is still shaking.

Brunch at the Tidewater Inn with the Washington D.C.-based Conservatory Classic Jazz Band has become a tradition of the festival and the seven-piece band played their repertoire of New Orleans, Chicago, and small group swing as customers feasted on Bloody Marys and crab cakes.

Jazz trumpeter Sean Jones, with drummer Obed Calvaire, bassist Luques Curtiss, and pianist Orrin Evans

Sean Jones, the young and very talented former lead trumpet player with Wynton Marsalis, kicked off Saturday afternoon in a packed Avalon Theater with Obed Calvaire on drums, Luques Curtiss on bass, and Orrin Evans on piano. Starting with a tribute to Ella with “Come Fly With Me” and moving to “Two Or Three,” a slow haunting trumpet and piano arrangement, the quartet then played a selection of classic and original numbers that demonstrated not only their technical excellence, but their ability to create an atmosphere of cool, smooth jazz that seemed like we were all sitting in a small, intimate, dark and smoke-filled club. The original snow scene inspired by “Gretchen” raised emotions of Christmas carols and “Nomo” showed the fabulous drumming skills of Obed Calvaire. The finale, an emotional trumpet solo by the gentle giant Jones playing an arrangement of “Danny Boy,” had not a dry eye in the house and received a standing ovation.

Grammy-award nominee René Marie made her second appearance at the MAJF to lead the Saturday evening show with her very

Jazz vocalist René Marie (left), with pianist John Chin and vocalist Dee Daniels

creative and original songs that are intensely personal and probe the most elated and depressed emotions of human existence. With pianist John Chin, drummer Quentin Baxter and bassist Elias Bailey, René roamed through a selection of her own material like “If You Were Mine” and classics like Arty Shaw’s “Moonray.” At times René proudly stood at side stage watching her band deliver fabulous solos urging them on to even greater things. John Chin was just magical as he stared upwards, trance-like, playing absolutely inspired piano. The second set had a surprise appearance by Dee Daniels, another favorite of the MAJF audiences. Dee, with her four octave vocal range, and René sang an amazing duet arrangement of “What A Difference A Day Makes” with the two great voices making exquisite harmonies. A version of Nina Simone’s “Oh Nina” finished the concert with John Chin again showing his tremendous musical influence to René Marie’s most original style of music.

Monty Alexander headlined the final concert of the Festival on Sunday. The concert was dedicated to the memory of Beth Schucker, one of the original supporters of the MAJF, a lifelong Jazz fan and a dear friend to so many Eastern Shore folks. Monty, with his regular bassist Hassan Shakur and drummer Jason Brown, struck a very melodious but spiritual theme with classics like “I Have A Friend In Jesus” and “The River.” Monty shared some of his most challenging life experiences, including his battle with cancer, that inspired his composition “Renewal,” featuring his unique piano string plucking technique as an introduction to his inimitable keyboard skills. The music flowed seamlessly from Armstrong, Charlie Chaplin and Nat King Cole with some wonderful solo interludes, including one where Monty walked off stage for several minutes leaving Hassan Shakur playing a most creative selection of tunes including “The Pink Panther,” using his amazing multiple string chord strumming techniques.

Nat King Cole was born again as Allan Harris (Tony Bennett’s favorite singer) joined the ensemble to sing the Presley song “I Believe.” Harris has a deep rich and resonant baritone voice and when you close your eyes Nat King Cole is in the room. Dee Daniels joined the group to sing “Someday We Will All Be Free.” The mood changed with a fast rendition of “Sweet Georgia Brown” with Monty confirming his dominance as one of the pianos greatest virtuosos. The set ended community singing style with Monty in cowboy gear playing a jazz/calypso version of “Home On The Range” to a standing ovation which drew an encore with Daniels and Harris singing the Duke Ellington classic “Come Sunday.” A wonderful show and a marvelous memorial tribute to Beth Schucker.

The MAJF has evolved over the last eight years into a very classy small town Jazz Festival and probably the best in the USA. It is classy without being pretentious or exclusive and is attracting a diversity of audiences. The caliber of the performers is world class and with such great young and creative performers like Bria Skonberg and John Chin the future for Jazz looks very rosy.

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