Review: Monty Alexander Jazz Festival 2016 by John Malin
“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.
The Monty Alexander Jazz Festival
By William Edgar, Chesapeake Chamber Music Interlude, Summer/Autumn 2015
Collaboration, simply stated, is working with others to achieve common goals. Collaboration characterizes many different fields, from medical research to business endeavors to study groups. Jazz music is by definition a collaborative endeavor. Whether large or small, a jazz band means collective individualism. Jazz culture is all about sharing. One learns from the pioneers. On stage, musicians encourage one another to excel; they inspire or even push each other in a dialogue where the musical whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
The Monty Alexander Jazz Festival in Easton is musical collaboration at its best. Always held over Labor Day weekend, we are coming up on our sixth year. Collaboration requires leadership. The true leader of this festival is its artistic director Monty Alexander. He has been called the Mozart of jazz, because, like the classical prodigy he has been playing the piano since childhood. The word prolific is inadequate to describe the way music exudes from his every pore. Coming from Jamaica he has a unique way of combining Caribbean sounds with mainstream jazz. Besides playing at venues all over the world Monty loves to encourage younger talent. The Festival is a natural place to introduce gifted performers to an audience that may not yet know them.
Jazz is about innovation within tradition. The Monty Alexander Jazz Festival has developed several traditions: opening night at the Academy Art Museum; New Orleans music at Thompson Park, followed by a parade to the Tidewater Inn; a jazz brunch at the inn; a Sunday performance of gospel and jazz. But each year, there are innovations. The main one, of course, is the selection of musicians. Thursday evening the marvelous singer Caterina Zapponi will bring her unique combination of European and American songs to an intimate night-club kind of setting. The Friday night headliner at the Avalon Theater is the extraordinary René Marie, a jazz singer who likes to mix it up with classical music, protest songs and humor (“Black Lace Freudian Slip”). Saturday afternoon we will be treated to the powerful tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander and his dynamic sidemen. Eric’s heroes include John Coltrane, Joe Lovano, Sunny Stitt and Dexter Gordon. The names of musicians he has collaborated with reads like a who’s who of jazz, and yet he is his own musical person.
Then comes the moment we’ve all been waiting for: Monty and Friends. In addition to the great music he brings us each year, this Saturday night he will feature reminiscences of Frank Sinatra. For those who may not know, Frank had a role in getting Monty started, and when he cut a CD dedicated to him, Echoes of Jilly’s, the singer wrote him an extravagant letter of thanks. Finally, Sunday afternoon we’ll be treated to the very talented vocalist Alicia Olatuja, who sings in many languages, including African speech from different regions.
Collaboration means dedicated people behind the scenes. Space forbids naming them here, but if you’ll come and collaborate with us as part of the audience, you will be introduced to many of them.
Joe Alterman’s Timeless Jazz, 2016
By Nat Hentoff, printed in The Star Democrat. Read more…
Open Sky Jazz, 2014
“Think jazz music and jazz festivals are purely urban phenomena? The masterful pianist Monty Alexander and Jazz on the Chesapeake……want you to think again.” The Monty Alexander Jazz Festival is in “Easton a lovely, tranquil, green town, at the heart of which, nestled among several inviting restaurants and assorted shops is the 400 seat Avalon Theater.”
“Friday evening many in the packed Avalon theatre were introduced to Etienne Charles for the first time. Despite the fact that many hadn’t heard the Trinidadian trumpeter, this audience clearly has unquestioned confidence in Monty Alexander’s artistic choices.”
At the 2014 Festival, “playing largely a program of the classics befitting the singer’s (Frank Sinatra) saloon ambiance, Monty Alexander swung casually, deeply and hard in the blue realm when the spirit and the tune called for it, expressing great love for the beautiful instrument provided for the festival by DC piano maker Warren Shadd.”
Shore Life, 2013
Monty Alexander will return from a sold-out performance in Paris just in time to hop a train from New York City, the first leg of his trip to Easton, Md. “I think the train might be a good way to get over jet lag,” Alexander confides during a recent phone interview. We talked of many things, including the third annual Monty Alexander Jazz Festival that is coming to Easton’s Avalon Theatre over Labor Day weekend. The Monty Alexander Quartet will headline Saturday night, the main attraction of a star-studded extravaganza presented by Jazz on the Chesapeake, an offshoot of Chesapeake Chamber Music. “We’re going to fill that wonderful little theatre with great vibes,” Alexander promises.”
“When I was eight years old, I shook the hand of Nat ‘King’ Cole,” he says. “That was like a dream come true.” Little did he dream that 39 years later, he would assist Natalie Cole with a tribute album to her famous father – “Unforgettable….With Love,” a winner of seven Grammy Awards in 1991.
Alexander says the Easton theatre’s intimate setting has a special appeal to him. “I love the opportunity to interact with the audience, to share a sense of fun and spontaneity with people who appreciate our music,” says the captivating performer, whose music is a magnet for audiences worldwide. “I am proud about the progression of this jazz festival.”
Music lovers have been “married” to Monty for half a century now – whether attracted by his original renditions of classical favorites, pop tunes, be-bop, calypso or reggae. How does he do it? “I just start playing and everyone joins in. We don’t rehearse; we just let the rhythm come alive on stage. Our music is for the here and now,” he says, simply and sincerely. Monty Alexander certainly is one of a kind, a national treasure for all of us to share.
Talbot Spy, January 16, 2012
“With a pedigree to rival any jazz musician’s – including stints with the likes of Milt Jackson and Ray Brown – Monty Alexander’s credibility is undisputed. What sets his music apart, though, is not its excellence, but its exuberance. After just over two hours of music, it was not the complexity or beauty of the music that had the audience raving, but the overwhelming experience of having encountered a personality whose joys and sorrows, past and present, were so eloquently and convincingly expressed in his music as to evoke empathy in an audience for a man they’d never met.”
Star Democrat, September 2013
“The Avalon Theatre is the little stage that could. Musicians love the acoustics and the intimacy. Audiences love being close up. I lost count of the standing ovations throughout the concerts. You won’t want to miss next year’s Festival – it will be the best ever too!”