The Monty Alexander Jazz Festival
September 2-4, 2016
by William Edgar
Now in its seventh year, the Monty Alexander Jazz Festival has become a destination event. Be sure to clear your calendar and purchase tickets early, as this year promises to be a sell-out bash. The musicians are a who’s-who of jazz. As a friend of mine suggested, we’re assembling a team of greats, much as the old Highwaymen assembled the greatest in Outlaw Country (Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson). No outlaws in Easton, the line-up this year is a Highwaymen of jazz.
First, as always, there is a tribute to one of the jazz greats. This year we begin on Friday evening with “The Magic of Gershwin,” featuring pianist Ted Rosenthal and vibraphonist/percussionist Chuck Redd, a veteran of the Festival. Gershwin was controversial because, though he loved jazz and promoted it in his music, he was a white man. Yet even the most essentialist musical purists love his compositions and play them in their own styles.
Saturday we offer a free concert of big band music, featuring the Jazz Ambassadors, the U. S. Army’s Field Band. This amazing ensemble, which has been performing and touring since 1969, can play in just about every style: swing, bebop, Latin, contemporary jazz, standards. They played in Europe in 1995 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. Later that day we will hear the beautiful, expressive trumpet of Dominick Farinacci. Dominick is a product of the Juilliard School, but also developed his chops listening to Louis Armstrong and Harry James. Then in the evening, as the highlight of the Festival, we hear its musical director, Monty Alexander. Monty is hard to label, which is a compliment. Perhaps the title of one of his most popular albums says it best: Uplift. Monty’s music is uplifting but not in a saccharine way. Rather, in a soulful way drawing from the resources of jazz, but also adding a Jamaican flavor to the music.
Finally, on Sunday we are honored to have the extraordinary Cyrus Chestnut give the final concert. The New Yorker recently said of him, “It is the pianist Chestnut’s professional secret how he can instantly tap into nuclear energy when full-bore swinging is called for, or directly access a stirringly poetic muse when limning ballads …” As has been our tradition, Cyrus will feature some gospel music in his playing, which he does as well as anyone. He will be joined by the wonderful Afro Blue a cappella group from Howard University.
Come to this feast, and feast on world-class jazz music. The word jazz is something of a mystery. One of the most likely theories is that it comes from the French jaser which can mean to talk, or to discuss, equivalent to “shoot the breeze.” The French connection is not far-fetched, as jazz was born in the French city of New Orleans. Jazz music is indeed a conversation.
First, the musicians “talk” to each other by suggesting melodies, rhythms, paths to take, all within the particular song at hand. Sometimes it is a dialogue, a call-and-response, known technically as antiphony. This kind of conversation goes back to the days when hymns were “lined-out” by the precentor, who led the congregation through a particular Psalm or liturgical piece. Most slave owners would have invited their slaves to sit through the church services, which of course, in retrospect, was an enormous contradiction to the whole practice of slavery. But as every jazz musician will attest, church music richly informs the music of jazz.
Then, it’s a conversation with the audience. It makes all the difference when the audience is fully engaged with the music. This can be from clapping, shouting affirmations, foot-stomping, and other forms of participation. Come and join the conversation!