The South Beach Jazz Festival opened on Thursday night, Jan. 4, at the Faena Theater with a concert by jazz vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant and pianist Sullivan Fortner. Now in its eighth year, the festival has gradually increased in size and scope becoming one of the most important cultural attractions on Miami Beach.
Dressed in a blouse and skirt that reflected her artwork projected around the elegant and comfortable Faena theatre, Salvant proved to be a wonderful and eclectic jazz singer sharing the stage with a truly marvelous pianist in Fortner. From the start it was obvious that the two musicians have been working together for some time and although at time Fortner’s role was to provide accompaniment, in other opportunities he presented some very engaging and highly virtuosic solos.
Being classically trained, Salvant, a Miami native, can handle just about anything and for this performance her repertoire was heavy on songs from Broadway musicals including "Funny Girl," "Kiss Me Kate," and "Annie Get Your Gun."
All showed her range especially the high notes in "Funny Girl" and the lower ones in "Kiss Me Kate." At the same time, Salvant’s performance of the work made famous by Bessie Smith, "Sam Jones Blues," showed her fluency with the blues. In fact, for all of her classical training, her phrasing and interpretation are very much rooted in jazz, one good reason for her three Grammys awards in the Best Jazz Vocal album category.
Fortner’s pianistic technique, well informed stylings, and imagination were clearly on display in his extended solos particularly his work on the Burt Bacharach medley of "This Girls in Love With You" and the seamless transition into "What the World Needs Now." The set of songs culminated with an excellent rendition of "Promises Promises."
To complete the night, Salvant presented some of her original compositions including, "Thunderclouds" which as well received by the audience as the familiar selections.
On the second night of the festival, on Friday, Jan. 5, the group, Something Else! led by talented alto saxophonist Vincent Herring and featuring pianist Matthew Whitaker performed outside of the Bass Museum in Collins Park. Something Else!, as the name suggests, is an incredibly talented mid-sized big band not only full of outstanding soloists but featuring a very tight ensemble sound. As you might expect an excellent rhythm section is at the core of this wonderful jazz funk fusion big band made up of some incredible all stars.
Several tunes stood out in the first half, most notably Freddie Hubbard’s "Blue Spirit" featuring a compelling trumpet solo by Jeremy Pelt and a very McCoy Tyner-esque solo by pianist David Kikoski. A fascinating well informed funk version of Miles Davis' " 'Round Midnight" closed the first half.
After a short break, the band came back with Herbie Hancock’s "Driftin' " and another excellent piano solo by Kikoski. This was followed by another Freddie Hubbard tune, "Destiny’s Children," again with great work by Pelt. Of special note was John Coltrane’s "Naima" featuring nimble tenor sax work of James Carter.
Although Matthew Whitaker performed throughout the evening with the band on B3 organ, his role for most of the evening was relatively complimentary. That is until the close, where his extended organ solo showcased his virtuosity. It was well worth the wait.
Saturday night's spotlight was on pianist and vocalist Alfredo Rodriguez and Friends at the Miami Beach Bandshell. Rodriguez’ ensemble featured Armando Lopez drums, Han Beyli bass, Mangela Herrera flute and vocals, Ana Paz synth/keyboard and vocals, Gilmar Gomes percussion, and Nicole Garcia on lead vocals. Interestingly enough most, if not all, were not part of the band he records with. Considering that it was a pickup ensemble, the sound was tight.
Both the flutist and second keyboardist added vocals to those by the solo female singer as did Rodriguez. Although members of the band had their moments to step out it was clearly Rodriguez’ show. Well versed in Latin Jazz, Rodriguez showed virtuosity and technique even if at times it seemed more like a piano recital given the extended unaccompanied piano solos. His musical vocabulary demonstrated an immense grasp of everything from son montuno, merengue, and samba, to much more.
One of the showcases of the evening was the tastefully arranged classic "Bésame Mucho" featuring Nicolle Garcia’s solo voice and included a very elegant and controlled piano solo. This was followed by "Despertad," featuring three voices and ensemble with Garcia, Herra on flute and Paz, the electric keyboardist singing. The extended tune had a Brazilian feel moving to samba and including an extended virtuosic piano solo full of interesting rhythmic syncopations.
"Sueño de Luz," an original tune dedicated to immigrants featured Rodriguez singing and as with a number of works was followed by an extended unaccompanied piano solo full of ornaments, trills, ostinatos, and the use of the full register of the piano.
The first half came to a rousing end with the very old Cuban tune, "Ay Mama Ines," which had the audience joining in and singing the familiar song.
After a short break the second half started with a nice ballad featuring a lovely alto flute melody performed by Herrera. This enticing opener transitioned into the percussion pyrotechnics of the well-known local group Miamibloco. The percussionist took over the stage during the work providing a rowdy carnival feel that slowly morphed back into the ensemble led by the flute and into the tune that started the half.
In addition to the rousing percussion featured throughout, the highlight of the second half was probably the rendition of Michael Jackson’s "Thriller." Rodriguez mentioned that his mentor Quincy Jones suggested that he create an arrangement of the work and include it in his rep. The version performed that evening did not disappoint with Miamibloco leading the way. The night ended with several audience participation tunes led by Rodriguez.
The weather was less than cooperative Sunday for outdoor shows with rain coming down for part of the day. Although delayed, three of the acts were able to get their sets in. The first of the acts was the Smoogies. This funk jazz band consisting of electric keyboard, two drummers, and electric bass. It was an extremely tight group and displayed a great groove feel in every work they played. Although mostly instrumentals, the pianist and second drummer chimed in with vocals a la Stevie Wonder in a few of the works. With echoes of Billy Cobham, George Duke, Spyro Gyro, and other funk jazz performers of the past, this band was a pleasure to listen to.
Next, virtuoso jazz pianist Tal Cohen performed working with the same bass player and one of the drummers that performed with the Smoogies. Cohen is probably one of the most informed pianists I have ever heard referencing everything from Chick Corea to McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, and Thelonious Monk, amongst many others and always in his own very original way. And of course, there’s the technique, both when it comes to harmonic and melodic work. Although everything he performed was of interest the penultimate work was one of the most experimental music pieces, I have heard from him. It included a very dissonant palette while still somehow grounded in jazz. The last work featured middle eastern scales and improvisations and although these last two works were a bit further off from the jazz being played at the festival, Cohen’s artistry kept the audience completely engaged.
After the set by Tal Cohen and his trio, we were treated to the South Florida Jazz Orchestra Big band led by double bassist Chuck Bergeron. Bergeron is an excellent bassist and given the longevity and high level of his big band, a wonderful leader. For this set the extremely talented South Florida based jazz vocalist Lisanne Lyons joined in as did trumpet virtuoso Brian Lynch.
Lyons vocal stylings are second to none and her vocal range is quite extensive as she displayed on the works she sang with the band. Lynch’s trumpet playing was showcased in the later part of the set with selections from his album, the Palmieri Effect/Palmieri Project. All in all, the bands outstanding precision, tightness, and intonation were displayed all evening. This is a wonderful group and with Lyons and Lynch, their performance was a very fitting way to close what is a very important music festival.
Dr. Orlando Jacinto Garcia is a distinguished university professor in the Wertheim School of Music at FIU where he is also the composer in residence. He is a 5-time Latin Grammy nominee in the contemporary classical composition category releasing 8 solo albums and 14 compilations on several labels here and abroad. Garcia is on the advisory board of the South Beach Jazz Festival.
Next up to look forward to for jazz fests is the inaugural Montreaux Jazz Festival (www.facebook.com/montreuxjazzfestivalmiami) coming March 1 through 3 to The Hangar in Coconut Grove, 3385 Pan American Drive.