Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Choice Sounds Sunday at the Clearwater Jazz Holiday: Chuck Owen and Don Byron

As I promised myself, I made it out to the Clearwater Jazz Holiday on Sunday, with family in tow.

And, yes, as a matter of fact, we did hear good music -- ACTUAL JAZZ -- at the area's largest jazz festival, for a change.

Don Byron, a virtuoso woodwind player and a quite gifted composer, led the kind of group that ought to be a staple at the Clearwater Jazz Holiday. That is, Byron, master drummer Billy Hart and pianist Edward Simon are all world-class jazz players; they frequently play New York jazz clubs, and too seldom come to Florida.

No, Byron didn't bring the original line-up of his Ivey-Divey Trio (with Jason Moran and Jack DeJohnette), but the trio's performance was hardly a letdown. The leader, switching between clarinet and tenor saxophone, sometimes on the same tune, turned in a performance that was eminently musical and highly interactive.

And, although the relatively quiet sound of Byron's clarinet and the group's skillful use of dynamics didn't make the perfect match with a festival setting, the set certainly was accessible enough for anyone with even a limited understanding or casual exposure to jazz.

They played three pieces that are practically standards in the jazz repertoire. The chestnut "Body and Soul" was gorgeous and unhurried. John Coltrane's "Giant Steps," done at a laidback tempo (unlike the lightning-speed original) reminiscent of the approach taken six year's ago on a live Pat Metheny Trio recording, nevertheless built into impressive intensity, and opened up for Hart's surprisingly melodic solo. For Miles Davis's blues piece "Freddie the Freeloader," Byron opened alone on clarinet.

Oh yeah, I can't neglect to say this: As a listener, and as a bass player, my ears kept pining for a bottom-end instrument to fill out the sound of the otherwise superb group. The absence of bass was strongly felt.

BTW, Byron has said his trio's approach is inspired by The Lester Young Trio, a 1946 recording featuring an all-star lineup of tenor saxophonist Lester Young, pianist Nat King Cole and drummer Buddy Rich.

The good-music portion of Sunday's fare opened with Chuck Owen and the Jazz Surge, the resident big band at the USF Center for Jazz Composition. Two blue-chip guest artists -- saxophonist Walt Weiskopf and accordionist and pianist Gary Versace -- added extra heft to some intriguing arrangements of Steely Dan and Astor Piazzola pieces.

The Surge, without a doubt, is the most ambitious concert jazz band in the Southeast*: The players are high-caliber, and the arrangements by Owen and others are consistently challenging, incorporating a mix of appealing elements -- in the case of Sunday's performance, showis case, rock and Latin styles were included).

Nice solos by Weiskop, Versace, USF jazz studies head and tenor saxophonist Jack Wilkins (the unaccompanied two-sax romp with Weiskopf was a show-stopper), guitarist LaRue Nickelson and trumpeter Tom Parmeter, among others. Nice to see former USF faculty drummer David Hardman in from Oklahoma, joining Nickelson, bassist Mark Neuenschwander and pianist Per Danielson in the rhythm section.

St. Petersburg Times critic Sean Daly had nice things to say about the performance, in a review that appeared in Monday's paper.

Sidenote: At the end of one of the Surge's tunes, a big burst of applause was heard from the rear of the park. At first, I was encouraged, thinking that festival attendees actually were showing their enthusiasm for what they heard.

Alas, it was merely a group of people tuning into the final seconds of the Bucs game -- you know, yet another one where the league's lamest offense couldn't score a touchdown but the team won because time ran out just at the moment that they happened to make an impossible field goal.

The proximity of the game viewing area to the stage confirmed the low priority that music gets in the scheme of a festival that's exists largely because of its function as a social hour/opportunity for local society types to hobnob (it's not a secret that chairmanship of the festival is a resume-builder for those interested in climbing the social/economic/political ladder in Clearwater).

Hey, Jazz Holiday: It's downright TACKY to let the game viewing area be situated so close to the stage. It's INSULTING to the musicians who play the festival in good faith that organizers won't effectively stage a competing event in close proximity to the music. Is that so difficult to comprehend?

No dis to the Bucs or Bucs fans, but ... those who would rather watch the Bucs lose (or barely win) than listen to the music on stage at the festival, really ought to, you know, stay home and watch the Bucs lose (or barely win). They shouldn't expect to attend a virtual sports bar close to the Clearwater Jazz Holiday stage, and no festival organizer who cares about the nominal raison d'etre for the fest ought to allow that to happen.

*(and I'm not saying this just because I happen to be a USF employee, as of 8/21; I've been writing about jazz for more than 20 years)

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