Saturday, October 21, 2006

Clearwater Jazz Holiday: What I've Missed

Short answer: Not much.

I didn't make it out to the Clearwater Jazz Holiday on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and I've gotta say: Regrets, I only have a few.

Kenny Drew, Jr., indeed is one of the finest pianists of his generation, even if local writers sometimes can't a)make the connection between Drew and his father, who played with John Coltrane, or b)take the time (say, all of 30 seconds on to figure out why jazz aficionados think of Drew as a genius.

It's not just because he's beloved at home in St. Petersburg. He's recorded umpteen solo CDs for several major labels. He's played with the Mingus Big Band and a dozen or more other name bands and artists. He regularly tours the WORLD, playing solo gigs and leading his own bands.

So ... I regret that I couldn't get out to the fest to support Kenny on opening night, Thursday. His appearance was too early for a work day and even if I could have arranged to get there, it wouldn't have been worth the hassle of all the crowds on hand to see the other Kenny on the bill, the lame Kenny. You know the one.

A side note: At major jazz festivals in New York and Europe, Kenny Drew Jr. would be the headliner, not the opening act. And Kenny G wouldn't even be allowed on the premises.

I'm also disappointed that I wasn't able to see the Brazilian electronica/pop/jazz outfit Bossacucanova, the openers on Friday night. I've heard them on a sampler, and I was intrigued by their eclectic mix of bossa-influenced rhythms and textures. And then I read Tom Scherberger's story on the band in the St. Petersburg Times, and I became even more intrigued.

Still, my dilemma on Friday night was similar to the one I faced on Thursday. The band I wanted to see played too soon for me to get there after work, and I didn't relish the idea of putting up with the crowd hassles related to the two practically identical-sounding entertainers on the bill that night, both of whom look great holding saxophones -- Richard "Gee, I love posing" Elliot and Mindi Abair, a former Tampa Bay area resident who's pretty much cemented her title as the Britney Spears of bland smooth jazz.

Then there's Saturday. It would have been nice to catch up on some of the high-caliber local players on the bill, including saxophonist Valerie Gillespie, young flutist Jose Valentino Ruiz and some of the folks in Jazz to the Maxx.

And John Pizzarelli is a fine guitarist with ACTUAL JAZZ CHOPS (unlike too many of the national acts playing the fest), although his handlers (and/or Pizzarelli) have been emphasizing the "matinee-idol crooner" aspect of what he does, in a manner not unlike the marketing of Harry Connick, Jr. and Diana Krall. I have fond memories of seeing a quite young Pizzarelli sit in with his father, guitarist Bucky, at the old Buena Vista Village Lounge near Orlando in the '70s.

But Saturday's headliner, Manhattan Transfer, like all of this festival's headliners, just wasn't a very strong choice, in my opinion. As I've mentioned previously, the MT long ago became quite passe. Anyone who follows jazz or pop would be aware of this.

In other words, gotta say it one more time, for the hard of hearing in Pinellas County -- Why is the City of Clearwater at such a loss, in terms of finding someone with a little bit of musical sense and experience with world-class jazz festivals to book the acts for the area's largest jazz festival? The Jazz Holiday in previous years has at least offered a more balanced mix of the good world-class art music and the shlock, thanks in part to the advice of local jazz experts.

WHY did the festival's organizers this year choose to exclude longtime WUSF jazz director Bob Seymour and regular WMNF jazz announcer Jimmy Lyons from offering input regarding the lineup? The result of that rather short-sighted move: A festival that's downright embarrassing.

And an auxiliary question: If this year's festival indeed is indicative of future festivals (given organizers' joy over the attendance for Kenny G, I wouldn't bet against it), then how long would it take for, say, the City of Tampa or the City of St. Petersburg to get a musically solid jazz fstival up and running?

I do plan to make it to the festival on Sunday, in order to catch three bands -- Chuck Owen's Jazz Surge, the resident band at USF's Center For Jazz Composition and one of the most innovative, interesting large jazz ensembles in the Southeast; master clarinetist Don Byron, with pianist Edward Simon and drummer Billy Hart (ALERT: World-class jazz); and zydeco king Buckwheat Zydeco.

No, Buckwheat isn't jazz, but he's a great zydeco musician and a charismatic entertainer, and I'd much rather catch good zydeco than prefab jazz.

Sorry, but I'll likely leave before the start of Sunday's "headliner," Cherry Poppin' Daddies. Yes, yet another incredibly passe national act closes out a day at the Clearwater Jazz Holiday. These guys were over when the short-lived neo-swing movement died, what, 10 years ago? Shhhh. Don't tell the Clearwater Jazz Holiday.

For anyone offended by my comments: I actually do feel a bit of pain bashing on the Jazz Holiday. I've given loads of positive coverage to the fest for years, by way of both local newspapers. And I've helped bring the Jazz Holiday national attention, via reviews in Billboard and all three of the major national jazz magazines -- Down Beat, Jazziz and Jazz Times.

And, hey, the Fest hired my former band, Ghetto Love Sugar, to play the fest a few years ago.

So consider it a case of tough love, if you will. We have a large, well-attended jazz festival up and running in our area. Why not make it a good festival, rather than just a run-of-the-mill entertainment event with mediocre national acts? Hey, Clearwater, you blew it this year, but you're not required by law to embarrass yourselves next year. Give MUSIC a chance.

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