Friday things got under way on the Jazz Central Stage with the Indy Jazz Legends, made up of saxophonists “Pookie” Johnson, David Young and Russell Webster; Cliff Ratliff on trumpet; Melvin Rhyne, piano; Frank Smith, bass; drummer Larry Clark; and percussionist Komoyata. They played a blues-based bebop set including Johnson’s original tribute to the city’s street of jazz, aptly titled “Going to the Avenue.” All of the players were in full stride on “Avila & Tequila,” with potent solos and drive.
Opening on the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute Stage, the Buselli Wallarab Jazz Orchestra lived up to its reputation as an outstanding large ensemble, with tunes ranging from the flag-waving romp of “Cherokee” to Charlie Mingus’ “Pussy Cat Blues” featuring some searing alto sax from Mike Stricklin. The APA’s Cole Porter Fellow Adam Birnbaum joined the BWJO, re-creating his award-winning performance of “How Deep Is the Ocean.” Tenor saxophonist Rob Dixon burned brightly over the ensemble’s charging arrangement on “My Shining Hour” to close a well-played set.
Capping off the first day, The Manhattan Transfer wowed fans with their class and showed performing is still as much fun for them after three decades. Group spokesman Tim Hauser gave tribute for the set’s numbers to Count Basie and the originator of vocalese, Jon Hendricks. From big band swing numbers like “King Porter Stomp” to bebop on “Joy Spring,” The Manhattan Transfer was a winner all the way.
Saturday, Bloomington-based fusion jazz group KWYJIBO performed their blend of jazz/rock with some interesting takes on Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust,” renamed “Suburban Star,” and “Georgia.”
Master jazz trombonist/composer and arranger Slide Hampton brought a stellar lineup of Brazilian artists for a special tribute to Antonio Carlos Jobim, creator of the bossa nova style. The group included Maucha, Jobim’s singer for 10 years. This was to be a tribute performance. Unfortunately for the musicians and the audience, it was decimated by insensitive and unprofessional audio standards. It was apparent the musicians were struggling but Hampton and his cohorts maintained their professionalism and rose above the inconvenience. On “Amazon River,” Maucha delivered a passionate vocal with Hampton’s fiery trombone lines behind her. Musically, it was masterful despite unfortunate circumstances.
I admit that I was somewhat skeptical about The Bad Plus Trio, but seeing and hearing them totally changed my opinion. The Bad Plus are serious musicians who are putting a new spoke in the wheel of jazz. Taking rock composers like Bjork or covering Nirvana tunes, this is a powerful group. Pianist Ethan Iverson spoke reverently of his original tune dedicated to the late jazz drummer Elvin Jones that went from a somber opening to a Jones-type bashing intensity only to return to a somber conclusion. This is a group setting new standards.
David Sanborn’s Group roared out of the box with Sanborn’s power alto leading the charge over a hard-grooving band. Trumpeter Chris Botti captivated the throng of fans with the pure tone and feeling from his horn, especially on ballads. He played some funk groove numbers but was brilliant on “Someone To Watch Over Me” with only keyboardist Frederico Keenia backing him.
Sunday, B-3 jazz organist Joey DeFrancesco could be considered the surprise hit of the festival at the Jazz Central Stage. I would guess that probably 70 percent of the crowd had not heard him or jazz organ played in person. Opening up with get-down blues, DeFrancesco won over the audience by his third chorus. He was animated, he mugged for the cameras, he crooned and played with feeling on “Embraceable You.” DeFrancesco played “Back Home Again In Indiana” at supersonic tempo, burning away on the keyboard and inserting musical cliches. Guitarist Jake Langley was just as potent. The highlight came on “Back at the Chicken Shack.” I have to call this the DeFrancesco Flop: He stood up on the bench, still grooving hard, turned around and spread his derriere on the keys, still keeping the tune going. It was unbelievable. The crowd gave him a massive standing ovation.
Vibist Gary Burton and the New Generation band brought an innovative style and grace to the ICJI stage. Especially impressive were the talents of 17-year-old guitarist Juian Lage and pianist Vadim Neslvskyl. Burton was mesmerizing with his four-mallet attack on everything he played. It was a marvelous set. Tony Bennett put the icing on the festival with style and taste when he took the stage with Richmond, Ind., native Harold Jones on drums. This was classic Tony — from his patter to keeping the flame of the American Songbook alive with humor, sentiment and sincerity.
Overall, the Seventh Indy Jazz Fest took on a viable new life. Even though I couldn’t make every act, I overheard from fans how much they liked the new set-up with staggered stage times. Kudos to the hard-working staff of the American Pianists Association and the related groups and sponsors. This year’s event was a giant step.