L.A. Jazz 2001 blows into town this month, with six days and nights of smooth, swingin’, beboppin’, skattin’ sounds to prove that the City of Angels is a jazz hot spot.
In its eighth year and going strong, the USC-sponsored festival began Monday, April 16, with a noontime concert by the homegrown USC Thornton Jazz Orchestra, directed by pianist/composer Shelly Berg – chair of jazz studies at the USC Thornton School of Music. And the groove won’t let up until the evening of April 21, with a big band tribute to the late Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, featuring hard bop trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater, swing and bop pianist Sir Roland Hanna and classically trained jazz vocalist Vanessa Rubin – all backed by Berg’s student band.
Noon concerts are in Alumni Park and free. Evening concerts are in Bovard Auditorium, $15 general, $10 seniors & USC faculty/staff, students free. The Cannonball Adderly Suite is $10 general, $5 seniors and faculty/staff. For info, call 213-740-2167.
The student players are what makes L.A. Jazz 2001 unique. “The program cannot happen if they’re not on the stage,” said festival organizer Craig Springer. He means it literally. Student ensembles play an integral part in many of the performances, working from arrangements provided by featured artists, said Springer, who is executive director of USC Spectrum, L.A. Jazz 2001’s presenter.
Most colleges fall into two groups, Springer said. Some don’t feature their own students or faculty. “Others are conservatories – they don’t present anyone except their faculty and students,” he added.
At USC, and notably at L.A. Jazz 2001, the two approaches meld, as students not only attend master classes and workshops with headliners but also get up on stage for the actual gig. “We do this without worry about compromising the quality of our shows because our student musicians are so good they play at a professional level,” said Springer. The festival program features the Thornton Jazz Orchestra, the USC Vocal Jazz Ensemble, the USC Afro-Latin American Jazz Ensemble, the USC Elf Ensemble, the Superaxe USC Studio Guitar Ensemble and the USC-based Thelonious Monk Institute Quintet.
Bop Till You Drop
Bebop blasts off the festival’s first night, as interpreted by the Charles McPherson Quartet. The San Diego-based McPherson is a saxophone stylist in the tradition of Charlie Parker and a force in modern mainstream jazz for the past 35 years. For the L.A. Jazz 2001 concert, a group of classical string players from the Thornton Symphony will back the quartet. Opening for McPherson is the eclectic Acoustic Jazz Quartet, an L.A.-area ensemble that blends acoustic guitar and tenor sax to unusual effect.
Day-two, diva Nnenna Freelon rolls out her unique mix of jazz, gospel and pop vocal styles with her quartet. Winner of the Billie Holiday Award from the prestigious Academie du Jazz and the Eubie Blake Award from New York’s Cultural Crossroad, the three-time Grammy nominee’s artistry defies comparison. Freelon appears at the festival with the USC Vocal Jazz Ensemble, directed by Glenn Carlos. The students will fill in for the gospel choir that appears on Freelon’s latest CD, Soulcall.
Smooth jazz guitarist and USC studio guitar chair Richard Smith – who according to Jazz Times “covers contemporary jazz like a rug” – opens for Freelon, and the Ron McCurdy Quintet starts the ball rolling with a Tuesday noon concert in Alumni Park.
Other headliners include the Grammy-nominated Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra – the “awesome machine” that became the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s resident jazz orchestra in 1999, with bassist John Clayton as the Hollywood Bowl’s jazz artistic director. Opening for the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra on Wednesday, April 18, is the Frank Potenza Trio, headed by the USC jazz guitar prof and protégé of the late Joe Pass.
Anticipating Saturday’s festival-closing salute to Cannonball Adderley, Thursday brings a disciple of the “soul jazz” great – saxophonist Eric Marienthal. Marienthal has carried on Adderley’s 1950s and ’60s smooth jazz tradition while incorporating elements of funky R&B, melodic pop and improvisation – trying, in effect, to imagine how Cannonball might sound if he were alive and recording today. Opening for Marienthal on April 19 is vocalist-electric bassist Richard Bona. Born in Cameroon, Bona sings in his native language, Duala, in “a remarkably nimble, pure and perfect countertenor.”
Friday’s program features a concert by the Steps Ahead Quintet, led by master vibraphonist Mike Mainieri together with an all-star line-up of jazz sidemen: Dave Kikoski on piano, Bob Berg on sax, Scott Colley on bass and Peter Erskine on drums. Opening for Steps Ahead is the Marc Cary Trio, fronted by the 33-year-old pianist.
The final day, Saturday, April 21, begins with a new festival outreach component that brings non-stop music from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. to Alumni Park. Jazz bands from up to 10 area high schools will play back-to-back – pausing only to make way at noon for USC’s own Thelonius Monk Institute Quintet – and one school ensemble, chosen by lot, will have the privilege of opening for the evening’s Cannonball tribute.
All performances are on the University Park campus. Noon concerts are free and held in Alumni Park; evening concerts are in Bovard Auditorium. See calendar listings for ticket prices and other details.