An all-star night in Sarasota

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The 39th annual Sarasota Jazz Festival wrapped up Saturday night, March 9, with honors for a festival frequent flier, rarely heard combinations of all-star performers – and a healthy dose of Duke Ellington.

Tenor saxophonist Houston Person, a distinctive balladeer whose playing is steeped in soul jazz, received the Jazz Club of Sarasota’s Satchmo Award. The organization has been awarding it since 1987 to honorees who have made a “unique and enduring contribution to the living history of jazz.”

The two sets that closed out the festival mixed and matched players in ways that showcased their creativity. There were a handful of solo tunes, some duos, a few varied quartets, quintets and a even a two-piano, two-bass, 10-performer finale.

Person was featured with pianist Bill Charlap, bassist Alejandro Arenas and drummer Mark Feinman on “You’re a Sweetheart” and “Maybe You’ll Be There” to open things.

Musical director Ken Peplowski performed a solo clarinet version of Ellington’s “The Single Petal of a Rose” before his duo with pianist Dick Hyman on “Panama.” Hyman, who turned 92 the day before, then delivered the first of two solo spotlights, before he, Peplowski, trumpeter Randy Sandke, Arenas, Feinman and Charlap closed the set with “Take the A Train.”

Later highlights included Hyman and ex-Ellington bassist John Lamb’s duo version of Lester Young’s “Jumpin’ With Symphony Sid” and their collaboration with singer Mary Stallings on Duke’s “I’ve Got It Bad (and That Ain’t Good).”

Sitting at Yamaha grand pianos at opposite ends of the long ballroom stage, Hyman and his much younger cousin Charlap, also treated the audience to a tasty duet. They traded solos, tossed melodic lines back and forth like a relay baton, and comped behind each other on “All the Things You Are.”

La Lucha members John O’Leary on piano, Arenas and Feinman, who were the ace rhythm section for the main stage concerts, got their own spotlight with an exhilarating take on Fred Astaire’s “Cheek to Cheek.” There was much to savor- or check out- on Friday

It included a new festival feature: four themed, afternoon stages that preceded the evening's main concert. The many performers included guitarist Gene Bertoncini on the classic jazz stage, pianist Joe Delaney’s trio and drummer Thomas Carabassi’s quartet on the Latin stage, tenor saxophonist Jeremy Carter on the contemporary stage, and singer Lauren Mitchell’s band on the blues stage.

Bertoncini, 81, treated his listeners in the Hyatt Regency’s intimate Boathouse to solo guitar artistry featuring delicacy and clean melodic lines. He opened with a clever “spring” medley that included “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,” “It Might as Well Be Spring” and “Gone With the Wind.”

Pianist Shelley Berg, who directs the jazz program at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, kicked off the evening program with a solo version of “You and the Night and the Music,” setting the tone for the abundance of jazz to come.

On this reed player-dominated night, tenor saxophonist Roxy Coss used her Sarasota debut to perform two originals, “Feminist AF” and “You’re There.” Then festival newcomer Aaron Johnson shared his talent on flute, alto sax and clarinet, the latter on the little-heard-these-days Mack David ballad “A Sinner Kissed an Angel.”

Then the musical chairs portion of the program began, with varying blends of talent from song to song for the remainder of the set:

  • Person and Peplowski teamed up on tenor saxophones with the rhythm section on two tunes, including the Bobby Hebb pop hit “Sunny.”
  • Peplowski and Berg played a clarinet and piano duet on “It Never Entered My Mind.”
  • Coss, Johnson and Peplowski tore into “Cherokee” in a sax spectacular.
Stallings was featured for most of the second set. Gems included her versions of “Girl Talk” and “September in the Rain,” the latter performed with the spare accompaniment of Berg at the piano. Charles Turner, who made his festival debut on Wednesday, made a Friday night cameo with a lush take on “Stardust” before all of the night’s performers crowded on stage for a rousing finale.

Friday night began with alto saxophonist Pete Carney guesting with the Sarasota High Admirals, one of three area high school big bands that opened the evening performances with half-hour sets. The Pineview High School Jazz Ensemble, North Port High School Jazz One and The Admirals were the top three finishers in the Jazz Club of Sarasota’s high school band competition for young performers from Sarasota and Manatee counties. This year's festival was expanded greatly from prior years. More than 120 musicians performed in 48 different events.

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This story appears courtesy of Ken Franckling's Jazz Notes.
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