February Jazz Feast in North Carolina


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By Larry Reni Thomas

CHAPEL HILL, NC--Triangle North Carolina, which includes Raleigh, Durham, Cary and Chapel Hill, is bracing itself for the upcoming month of February's musical avalanche and extravaganza of good jazz and African music. Fans are smiling, ecstatic and extremely happy that such first-class, all-star acts are headed this way that they can hardly contain themselves. This will be the first time in a long time that such a variety of jazz and African acts will be in this area to perform and is a testament to the fact that this part of the country is a jazz hotbed and an intellectual, cultural oasis.

There are three major universities here: Duke (Durham), North Carolina State (Raleigh) and The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and they all have jazz ensembles and strong jazz studies department. North Carolina Central University in Durham, has a fine jazz studies department and has internationally-acclaimed jazz ensembles, which have performed at The White House, Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, The Detroit Jazz Festival and The Newport Jazz Festival. Saxophonist Branford Marsalis, a recent Durham resident, has served as a visiting artist at North Carolina Central University, and vocalist Nnenna Freelon, retired professor (Duke Jazz Studies) and saxophonist Paul Jefferys have lived in Durham for years, as well the late pianist and the first jazz studies director Mary Lou Williams.

The area also has two 24-hour “mainstream" jazz stations: WNCU-FM, Durham, and WSHA-FM, Raleigh. Both of them help to promote jazz concerts, programs and local venues and musicians and shine light on the thriving, and rich Triangle jazz scene. One could conceivably go out to check out a live jazz gig every night of the week and listen to some good jazz on the radio, the way there and on the way home. It not surprising, though, when you really think about. This place been primed and ready for this, blissful, wonderful month of musical onslaught for years. Fans say bring it on. We can handle it, they shout!

The festivities begin early, February 5, with the overdue, long-awaited visit of vocalist/poet Gil Scot-Heron, at The Carolina Theater, in Durham (carolinatheater.org) (919) 560-3030. It's been at ten years since he has performed here. The last time was a well-received, packed, highly-appreciated, excellent show at The Arts Center, in Carrboro, right outside of Chapel Hill, when, after the program, he was called “The Ninth Wonder of The World!" His appearance will coincide with the release of his new recording called I'm New Here (XL Records). Scott-Heron is also writing a book titled The Last Holiday.

“My landlord was from North Carolina," said Scot-Heron, in recent telephone interview from his Harlem residence. “So, we enjoy coming down that way. Plus, I'm originally from Jackson, Tennessee. I like that part of the world. It's like home. I guess that's why I like the Blues music so much. I especially like John Lee Hooker because his voice and mine have the same register, you know. My show in Durham will be a combination of poetry and music. I am a poet whose first instrument was the keyboard. I was playing the keyboards before I started singing. We will be performing there because of Black History Month and because we have a lot of say. We are working a lot--or as much as I want to. We are well. We have done well and we will continue to do well."

The Puerto-Rican alto saxophone sensation Miguel Zenon, who has been nominated for two Grammys, and his group, will grace the stage at Duke University's Reynolds Theater, February 11. Zenon, who has been awarded the Guggenheim and the MacArthur fellowships, has just released a critically-acclaimed album called Esta Plena (Marsalis Music). His concert is part of a highly- ambitious, thoroughly-pleasing series of shows being presnted by the very innovative, Aaron Greenwald , director of Duke Performances (dukeperformances.org) (919) 684-4444. Miguel's sound has been compared to a cross between Charlie Parker, Paquito D'Rivera and Jackie McLean, and the concert should be one of the best of the season.

Two days after the Zenon's show, on February 13, Ravi Coltrane Quartet is scheduled to perform on the same stage at Duke's Reynolds Theater. Coltrane, the son of the legendary North Carolina native, saxophonist John Coltrane, has finally attained his own sound, after being compared to his father since he started playing professionally several years ago. He seems to be a better soprano saxophonist than tenor, so it will be interesting to see which one he favors when his young exciting group comes to Durham. His appearance here will be one of his stops before the quartet begin an overseas tour, and will be the first time he has been here since he was at North Carolina State University years ago, with his group and a decade ago with The Elvin Jones Jazz Machine. His latest album is called In Flux (Savoy Jazz).

Vocalist and heart-throb, Harry Connick, Jr.'s concert at the sparkling, brand-new Durham Performing Arts Center (DPACnc.com) (919) 680-2787, is set for February 16. His show last year was sold out minutes after tickets went on sale and the same is expected this time. He and his orchestra will be in town two days after Valentine's Day and will probably draw a host of lovers who will pack the place. He has stated that Durham was one of his favorite places to perform and that he enjoyed his last visit because he got to hang out and play golf with Durham resident Branford Marsalis. Your Songs (Sony Music), his most recent recording, has been called one of his best. Connick's music has sold over 25 million albums.

On February 19, the velvet-voiced, Kansas City-born, vocalist Kevin Mahogany will appear in Durham, as a guest artist with the Duke University Jazz Ensemble, in Baldwin Auditorium, on the university's east campus. Mahogany, who last performed in the area at the University of Chapel Hill, at least a decade ago, on an well-received show headlined by the Heath Brothers, is also an educator and will conduct a master class while he is in town. Mahogany recently started his own record company called Mahogany Jazz, and released two albums, Kevin Mahogany: Big Band and To: Johnny Hartman. Info: (919) 660-3385 or [email protected]

The Monterey Jazz Festival tour, with pianist Kenny Barron, violinist Regina Carter, vocalist Kurt Elling and guitarist Russell Malone, will stop in Durham, at the Carolina Theater, February 25 (carolinatheater.org). The tour is a six-week, 34 date joyous affair that begins February 5, in Storrs, Connecticut, travels the South, goes across country to the West coast and back, finally ending up in Detroit, May 1. Barron, who was recently awarded the National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Masters Award, was last in Durham in 2007 for a soulful solo performance at the North Carolina Central University African-American Jazz Caucus Jazz Research Institute conference. Malone performed at Duke University's Page Auditorium last spring with vocalist Dianne Reeves to a full audience who gave him well-deserved applause whenever he soloed. Both Carter and Elling have also presented outstanding concerts at North Carolina State University in the past. The show is bound to be a must-see for area jazz fans.

The same night, February 25, African vocalist/musician, Zimbabwean-born, Thomas Mapfumo and his band, Blacks Unlimited, will begin their three-day engagement at Duke University with performances at The Duke (University) Coffeehouse. On February 26 and 27, the same group will be in concert at Reynolds Theater on Duke University's campus with fellow Zimbabwean dancer Nora Chipaumire, who will be appearing here for the first time. Mapfumo and his group have been here before, when they played before a full house at the popular Carrboro, North Carolina, The Cat's Cradle. Their concert with Chipaumire is a collaboration called Moved and will be one of the first times the artist have performed together. This should be quite a treat to not only African music and dance lovers, but to people who have a keen sense of adventure and who like to view the different and unknown, especially art that has substance with an edge. Info: (919) 660-3348, Duke Performances, [email protected]

Finally, last, but certainly not least, the February feast of musical treats, ends with the 33rd Carolina Jazz Festival, on the campus of The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (February 24-27) (unc.edu/musical/jazzfest). This year's participants include drummer Jason Marsalis, saxophonist Ivan Renta and a concert featuring the Blue Note recording artist and trumpeter Terrence Blanchard and his group at Memorial Hall, on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill. Blanchard, a Grammy winner, has performed in the area several times before, with his group and with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers years ago. The festival will include workshops, clinics with high school, college and university bands, and jam sessions at the West End Wine Bar in Chapel Hill. Blanchard is tentatively scheduled to give a clinic and a master class on Saturday, February 27. Info: [email protected], (919) 843-3333, carolinaperformingarts.org.

All in all, not a bad month for the state that produced John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Max Roach and Nina Simone. It's the boomerang effect, where the music that started here comes back to claim its own. Who needs New York City or Paris, when North Carolina is more than enough? Can we handle it? Yes! We can take that and more, say the music lovers.


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