Monday, February 24, 2014

Finding the jazz at a “jazz festival”

The cachet of jazz sometimes is stronger than the music itself. Madison Avenue continues to use bits and pieces for some of its commercials, and more than a few events across the country bill themselves as jazz festivals when nothing could be farther from the truth. A couple come to mind in the Mountain and Pacific time zones whose lineups are mostly R&B or pop stars with perhaps a bit of “smooth jazz” – a radio programming consultant’s term for contemporary instrumental music that raged across the country in the mid-1980s and well into the 1990s.

The above context is important when considering the crossroads at which Southwest Florida’s Punta Gorda Wine & Jazz Festival finds itself. Its ninth annual event concluded this past weekend. In most of its past iterations, the main stage music at Laishley Park has been all “smooth jazz.” Last year, the Chamber of Commerce-produced event expanded to two strong afternoons of music. Saturday’s main event opened with a Florida-based straight-ahead jazz quintet led by singer-pianist Danny Sinoff and closed with a different flavor – the Brazilian jazz-pop of Sérgio Mendes.

Those were welcome additions to the day’s other offerings – smoothies Rick Braun and Richard Elliott. (One of their peers, Mindi Abair, was on the Sunday bill in her fifth straight festival appearance. But while 2013’s festival’s evolution took two steps forward, this year it took at least one step backward.

The 2014 Laishley Park schedule was condensed to one day again – and consisted only of “smooth jazz” – in the form of saxophonists  Abair (back for year six), Elliott and Gerald Albright, and guitarist Norman Brown. [I skipped the afternoon in the sun for two reasons – there was no jazz on the program, and half of its performers were repeats from a year ago. All were from what The Recording Academy (producer of the Grammy Awards) correctly calls instrumental pop music.]

Gilly DiBenedetto, Greg Nielsen
The festival’s only significant jazz was found on Sunday at the annual Sunday Brunch at the Isles Yacht Club. What terrific music it was. The three-hour brunch featured a powerhouse Southwest Florida septet: Matt Bokulic on keyboard, Dominic Mancini on bass, Richie Ianuzzi on drums, Greg Nielsen on trombone, Bob Zottola on trumpet and vocals, and Bill Rignola and Gilly DiBenedetto on saxophones and/or clarinet.

DiBenedetto, Mancini, Rignola, Nielsen, Ianuzzi, Zottola, Bokulic
Highlights: the ensemble’s strong take on “Green Dolphin Street,” Mancini's bass feature on "Beautiful Love," DiBenedetto’s clarinet feature on “Basin Street,” Nielsen’s trombone artistry  on “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,” and DiBenedetto’s feature on “Tin Roof Blues” (dedicated to his late, longtime Fort Myers bandmate Lou Colombo). Then there was the band’s beautiful exploration of “Poinciana,” on which Rignola sounded like he was channeling Gato Barbieri with his tenor. (Rignola has a beautiful, rich tone, but he added some unexpected grit on this one classic tune, best associated in jazz with pianist Ahmad Jamal.) And then there was the natural, exuberant closer: “When The Saints Go Marching In.”

Presley Beane Financial Services sponsors the brunch, which drew nearly 250 people yesterday. Its major domo, Brian Presley, is one of the most ardent jazz supporters in the area. Presley has worked to get more of the flavors of legitimate jazz onto the festival lineup – both on the main stage and through added events on other days – but it isn’t easy because he hasn't been the decision-maker, other than for the brunch. But he does offer sage advice.

Some in the jazz world have viewed instrumental pop as a way to draw more ears to legitimate jazz, getting to “Giant Steps” through a series of baby steps. But that only works when you present the real deal at the venue holding the bulk of your audience.

This festival still has wonderful opportunities going forward to further evolve by presenting a richer, deeper, broader palette to its primary Saturday audience by stretching its programming – and making the festival a multi-day destination event, not something for day-trippers. I can think of at least a dozen different acts that would appeal to the contemporary instrumental audience, as well as those wishing to hear legitimate jazz. Stay tuned to see if it turns in that direction, as it seemed to be doing a year ago. Fingers crossed.

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