Thursday, January 26, 2023

Sharing the joy - and exuberant swing - of jazz guitar

Mark Whitfield
Mark Whitfield puts his heart and soul into his guitar playing. And as an observer, listener, you can't miss it. He bends and reshapes notes, adds a soulful blues feeling, and rearranges familiar tunes to make them his own - at least for the moment. 

And then there is the ever-present body English. He spins, he raises and lowers his beautiful red D'Angelico hollow-bodied guitar to accentuate the sounds he draws from it. His facial expressions run the gamut from intense grimaces to joyous, beaming smiles, shifting in an instant with the musical mood.

That - and more - was on full display on Wednesday, January 25, when he made his first appearance as special guest with the Naples Philharmonic Jazz Orchestra as part of the quintet's All That Jazz concert series at Artis-Naples' Daniels Pavilion.

The band backing him this fine evening included tenor saxophonist and artistic director Lew Del Gatto, trumpeter Randy Sandke, pianist Jerry Stawski, bassist Kevin Mauldin and drummer Mike Harvey. They were locked in with Whitfield from the start of an evening in which he picked tunes with deep connections to some of his jazz heroes.  

Randy Sandke
They opened with Vincent Youmans' popular music anthem "Without a Song." Then, in honor of Nat "King" Cole, Whitfield & Co. delivered an unusual but beautiful take on "Nature Boy," playing it in 3/4 waltz time rather than the traditional 4/4 rhythm.   

Some 34 years ago, Whitfield worked with singer Carmen McRae. It was an important association for this emerging young musician. Now 56, he shared the McRae-associated ballad "The Very Thought of You." Sandke added complementary touches to underscore the mood. 

Whitfield, Del Gatto, Sandke
Whitfield sent the other players to the wings for the mid-point highlight, a solo version of Lionel Hampton's classic composition "Midnight Sun." It was both poignant and powerful. Then with the band back on stage, Whitfield dug into another waltz-time rearrangement, this one of "Willow Weep For Me," as a tribute to one of his primary guitar heroes. The song was the title track of a Wes Montgomery recording released in 1969, less than a year after his death. It won a Grammy for best instrumental jazz album in 1970.


The joy of jazz guitar continued with an anecdote about and tip of the hat to singer Frank Sinatra on "Night and Day," a classic from Ol' Blue Eyes'
Whitfield, Del Gatto
extensive repertoire. Whitfield and the band finished with a brief romp through the jazz chestnut "Invitation." 

This was a deep experience for each of these masterful musicians. Throughout the night, Whitfield seized opportunities to interact one-on-one with the other players, either by comping behind their solos or trading melodic phrases. He clearly loved the musical ideas they shared with him and the audience. 

Stawski, Whitfield, Del Gatto, Mauldin, Sandke, Harvey

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