The word “unique” is often misused, perhaps most frequently when someone describes something as “rather unique.” It’s either unique—one of a kind—or it isn’t. But here, unique does accurately describe some of the sets at last month’s 39th annual North Carolina Jazz Festival. This was my first time at this festival, and as far as I can recall, it’s the only one I’ve attended where no organized bands were on the card, only individual instrumentalists.
I confess that I am generally not a big fan of mix-and-match groups; I prefer to hear established bands. Their performance is (usually) much more predictable and honed, yet that does not preclude unique solos from individual members. With pick-up groups, the opportunity for uniqueness increases, but the results tend to be much more variable. This preference, along with iffy driving in the winter (the only reasonable way for me to get there), has kept me from attending the NCJF in the past.
But this year I decided to go, having heard good things about the event. I know from the festival ads that there is always an outstanding lineup of musicians, and this year’s was no exception. Fifteen were on the card, plus two special guests, about whom more below. The lineup was as follows: reeds—Harry Allen and Adrian Cunningham; trumpet—Bruce Harris and Bria Skonberg; trombone—Jim Fryer and Dion Tucker; guitar—Nate Najar; violin—Jonathan Russell; bass—Herman Burney and Katie Thiroux; banjo—Cynthia Sayer; piano—Ehud Asherie and Rossano Sportiello; and drums—Alvin Atkinson and Chuck Redd (Chuck also doubled on vibes).
Vocals were handled mainly by the women. Three of the above were unknown to me: Atkinson, Harris, and Thiroux. I knew of but had never seen several others: Allen, Burney, Tucker, Russell and Najar. All fifteen have appeared at previous NCJFs, some of them more than ten times.
One additional musician was scheduled—Wilmington native, pianist, and composer Grenoldo Frazier—but he died on December 29 at age 65. A tribute to him was performed on the first night (Thursday) by local multi-instrumentalist Eljaye Johnson and his trio. I felt the music in this tribute was played in too modern a style, but never having heard Frazier or his music, perhaps it truly represented his style.
The special guests were the husband-and-wife Brazilian team of Maucha Adnet on vocals and Duduka daFonseca on drums. The festival tries to introduce different styles of jazz on opening night to attract a newer, hopefully younger, crowd. It worked this year, as attendance where Maucha and Duduka were featured for an entire set, was greater than for either of the next two evenings’. Maucha had sung with Antonio Carlos Jobim for 10 years, and Duduka belongs to a Samba band in New York, where they now live. While their set was excellent (and, by popular demand, both sat in during other sets throughout the weekend) it did not make me a bigger fan of Samba-like music.
A regular festival feature is the Saturday brunch, which is free for patrons. This year it opened with a set by the Doctors of Jazz, a six-piece group of university professors from Richmond, Virginia, who’ve been playing together for 30 years. That was followed by five more mixed sets, when amateur musicians attending the festival are invited to sit in. All were quite accomplished, and none were spring chickens. My Lancaster friend, trombonist Bob Troxell, has gone a number of times and for him the pro-am sets are the highlight of the festival. Bob, who still plays, will be 96 in April.
At first I wondered why the scheduled sets only occur in the evenings. But co-president and emcee Sandy Evans reminded me that all or most of the musicians do local school clinics on Friday afternoon, and the brunch takes care of Saturday afternoon. The clinics are part of the festival’s community outreach, and the students who take part in them are admitted free to that evening’s sets.
The sets ran 30-35 minutes each. Those I most enjoyed were: Asherie’s solo set; a “jazz conversation” between Sportiello and Allen; and the first three sets on Saturday evening. All fifteen musicians were on stage for the finale led by Herman Burney, with a melody (and title) made up on the spot.
While I remain committed to my preference for full bands over mixed groups, I nonetheless found the NCJF to be very enjoyable. Naturally, I liked some musicians and some sets better than others, and there were a few sets that did not move me. But all 15 musicians were top-notch. If I didn’t like some of the matchups, it wasn’t because of the quality of the performers. This is clearly a matter of opinion, and when it comes to personal preferences, one person’s opinion is just as valid as another’s.
According to Sandy Evans, this year’s attendance was in the 450-480 range. Thursday evening was sold out, while Friday and Saturday were at a little less than capacity. For the 40th anniversary, which will occur on January 23-25, 2020, singer Veronica Swift and the Emmet Cohen trio will be the Thursday evening feature. And the Hotel Ballast, the host site, is reducing the room price to $109 a night, about a 10% reduction from this year. Plan ahead; you can get the latest festival news at www.ncjazzfestival.org. This is one festival that the musicians seem to enjoy as much, if not more, than the customers.