Review of the NC Jazz Festival 2015 by “Tom the Jazzman” Mallison

The 35th NC JAZZ FESTIVAL opened on Thursday evening, February 5, 2015 with the Benny Hill Quartet in the main ballroom of the waterfront Hilton Hotel with an appreciative and enthusiastic crowd of viewers and listeners. The evening opened with Benny playing which was very reminiscent of the Cannonball Adderley sessions. Benny even looked the part in his statuesque appearance. He played several selections from the Cannonball Adderley catalog, and all were greatly appreciated by the audience. His opening with Autumn Leaves really allowed the quartet to establish themselves with the audience followed by standards like “In A Mellow Tone,” and “Take Five.” Benny has a large following in the local Jazz Community so he was an instant success with the attendees.

Benny Hill was followed by vocalist Molly Ryan along with her husband Dan Levinson on Clarinet and Tenor Sax. They were joined by Kevin Dorn on Drums and Bria Skonberg on Trumpet. Molly’s repertoire lends itself to the hits of the 20’s and 30’s. These selections were popular with those attending Thursday Evening.

To me the real feature of the evening was pianist Rossano Sportiello paying tribute to the late George Shearing. Rossano was joined by Chuck Redd on Drums and Vibes. The pairing of the Keyboard and Vibes really created that Shearing sound. One of the highlights of the set was Shearing’s original composition “Lullaby of Birdland. Nikki Parrott joined Redd and Sportiello on her acoustic Bass. Rosanno has deep classical training which allowed him to move effortlessly between classical and jazz passages in his performance. Rosanno has a very sensitive (light) touch on the keyboard and has the ability to really wrap the audience with his playing.

The opening evening of the Festival was loaded with various styles and influences and offered something for all musical tastes.
Friday and Saturday Nights opened with many of the performers from Thursday evening minus Benny Hill’s Quartet which had another engagement. Ed Polcer on Cornet arranged the various configurations of musicians for both Friday and Saturday evening. Jonathan Russell, Violin was back for his third time and it was amazing to observe his growth and maturity. He and Ed Polcer on several occasions traded licks and Russell was certainly able to hold his own in the situation.

Nikki Parrot and Herman Burney on acoustic bass are two veterans of the Festival and very popular with the audience. Nikki playing bass and singing added an additional dimension to her performance. When Herman was not playing he could be observed taking photos with his Nikon. Adrian Cunningham was back in 2015 playing Alto Sax and Flute this year compared to Tenor Sax previously. He is so accomplished on all of his instruments and plays equally well on the Clarinet. It amazes me how he and Bria can know and play the Book at their young ages and certainly that goes for Jonathan Russell.

A new performer at the Festival was Vincent Gardner on Trombone. Vincent is the first trombonist with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra under the leadership of Wynton Marsalis. Vincent paid the attendees a huge compliment when he said he played with the LCJO all over the world and many attendees had no conception of Jazz, but that was certainly different at the NCJF. As he became more familiar with the Festival format and musicians he really became more expressive on the band stand with his playing.

I have not tried to create a laundry list of each player and repeatedly mention them like most already mentioned from Thursday Evening.
Ed Polcer contributed masterfully with his playing and arranging the configurations of the various sets.

It all boils down to a few basics for me. This Festival has been going on for 35 years so something must be right……it is and that is the music. I had friends who drove up from Florida for the first time and they asked me why they had not heard of the NCJF previously? They plan on being back in 2016. As a matter of fact Charlie Byrd’s wife was in attendance for her second year and loved hearing Nate Najar play guitar and especially when he played Charlie’s instrument on Concerto De Aranjuez.

The Festival is casual and you certainly have an opportunity to mingle and talk with the musicians if not renewing previous friendships with them. I hope I will see you there in 2016 as we enjoy the 36th Festival in February.