Masses pack Hub for ’09 BeanTown jazz festival
As if to make up for the driving rain that aborted Boston’s favorite day of jazz in 2008, a cloudless sky accompanied the free outdoor party at this year’s Berklee BeanTown Jazz Festival. Last Saturday’s event drew an estimated 80,000, the largest crowd ever for the nine-year-old festival.
Taking over five blocks of Columbus Avenue from noon to 6 p.m., the festival showcased top local and international talent on three stages. Orchestrated by Medford-born drummer and Berklee College of Music professor Terri Lyne Carrington, the South End event has become a world-class block party of star power.
Like the New Orleans Jazz Festival, the event inhabits a neighborhood where jazz is at home. Columbus Avenue was the spine of a South End jazz scene that from the ’30s to the ’50s hosted greats such as Duke Ellington, Ben Webster, Charlie Parker, Sidney Bechet and Cootie Williams, as well as Bostonians like bandleaders Sabby Lewis and Herb Pomeroy, drummer Alan Dawson, and Ellington band members Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney and Paul Gonsalves.
This year’s festival featured emerging and established artists spanning four generations and a spectrum of styles, including jazz, Latin and RandB. The multicultural mix of music was matched by the rich diversity of the crowd, from toddlers on their parents’ shoulders to white-haired matriarchs on lawn chairs.
The food, too, had an international accent. All day, a long line of people waited for shrimp and beef jerky on the grills set up by Dorchester’s RandS Jamaican Restaurant. Other vendors offered sizzling Korean cuisine, fried dough, grilled corn and ribs.
A rich menu of music forced some hard choices among three ensembles performing simultaneously throughout the day. By 1:30 p.m., four prominent acts were already packing up their instruments.
With the rumbling drums of Bloco AfroBrazil, a samba-inflected parade of percussionists and dancers led by Marcus Santos, in the background, New Orleans saxophonist Donald Harrison started his set. He took his ensemble in his signature “nouveau swing” direction, a freewheeling blend of Latin, bop, RandB, second-line and reggae traditions.
While an ecstatic Carrington played the drums and her fellow Berklee faculty member, Dennis Montgomery III, offered smoking organ accompaniment, virtuoso blues singer Joe Louis Walker gave a majestic performance, his fingers wringing shivering notes from the strings of his guitar. After a tribute to blues originators Robert Johnson and Sonny Boy Williamson, Walker invited Montgomery to solo. Smoldering as both a singer and an organist, Montgomery wailed his way through the blues standard, “Rock Me Baby.”
On another stage, percussionist and bandleader Yoron Israel led an elegant tribute to renowned sax player, bandleader and longtime Ray Charles accompanist David “Fathead” Newman, who died in January.
An ensemble of jazz masters who shared Israel’s deep ties with Newman included Marcus Belgrave (trumpet), Curtis Fuller (trombone), Howard Johnson (baritone sax), Bill Easley (flute, tenor and alto saxes), Dave Leonhardt (piano) and John Menegon (bass). Their tribute began with a suave rendition of the title song from the 1964 James Bond film, “Goldfinger,” and later featured one of Newman’s own joyful, blues-based compositions.
Every band claimed its crowd, including popular student ensembles led by Berklee faculty. These units included bassist Lenny Stallworth’s spirited Berklee P-Funk Ensemble and the Berklee Tower of Power Ensemble, a tribute band helmed by trumpeter Wayne Naus that featured Little Joe Cook, one of Boston’s top RandB singers.
Weaving Cuban traditions into post-bop orchestrations with horn flourishes worthy of a Mariachi band, the tropical-flavored ensemble of bandleader Jane Bunnett featured her sinuous soprano saxophone solos and the intricate, driving rhythms of Cuban pianist Elio Villafranca.
The ensemble Defenders of the Groove showcased two debonair elders at the top of their game, vocalist Ernie Andrews and saxophonist Plas Johnson, accompanied by guitarist Melvin Sparks. Wearing a white suit jacket, Johnson opened with “The Pink Panther” theme, which he recorded with Henry Mancini for the classic film and its many sequels. Here, he turned it into a complex, rich improvisation.
As an audience squealed to the Tower of Power tribute a block away, Andrews strode on stage, attired in a crisp black suit and a smart matching cap. With a rich, resonant voice that combined the velvet depth of Joe Williams and the playful agility of John Hendricks, Andrews, 81, offered his own blues tribute. He sampled the styles of late blues greats Charles Brown, T-Bone Walker and Big Jay McShann, earning three standing ovations.
People leaving the festival lingered for the pulsing, infectious finale by Puerto Rican percussionist Eguie Castrillo and his 18-piece orchestra, an ebullient mambo machine modeled on the big band of the late superstar percussionist Tito Puente.