Tri-C Jazz Fest is about more than traditional jazz

By Malcolm X Abram
Beacon Journal pop music writer

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In her illustration, Ashley Kozak, a junior visual communication design major at Kent State University, conveys Robert Glaspers emotions as heperforms. Kozak created her illustration in two parts. The line work was done in pencil and the color in acrylic paint. The two were then merged together in Photoshop. This illustration was for the Illustration II class.

For 33 years, the Cuyahoga Community College Jazz Fest, aka Tri-C JazzFest, has brought the breadth and width of jazz to Northeast Ohio.

In the span of the festival’s 10 days, jazz lovers get the opportunity to see and hear legends, buzzed-about up-and-comers as well as the best in local and regional artists. The festival has also made a point to reach beyond the traditional jazz realm, mixing in R&B, hip-hop and some of the louder strains of rock-jazz fusion.

This year’s edition continues the tradition, typified by the Saturday night concert at the Ohio Theatre by the Robert Glasper Experiment, with pianist Glasper’s hip as heck, Grammy-winning jazz, R&B, hip-hop mélange.

Glasper, who celebrated his 35th birthday two weeks ago, has seen his star rise meteorically since the release of his fifth album, Black Radio, in 2012. The album is studded with a gaggle of Glasper’s friends, who happen to be like-minded slightly left-of-center R&B and hip-hop artists: Erykah Badu, singer/songwriter Ledisi, singer/bassist Meshell Ndegeocello, Musiq Soulchild, Yasiin Bey (aka rapper/actor Mos Def) and Lupe Fiasco.

The album received reams of critical praise, debuted at No. 15 on the Billboard 200 and hit No. 1 on the iTunes Jazz charts in nine countries, including at home, the U.K., France, Australia and Japan.

Glasper is one of many jazz-trained musicians who were also raised on pop music and unlike many of the genre’s legends, who considered pop music beneath them, this fresh crop of jazz’s up-and-comers — including bassist/singer Esperanza Spalding and bassist/singer Thundercat — cite the work of Prince, Billy Joel and Radiohead to be as influential on their music as the John Coltrane and Miles Davis records they studied in school.

On Black Radio the Robert Glasper Experience (saxophonist/flutist/vocoder player Casey Benjamin, bass guitarist Derrick Hodge, and drummer/percussionist Mark Colenberg) doesn’t merely juggle the genres from song to song and from guest to guest. Glasper’s jazz-inflected piano and electric keyboard playing acts as an anchor for the album’s dozen tracks, mixing a few choice covers with his originals and collaborations.

They include a simmering funky smooth take on Mongo Santamaria’s Afro Blue, featuring Badu, and Lalah Hathaway applying her smoky voice to a lightly hip-hop-tinged take on Sade’s Cherish the Day. The loose, quiet but tense album closing arrangement of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit features Glasper’s piano improvisations, Benjamin’s icy vocoder singing and Hathaway’s wordless melodic coos in place of Kurt Cobain’s disaffected Pacific Northwestern twang and distorted drop D tuning.

Glasper has also been vocal about what he believes plagues jazz as a popular music form, charging on one of the album’s spoken interludes that “cats are playing for other cats” rather than trying to reach new audiences.

“I’ve gotten bored with jazz, to the point where I wouldn’t mind something bad happening,” Glasper told Downbeat Magazine a year ago.

“Slapping hurts, but at some point it’ll wake you up. I feel like jazz needs a big-ass slap,” he said.

With Black Radio, which surprised many observers when it won the Best R&B Album Grammy Award along with getting a nomination for Best R&B Performance for the Ledisi-sung single Gonna Be Alright (F.T.B.), Glasper joins the quietly growing group of artists providing jazz with a healthy and hearty open-palm smack on the decades-old genre’s sizable hindquarters.

But whereas Glasper’s musical bouillabaisse may never be welcomed in the hallowed halls of places that hold “the tradition” in the highest regard (we’re looking at you, Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center), the Tri-C JazzFest attempts to feed as many kinds of music lovers as possible.

Here are some highlights:

• Aaron Neville and Dr. John — 8 p.m. Friday, State Theatre, 1519 Euclid Ave., Cleveland, $65

Two titans of New Orleans music, R&B and jazz join forces for what should be a very entertaining, soulful show. Both artists are coming off well-received new albums, with Dr. John’s Dan Auerbach-produced Locked Down garnering a 2012 Grammy for best blues album. Neville’s My True Story, produced by Keith Richards and Don Was and released in January, was hailed as a fun-loving tribute to the doo-wop Neville loved as a youth.

The show is a rare chance to see two eclectic veterans sharing a stage in what should be a convivial New Orleans musical summit; it should be worth the $65.

• Kenny Garrett — 4:30 p.m. Saturday, Ohio Theatre, 1515 Euclid Ave., Cleveland, $30

Garrett has long been one of the most respected alto saxmen in the jazz game. The Detroit native’s resume as a sideman includes stints with Miles Davis, the Duke Ellington Orchestra and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. As a bandleader and composer, Garrett’s most recent release, 2012’s Seeds From the Underground featuring his quintet, garnered him two Grammy nominations and was critically hailed for its back-to-basics straight-ahead jazz and strong original compositions.

• Smooth Jazz All-Stars — 8 p.m. Saturday, State Theatre, $45-$65

Smooth jazz has long been a Northeast Ohio favorite and this collaboration should get fans plenty excited. The supergroup brought together by composer Brian Simpson includes world jazz keyboardist Keiko Matsui, guitarist Marc Antoine, saxophonist and Tangier regular Marion Meadows, and smooth soulful singer Phil Perry.

• Dominick Farinacci, Cecile McLorin-Salvant, Aaron Diehl and the Tri-C Jazz Fest All Stars — 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Tri-C Metro Auditorium, 2900 Community College Ave., Cleveland, $15

While most of these names may not be well known (local jazz fans should recognize Farinacci), this gathering of young talent could easily lead to the discovery of the next Spalding or Glasper. Farinacci will lead the band of pianist Aaron Diehl, bassist Paul Sikivie, drummer Lawrence Leathers, and Cecile McLorin-Salvant, a 23-year-old singer who won the prestigious Thelonious Monk Competition in 2010.

• Anat Cohen — 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, Tri-C Metro Auditorium, $15

The Israeli-born Cohen is a young award-winning jazz clarinetist whose album Claroscuro was released in 2012. Cohen will be performing with the Rimon Jazz Institute Ensemble from Tel Aviv. The Ernie Krivda-directed Tri-C Jazz Studies Workshop Ensemble will open the show.

• Lionel Loueke Trio — 8 p.m. April 25, MOCA Cleveland, 11400 Euclid Ave., Cleveland, $30

The West African Loueke is an example of an artist melding styles to produce something unique. He has appeared on albums by Herbie Hancock and Terence Blanchard, and has five albums under his own name, including his latest, Heritage, produced by and featuring Glasper. The guitarist mixes the rhythms, melodies, language and tongue clicks of his native Benin with the jazz he studied in Paris and adds his singing.

• Michael Feinstein, “The Gershwins & Me” — 8 p.m. April 26, State Theatre, $50-$105

Feinstein has long been a beloved interpreter and champion of Tin Pan Alley tunes and the Great American Songbook. He even founded the Michael Feinstein American Songbook Initiative to help preserve the standards. For this show Feinstein will be focusing on the works of Ira and George Gershwin, who gave the world Rhapsody in Blue, An American in Paris and much more.

• Bill Frisell’s Beautiful Dreamers — 2 p.m. April 27, Allen Theatre, 1407 Euclid Ave., Cleveland, $30

It’s hard to believe that in the early ’80s when he first came on the scene, guitarist Frisell was a controversial figure for his use of effects and loops pedals in a jazz setting. Since then he’s expanded his music way beyond jazz. The Beautiful Dreamer band consists of Frisell, hip downtown New York violinist/viola composer Eyvind Kang, and drummer Rudy Royston.

• Joe Lovano’s 60th Birthday Bash — 4:30 p.m. April 27, Allen Theatre, $30

Proud Cleveland native Lovano is highly regarded in jazz circles as a fine composer and inventive improviser. For the big “Six Oh,” Lovano will be leading the current iteration of his adventurous US5 band (pianist James Weidman, bassist Peter Slavov, and drummer Otis Brown). Lovano will also welcome guests Ernie Krivda, Eddie Baccus, Jamey Haddad, Judi Silvano, and his brothers Anthony and Carl Lovano to the party.

• Natalie Cole — 8 p.m. April 27, State Theatre, $50-$105

Cole was born with music in her blood as the daughter of iconic jazz/pop singer/pianist Nat King Cole. She’s had a couple of career resurgences since her early days as an R&B chanteuse with hits including I’ve Got Love on My Mind and her Grammy-winning single This Will Be (an Everlasting Love). Since her ghostly 1991 collaboration with her departed father on Unforgettable, Cole has won nine Grammys, including best traditional pop vocal album for her last album 2009’s Still Unforgettable.

For more information, see For tickets to concerts at Playhouse Square, call 216-241-6000, 866-546-1353 or go to

Malcolm X Abram can be reached at or 330-996-3758. Read his blog, Sound Check Online, at, or follow him on Twitter @malcolmxabram.

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