Cleveland, OH April 19-April 27, 2013 There was a determined effort by Tri-C JazzFest Managing Director Terri Pontremoli to give this year's event more of a festival atmosphere than it has perhaps enjoyed in years past. For starters, many of the outlying venues, such as the East Cleveland library, a regular festival haunt, were scrapped in order to concentrate events downtown, with most concerts staged either in the grand theaters of Playhouse Square or on the Tri-C campus. Additionally, the first and second Saturday schedules (a third, one-show Saturday on May 4 was oddly set off from the rest of the festival by a week) were programmed to allow festival goers the opportunity to attend three shows in succession without leaving the confines of the Playhouse Square theater complex. Filler eventsQ&As with artists, concerts by local bands were also set up in a theater lobby to keep attendees engaged in between shows. These changes did add something of a new atmosphere, and certainly added convenience for those attending multiple shows, but it still seemed like people were coming out for individual shows and leaving. But maybe ticket sales will refute that observation.
Something that didn't change was the diversity of acts; the eclectic mix, as always, tried to cater to every niche of the jazz and jazz-like listening community of Greater Cleveland. Kicking off with a broadly appealing Friday night show by New Orleanians (and, apparently then, de facto jazzmen) singer Aaron Neville
That first stacked Saturday kicked off with the Robert Glasper Experiment. Taking the stage after a short technical delay (the amiable Glasper seems always to face some kind of interference when performing in this town, be it from the sound system, the building, a clueless, noisy audience ...) with an altered lineup that retained only saxophonist/vocoderist Casey Benjamin
from the Grammy Award-winning Black Radio (Blue Note, 2012), Glasper's group chugged out sounds at once futuristic and nostalgic. Without the aid of the R&B vocal talent that graces the record, singing duties fell to Benjamin, whose vocoder rendered quickly passing lyrics unintelligible, but gave a nice, outer-spaceway warble to refrains.
With the altered words reverberating over the steady, funky beat laid down by drummer Mark Colenburg
, and Glasper's rising and falling electric sprinkles, an undulating pulse was broadcast to the room, lifting some from their seats to flex in commiserate boogie. But after a few numbers, and despite some interesting interludes from Glasper and Benjamin's occasional shift to saxophone, a sameness took over the music: there was little difference between the vocodered beats carrying "The Consequences of Jealousy" and "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Still, the early Saturday afternoon crowd seemed to dig it and confirmed its affirmation by gamely, if falteringly, singing along during the encorea cover of Floetry's "Say Yes."
There was a more partisan reaction to Orrin Evans' set a few nights later, unless the front exits of the Tri-C Auditorium simply revealed departures more readily than the Ohio Theatre that hosted Glasper. The audience sent vocal affirmations reporting through the air, with the spent powder settling on the heads of those filing out after each number. Strange. Not, surely, a straight-ahead player, Evans also is no wild experimenter. So the love-it/hate-it response he garnered on this night was oddand unfortunate, since this trio's performance was the most engrossing of the festival.