Greetings, Fellow Travelers! Hope this post finds you wonderfully well. Last weekend’s marathon LiveJazz Journey was pretty fantastic, but the next time you hear me say that I’m going to cover two jazz festivals and a standalone concert in two days…stop me! Saturday’s Journey was all about my hometown, Philadelphia, PA: the inaugural Center City Jazz Festival in the afternoon and Warriors of the Wonderful Sound with Muhal Richard Abrams that night. On Sunday, I caught an early flight down to Nawlins for the opening weekend of the 43rd annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival…and got back in time for work Monday morning.
The Center City Jazz Fest featured 16 bands in four venues within easy walking distance of each other in downtown Philly. We started our Journey at Chris’s Jazz Café, where the fabulous Ms. Denise King was holding court. Ironically enough, Chris’s is one of Philly’s few remaining jazz clubs (thankfully, there are a number of DIY presenters, concert halls, restaurants, pubs and the like). It’s located on Sansom Street, which has to be one of the busiest and most eclectic little side streets in town. From restaurants, bookstores and salons to upscale boutiques, bars, shoe stores, parking lots, dumpsters and the back entrances of home furnishing stores, Sansom Street is a microcosm of Philly’s downtown district.
Starting the festival with Denise King was an inspired bit of planning, if I do say so myself. The show was underway when I arrived after wending my way through detoured traffic, a demonstration and Philly’s one-way streets. Chris’s was jam-packed with a very appreciative audience clearly in thrall to the music. A gifted vocalist with a warm tone and infectious spirit, Denise infuses jazz standards with a fresh, soulful energy that’s all her own. Her nimble ensemble included Aaron Graves on piano, Lee Smith on bass and Khary Abdul-Shaheed on drums. Denise ended her set with Susanne Burgess joining her on Marvin Gaye’s classic, What’s Going On.
Next up was CCJF organizer, trombonist Ernest Stuart performing at the bar and music venue MilkBoy Philadelphia at 11th & Chestnut. Stuart conceived of the festival to “showcase the talent that we have here and bring the simmer to a boil.” Not a whole lotta folks pick up the trombone for some reason and Stuart will tell you it wasn’t his first choice of instrument. Nonetheless, he’s developed a high-energy, fluid approach that injects an element of funk and Philly soul into his own take on straight-ahead jazz. Holding it down with Stuart were the stylish vocalist Chrissie Loftus, the ubiquitous veteran bass player Mike Boone, thrilling young drummer Justin Faulkner, and keyboardist Jason Shattil. They performed selections from Stuart’s recently-released/self-produced recording, Solitary Walker for a very enthusiastic, standing-room-only audience.
My final Festival stop was at Fergie’s Pub, also on Sansom St., where the expressive, young avant-garde bassist Alex Claffy led a quartet. The first time I heard Claffy play was with the wonderfully talented Philly-based pianist Orrin Evans. He was as passionate and engaging as I had recalled and generous as a leader, giving his daring fellow players the space to stretch out into exciting improvisational territory.
So, congrats to Ernest Stuart and everyone associated with the first of what I hope will be many Center City Jazz Festivals. It was fantastic to see so many folks out on a Saturday afternoon, going from venue to venue to check out a sampling of the wonderful jazz artists who call Philly home. Be sure to check out Part 2 of our marathon weekend of live jazz: Bobby Zankel’s Warriors of the Wonderful Sound with Muhal Richard Abrams. Go out and see some live jazz, y’all!