The old and the new mingled with great success last weekend as the 2011 Elkhart Jazz Festival rebounded from near-extinction in 2010 to an event that can only be described as an unqualified success.
Even the weather smiled — make that beamed — on the efforts of the volunteer committee that worked long and hard to resuscitate the festival which floundered almost fatally last year. Obviously, someone remembered the old adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
The near-perfect clime Saturday and Sunday made it a pleasure to stroll the several blocks that held musical venues. OK, Friday evening was a bit chilly, but nothing that a good sweatshirt couldn’t handle. Aside from that, who could ask for anything more?
No doubt the addition of three stages inside the Lerner Theatre was a big draw. It was reminiscent of the early days of the EJF, when the hotel on the now-grassy area between Main, Franklin and High Streets (sorry, to me the only Central Park is in the middle of Manhattan) contained three performance areas, plus a pub where musicians gathered “after hours” just to jam. Now the theater itself, plus two spaces upstairs created by the division of the Crystal Ballroom, allowed listeners with the proper credentials (i.e. passes) to take in all manner of music without having to leave the building.
On the Civic Plaza, the free stage offered a generous mix of big bands and smaller combos, with several groups “for free” that also played in the ticketed locations.
The torn-up section of Main Street was a blessing and a curse. It certainly was an eyesore but did prevent the appearance of an unsanctioned party bar which was definitely jarring and intrusive in several years past. Hope that will be the case even when the street returns.
All in all, this EJF lived up to its theme, “Never Better!”
FAVORITES OLD AND NEW
There were many familiar faces among this year’s invited musicians including Butch Miles, Eddie Metz, Dave Bennett, Joan Collaso, Bill Allred, Jena Mammina, Terry Myers, Pat Mallinger, Jon-Erik Kellso and my continuing favorite and fellow New Jersey-ite, Bucky Pizzarelli.
Remembering back when Bennett was the new kid on the block along with emerging jazz pianist teenage Taylor Eigsti, I have to say that one of the best things about this event is the possibility of walking into a venue and discovering something — or someone — musically new and wonderful.
This was the case with 18-year-old singer/pianist Ariel Pocock, who arrived with a list of major awards already to her credit and a growing reputation, neither of which completely prepared her audiences (which grew substantially as word spread) for her amazing ability at the piano and the microphone. Throughout the weekend, I heard her vocals described as reminiscent of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Joni Mitchell and Carmen Macrae but, bottom line, Ariel Pocock sounds/plays like nobody but herself.
Talking to the slender brunette after a set in the Lerner Ballroom 1 (the larger of the two second floor stages) revealed no sign of ego, just a quiet young lady who began on violin at age 4. “I guess I noodled around on the piano at about 8,” she said. “My teacher made the difference when I started jazz.”
Young Ariel listened to Mel Torme and George Shearing rather than Brittany Spears, she admitted with a chuckle, and declared Seattle “is the best place to be a high school musician.”
The opportunity to travel “is great,” she said enthusiastically, describing Japan as “super cool.” She loves coming to new places and meeting “a lot of musicians,” and admits sometimes she can practice all day and, infrequently, not at all. “But I never heard anyone look back and say I wish I had not practiced.”
Ariel doesn’t ignore the classics which she plays “for technique” and certainly can read music but obviously prefers jazz because “I like to make things up.”
In the fall, she will go from the cool and damp of Washington state to the sun and sand of Florida as a freshman at the University of Miami. The reason for the coastal shift? She will continue studying there with Shelly Berg, who also lists Eigisti among his talented students.
Ariel has another local connection. Her father David, an executive with Yamaha, has been a fan of Elkhart pianist Nicholas Roth for a number of years. It was he who was instrumental in providing the 9-ft. concert grand on which Nick played “Rhapsody in Blue” under the baton of Maestro Robert Spano during the June 16 concert which officially opened the Lerner Theatre.
For any who failed to sit in on at least one of Ariel’s EJF scheduled sets, you can check out her amazing talent on — what else? — YouTube. It won’t be the same, but hopefully she will be back next year for the Elkhart Jazz Festival’s Silver Anniversary celebration.
On Sunday afternoon, Ariel and bass player John Bany joined another festival first-timer and major crowd pleaser, Alfonso Ponticelli Swing Gitan, for a haunting Bany original titled “Gypsy Boy” for which he supplied the bass and she, the vocal.
The quartet, described as “Chicago’s premier gypsy-jazz band” was another group whose following grew throughout the weekend and which, I hope, will return in 2012. With two guitars, one violin and a stand-up bass, Swing Gitan lit a musical fire under a number of old standards as well as several originals. The term “flying fingers” does little to describe the way lead guitarist’s Ponticelli’s digits moved like lightening to deliver “Back Home in Indiana” to an enthusiastic crowd
Not surprisingly, that tune was on the playlists of many varied groups who delivered it in their own styles throughout the weekend. Needless to say, all were received with much applause.