Review: Songs & Sounds of the Harlem Renaissance

My wife and I had a wonderful Jazz Night Out when we saw the latest installment of JAG’s Jazz at the Lincoln series, “Songs & Sounds of the Harlem Renaissance,” at the Lincoln Theatre on January 18th (Photo by Stephen Pariser). This sold out extravaganza truly realized series organizer Pete Mills’ vision of “Columbus celebrating the music of the Harlem Renaissance,” with Columbus talent putting their own twists and turns on legendary tunes. This last official event of “I, Too, Sing America: The Harlem Renaissance at 100” was built on the template of JAG’s very successful “Ladies Sing the Blues: Songs & Sounds of The Harlem Renaissance,” presented in February 2017. But as Mills told me, he wanted to expand the outlook of this event with an additional focus on talented Columbus musicians as well as up-and-coming stars, as well as an eye to Columbus’ own storied jazz history and future. Keep reading for my thoughts on this stellar concert.

The house band kicked off the 90-minute program with a spotlight on Duke Ellington with his buoyant “Take The ‘A’ Train,” jumpstarted by a soulful solo intro by organist Jon Eshelman and more great solos from the professional house band, especially trumpeter Dwight Adams and tenor saxophonist Eddie Bayard, who Mills told me was asked back after he “blew the roof off the joint” at this fall’s “Tenor Titans of the Capital City” concert. At this point, host Angela Pace introduced herself and got started informing and entertaining the crowd. Next, the Columbus Youth Jazz Orchestra shared their own takes on Duke, with Mark Donavan directing the ensemble through a swinging, growling (excellent bass trombone work!) “Koko” and a dynamic “Sepia Panorama” featuring a high-flying passage from pianist Abhik Mazumder. Then the evening’s quartet of vocalists joined the proceedings, with Amber Knicole (Mojoflo) offering a sultry, engrossing “Stormy Weather,” Jeanette Williams taking “God Bless The Child” to a deep, resonant place, Rachel Azbell issuing harnessed emotion on “Good Morning Heartache,” and Mary McClendon returning to Ellington, with “Come Sunday” a timeless showcase of solemn style.

The program continued with more features for the CYJO members – Mazumder’s solo run through Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin” was a graceful Sunday stroll that ascended to explosive heights. A focus on Waller extended to “Jitterbug Waltz,” which found the classic descending melody tackled by Mazumder and CYJO colleagues Devin Coons (tenor sax) and Miles Smith (trumpet) with joyous reverence. The vocalists then returned for passionate features, especially a barnburning, testifying “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out” by the powerful Knicole. McClendon was paired with Bayard for a zesty and focused “How High The Moon,” Pace returned for a presentation on Columbus jazz history, and Williams was shouting the blues out front of “Everyday I Have The Blues,” which was also bolstered by a fiery Adams. Pace then offered more history before the two-part finale of classic tunes that share roots – “Summertime” and “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child.” Azbell and Williams offered classic verses on the former, helped by low-end power from the bass and trombone in the ensemble. Knicole and McClendon opened the latter with mournful emotion paired with Eshelman’s sparse organ, before the full ensemble returned for one more blowout. There were epic solos from Bayard, Adams, and especially the CYJO’s Miles Smith, who didn’t back down following Adams but instead dug deep and unleashed a deep, emotive, screaming passage! The three horns then traded bars, drummer Reggie Jackson offered some hard-hitting breaks, and a joyful, cooled out conclusion followed.

This was an epic night of entertainment and education featuring Columbus’ finest of the present and future firing on all cylinders! Congrats to JAG, especially organizers Mills and Zach Compston – hope to see another night celebrating the jazz tradition and our local contributions very soon!

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