It was a continuing pleasure to be present at the closing Saturday night concert of Wilmington’s 40th annual North Carolina Jazz Festival held before an enthusiastic audience downtown at The Ballast Hotel. Most of the same artists who performed on the previous nights, and reviewed by myself and my colleague Barry Salwen, were featured in two sets of different combinations. This made for an interesting and creative evening of music, which of course is the essential essence of jazz!

Fittingly, drummer Chris Gelb opened the first set with the upbeat Dixieland number “Blue Turning Grey Over You” (Fats Waller) featuring dynamic solos by bassist Nicki Parrott, the legendary Houston Person on tenor saxophone and trumpeter Bruce Harris. The set continued with a more “modern” jazz theme with a medium, somewhat Latin tempo and laidback version of “Bye-Ya” (Thelonious Monk 1952) featuring an exciting violin solo from the award-winning Jonathan Russell.

One of the highlights of the evening turned out to be Gelb’s demonstration of an early (circa 1920’s) top or rhythm cymbal manufactured by the Ludwig Drum Company. This was a small three or four-pronged solid brass rhythm “cymbal” that was used on early jazz recordings in the 1920’s and has morphed into the present-day jazz ride cymbals. However, the most interesting aspect was when Gelb played the “device” and soloed on his drum-set at the closing of his portion of the first set; it rather had the effect of deadening the “swing” usually heard in jazz music.

It would be misleading to describe the second portion of the evening as a solo “piano interlude.” Rather, it was a non-stop, thirty-minute homage to swing and bebop delivered by the stride-style maestro, Italian pianist Rossano Sportiello. Other reviewers have posited that Sportiello makes “notes tumble from the piano like a river of pearls or float upwards out of the piano as if they were iridescent bubbles.” His performance including excerpts from the Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart 1930s superb classics such as “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” “My Romance,” and “How Witty” were blended cleverly into Willie the Lion Smith’s “Echo of Spring.” After playing a few delightful vignettes from The Sound of Music (Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein), he closed with a classical Chopin C-sharp minor waltz at the end of which the “true” Sportiello kicked in with his own rendition of Chopin!

The set concluded with Chuck Redd on vibraphone leading multi-faceted group. Their innovative version of “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars” (Antonio Carlos Jobim) in celebration of the composer’s 93rd birthday was a highlight for all bossa nova aficionados. This also provided a familiar improvisational vehicle for the incredibly talented soloists, in particular tenor saxophonist Person who is well known for his inventive riffs. The combination of Nate Najar on guitar and Redd on vibes made for a very smooth, swinging version of “I Thought About You” (Jimmy Van Heusen). An interesting and unusually skillful duet between bassist and vocalist Parrott and pianist/vocalist Champion Fulton was a highlight of this set, and great fun! In Australian Parrott’s terms, the duo reveled in the ‘mushup’ of “Moonglow” and “Blue Moon,” noted by Fulton to be characterized in the US as a ‘mashup’!

One of the joys of a multi-day jazz festival is that one is able to socialize with the musicians and get to know about their styles of playing and thus better appreciate their performances. This was particularly evident during the final two and a half hours of their concert where the respect of the lively audience and the players was so palpable as to become almost a mutually inspired jam session!

It was also a pleasure to see and hear our Wilmington colleague and superb bassist Herman Burney playing and directing the late-night jam session of the festival. Essentially, Burney had the audience participating in concert with his companion star performers of the evening, to wit multi-instrumentalist Adrian Cunningham, trumpeter Ben Polcer, trombonist Dick Tucker, violinist Russell, guitarist Najar, pianist Sportiello, bassist and vocalist Parrott and drummer Redd. Altogether a most satisfying festival.

As this reviewer opined in the earlier review of the Thursday night concert, this highly successful festival could not have taken place without the dedication of Sandy Evans and her team of hard-working volunteer event management team, school volunteers and generous sponsors. Flowing from 40 years of musical accomplishments, the 41st annual North Carolina Jazz Festival promises to be as successful in 2021!