An Affair To Remember
Updated: May 25
What better way to spend a balmy Sunday afternoon than in a bar called Peanuts, open to the ocean breezes in a quaint Florida beachside town as a jazz clarinetist named Allan Vaché wails tunes from America’s great songbook with a surgeon’s dexterity and an artist’s creativity, eliciting a cornucopia of emotions.
The Vaché quartet was a highlight of the 20th annual New Smyrna Jazz Festival. The event, presented by Marc Monteson Promotions, was revived after Covid claimed it as a victim two consecutive years, and moved from September to May. Jazz fans were dispirited when Monteson announced its termination after the second cancellation, but the master organizer soon had a change of heart and revived the event, scrambling to recruit about 30 groups to perform at a plethora of restaurants, bars and hotels in the city cut in half by the Intracoastal Waterway, or Indian River. Accomplished in a matter of weeks, it was a logistics feat for the books.
Rain canceled the opener Friday night, a concert of New Orleans jazz by the 10-piece U.S. Navy Band Southeast at an amphitheater. But the mostly cloudy skies cooperated on Saturday, and Sunday repeated with the sun smiling down on sidewalks and streets filled with strollers who popped into the plentiful places where jazz held sway throughout the day and night. Several of the gigs were held in covered outdoor patios this year, a concession to Covid.
When this jazz buff first heard about the festival in 2018, his first impression was that it probably consisted of a lot of amateurish musicians getting together for a series of jam sessions. When he arrived and partook of the performances, he was astonished. The quality was of the highest caliber, easily rivaling that of the jazz-rich Miami area, home of one of the country’s premier jazz schools at the University of Miami.
Saxophonists, trumpeters, trombonists, flutists, pianists, bassists, guitarists, drummers and vocalists – all converged on this small, but sprawling, town 20 miles south of Daytona Beach for a weekend of unabashed musical revelry and conviviality as the bars teemed with folks in tee shirts, shorts and floppies, seduced from the streets by the high-energy, but legitimate, music emanating from within.
If there was any consternation, it was from indecision about which of the several bands playing simultaneously in an abundance of spots along the main drag, Flagler Avenue, to hear. Choosing a group to catch became a juggling act, and the best way of handling it was to stay for short periods at all, or most, of them. Of course, having a drink at each could render one incapacitated. Bartenders, however, seemed to understand and didn’t pressure patrons to order. Iced tea, coffee or cranberry juice were alternatives to inebriation. That is unparalleled generosity, especially considering that none of the venues levied a cover charge.
At the ever-popular, two-storied Flagler Tavern, three bands kept audiences enthralled, including the Amy Alysia Jazz Quartet, an all-black outfit headed by fun-loving vocalist Alysia, who kept the mood upbeat throughout with her light-hearted interplay with the band members and the audience. A small group of fans wouldn’t let her go without an encore, and she complied with a rendering of the Dolly Parton/Whitney Houston hit I Will Always Love You that was breathtaking for its power and beauty, leaving a lone woman in tears and yours truly with a lump in his throat.
Another dynamite singer was Danielle Eva, whose effortless stage presence Saturday night at The Grille at Riverview, together with an adept way with a phrase, kept listeners at rapt attention. She infused Over the Rainbow with a commanding passion and winsome, individual style. The three sidemen in the quartet were excellent, with the guitarist displaying his formidable skills in tunes such as the enchanting Nica’s Dream by Horace Silver.
Trying to take in as many groups as possible, this scribe regretted wandering in to Clancy’s Cantina late to catch only the closing minutes of the Greg Parnell Septet, headed by a stellar drummer and fronted by two trumpeters and a trombonist, all with consummate skills displayed to good advantage in the ever-popular Saints Go Marching In. One wondered where such a wealth of musical talent was found, and Monteson answered: Disney World, Universal Studios, Jacksonville, and throughout central and northeastern Florida.
At the Marriott Springhill Suites, for example, the James Hall Trio was headed by an 18-year-old seeming prodigy who hopped Spyro Gyra-style from vibes to keyboard, and occasionally to bongos, captivating a group of folks in an airy, open atrium of the beachside hotel. The Jacksonille youth’s prodigious pianistic talent can be seen at https://www.jameshalljazz.org/.
Another highlight was the John DePaola Quintet at Trader’s Sports Pub. The estimable quintet backed the vivacious song stylings of Suzy Park and Michelle Amato, who held the attention of patrons packing the large tavern for three hours.
Vaché, the only musician playing the difficult clarinet, a mostly vanished instrument in jazz, also kept it going for three hours as the featured member of his quartet, after the previous day’s gig with Kid Dutch and his New Orleans Music at the Flagler Tavern. Vaché has teamed with many of jazz’s greats in performances throughout this country and abroad. Ably backed by a trio featuring the walking bass of Ron Gilotti, Vaché covered the repertoire and the dynamic range, frequently hitting the high C’s, from a joyous rendering of Ellington’s ’SWonderful to the poignant What’s New to Jobim’s dreamily relaxing Corcovado, to the exuberant, high-flying closer showcasing the clarinest’s virtuosity, It's All Right With Me.
We can only hope that more people get their vaccine shots, and May 2023 will see the 21st edition of the New Smyrna Beach Jazz Festival.