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Mainstream, Free-form Jazz

Despite a health matter that has limited my activities of late, and the pending sale of my condo and purchase of a place in Clearwater, I had to catch at least part of the wonderful New Smyrna Beach Jazz Festival, which is unlike any other festival. The scheduling of Jeff Rupert, one of my two favorite tenor saxophonists, was added incentive.

Across the country and the world, jazz is celebrated with extravaganzas that pay recording stars big fees to perform on stages packed with complex sound systems which blast the music at high decibels to thousands of congregants who care little about America’s great art form and just want to let off steam. That’s good for rock and raucous pop, but not the more intimate stylings of jazz, which is akin to chamber music.

In New Smyrna Beach, a promoter named Marc Monteson had a different idea 23 years ago. A musician himself, he got businesses throughout the seaside town to host jazz groups and open their doors for one weekend a year to folks who come from throughout the area and far beyond to revel in music of rhythmic, harmonic and melodic sounds that grab your attention and leave you satisfied, if not sated.

On this 21st event, moved last year from September to May after two years of Covid cancellation, 21 groups held sway from Friday night through Sunday. Arriving Saturday afternoon after a 2 ½-hour drive, I still managed to catch five of the performances, beginning with the Rich Walker Septet. That’s right, no less than seven estimable musicians gathered on the stage in the two-story, historic Flagler Tavern: piano, bass, drums, percussion, guitar, trumpet and saxophone. And they all came together in numbers ranging from sizzling to soulful and bluesy, with Walker erupting into an arresting vocal outpouring that complemented his abundant skills on the guitar.

Marc Monteson

Meanwhile, up the street at Traders Sports Pub, the like-numbered Tony Wynn’s TR6 Band captured the more visceral instincts of the standing crowd that whooped and cheered the musicians who pranced Spyro Gyra style on the floor at the front while managing to display their formidable musical prowess.

At the Avanu on Flagler, Cigano Swing showed its youthful enthusiasm with eclectic tunes that showcased the talents of three intensely focused young men on acoustic guitars and upright bass. They were relegated to a corner in a narrow upstairs balcony, where only a few people gathered while the music served mainly as background for first-floor patrons engaged mainly in socializing.

Duke Ellington

Clancy’s Cantina, an annual venue for the jazz festival, hosted the James Hall Quartet on this afternoon. Hall, who debuted at last year’s event at age 18, is prodigiously adept at both keyboard and xylophone. The highlight of the gig was a rendering of Ellington’s Caravan, which had the tenor saxophonist stretching the instrument’s limits in tandem with Hall’s high-flying magicianship on the electric keyboard.

Hoagy Carmichael

But the event that had me most enthralled was the Jeff Rupert Quartet at the Grille at Riverview. With the wide Indian River as backdrop, the Rupert ensemble kept diners and drinkers at attention with a potpourri of American songbook standards ranging from the full-blown uptempo to the wistful meanderings of Hoagy Carmichael’s Skylark, along with a few obscure originals by associates. Throughout the three-hour session, Rupert’s passion never ebbed, and one worries whether his heart can stand the intensity, especially since the room was warm before soft river breezes wafted through the wall of open west-side windows in the gloaming.

Next year I’ll be in Clearwater, 20 or so miles north of the artsy St. Petersburg, where the long, one-street downtown is eminently suited for a similar festival. Got to talk to the city fathers and mothers.

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