Thursday marks the beginning of the 40th annual Tri-C JazzFest. As in years past, the festival mixes well-known national names with talented local and regional artists and students and a couple of tributes to important music figures with Cleveland roots.
The tributes to influential locals consists of the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, with honeyed multi-Grammy-winning vocalist Dianne Reeves paying tribute to the late arranger, composer and Clevelander Tadd Dameron on Friday night at the Ohio Theatre.
And then on Saturday, also at the Ohio Theatre, will be a tribute to singer, songwriter and composer Bobby Womack featuring bassist Christian McBride.
McBride, a Philadelphia native who’s earned six Grammys, was a prominent figure among the new generation of young, slick-suit-wearing players dubbed the “Young Lions” who raised jazz’s commercial and media profile in the late 1980s and early '90s along with others such as trumpeter Roy Hargrove and saxophonist Joshua Redman.
McBride’s resume is ridiculous. He has performed and/or recorded with several generations of legends including Sonny Rollins, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock and Joe Henderson as well as his peers including Redman and Chris Potter. McBride has also regularly crossed genre lines backing up folks such as Queen Latifah, Paul McCartney and Sting.
Currently, the always busy McBride, who is also the artistic director for the venerable Newport Jazz Festival, has several working groups: Christian McBride’s Big Band, the fiery quartet Christian McBride’s New Jawn, the avant-funk collective A Christian McBride Situation and Tip City, a drummer-less trio featuring local guitar man Dan Wilson and pianist Emmet Cohen.
For the Womack tribute, McBride will be leading a band that includes vocalists Avery Sunshine, Nona Hendryx and Nigel Hall along with guitarist Wilson and McBride's Big Band drummer Quincy Phillips, plus a group of area professionals chosen by JazzFest director Terri Pontremoli, who tapped McBride for the gig. McBride, a lifelong Womack fan, is looking forward to paying tribute and playing at a festival he enjoys.
“You get to know people when you come to a city on a regular or semi-regular basis,” McBride said from his home in New Jersey.
“You tend to see the similar faces and you get to become friends and they trust you and you know they are going to come and support the music and there’s always a welcoming feeling and with that you can create and play the gig with some extra ooomph!"
Always a fan
McBride grew up listening to Womack’s music and says the musician, who died at 70 in 2014, was always impressive to him.
“Bobby was a rare triple threat in terms of the soul and R&B world,” McBride said. “There weren’t too many people who were great vocalists, great instrumentalist and great writers. Bobby has always been one of my favorite musicians.”
Womack was always highly respected among musicians, industry folks, and soul aficionados.
The man who wrote “It’s All Over Now,” most famously covered by the Rolling Stones, also played on several of Aretha Franklin’s classic Atlantic albums, wrote “Trust Me” for Janis Joplin, and “Breezin’ ” (a big hit for George Benson).
He also wrote and performed the blaxploitation classic, “Across 110th Street,” as well as solo hits from his chart-topping 1976 R&B album “Poet,” led by the ballad “If You Think You’re Lonely Now.” He also collaborated with Damon Albarn's hip, animated group Gorillaz. And still, he doesn't quite get his due from casual fans.
“I think Bobby came up in the era of Sam Cooke [with whom he toured] and Ray Charles and Wilson Pickett and James Brown and Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and [then] the whole disco era of the late '70s. I think to find your own space in the middle of all that it's very difficult,” McBride said.
“I don’t think, I could be wrong, but I don’t think it bothered Bobby so much because he knew how important he was and everyone on the inside knew how important he was. Everybody from the Rolling Stones on down had recorded his music and Bobby’s making money, so as long as he was making money, I’m sure he was like, 'I don’t need to be the marquee superstar, just give me that check,' ” he said laughing.
McBride said he doesn’t feel the need to jazz up the tunes and plans not to deviate too far from Womack’s arrangements, “maybe a sprinkle here and there but we’re going to stick to what people know,” he said.
In addition to his busy gig schedule and artistically directing the upcoming Newport Jazz Festival, McBride found time to help out one of the Younger Lions coming up behind him.
“I’m actually producing the debut album of our homeboy,” he said referring to producing guitarist Wilson’s next album. McBride first heard Wilson several years ago through his long association with Terri Pontremoli, who he knew from her days directing the Detroit Jazz Festival.
“I came as an artist in residence and Terri said, ‘You have got to meet Dan Wilson. You guys have to play together. In fact, I’m going to set it up so you guys can play a couple of tunes together,’ ” McBride recalled.
“And I said, ‘Whoa, whoa, wait a minute. Don’t be settin’ up no sets with somebody I don’t even know.’ She said, ‘Trust me. I’ve never led you wrong. You're going to love this guy.’ And we played at this bowling alley in Cleveland [Mahall’s], and we played two songs and she was more than right. Then when I heard Dan play, my eyes popped out of my head like, ‘DAMN!’ ”
Aside from the Womack and Dameron tribute concerts, other national acts performing include, on Thursday, my Oakland homeboys Tower of Power, who’ve been purveyors of horn-fueled funk for a half-century.
Friday night features the return of the classic lineup of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, featuring the eclectic banjo virtuoso alongside influential mega-bassist Victor Wooten, percussionist Roy “Futureman” Wooten and pianist Howard Levy, coupled with jazz-funk guitar legend John Scofield's Combo 66.
Also on Saturday, jazz violinist Regina Carter teams up with pianist Xavier Davis for what should be an exploratory evening of melodic improvisation. And smooth jazz pianist Jeff Lorber corrals three saxophonists — Michael Lington, Vincent Ingala and Paul Taylor — for “Sax to the Max,” an evening of jazz, funk and soul. For the full schedule of events during the Tri-C JazzFest, point your interweb machine to www.tri-cjazzfest.com.
Malcolm X Abram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-996-3758. Like him on Facebook at http://on.fb.me/1lNgxml, and follow him on Twitter @malcolmabramABJ.