REVIEW: Beantown Jazz Festival

Photo: Phil Farnsworth

Considering that hurricane-driven rain closed down last year's event, you couldn't have asked for better weather than the mid-60s sunshine bathing Colombus Ave last Saturday afternoon for the signature outdoor portion of the Berklee BeanTown Jazz Festival. Because, let's face it, when it comes to free outdoor music, you're there as much for the stroll and the hang as for the sounds.

In this case, the stroll featured scores of food and crafts vendors from Mass Ave to Burke Street, including the inimitable Big Moe's BBQ (with possibly the best street-food motto ever: "Eat well. Stay fit. Die anyway"). The hang highlight was the tented Target Instrument Petting Zoo, where Berklee staff tried to maintain their sanity as kids banged on drums and marimbas, sawed away at violins and cellos, and sawed and plucked double basses. Sorry, no trumpet or saxophone unless you bring your own mouthpiece - that's a lot of spit-transfer for an impending flu season! It wasn't just the under-12 set who got into it, either; one Berklee prof told me that a couple of full-grown men nearly went at it during a dispute over who was up next at the electric keyboard.

Among the late-afternoon sets, drummer Yoron Israel led a classy tribute to R&B/jazz sax great David "Fathead" Newman (who died in January). Israel backed Newman for 12 years, and he brought an all-star line-up Saturday: saxophonists Bill Easley and Howard Johnson, trombonist Curtis Fuller, trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater, pianist Dave Leonhardt, and bassist John Menegon. Johnson brought warmth and heft to his "Here Comes Sunny Man" (a staple of the Newman band with Johnson). And Easley cranked up the heat with testifying repeated phrases on the Newman standard "Hard Times."

Meanwhile, at the Target Stage, you could hear Henry Mancini's "Pink Panther" theme played by the guy who invented it, tenor saxophonist Plas Johnson. Johnson proved resourceful, bringing his cozy-vibrato tone to bear in elaborate, Rollins-like improvisations on this and Ruby and the Romantics' 1957 hit "Our Day Will Come."

Johnson was part of the Defenders of the Groove project that also includes Philly singer Ernie Andrews. Dapper in cap, navy-blue suit, red-and-blue striped tie, and red pocket handkerchief, Andrews, at 81, sounded robust and youthful, not a hint of tarnish on his baritone as he delivered the blues in the urbane tradition of Basie vocalists like Joe Williams and Jimmy Rushing.

Photo: Phil Farnsworth
Marcus Santos and Bloco AfroBrazil

Not bad for a day that also included Marcus Santos's Bloco AfroBrazil's samba drum corps taking to the street, Jane Bunnett's cool Cuban jazz, Joe Louis Walker's Chicago blues, Donald Harrison's New Orleans jazz, Eguie Castrillo's super-charged mambo, and seven other bands. Berklee is a bottomless resource for the city's music scene - the BeanTown Fest has to rank as one of its sweetest gifts.

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