Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Jazztown USA - The Iowa City Jazz Festival

  • © Andrea Canter

    I grew up in Iowa City, a Big Ten university town halfway between Minneapolis and St. Louis, Chicago and Omaha. My high school back in the 60s had a jazz band (“Rocky and the Squirrels”). I imagine the university also had a jazz band although I don’t recall hearing about it then. I didn’t discover the Iowa City Jazz Festival until 2001, and then it was quite by accident during a visit with my parents on a July weekend. I was downtown for some other reason, and came upon a crowd gathered around a stage in the intersection of two main streets, flanked by a few small concessions tents. Pat Martino and his quartet were performing. This was my first introduction to Martino as well as my first hint that Iowa City had become a jazz haven. Where had I been for the previous ten years? An avid jazz fan throughout the 90s and beyond, how did I miss the fact that my home town held this festival every July?

    The Iowa City Jazz Festival never escaped my attention again, and I have made it five times in the past seven years. Each year the festival seems just a bit stronger than the last. Why does this festival seem to work so well, garnering national attention? Iowa City is a unique environment, a city of 60,000 with the cultural amenities of urban centers of 600,000. It’s built around a large public university that boasts an internationally renowned Writers Workshop and highly regarded School of Music and theater departments. Then there’s Steve Grismore, guitarist, jazz faculty, and director of the festival since its modest beginnings in 1991. And sponsorship—the Iowa City Jazz Festival is supported by the city itself as well as perennial funder Toyota Scion of Iowa City and numerous other sponsors who ensure the annual event’s success. The festival is now part of the Iowa City Summer of the Arts, a series of cultural events that benefit from university and city support.

    Another rather unique aspect of the ICJF is its leanings toward modern jazz and world music. At past festivals I have heard for the first time the music of Patricia Barber, Henry Threadgill, Dapp Theory, Dave Berkman, Don Byron and Jacob Fred Oddysey; observed the creation of loops as Robin Eubanks performed in a trombone quintet with four electronic clones; enjoyed The Bad Plus, Geoffrey Keezer, Kenny Garrett, Buster Williams, Terell Stafford, Ron Miles, Conrad Herwig and Eric Alexander.

    There’s only one main stage in Iowa City, now planted on the partially shaded greenery of The Pentacrest, a confluence of the original university administration and classroom buildings that surround the gold-domed Old Capital, the state’s first capital building. It’s a charming setting for music and a stunning backdrop for fireworks. And there is no sonic competition—three side stages for high school, college and community bands are only in action between main stage sets.

    Did I mention the festival food? Another unique aspect about Iowa City is the gourmet concessions corridor, where you can get falafel, masaam curry, and African stews along with the obligatory pizza, smoothies and funnel cakes.

    The 2009 festival was a 21st century jazz fan’s “all you can eat” buffet. I was not able to get in for Friday night’s headliner, David Sanchez. But we managed the rest of the weekend:

  • Orquestra Alto Maiz, an Iowa-based Latin ensemble with four percussionists rotating among the cajon, timbales, and congas and a brass section that fired one volley after another.

  • Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue, a funky volcano of sound coming from a band of 20-somethings, led by trombonist/ trumpeter/ vocalist Troy “Shorty” Andrews, surely one of the most charismatic young bandleaders around. Unexpected delight was the impromptu appearance of trombone master Robin Eubanks, in a day early for his performance with Dave Holland.

  • Lionel Loueke Trio, led by West African guitarist/vocalist Loueke. After Shorty and company, the set was almost too mellow, the vocalizations mirrored in the pedal effects and vice versa, creating a songful breeze from African forests.

  • Bob Levy and the J.O. Trio, with a veteran trumpeter playing through mostly original compositions that favored his warm vibrato and talented young cohorts.

  • Chris Potter’s Underground, surely one of the best of modern small ensembles, with Craig Taborn on Fender Rhodes, Adam Rogers on guitar and Nate Smith on drums. Potter originals dominated the set, as did his virtuosic soloing (on tenor and soprano) that sets him apart from most every saxophonist in the current sea of virtuosic saxophonists. Taborn dissected themes and variations as high art; Rogers has one of the most musical approaches to modern guitar; and Smith is a power house that never overpowers.

  • The Bill Frisell Quartet, an ambient, relaxed interlude between two incendiary ensembles and a welcome opportunity to again hear the trumpet magic of Ron Miles as well as the lyrical side of Frisell.

  • The Dave Holland Quintet, demonstrating why it repeatedly tops DownBeat polls, the leader one of the living legends of jazz bass as well as a dominating force in modern composition. The Quintet is a long standing collaboration among musicians who are held in high esteem by peers as well as audiences, and including two from Underground, Potter and Smith, along with ubiquitous master Robin Eubanks on trombone and the ever-enchanting Steve Nelson on vibes. It was a sizzling end to the festival.

    Did I mention all this is free? I’ll be back in 2010.

Photos (top-bottom): Chris Potter blows soprano with Adam Rogers; Nate Smith kept busy with both Underground and the Holland Quintet; Dave Holland (black and white? the deeply orange lights were a bit much!). Photos by Andrea Canter at the 2009 Iowa City Jazz Festival.