By Kurt Loft
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St. Petersburg Jazz Festival
Plays to a Fascinating Rhythm
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NEA/Pinellas Recovers Grant Update
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I have two copies of Miles Davis’ landmark post-bop album, Kind of Blue, just in case one wears out before the other. I play the disc every few weeks, and the music seems as alive today as when the group recorded it in 1959.
Improvisational jazz can do that, touching listeners from another generation without the trappings of a passing trend. David Manson believes the best jazz is a timeless conversation, and he shares his passion as director of EMIT, the nonprofit organization now launching its 14th annual St. Petersburg Jazz Festival. The concerts focus on regional artists and those with connections to Florida.
“We want to present music that’s innovative, virtuosic and unique,’’ says Manson, a trombonist and professor of music at St. Petersburg College. “These are our pillars.’’
The indoor, boutique jazz fest emphasizes acoustic instruments in intimate settings – rather than large venues – such as the Palladium Theater and the Museum of Fine Arts. Concerts include a free jazz vocal workshop by singer and educator Alexis Cole, followed by her performance with the Helios Jazz Orchestra, a celebration of Wayne Shorter by the Jason Charos Sextet and the Zach Bartholomew Trio performing music by Chick Corea.
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Although programs have plenty of jazz-buff appeal, Manson says people new to the genre will have a lot to like. It might even change some views about what jazz is – and isn’t.
“The jazz world is a small niche and a lot of people have a preconceived idea about it,’’ he adds. “There are always jazz lovers at our concerts, but we also want to tap into people who might not be familiar with the music, and to expand that audience.’’
EMIT has been expanding its base for a quarter century. Since its inception in 1995, the organization has produced more than 500 concerts and educational activities around the Tampa Bay area. It also has given $250,000 to local musicians for concerts, workshops and general assistance.
The festival offers an open platform for artistic views and to share music many people wouldn’t hear live. One artist who enjoys the EMIT forum is Bartholomew, an award-winning pianist, composer and professor of music at Florida Memorial University in Miami Gardens. His trio concert February 24 will explore the complexities of Corea’s music and its mix of straight-ahead jazz, fusion, Afro-Cuban, classical, Brazilian and other styles.
“His music is special to me because he’s able to take all of these elements and influences and make music that sounds extremely personal,’’ Bartholomew says of Corea. “When I hear his music and don’t know the song or artist, normally within a few seconds I can say to myself, ‘hey, that’s Chick Corea on piano,’ because his percussive touch, musical playfulness and compositional style are easy to identify.’’
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Like Bartholomew, Manson is a multifaceted musician who composes, conducts and performs, having sharpened his chops playing in three symphony orchestras and teaching jazz studies at Indiana State University. After returning to Florida in 1989, he played in a number of festivals and groups, include Bogus Pomp, a rare ensemble approved to play the music of avant-garde rocker Frank Zappa.
But the Tampa Bay area never was a jazz hub, and Manson realized a need to support struggling musicians at the local level. He found a calling in the St. Petersburg Jazz Festival, funded by EMIT and state and local art grants. Soon, new opportunities for artists opened up – and a larger role for Manson.
“It was never my plan to be a presenter of concerts or to direct a nonprofit organization,’’ he says. “I just wanted to play the trombone, compose and lead a simple life. That was a pipe dream.’’
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Thanks to Manson’s desire for something more than a simple life, the local music scene has become richer, says Bob Seymour, longtime jazz director at WUSF radio and now host of Jazz in the Night on WMNF.
“David has been responsible for so much great music in ‘The Burg,’ and has an amazing track record curating this festival,’’ he says. “Every time, it’s a vibrant series of concerts, always memorable and among the year’s brightest musical moments.’’
The festival and EMIT keep Manson at a quick tempo. Along with his duties at St. Petersburg College, where he teaches courses in music appreciation, digital technology and jazz band, he’s working on a new recording, and composing music for a concert at the Salvador Dalí Museum in March.
At home, he listens to his collection of jazz standards, big bands and contemporary sounds, and admits a special fondness for the Brazilian singer Elis Regina.
Among all this music, I had to ask – Is there a favorite recording?
“Kind of Blue,’’ he says without hesitating. “It’s a timeless recording that’s regarded by musicians in all genres as a masterpiece for its nuanced interplay. Every time that I listen to it, it sounds fresh to me. It’s my ‘island choice.’ ’’
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St. Petersburg Jazz Festival schedule
Free Vocal Jazz Workshop
with Alexis Cole
Wednesday, February 22, noon to 1:30 pm, HS 109, St. Petersburg College, 6605 5th Ave. North in St. Petersburg. Free.
Cole has been compared to classic jazz singers such as Sarah Vaughan and Anita O’Day. Her luxurious voice and innovative interpretations won her a Swing Journal Gold Disk award and top honors of the NY Jazzmobile and Montreux Jazz Festival. She will talk about singing in this interactive workshop.
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Alexis Cole and the Helios Jazz Orchestra
Thursday, February 23, 7:30 pm, Palladium Theater, 253 5th Ave. N., St. Petersburg; $25.
Cole sings with the 18-member Helios ensemble, led by Manson. Some of the tunes on tap include New York State of Mind, Sway, For All We Know, Here’s That Rainy Day, Pure Imagination, Almost Like Being in Love, and Blackbird.
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Zach Bartholomew Trio
a Chick Corea Tribute
Friday, February 24, 7:30 pm, St. Petersburg Museum of Fine Arts, 255 Beach Dr. N., St. Petersburg; $25.
Bartholomew joins percussionist Paul Gavin and bassist Mauricio Rodriguez in a varied program of popular and lesser-known works by Corea.
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Jason Charos Sextet
Celebrating Wayne Shorter
Saturday, February 25, 7:30 pm, American Stage, 163 3rd St. N., St. Petersburg; $25.
A Miami-based jazz trumpeter, Charos and his group pay tribute to the compositions and saxophone playing of Shorter, who participated in some of the major changes in jazz music over four decades and received nine Grammy Awards for his recordings.
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EMIT is a recipient of the Pinellas Recovers Grant,
provided by Creative Pinellas through a grant from the
National Endowment of the Arts American Rescue Plan.
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