Texas Fests Round Up Local Talent
Even after international summer festivals have concluded elsewhere, Texas utilizes its warm-weather advantage to keep the music playing. The state’s wide variety of outdoor autumn jazz events focuses almost exclusively on native talent.
The centerpiece of these events was the three-day Texas Jazz Festival, which bills itself as one of the nation’s oldest free jazz festivals. Against the seaside backdrop of Corpus Christi, Texas, the festival, which drew 75,000 fans on Oct. 19–21, has become one of the state’s most expansive and enjoyable outdoor music events.
The 52nd annual edition of the festival was once again a polished, professional and personable production of more than 55 acts on three stages. The fest continued its mission of showcasing high-quality talent rarely heard outside the region, building its programs primarily around musicians from Corpus Christi, San Antonio, El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley.
Saxophonist Rene Sandoval, the festival’s traditional closing act, is rarely seen outside his South Texas home base, and his performance, full of fluid grace and effortless innovation, is always a major attraction. But it was Texas-born trumpeter Luis Gasca, now based in Mexico, who was the most exciting example of the local music concept in action. Gasca’s unique career accomplishments include working with Stan Kenton, Perez Prado and Janis Joplin, as well as a catalog of his own recordings featuring Joe Henderson, Carlos Santana and Herbie Hancock as sidemen. Powered by an encyclopedic knowledge and stunning command of both classic and contemporary Latin jazz stylings, Gasca’s set featured incisive soloing and enlightened ensemble interaction.
A special homecoming set by pianist Dr. James Polk, who headlined an earlier festival in Austin, was arguably the highlight of the festival. Polk, a Corpus Christi native who spent a decade working with Ray Charles before becoming the godfather of the modern Austin jazz scene, performed at the inaugural Texas Jazz Festival event. More than a half-century later, Polk led his sextet through a diverse, crowd-pleasing set of revised standards with guest vocalist Pam Hart earning a standing ovation for her compelling contributions.
The festival was a brass lover’s paradise. Trombones, in particular, seemed to be unusually dominant in the mix. It was probably the relentless, high-energy set by the Houston-based Texas Brass Band that best showcased the instrument.
Several other well-established Texas-centric jazz productions preceded the Corpus Christi event, most notably the localized festivals in Austin and Houston. Austin’s Zilker Jazz Festival, staged on Oct. 6 in a cozy, hidden-away hillside venue in the same downtown park that hosts the massive Austin City Limits Festival, offered a succinct but superlative bill emphasizing the eclectic nature of the active local scene.
In addition to Polk’s all-star unit, which was reinforced with Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra trombonist Andre Hayward, the event featured the muscular musicality of one of Austin’s most popular instrumental acts: the Black Red Black trio of trumpeter Ephraim Owens, drummer Brannen Temple and organist Red Young. Both Owens and Young were outstanding soloists, but it was Temple, a composer and leader of two other groups, who gave the music its unique shape and form without sacrificing its cerebral funk sensibilities.
The Butch Miles Jazz Express, guided by the former Count Basie drummer, produced a propulsive set of tightly played tunes that benefited greatly from the participation of tenor saxophonist Elias Haslanger as a guest. The Jitterbug Vipers, led by veteran guitar virtuoso Slim Richey, infused some fun into the proceedings with its idiosyncratic brand of psychedelic yet vintage swing anchored by drummer Masumi Jones.
The two-day Kemah Jazz Fest on Sept. 29–30 in Kemah, Texas, endured some rain but still managed to successfully spotlight Houston-area talent, with a few regional ringers thrown in for good measure. Robert Wilson’s University of Houston Downtown jazz program is always front and center in the event, which that gave special attention to vocalists such as Marsha Frazier, Cindy Scott, Horace Grigsby and Julie Wilson. Kemah Jazz Fest also gave young talent such as drummer Mike Davila some major exposure. Sets by longtime stalwarts of the Houston scene, including pianist Bobby Henschen, saxophonist/vocalist David Caceres and trumpeter Dennis Dotson, provided a veteran balance to the bookings.