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Local Musicians Add Flavor To the Sauce At Tri-C JazzFest

For fans of improvised music in the Black American tradition, the arrival of Tri-C JazzFest to Playhouse Square with a roster of artists including Herbie Hancock, Christian McBride and phenomenal shooting-star vocalist Samara Joy is hands down the biggest week of the year.

The touring artists whose shelves are heavy with Grammy Awards and other honors deservedly grab the clicks and dominate the buzz, but for dozens of musicians from throughout Northeast Ohio, JazzFest will be the biggest gig of their year. For some of them, it will be the biggest opportunity of their young careers.

I talked to three local musicians who will be among the dozens who will perform under the Playhouse Square chandelier on JazzFest’s outdoor stages. Two of them are JazzFest veterans while two are making their debut performances (don’t worry; the math will work out). All three have an association with Cuyahoga Community College, which has sponsored the festival since it began as a two-day event in 1980.

Ava Preston

Ava Preston is a unicorn. When Preston walked onstage earlier this month to receive her diploma from Solon High School, she already had an associate degree thanks to classes she took through the College Credit Plus program at Tri-C and Kent State, where she’ll enter as a senior this fall. “I’m really passionate about music and about my studies,” she told me last week in what might be the understatement of the year. “I try to work hard and achieve what I want to achieve.”

Ava PrestonThat list of achievements will grow a little longer Saturday when Preston makes her JazzFest debut as a leader. She’ll front a quintet of players who, like her, were part of Tri-C’s extensive educational programs. Preston started at Tri-C at 11 years of age, right around the time she made her first gigs as a professional. “I felt surrounded by a bunch of like-minded musicians and the teachers were incredible,” she said. “They made you feel like you had a place within their program no matter what skill level you were at. It was an amazing experience and I felt like it made me a better person.”

Preston was a longtime member of the Spirit of the Groove band, which made a New York debut  last month at Jazz@Lincoln Center’s Dizzy’s Club. The band is led by Tri-C’s Dominick Farinacci, whom Preston credits with teaching her not only how to be a musician, but also a composer, bandleader and entrepreneur. Technically the Spirit program ends for students when they graduate from high school. So Preston’s Friday gig at JazzFest’s NextGen stage will be her swan song with the band, though she has a busy summer of gigs lined up.

Blessed with boundless talent and ambition, Preston could have chosen to be the next Taylor Swift. While she has written songs in what she calls  “a more indie style,” jazz remains paramount. “I feel like jazz is one of the most powerful, sort of raw, emotive art forms. “When I improvise, when I play the chord progressions that I want to play, I feel like this music has such a beautiful community. And I feel like everybody is lifting each other up.”


Nathan-PaulSaxophonist Nathan-Paul can’t remember his first JazzFest gig, though he places it between eight and 10 years ago. “I’ve played it with like three or four different bands, maybe once or twice before with my band. You can’t blame the busy saxophonist for the memory lapse. He is one of the region’s busiest musicians with a series of recordings, sideman appearances with Hubb’s Groove, Wesley Bright & The Honeytones and with his own band, Nathan-Paul and the Admirables.

On Saturday the Akron-based band has the coveted 8 p.m. spot on Playhouse Square’s Outdoor Stage with a lineup of trumpeter Tommy Lehman, whose own band will play the preceding set, Lucas Kadish on guitar, bassist Matthew DeRubertis and Gabe Jones on drums (though when I talked to Nathan-Paul Sunday, he wouldn’t rule out a guest appearance by drummer Zaire Darden).

“We’re essentially a dance band,” the saxophonist said of his music, which he calls “sound medicine.” He added that “I just always thought with music, you dance, regardless. That’s what you do with music.”

This year, he is doing something different with music: teaching it, at one of the Tri-C camps that will precede JazzFest. The students in his class are as young as 11, the age, coincidentally, when Nathan-Paul began playing. In his estimation, it’s a perfect time to start. “That age group is still not completely overwhelmed with cell phones yet,” he observed.

With any kind of luck—and inspiration from a successful teacher—the Tri-C campers will become overwhelmed with music, as Nathan-Paul has. “I’ve come to the conclusion that music’s just the breath of life,” he said. “I mean, maybe when God created everything it was actually as if you could go and hear it. Maybe it wasn’t words. It was music.”

Quentin Johnson

Quentin JohnsonOne of the 11-year-olds in Nathan-Paul’s camp is Quentin Johnson, who makes his JazzFest debut Friday. Though he only began playing the alto saxophone two years ago, the JazzFest audience won’t even be the largest he’s experienced this year. That one numbered in the tens of thousands at Progressive Field who heard Johnson and his St. Dominic School bandmates play the national anthem at a Guardians game.

“I was really nervous because there were so many people,” he said on a video call from his home in South Euclid. “But if I messed up, I knew it wouldn’t be that major because there would be more people there with me.”

Johnson will have a lot of people onstage with him at JazzFest, too. His Friday gig will be with a little big band with two trumpets, two trombones, a rhythm section and the five-piece saxophone section of which he’ll be a part. They’ll play “The ‘In’ Crowd,” popularized by the late pianist Ramsey Lewis, the classic “Somwehere” and Wayne Shorter’s “Speak No Evil,” pretty hip stuff for 11-year-olds.

I asked Johnson what he learned from Nathan-Paul, whom he called “Mr. Davis.” “Probably that  the best way to practice is to  go over a bar or two over and over again and then once you master that, go to the next so you don’t play a whole song really sloppy. Instead, take your time and go bar by bar and just try mastering that bar and then just keep going.”

Sound advice from one pro to a potential future pro, just one of many that make JazzFest week a circle-the-date event in Cleveland for 44 years.

44th Annual Tri-C Jazz Fest, June 22-24 at Playhouse Square, Cleveland. A full schedule of ticketed events and buying information are available here.

Trading Fours

Tri-C JazzFest is deservedly the big news of the week, but it’s a measure of the health of the NEO scene that even its shadow, there are other worthy events to check out. Here are four of the most intriguing.

Tuesday, June 20, 7 p.m.
BOP STOP, 2920 Detroit Rd., Cleveland (tickets)

The Hebrew word teiku might be most effectively translated as an agreement to disagree, a discussion that no one wins. Hey, a lot of improvised music works that way, no? The Detroit quartet or wind player Rafael Leafar, pianist Josh Harlow, drummer Jonathan Barahal Taylor and all-world bassist Jaribu Shahid (!) will hash it out at this intriguing New Ghosts show at BOP STOP. Who wins? You do, if you’re there.

Music Of Mulgrew Miller with the Theron Brown Trio
Friday, June 23, 8 p.m.
BOP STOP, 2920 Detroit Rd., Cleveland (tickets)

Since his untimely passing ten years ago (can it be?) at age at 57, Mulgrew Miller’s influence only grows with time. A pianist who asserted solid integrity in a dizzying variety of contexts, Miller was deeply grounded in the blues and gospel music. That description might easily apply to our own Theron Brown, and makes him and his trio of Jordan McBride and Zigg Darden ideal keepers of the flame that Miller lit.

John Daversa and Tal Cohen
Saturday, June 24, 8 p.m.
BOP STOP, 2920 Detroit Rd., Cleveland (tickets)

The image on the cover of The Art of Duo Volume One by trumpeter and EVI player John Daversa and pianist Tal Cohen, features an engraving of 19th century boxers squaring off, but don’t let that scare you. The musicians are colleagues at the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami (full disclosure: this writer’s alma mater), and their rapport is as stimulating as it is warmhearted. They’re a good choice for the main event at the intimate Hingetown club.

Saturday, June 24, 8 p.m.
The Treelawn Social Club, 15335 Waterloo Rd., Cleveland (tickets)

Let’s play a word association game for yet another New Ghosts show: I say Shane Parish and you say? American primitive guitar, maybe. Trevor Dunn? Easy. Mr. Bungle. So what are these guys doing on a blog nominally about jazz? Their band Aleuchatistas with drummer Danny Piechocki draws from that tradition as well as punk and prog and a dozen other strains. And it’s named after a Charlie Parker tune. What more do you want?

Information for this section came from Jim Szabo’s essential, weekly Northeast Ohio jazz calendar , NEO’s most complete list of jazz and jazz-adjacent events.


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