Since its inception in 1998, Christopher Newport University’s Ella Fitzgerald Music Festival has set the standard for live jazz in southeastern Virginia. The 9th annual get-together in April is bigger than ever, with an extra night of international headliners on tap this time around. Best of all, ticket prices are lower than they were last year, both on a per-show basis and for a full-series festival pass.
The probable reason for the lower ticket prices is the expanded capacity offered by the new 1,700-seat Concert Hall in the Ferguson Center for the Arts. This will be the first Ella Fest since the Hall opened and three of the four concerts are slated for this beautiful, acoustically tuned setting. However, just like last year when Ann Hampton Callaway stole the show on opening night, this season’s opener in the intimate 440-seat Music & Theatre Hall will be a hard act to follow.
Kurt Elling kicks the festival off on Wednesday, April 5th, singing with the CNU Jazz Ensembles. Elling has been to this area before in small group settings at ODU and Jazz on Granby, and he is a mesmerizing live performer, genuinely unique and engaging. When he first started singing jazz, he worshipped at the altar of jive-talkin’ forebear Mark Murphy, but he’s evolved into a true one-of-a-kind artist. His pairing with the student groups should make for an inspired evening. I have been especially impressed with what CNU’s Director of Jazz Studies, Bill Brown, has done with the university’s big band, and Choral Director Lauren Fowler has put together a jazz vocal group that moves effortlessly from a Manhattan Transfer/New York Voices harmonic blend to poppier wait-staff-on-a-cruise sensibilities. Tickets to the Wednesday show are only $10.00 for an upclose and personal evening that will surely be the best deal in town this spring.
Thursday night is Latin night, as the festival explodes into the big room in a hail of Caribbean fireworks. Legendary pianist Eddie Palmieri opens the double bill. His last album Listen Here! was a monster and a Grammy nominee, and he’s been at the top of the Latin jazz world for nearly fifty years. When he was last here at Town Point Park in 2002, the skies literally ignited with thunder and lightning and the rains washed out his scheduled performance. He’ll share the Thursday stage with Tiempo Libre, a young band of Cuban expatriates whose first CD, Arroz Con Mango, is up for a Grammy in the salsa/meringue category.
The Count Basie Orchestra keeps the energy level up on Friday, April 7th in another dream matchup with vocalist Patti Austin. Austin, who has worked often with the Basie bunch, has a lengthy resume in R&B, pop and jazz, and is the godchild of Quincy Jones and Dinah Washington. She’s a powerful, versatile singer whose For Ella album a few years back was a standout. And though the Count died in 1984, his namesake band still swings like nobody else.
The biggest name at this year’s festival is Saturday night’s closer, saxophonist Branford Marsalis. The most adventurous member of the Big Easy’s first family of jazz and the oldest of pianist Ellis Marsalis’ four sons, Branford is always exploring new directions. You never know what he’s got up his sleeve---he’s played with Sting, the Grateful Dead, Bruce Hornsby, Bela Fleck and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, and has a string of recordings under his own name that covers a wide swath from Jelly Roll Morton to hip-hoppy LeFonque. Whether he’s tackling John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” putting his personal stamp on oft-heard standards, leading his quartet through a set of originals or joining forces with fellow N’Orleanian Harry Connick, Jr., for a musical duet to raise money for their hometown’s homeless, he is always fascinating, intelligent and entertaining. His quartet is one of the best bands working in acoustic jazz today.
Tickets go on sale Tuesday, February 21st at the Ferguson Center ticket office and at Ticketmaster locations. Wednesday’s Kurt Elling concert is $10.00 for adults, $5.00 for CNU students. Tickets for each of the remaining three shows run from $20.00 to $40.00 a piece, with students just $10.00. But the way to go is the four-night festival pass at $80.00 a piece for preferred seating.
This is one festival where you won’t want to miss a single show. I think I’ll just pitch a tent and camp out on the lawn for a few days!
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