When I crossed paths with Center City Jazz Fest founder Ernest Stuart in the crowd at Franky Bradley’s on Saturday afternoon, I remarked how excited I was that the festival made a return this year. Stuart’s very direct, very apropos reply: “So am I!”
2023 was the first year CCJF has taken place since the proverbial Before Times. There was a point during the pandemic and the ensuing recovery where, surely, fans and organizers alike didn’t know what — if anything! — the future held for it. Thankfully, Stuart and festival director Jay Levin persevered and put together a glorious program that rebooted the event in full force this past weekend. The sold out festival saw audiences packing the upstairs at Fergie’s, clamoring to get a seat at Franky Bradley’s, and watching from the sidewalk out front of Time.
20 artists in five venues over the course of an afternoon, with one reasonably-priced wristband allowing you to bounce from show to show as you please: it’s truly one of the best bang-for-your-buck deals in Philly music, and a great experience for jazz devotees and new listeners testing the waters, for fans of the trad and fans of the avant-garde alike. I was able to catch ten of the 20 artists on offer, and you can read more about them below. Cheers to Center City Jazz Fest on its return; long may it run.
This Philadelphia-via-Alaska saxophonist got the day started on a downbeat note at Franky Bradley’s, mixing soft and smooth originals with standards like “It Was A Very Good Year” and superb soloing from his trio.
Anthony Tidd’s Sanity
An educator, composer and band leader, sax player Anthony Tidd played a freewheeling set that had Time at capacity, dancing to swift offbeat grooves and jamming to hip-hop arrangements with stream-of-consciousness lyricism that had the crowd on its feet.
Levin introduced the Juilliard-schooled Sarah Hamadan as a rising star in jazz, and she went on to show exactly why that is. The New England native’s breathtaking playing was nimble and energized, bopping to fast tempos and showing tremendous chemistry with her trio.
This Bay Area percussionist and vibraphonist was entrancing in her mid-day set at Time. The warm tones of the instrument cast a mellow ambience on the room, but Berliner’s fervent attack gave the set a feeling of rock energy.
Classy and classic, much-loved Philly vocalist Joanna Pascals had Franky Bradley’s packed to the gills for an achingly beautiful set that balanced wistful melancholy and cheeky humor. Our friends at WRTI were filming this performance, and all of Franky Bradley’s sets at CCJF; watch their YouTube for the videos that result.
New Chestnut Street lounge Leda’s seemed to be this year’s CCJF venue that made the most space for progressive sounds in jazz and adjacent to jazz. A set by singer-songwriter and composer Max Swan is a perfect example: he shreds on his instrument, but infuses it with modern R&B and pop vocals and arrangements, carving his own lane between the two worlds.
Kendrah Butler Waters
Philly pianist and band leader Kendrah Butler Waters took her own approach to navigating the space between genres in a set at Fergies. As a soloist, she plays with Art Tatum precision, but when vocals come in the mix, the mood shifts to gorgeous tones of gospel and soul.
At the front of the spacey Philly prog instrumentalists Killiam Shakespeare, keys player Corey Bernhard’s sound can be far-out and fascinating. A solo set at Time saw him taking a decidedly more reeled-in approach, meditating on Rhodes grooves in an almost ambient kind of way.
Freewheeling drummer and bandleader Nazir Ebo is another rising star on this lineup — WRTI’s Shaun Brady recently dubbed him such — and his quintet’s late afternoon set at Leda’s explored the outer realms of sound in the spirit of Thundercat, 70s Miles and beyond.
Closing the day upstairs at Fergies, dulcet-toned vocalist Michelle Lordi and her tight band performed a set of songs that, again, fell between the lines of expectations. One moment they might play to the loungey setup of the space and the day, another they might lead things in surprising trip-hop-flavored directions, like we heard on the terrific “Double / Crossed.”