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Jazz Festival Spotlight
John Lee Hooker, Jr.

THIS 26TH ANNUAL INSTALLMENT of our city’s well-known free music festival (sponsored in large part by the City of Savannah’s Department of Cultural Affairs) continues this week with a schedule of impressive regional, national and even internationally-known artists representing a wide swath of traditional and contemporary jazz, as well as that genre’s kissing cousin, the blues.

Wednesday at 7 p.m. is a diverse triple bill at Armstrong Atlantic State University’s Fine Arts Auditorium. First up is a set by The SkyeLite Jazz Band, followed by One Leg Up at 8:15 p.m., and ending with The Ben Tucker Trio featuring Lynn Roberts at 9:30 p.m.

Formed in 1992 at the Savannah Arts Academy (and originally known as the BlueLight Jazz Band), The SJB has become one of the most well-known and celebrated high school jazz ensembles in the U.S.

Asheville, N.C.’s One Leg Up is one of the leading exponents of so-called “Gypsy Jazz” on the scene today. Inspired by the ground-breaking work of famed guitarist Django Reinhardt, who —along with violinist Stéphane Grappelli— developed this upbeat and sensual form of percussion-less acoustic string, woodwind and brass jazz at the Hot Club of Paris in the mid-1930s. Their lineup includes standup bass, violin, guitar, mandolin, clarinet and tenor sax.

And finally — bassist and composer Ben Tucker is recognized as one of the most prominent jazz figures in Savannah. A celebrated composer of more than 300 original tunes (including his signature “Comin’ Home Baby,” which was a hit for Mel Tormé and —more recently— Michale Buble, and “Devilette,” cut by Dexter Gordon), Ben has always surrounded himself with the cream of the crop, so his set should be top-notch.

The next night at 7 p.m., the celebration moves to its most notable venue, the outdoor stage at Forsyth Park. Thursday is Blues Under The Stars Night, and the first of two featured acts will be recognizable to most local music fans.

Eric Culberson has led his own electric blues band for almost two decades, and in that time he has released two highly praised studio albums on the King Snake label, and a critically acclaimed live album on his own. Backed by a wicked-tight two-piece rhythm section, badass guitarist and front-man Culberson tears through Chicago and Memphis-style blues with a passion and drive that will astound many who may have naively written him off as a “local boy.”

Immediately following Culberson’s band, at 8:15 p.m., Columbia, S.C.’s favorite sons Elliot & The Untouchables bring their take on jumping West Coast swing and high-energy blues to Savannah, as they have to many other prominent music events throughout the country (including Asheville’s way-cool Bele Chere festival), and Ireland, where they were chosen to open for Van Morrison.

Finishing off the night at 9:30 p.m. will be headliner John Lee Hooker, Jr. – son of John Lee Hooker, Sr., one of the most influential American blues singers and guitarists in history. As a young man, John Lee Jr. guested on one of his dad’s albums, and after more than a decade off the scene has returned with a vengeance. He’s racked up award nominations for his “down and dirty” blues, as well as shared the stage with everyone from B.B. King to Koko Taylor.

At 11 p.m. that night, an after-hours jam session will take place at Kokopelli’s (107 W. Broughton St.), the area’s newest venue to strictly book jazz. These jam sessions are a cherished tradition at the festival, and usually wind up featuring standout local artists as well as members of the headlining acts swapping licks in a casual setting.

The next night celebrates a renewed spirit of inclusion with “Smooth & Sexy,” an evening devoted to the best in contemporary jazz. Opening act Between 9 & 7 boasts solid musicianship and exceptional players. Their set starts at 7 p.m.

They’ll be followed by the Atlanta-based soprano saxman Dee Lucas, who did not even attempt to play his instrument until the age of 27, but who now –at 40— has quickly become an up-and-coming artist to watch.

Modern jazz/R & B superstars The Yellowjackets close out the night at 9:30 p.m. with a full set that features their special guest, saxman and clarinetist Eric Marienthal (known for his work with Chick Corea). For more info on this major booking, see our Interview this issue.

The party continues with another-hours jam session at Kokopelli’s at 11 p.m.

Saturday, the festival’s theme is “Beautiful City, Beautiful Music,” which is appropriate, given the lovely environment of Forsyth Park. As in past years, Sunday’s music starts in the afternoon, with a 3 p.m. set by the Merit School of Music’s Jazz Studies Program. This group took home the 29th Annual Downbeat Award for Best Jazz Group in a Performing Arts High School. Led since 1996 by Michael McLaughlin, this Honors Jazz Ensemble has played for President Bill Clinton, and at the prestigious Chicago Jazz Fest, among others.

That set will be followed by a 4:30 p.m. visit from one of the more adventurous of today’s horn players. Tim Hagans has been a member of both Stan Kenton’s band and Woody Herman’s Big Band in the 1970s, and is distinguished by his ability to summon a “chromatic layer of sound.” He’ll be accompanied by the lauded University of North Florida Jazz Ensemble I.

A bit later, at 5:45 p.m., local super-group the Coastal Jazz Association All-Stars reassembles for one of their infrequent gigs. Each one of the participants was unanimously inducted into the CJA, and boasts both a lifelong commitment to jazz and a strong connection to the area. This year’s lineup includes bassist Ben Tucker, trombonist Teddy Adams, saxophonists George Harper and Eddie Pazant, drummer Ben Riley and vocalist Huxsie Scott.

Immediately thereafter, things start to get serious when drummer Ben Riley returns for a showcase set with a man Jazz Weekly calls “the most lyrical piano player of our time,” Kenny Barron. Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Hank Jones, Clark Terry, Billy Taylor and more have all chosen Ben’s “beat of the traps” – not to mention Thelonious Monk and Ron Carter, both of whom Riley spent many years with on both record and stage. The L.A.Times named Barron “one of the top jazz pianists in the world.” He spent years in Dizzy Gillespie’s band, and co-founded the well-received group Sphere with his pal Ben.

This all leads up to the final two sets of the night: The Rashied Ali Quintet and Vincent Herring backed by The Savannah Jazz Orchestra. Ali is famous for replacing the great Elvin Jones as John Coltrane’s drummer of choice in the mid-1960s, and –as Jazz Fest spokesman Skip Jennings joked at a press conference earlier this year, it’s never a bad thing when you can draw a direct line between one of your headliners and ‘Trane. His set begins at 8:15 pm, Saturday.

Closing out this last full night of our 2007 Jazz Fest is Vincent “Mr. Wizard” Herring, considered by many to be one of the finest saxophonists of this generation. He’ll be backed by The Savannah Jazz Orchestra, a 16-piece band including trumpets, trombones, saxophone, piano, bass and drums, co-directed by Randall Reese and Teddy Adams.

As always, another after-hours jam at Kokopelli’s begins at 11 p.m., Saturday.

The next afternoon, everything draws to a close with the Savannah Youth Jazz Festival, showcasing some of the finest local budding talent. In a show that’s entertaining for adults yet geared for kids, The Savannah Arts Academy’s SkyeLite Jazz Band will appear at 4 p.m. with longtime jazz aficionado Ronald McDonald. The CJA All-Stars follow at 5 p.m., with a full set of their own.

Again, all these events are completely free and open to the public. For more info, go to