2002 East Coast Jazz Festival
Washington, D.C., is a city full of top-secret information. Here's a bit of intelligence I'm happy to leak:
He may be the best pianist you"ve never heard of unless you've spent some time in the nation's capital searching out its jazz haunts.
I "discovered" him three years ago at the East Coast Jazz Festival in Rockville, Md., where he's one of the mainstays every Presidents Day weekend. Morgan outshone everyone else at that star-studded event. When I had a chance to get away for a long weekend Feb. 14-17, 2002, I revisited this festival and was once again blown away.
If you're one of those who thinks the old Oscar Peterson Trio of the 1950s was the epitome of small-group jazz, with its emphasis on down-home blues-based swing, razor-sharp coordination between players and solos that build suspensefully to ecstatic crescendos, then you'll love Morgan too.
Backed by a guitar, bass, drums and a percussionist, Morgan gave "Autumn Leaves" a samba lilt, dressed up "After Hours" with arpeggios and old-fashioned piano rolls, and took the appreciative crowd to church on "This Little Light of Mine" and "Bridge over Troubled Waters," during which he flailed both arms down the keyboard as if he were swimming in those waters, scooping out astonishing runs of notes en route.
Morgan, whose day job is as a lawyer, doesn't hit the road often. His itinerary is posted on www.dickmorganjazz.com. Catch him if you can.
The East Coast festival is put on by the Fish Middleton Jazz Scholarship Fund Middleton having been a jazz DJ and a mentor to emerging talent in the Washington area. It takes over an entire hotel for the four-day weekend, presenting dozens of aspiring acts and high school and college bands on three or four side stages, while lining up an impressive array of local and visiting jazz stars for the 500-seat main ballroom. The music begins with workshops each morning, continues all day and evening and winds up with jam sessions that don't break up till 4 a.m. Nirvana for jazz junkies.
Another main stage regular at the ECJF is singer Ernie Andrews, who was booked to do two sets on two different evenings this year and wound up doing three when blues singer Irene Reid called out sick.
Andrews calls himself a "utility singer" because his repertoire runs the gamut, but he acquits himself nicely on the blues and especially on ballads, where his resonant baritone conjures up memories of Billy Eckstine and Johnny Hartman. His treatment of "All Blues," in which he grafted lyrics from a whole raft of classic blues songs onto the hypnotic bass refrain of Miles Davis' classic, was a standout.
Underrated for much of his career but lately a comeback success, Andrews, now 74, claims fame and fortune don't mean that much to him, not nearly as much as his love of music and performing. And that sincerity shines through on every tune.
James Moody is another elder statesman, at 77, who enjoys renewed popularity. He wowed the opening night audience, guest starring with the U.S. Army Blues big band. After a luminous tenor solo on "Round About Midnight" that captured the late-night, lonely mood of that Monk lament perfectly, he broke things up with his patented novelty vocals, "Benny's From Heaven" and "Moody's Mood for Love."
Papa John DeFrancesco is best known as the father of organ phenom Joey, but Papa's no slouch on the Hammond B-3 himself. He anchored the festival's "organ night," bringing along another son, John Jr., whose dueting on guitar and wordless vocals is a page out of George Benson's book. A highlight was "Song for My Father," in which Papa John saluted his own dad.
Some other high spots:
Alto madman Richie Cole, returning to the city where he lived 25 years ago, reached back for a wistful ballad he wrote then, "D.C. Farewell."
The great D.C. bassist Keter Betts matching up with pianist Larry Willis, drummer Jimmy Cobb and tenor man Jerry Weldon, challenging them to compose in the moment, laying out an improvised blues line. All hands came up with colors flying.
Roseanna Vitro is another singer who hasn't gotten the recognition she deserves. She's got an attractive voice, a mature, confident style on challenging material like "Freedom Jazz Dance," and her plucking out the old Ray Charles tune, "Danger Zone," for this post-9/11 show was well timed.
Buster Williams playing an a cappella "Summertime," a solo filled with pauses, the audience as silent as a church, Williams stretching all over his instruments, picking out notes as carefully as a diamond miner chipping away to free one gem after another.