The sixth annual Morristown Jazz and Blues Festival was an all ages show, in more ways than one. The event — which took place Saturday, outdoors on the Morristown Green — was free, and attracted a diverse crowd of both young and old music fans. And the performers included master guitarists who were born 74 years apart: Quinn Sullivan, 17, and Bucky Pizzarelli, 90.
Pizzarelli’s milestone birthday, which took place earlier this year, was celebrated, and tribute was paid to Rusty Paul, who died in January (the son of Les Paul, Rusty was a supporter of the festival, and performed at the first one). There was also a tribute of sorts to the crowd-pleasing swing and jump blues of Louis Prima in the form of an energetic set by his son, Louis Prima Jr., and his band The Witnesses, who performed Louis Prima Sr.’s trademark songs as well as other material.
But the festival looked toward the future with its last two sets, by Sullivan and headliner Robert Randolph and the Family Band.
Randolph, 35, is not exactly an old-timer, but he’s not a newcomer either. A pedal steel guitarist, he broke through about 15 years ago with an act that was rooted in the Sacred Steel church music he grew up playing. But he and his band also had the exploratory spirit of a jam band, and he played with the dazzling showmanship of an arena-rock guitar hero.
Randolph, who grew up in Essex County and lived in Morristown from 2000 to 2009, put a emphatic final exclamation mark on a great day of music. He doesn’t always perform songs with traditional verse/chorus structures: His shows can feel like one long raveup after another. And certainly this was the case, Saturday, on songs such as “Good Times,” “I Need More Love” and “I Don’t Know What You Come to Do.” The band also drew from the blues (“The Sky Is Crying,” “Shake Your Hips”), rock (“Hey Joe”) and funk (“Thank You Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin”), turning virtually everything into a show-stopper.
About 15 women joined the band onstage for “Shake Your Hips” and danced along, and during “I Don’t Know What You Come to Do,” Randolph and his bandmates switched instruments so he could take a bass solo (playing competently), as well as a drum solo (playing as wildly and exuberantly as he plays pedal steel).
Rusty Paul Band guitarist Steve Lucas joined the group for “Thank You Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin,” and Sullivan sat in for about half of Randolph’s set, bolstering the strong impression he made in his own set.
I first saw Sullivan perform seven years ago, when he was 9 (!), jamming with B.B. King and Buddy Guy at the Beacon Theatre in New York. I thought he was little more than a novelty at the time: A kid who played with great proficiency but no personality or originality. Well, I’m happy to say that he has done a lot of growing up in those seven years, and he now has all the tools: Solid original songs, a commanding, soulful voice, and guitar chops that dazzle without making it seem like he is showing off just for the sake of showing off. I don’t think there’s any question he’s going to be a force on the blues scene for decades to come, and Morristown fest-goers seemed to agree: A long line formed at the table where he was selling and signing CDs, after his set.
Louis Prima Jr. made a good impression, too. Now 51, he has fully embraced his father’s swinging, upbeat music. He and his band, the Witnesses, tore through classics such as “Jump, Jive an’ Wail,” “Sing, Sing, Sing,” “Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody” and “I Wanna Be Like You” while also performing some of their own songs.
Backing vocalist Leslie Spencer made the most of her solo showcase, belting out an original song, “Someday,” with superhuman power. And late in the set, band members took turns singing and clowning around on a medley of songs such as “25 or 6 to 4,” “Hooked on a Feeling,” “Tutti Frutti” and “Proud Mary.”
It was a slick, crowd-pleasing set, with some corny moments along the way — it shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that this band does much of its performing in Las Vegas. But the musicians can really play, and Prima Jr. seemed to be having such a good time performing that you almost couldn’t help having a good time along with him. On a hot August afternoon, this set provided a much-appreciated jolt of energy.
Performing immediately before Prima, guitarist Pizzarelli and his quartet — singer-guitarist Ed Laub, violinist Aaron Weinstein and bassist Martin Pizzarelli (Bucky’s son) — played an easy-going, low-key set full of old favorites, including “Tangerine,” “We Three (My Echo, My Shadow and Me),” “This Nearly Was Mine” and “I Was Doing All Right.” Lucas and singer Pamela Wahlberg joined them for “How High the Moon.”
Prima and his band came ready to knock your socks off. Pizzarelli and co., in sharp contrast, seemed like a bunch of guys sitting around a living room, jamming, enjoying each other’s company, and communicating with each other through their instruments.
Pizzarelli, who has been a mainstay of this festival for years and a major presence in the state’s music scene for decades, suffered a mini-stroke last year that led to a stay in an intensive care unit. He did seem a bit more tentative than usual from time to time on Saturday, but he has lost little of his trademark fluidity, and gave the crowd a feel-good moment the second he started playing.
Here are a couple of videos from the show: