Morristown Jazz and Blues Festival swings back into action with five top-notch performances

morristown jazz blues review 2021

PHOTOS BY JAY LUSTIG

Rob Paparozzi at the Morristown Jazz and Blues Festival, Sept. 18.

“We needed this, didn’t we?” said Rob Paparozzi during his headlining set with his Juke Joint band at the 2021 edition of the free, annual Morristown Jazz and Blues Festival, Sept. 18.

“Man, did I miss (live music) for a year and half,” said Louis Prima Jr., who performed second to last with his band, The Witnesses.

Festival organizers had to cancel the 10th annual edition, last year, because of the pandemic, and pushed it back a little this year, from August to September, for the same reason. But the festival’s blues- and jazz-loving fans came back in full force, filling Morristown Green with lawn chairs and staying, in many cases, for most of the day. And with the mild September weather representing a nice change from the sweltering August heat that usually has been a feature of the festival, organizers are considering doing it in September every year.

Paparozzi’s Juke Joint and Prima’s Witnesses — who were both enthusiastically received by listeners, and who both inspired many of them, young and old, to get up and dance — are similar in some ways. Both groups are filled with masterful musicians and dedicated to vintage American music. But they are also very different.

Singer and harmonica virtuoso Paparozzi and his band, which featured saxophonist “Blue Lou” Marini of Blues Brothers and “Saturday Night Live” band fame, came across as a bunch of hard-working regular guys, getting together to share some tunes. It’s the kind of approach to music you might see in, you know, a Juke Joint.

Not surprisingly, given Marini’s status as an original Blues Brothers and Paparozzi’s longtime membership in the group in recent years, their set included “Soul Man,” the Sam & Dave hit that became The Blues Brothers’ signature tune. Another nod to Marini, who spent this summer on the road with James Taylor, was “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)” — sung by Juke Joint pianist John Korba — the Marvin Gaye hit that Taylor covered. (Korba also sang The Band’s “Ophelia” and the blues classic “My Babe.”)

Among the other songs in the set were “Knock on Wood,” “Flip, Flop and Fly” and “She Caught the Katy.” The hard-driving blues “Too Many Drivers” — associated with one of Paparozzi’s harmonica heroes, Paul Butterfield — was performed as a medley with “Let the Good Times Roll” (see video below). The set ended with a version of The Beatles’ “Ticket to Ride” that started as an instrumental and ended as a feel-good singalong.

Kate Curran and Louis Prima Jr. perform at the Morristown Jazz and Blues Festival.

There was nothing casual about Louis Prima Jr. & the Witnesses. Their set represented a type of Maximum Showbiz, with choreographed dance moves, slick patter and lots of good-natured clowning around. During their set-closing “When the Saints Go Marching In,” Prima and the band’s horn section paraded through the crowd.

But these guys can really sing and play, too, and it’s impossible not to get swept up in the momentum of their high-energy show.

Prima, of course, is the son of Louis Prima, and devoted about half of the show to his father’s material: “Sing, Sing, Sing” (following a discussion of the iconic song’s history), “Jump, Jive an’ Wail,” “I Wan’na Be Like You” (with an updated dance beat), “Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody” and so on. Singer Kate Curran contributed show-stoppers like an impossibly fast version of the Louis Jordan hit “I Want You to Be My Baby” and an explosive take on “A Sunday Kind of Love” (co-written by Louis Prima Sr.).

The band also strayed far from Louis Prima Sr. territory — and showed it could play just about anything — with a series of tunes sung by various band members, including Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4,” James Brown’s “I Feel Good,” Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary,” “Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” and Elton John’s “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting.”

Performing before Prima, Winard Harper & Jeli Posse benefited from the presence of tap dancer Josh Johnson, who added percussion — as well as a visual focus — to several songs. Harper’s daughter, singer Camilla Harper, also joined the group for some of the numbers.

Winard Harper spent most of his time behind his drum set but spoke to the crowd, often with spiritually positive messages, between songs. The group was also responsible for the day’s most thought-provoking number, and cover of Billy Taylor’s anthem of social engagement, “If You Really Are Concerned.”

The 2 p.m. slot of the festival was always reserved for legendary guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli before his death, last year. This year, it went to friends and associates of his, who paid tribute to him by playing some of his favorite songs, including “It’s Been a Long, Long Time,” “Honeysuckle Rose,” “Pennies From Heaven” and “Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me.” The Frank Vignola Trio (featuring guitarists Vignola and Vinny Raniolo and bassist Gary Mazzaroppi) blossomed into a sextet as they were joined, in succession, by guitarist Gene Bertoncini, violinist Aaron Weinstein and guitarist Ed Laub.

Vanessa Perea sings with Swingadelic, featuring Dave Post on bass and, behind him, Andy Riedel on guitar.

Swingadelic, who opened the show, had the day’s biggest band and some of its hardest swinging numbers. Vanessa Perea and pianist John Bauers handled most of the vocals, though other band members got moments in the spotlight, too. Trombonist Neal Pawley (also a member of Southside Johnny’s Asbury Jukes) delivered Willie Dixon’s “I Live the Life I Love” in a confident, commanding way, and guitarist Andy Riedel was very animated on a blues version of Lefty Frizzell’s “You’re Humbuggin Me.” Tenor saxophonist Jerry Weldon was featured on the raucous instrumental, “Bottom’s Up.”

The festival was dedicated to two people who died in June: Linda Kiger Smith, who co-founded the festival and also co-produced it every year; and Mike Fabrizio, another co-founder who served on the festival board. Photos of them were displayed on both sides on the stage throughout the day.

All of this year’s performers had appeared at previous festivals as well; this festival has a kind of rotating cast of bands, with a couple of touring acts usually added to the mix. All of the groups’ frontmen talked warmly about Smith and Fabrizio — as did the show’s co-hosts, Don Jay Smith (Linda Kiger Smith’s widower, who is continuing to produce the festival) and Morristown mayor Tim Dougherty (a close friend of Fabrizio). The heartfelt tributes added to the unique community feel that this festival has.

For updates on next year’s festival, visit morristownjazzandblues.com.

Here are some videos from Sept. 18:

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