Walter Trout’s next album, We’re All in This Together, will not be released until Sept. 9, so the material he played from it at the Morristown Jazz and Blues Festival, Saturday, was unfamiliar to the audience. It was unfamiliar, too, to guest saxophonist Mark Rivera, Trout told the crowd. But Rivera — whose résumé includes extensive work with Billy Joel and Ringo Starr — made up riffs and solos on the spot without breaking a sweat.
Really, if Trout hadn’t told the crowd Rivera had never heard the songs before, no one would have suspected it. It’s amazing what two old pros like these can do in a situation like this.
Trout headlined the festival, which takes place on the downtown Morristown Green, with no admission charge. It was the seventh annual edition of the event, and the best attended, so far. Morristown mayor Tim Dougherty told morristowngreen.com that approximately 4,000 people saw at least some portion of the show.
I’ve seen the Green get packed, late in the day, for this event, but it has never been as full from start to finish as it was on Saturday. But there was quite a bit of crowd turnover throughout the day. Some people stayed all day, of course, but the early crowd that came for Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, at noon, and the Bucky Pizzarelli Quintet, at 2 p.m., was very different from the masses of people who saw Ana Popovic, at 6 p.m., and Trout, at 8 p.m.
Louis Prima Jr. and the Witnesses were a perfect transition act, at 4 p.m. Their roots in swing music surely appealed to the more jazz-oriented fans who came early, but their buoyant energy gave them a link to the two explosive blues-rock acts that closed the day.
Trout, an Ocean City native whose career has included stints in Canned Heat and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, has really raised his profile in recent years, in part because of his gripping 2014 and 2015 albums, The Blues Came Callin’ and Battle Scars, inspired directly by his nearly life-ending battle with liver disease. During his set, he talked about the organ donation that saved him, and asked attendees to sign up to become donors on the site, donatelife.net.
But he focused on the more upbeat material from We’re All in This Together, which features guest appearances by Joe Bonamassa, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Warren Haynes, Edgar Winter, Charlie Musselwhite and others. His son, Jon Trout, filled in some of the guitar and guest vocal parts from the album.
Walter is one of the blues world’s reigning guitar heroes, of course, but his set was also memorable because he was able to make so much of the material seem so personal. He talked warmly about B.B. King, for instance — whom he first met, and bonded with, while working at Franklin Music in the Echelon Mall in Voorhees — before dedicating the slow-burning “Say Goodbye to the Blues” to him. And he praised Mayall for putting up with him back in the days when he drank heavily — “there was a certain humor about it,” he recalled Mayall telling him, when he asked him why he was so tolerant — before performing the Blues Came Callin’ title track, which they recorded together.
Popovic was equally strong on a musical level, performing her own songs as well as covers of material such as Tom Waits’ “New Coat of Paint” and Jimi Hendrix’ “Crosstown Traffic.” But she didn’t personalize her material the way Trout did. It might help take her career to the next level if she could, since she has such an interesting story to tell, being not just a woman in the blues-rock guitar-slinger field (which traditionally has been dominated by men) but a native of Serbia.
Louis Prima Jr., who has inherited the mantle of the man once known as the King of the Swing, has put together a dynamite stage show that embraces not just his father’s hits (including “Just a Gigolo,” “I Wanna Be Like You” and “Angelina”) but also Rock Era crowd-pleasers ranging from Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” to Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4.” He and his sharply dressed, thoroughly rehearsed bandmates jump, jive and wail their way through the set with ferocious energy. It’s all a bit on the slick, show-bizzy side, to be sure — it almost seems a bit cartoonish, at times — but it is still irresistible.
Pizzarelli, the 91-year-old Jersey guitar legend (and an annual fixture at this festival), played his traditional early afternoon set of graceful jazz and pop standards with the help of his son Martin Pizzarelli on bass, Ed Laub on guitar and vocals, Ken Levinsky on piano and Linus Wyrsch on clarinet and saxophone. And Giordano and his Nighthawks big band opened the day with a masterful set that ranged to a fox trot version of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” to the fast, fun “Somebody Stole My Gal” and the powerhouse set-closer, “Sing, Sing, Sing.”
The festival has already announced the date for its next festival: Aug. 18.
Here are some videos from this year’s festival:
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