Arts + Lifestyle

Jazz on Main Series Offers Jazz Straight, No Chaser

By Patrick Wall
Wednesday, January 15, 2014 |
Charlotte-based pianist Noel Freidline is artistic director of Jazz on Main. Courtesy photo
In addition to world-class traveling exhibitions and a world-class chamber music concert, the Columbia Museum of Art now offers a world-class jazz series.

The series, Jazz on Main, debuts Friday. It’s led by artistic director Noel Freidline, a Charlotte-based pianist of remarkable technique, versatility and verve.

“We are excited about this new concert series,” says Karen Brosius, the museum’s director, in a press release. “We know Columbia loves good jazz and we wanted to bring music of the highest caliber to our audiences.”

The series is funded by Dr. Stephen Serbin and the Family Medicine Centers of South Carolina.

In Freidline, the museum has conscripted a star and ambassador. Like Edward Arron, director of the museum’s Chamber on Main series, Freidline is affable and acclaimed. A lecturer at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and artist-in-residence at nearby Davidson College, Freidline performs regularly with the Charlotte Symphony and touring Broadway shows. But jazz is where his chops are strongest; he leads the Noel Freidline Quintet, and for the past three years, he has been a performer and artistic consultant at the Jazz at the Bechtler Series, an extremely successful monthly jazz series hosted by the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art in Charlotte. In just six months, the Bechtler series leapt from around 40 people at its inaugural concert to nearly 10 times that.

“We had to go to two shows,” Freidline says, “because we were turning away 150 people every show.” Even after its expansion last year, the shows are still standing-room only affairs.

“Jazz has always been a hard sell in Charlotte,” Freidline says. “But obviously there was a need there.”

The series comes at a time in Columbia when demand for jazz appears to be on the rise while supply remains relatively low. Despite the ailing health of founder Skipp Pearson, the regular Thursday jazz workshop series at Hunter-Gatherer and concerts at Le Café Jazz in Finlay Park remain popular. Speakeasy in Five Points packs ‘em in for live jazz on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. And The Palm 92.1 (WWNU-FM), an otherwise easygoing rock station, hosts a weekly jazz show.

But local jazz festivals frequently feature jazz only as a reference point. For instance, Saturday’s Columbia Winter Jazz Fest at the Township Auditorium — featuring chart-topping Scottish disco band The Average White Band — veers more toward R&B and funk. And the offerings at Conundrum Music Hall, while bountiful and rewarding, feature ensembles that perform a strain of free jazz often too out-there for a large audience.

The Jazz on Main series, by contrast, plays jazz straight no chaser, leaning heavily on traditional jazz idioms like swing and bop. Friday’s kickoff concert features music by the distinct and distinguished voices of jazz: singers like Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone and Frank Sinatra. And the concerts, Freidline says, are loosely paired with the museum’s traveling exhibitions and permanent collections. The next concert, in April, features Japan-themed compositions by famous jazz bandleaders like Thelonious Monk, Cal Tjader and Dave Brubeck.

But Freidline leaves open the idea of exploring some of jazz’s more avant-garde luminaries — past Bechtler concerts have paid tribute to more cantankerous bandleaders like John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy — as long as the music fits with the featured exhibition. (The Bechtler’s free jazz concert, for example, was paired with a modernism exhibition.)

The Jazz on Main series tends toward familiar names by design: The familiar names draw people who are only vaguely familiar with jazz, but don’t turn away die-hards.

“I think that folks who might say they’re not necessarily a jazz fan will be able to go to [the series] and say, ‘Wow, that was great,’” Freidline says. “And at the same time, someone who is a jazz aficionado will be able to say, ‘That was really well done. That was good stuff.’ You can have your cake and eat it, too. You just have to take small bites.”

The Columbia Museum of Art is at 1515 Main St. The Jazz on Main concert runs from 7 to 9 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 17. Admission is $40, $30 for members and $5 for students. Visit columbiamuseum.org for more information.

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