Music News & Reviews

Headliners with Kansas roots to play Wichita Jazz Festival

New York pianist Addison Frei grew up playing in Lawrence. He’ll perform during the festival’s opening-night concert Thursday at the Wichita Art Museum.
New York pianist Addison Frei grew up playing in Lawrence. He’ll perform during the festival’s opening-night concert Thursday at the Wichita Art Museum. Courtesy photo

Headlining jazz stars who have Kansas connections – along with current Wichita talent – will perform in this year’s bouncing-back Wichita Jazz Festival on Thursday and April 24.

The People’s Liberation Big Band of Greater Kansas City will be the highlight, according to another of the headliners, saxophonist Matt Otto, a transplant from LA to KU and Kansas City. Otto has performed at festivals in Europe, Japan, New York and Los Angeles and loves to catch the other acts when he’s not playing.

“I think the festival is great because it gives you a kind of broad range of jazz culture,” Otto said. “There’s a lot of diverse bands and performers. In a short period of time people can hear a variety of jazz. It’s really fun.”

Otto also is a member of the People’s Liberation Big Band. “The rehearsals are going great” for its performance April 24 at the Wichita festival, he said.

Otto also will be playing with New York pianist Addison Frei – who hails from Lawrence – for the first time in a combo on the first night of the festival Thursday at the Wichita Art Museum.

A free preview concert by a student all-star combo along with a talk by Chris Heim of KMUW will be at 1 p.m. Saturday at Watermark Books & Cafe.

“I think we’re making some headway in returning the festival to the glory days of past years,” said Geoff Deibel, a saxophone professor at Wichita State who is director of the festival. The downturn in the economy several years ago saw the festival get smaller, and Deibel is working on building it back up to its former influence. Starting in the 1970s “it was a real cultural institution … a real force. … Everybody who was anybody played the festival.”

Some of the festival performers this year “grew up going to the Wichita Jazz Festival. It’s kind of cool to see that coming full circle.”

Focusing on homegrown Kansas talent also reflects the state’s importance in jazz history, Deibel said: “Charlie Parker recorded his first album in downtown Wichita.”

In addition to bringing in the headliners, the festival’s other big focus is education. A “really incredible” all-star combo of high school students has been receiving professional coaching leading up to performances at the festival. “We have more of a year-round presence,” Deibel said.

The opening night concert featuring a solo performance by Frei, the combo led by Otto and including Frei, and the all-star student combo will be at 7 p.m. Thursday in the atrium of the Wichita Art Museum.

“Addison is just an incredible pianist,” Deibel said. “He’s a really young guy. … He’s just a very sensitive and mature musician. He’s just captivating to watch. Matt Otto is very well-known.”

The next day, April 24, 21 student jazz groups from as far away as Iowa, Missouri and Oklahoma will take part in a big-band/combo competition. The invitational – from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. at Miller Concert Hall on the WSU campus – is free and open to the public.

“A lot of people sort of come in when they can and check out a couple of bands,” Deibel said of the audiences for the competition. “There are some really fine college ensembles coming … and fantastic high school as well.”

The winner of the invitational will perform in the final-night concert of the festival, at 7:30 at Miller, along with a WSU jazz ensemble and the headliner – the People’s Liberation Big Band of Greater Kansas City.

“They remind people of the Maria Schneider Orchestra,” Deibel said of the KC band. “It’s a nontraditional big band, with some woodwinds you don’t typically find in a big band and maybe an extra keyboard player. It’s a more orchestral big-band experience but a really interesting and fun group.”

Deibel has worked to expand the community’s presence on the festival’s board, and he expects the festival to be bigger next year.

“Jazz is the original American art form, and I think it deserves a bigger place in the cultural milieu,” he said. “… It’s a real unifying sort of a force in music. … There’s real creativity, and spontaneous things happening in the middle of music-making. That’s jazz’s strong suit.”

Reach Annie Calovich at 316-268-6596 or Follow her on Twitter: @anniecalovich.

If you go

Wichita Jazz Festival

Preview concert: Festival Sessions All-Star Combo, 1 p.m. Sat., Watermark Books & Cafe, 4701 E. Douglas; free

Opening night concert: Addison Frei, Matt Otto combo, Festival Sessions All-Star Combo, 7 p.m. April 23, Wichita Art Museum; $10

Student Big Band/Combo Competition: 7:30 a.m.-6 p.m. April 24, Miller Concert Hall, Wichita State University; free

Closing night concert: People’s Liberation Big Band of Greater Kansas City, WSU Jazz Ensemble I, Jazz Big Band winner, 7:30 p.m. April 24, Miller Concert Hall, WSU; $10