Since I’ve been writing these columns, I have frequently touted Naples, FL, as having one of the healthiest jazz scenes in the country.  The evening of Wednesday, January 14, was in indicative of this.  It was truly a night to remember for Naples jazz lovers.  And there are a lot of Naples jazz lovers. I’m posting my review of the concert in this space, as it would have been a night to remember for all fans of jazz.




Jazz aficionados packed the Unity of Naples Church  Wednesday in a memorable and swinging concert presented by noted area pianist, Stu Shelton.  Though most of these artists who performed-and there were ten of them in all-perform locally, there is  no doubt that their playing is as good or better than any “national”  artist on the jazz scene.  Gauging by the level of response from the sold-out house, the audience agreed.


Shelton presented a varied and satisfying program of swing, bop, and touches of modernism. The players on hand were presented in various groupings to spotlight their unique talents.  The only constant throughout was Shelton, who played for everyone.


The first three numbers-Milt Jackson’s”Bluesology,” Rame De Pal’s “I Remember April” and Lester Young’s swinger “Lester Leaps In”-featured drummer Patricia Dean, vibraharpist “Sir John” Jeffrey and bassist Dan Heck. “Sir John” was the certifiable highlight of this set.  His energy and sense of swing on the vibes often evoked Lionel Hampton and Terry Gibbs, but he remains, after years on the scene here, his own man. 


“Alone Together,” written by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz; and Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s “My Shining Hour” featured an impeccable trio of Dean,  Dan Heck on guitar this time, and the maestro.  Heck, out of the Wes Montgomery school. was incredible, with impeccable technique and wonderful ideas.  


Cole Porter’s “Everytime We Say Goodbye,”  Bernice Petkere’s “Close Your Eyes” and Ellington’s venerable “Take the A Train,” were performed by the duo of Dean, singing and playing drums simultaneously, and Shelton. Dean is a real talent.  One of the few female jazz drummers around, and she’s a solid and tasteful player.  As a vocalist, she’s charming and sometimes recalls the young Nancy Wilson.


Another popular Naples vocalist, Rebecca Richardson, joined the group, with guitarist Heck returning, for a medley of “Nana” and “Daydream,” followed by the old Fats Waller stalwart, “Honeysuckle Rose. Richardson has a pure and beautiful tone that’s a joy to hear, and it was put to effective use in the hypnotic medley of Manuel De Salla’s “Nana” and Duke Ellington’s “Day Dream. 


After an intermission, singer Carla Valenti, Shelton and drummer John Lamb performed Billie Holiday’s fondly remembered “God Bless the Child,” done as an up-tempo swinger; Shirley Horn’s touching “Here’s to Life” and Ellington’s “I’m Beginning to See the Light.”  Valenti’s commanding stage presence and obvious professionalism has won her a strong and devoted following in Naples for some years. She was and is clearly an audience favorite.


Stu Shelton introduced trumpeter Bob Zottola by saying how much Zottola has done and how hard he has worked to open up and expand the jazz scene in Naples.  Indeed, Zottola’s Expandable Jazz Band, with Shelton, saxophonist Jerry Zawicki, drummer John Lamb and Shelton, often works seven nights per week to consistently crowded and enthusiastic  houses.  This group’s repertoire comprises swing, bop and compositions from the “Great American Songbook.”  The three songs they played-Lennie Niehaus’ “Bunko,” Illinois Jacquet’s “Robbin’s Nest” and Clifford Brown’s “Tiny Capers”-were three great examples of tight, clean and swinging mainstream jazz.  Zottola’s range and ability to invent, night after night after night, is extraordinary.  Saxophonist Zawicki plays in a lovely Al Cohn/Zoot Sims style, devoid of exhibitionism, not heard too much these days.  He is taste personified.  Likewise drummer John Lamb, who always surprises with his refreshing drum breaks and attention to what the soloists-and the band-are playing.


Tenor and alto saxophonist Lou Califano was the next guest, and joined the group for three, certifiable jazz numbers, Joe Henderson’s Latin-flavored “Recordame,” Benny Golson’s “Blues March” and Clifford Brown’s “Daahoud.”  Stylistically, Califano comes out of the more modern, Sonny Rollins school of saxophone playing, highlighted by an amazing technique.  “Blues March” really stood out on this set, with all involved simply rocking the house.  Even Jerry Zawicki was moved to honk a few times. 


Zottola, Shelton, Patricia Dean (back on drums) and Dan Heck (back on bass) performed a touching “I Thought About You,” mostly as a feature for trumpeter Zottola, before the grand finale.


The entire cast came on stage for the final tune, Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia,” a fitting end to one of the most memorable nights in Naples music history.


Stu Shelton, who also serves as the Unity Church’s musical director, deserves a great deal of credit for every aspect of this concert, which was actually more like a mini-festival. He paced it beautifully and proved to be quite the genial master of ceremonies.  It all worked. Naples as a world-class city for jazz?  You’d better believe it.

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