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Famous faces take the stage for Friends of the Arts

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The annual three-day Washington Mutual Jazz Festival produced by the Friends Of The Arts in Oyster Bay concluded its seasonal run last weekend with the dynamic, swinging vocal and piano styling of the reigning queen of jazz, Diane Schuur, and the contemporary jazz quartet, The Yellow Jackets.

Their performances followed the previous two days’ phenomenal sets by the new eclectic jazz trio SouLive, new jazz vocalist Liz Wright, famous young pianist Cyrus Chestnut, legendary jazz saxophonist David Sanborn and Spyrogyra.

The Yellow Jackets, once a session band called the Robben Ford Group in the 70s and now a household word in the world of hip jazz aficionados, opened for Schuur and made it immediately clear why they have received the accolades bestowed upon them over the years.

The band’s matrix is a blend of four awesome talents, including Bob Mintzer on tenor sax, Marcus Bailey on drums, Russel Ferrante on piano, and Jimmy Haslip, from Huntington, L.I., on electric bass. They played tunes from their self-released album “Mint Jam,” which had been nominated for a Grammy in the Best Contemporary Jazz Album category a few years back. They also played some ear-bending magical tunes from their first studio production in five years, the just released “Timed Squared.”

The band made an immediate connection with the crowd, generating a series of standing ovations for the band’s exploratory forays into the realm of jazz improvisation. The band was uniquely original, fresh and unafraid to share its musical vision with its growing fan base.

Schuur, on a Baldwin Grand piano and an electric keyboard, had minor problems getting comfortable because of amp feedback and volume concerns, the oppressive evening humidity and some technical adjustments with a circulating fan on stage.

But like the pro that she is, Schuur assured her fans that she was “just going to get things right because I wouldn’t do it any other way, and that I wanted you to have a great evening and to just enjoy yourselves.”

With all of that going on Schuur’s trio — which included Peter Retzlaff on drums and Scott Steed on bass — easily managed to leave the audience breathless with her 3 1/2-octave vocal range and seamless delivery of memorable tunes like Johnny Mercer’s “When October Goes” and Barry Manilow’s “What Is Love.”

These tunes, and others from her third Concord release, “Midnight,” included “He Loved Me,” another lyrical Manilow creation. Her set was beautifully balanced with her offerings of , “Love Wants To Dance” and the classic “Besame Mucho.”

Schuur was quoted once as saying, “Nothin’s going to stop me because the only thing that limits you is your own mind if you let it. I feel blessed when I am on stage. I want to go out and hug everybody.”

Anyone who has been lucky enough to see and hear this limitless talent do her thing on the great stage has at the conclusion of one of her performances become the recipient of a huge virtual hug from her. At her Friends of the Arts performance, though fraught with minor technical problems that might have devastated someone of less style and talent, Schuur made the audience feel her positive vibe throughout her entire set. And when her fans left for the evening drive home, there was no doubt that they had been reminded again why this great lady of the jazz lyric has been nominated for five Grammy Awards and has received two of them for being voted the Best Jazz Vocalist during those years.

Though WaMu Jazz Festival has concluded for this season , the folks at The Friends Of The Arts, lead by Executive Director Theodora Bookman, promise even more unparalleled first-rate productions.

The 2003 Long Island Summer Festival continues at the same venue Aug. 23 with Art Garfunkel, Natalie Cole on Aug. 29, The Wynton Marsalis Sextet Aug. 30 and Rosanne Cash Sept. 6.

Tickets for the great lawn and mainstage tent seating for these remaining summer events, if not already gone, are sure to sell out quickly. The Friends of the Arts can be reached for ticket information, show times and directions by calling 516-922-0061 or by going on line to www.friendsofthearts.com.

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