This one might just have been the best Albany Riverfront Jazz Fest yet. Really, I don’t know what more you have asked for.
The fest kicked off with some homegrown talent when Troika hit the stage about 12:30pm. There was already a fairly decent crowd (unlike most years), and the trio didn’t disappoint, as saxman Eric Walentowicz blew inside and out with the band’s firey “Watermelon Man” finale.
Somi was the wildcard – at least for me – but, my goodness, was she good! US-born to parents from Uganda and Rawanda, the singer put a captivating world-music spin of the day’s proceedings. She sang in several different languages, and her take on “Ingele” – sung in Swahili – was one of the highlights of the day. She’s got a mindboggling range, and when she swooped deep into her lower register, knees buckled. “Wallflower Blues” was a gently percolating samba, and she borrowed Fela’s classic “Lady” for her own anti-domestic violence anthem, “African Lady.” Her bandmembers were no slouches, either, especially keyboardist Toru Dodo, whose imaginative solo on “Enganjyani” rippled into a different stream altogether.
Saxman Ravi Coltrane was just as intense and focused as expected. Even when feedback problems brought the opening “Nothing Like You” to a screeching halt, he jumped back into the tune with full force. The band – which also featured pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Drew Gress and drummer E.J. Strickland – dipped into the songbags of Thelonious Monk and Ornette Coleman, but the major highlight of the set was the deeply spiritual, hymn-like ballad “Jagadishwar” from the pen of Ravi’s mother, Alice Coltrane.
Ya want funk? Ivan Neville’s DumpstPhunk brought it. In spades. The 51-year-old son of Aaron Neville leaned hard on his keyboards, the area in front of the stage turned into a dance floor and everybody was at least knee-deep in the funk. How deep? Well, guitarist Nick Daniels switched over to bass to join bassist Tony Hall for half of the set, including a bootylicious rendition of “Shake It Off.” The highwater mark of the set, however, was the show-closing “Meanwhile,” which perfectly balanced the anger (“Five years since Katrina hit/I still ain’t got my FEMA check”) with the party-on ethos of the Big Easy (“Meanwhile, you might as well have a good time”). After the song’s simply ferocious dual bass duel, Ivan simply leaned into the microphone and told the crowd, “That’s why we have two of ’em.” ‘Nuff said.
Guitar great John Scofield slipped out onstage to join DumpstaPhunk for their highway wattage finale, layering his fretboard fireworks onto the New Orleans syncopated funk beat. (If you don’t think that Scofield knows his way around the New Orleans sound, check out his recent “Piety Street” album.) When he returned for the fest-closing headline set with his own band, the guitar hero slid back into the Mardi Gras parade beat for a greasy, easy-rolling rendition of “Groove Elation” that was kicked into overdrive by the magnificent drumming of Matt Wilson. But he didn’t stay in one groove too long, also firing up some brisk be-bop with Dizzy Gillespie’s “Wouldn’t You” and slowing things down with a sensuous treatment of the old Billy Eckstine ballad, “I Want to Talk About You.”
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
An excerpt from David Singer’s review in The Daily Gazette: “Coltrane delivered the most complex set of the day, the kind you can’t follow unless you treat jazz like science. The quartet ended their set by breaking down the walls of a Monk standard, where drummer E.J. Strickland took a lengthy, melodic solo that stayed inside the song until he got too crazy for himself and fell outside the framework. This is how it went for Coltrane’s solos too, often going outside the song into nowhere land, or so it sounded to a semi-trained ear.”
The Times Union review