The weather on Sunday hit that sweet spot you rarely see at Freihofer’s Jazz Festival: Just cloudy enough to keep the sun from beating your head in, just cool enough to make you forget it wasn’t the middle of summer. Still, I sunblocked up as I sat down to watch Rebecca Coupe Franks open the Gazebo Stage. Backstopped by sterling pianist Luis Pedromo, Franks has got chops, but she’s also got guts – not only for playing all-original material, but for singing her own lyrics, because as a vocalist… well, Franks is a great trumpet player. Nonetheless, I heard depth and intention in her material, and if she puts as much work into her singing as she put in her playing, something very cool could happen someday soon.
Where the hell was this Tia Fuller on her last disc?! To my mind, the former Beyoncé back-up player was completely overshadowed by the all-star cast on her Mack Avenue debut “Decisive Steps.” But here, dialed in with a tight quartet ram-rodded by drummer/brother-in-law Rudy Royston, the charismatic alto player was an absolute revelation. The bigger news, though, was Fuller’s sister Shamie Royston, who’s as hot on piano as Fuller is on sax. She writes the lion’s share of Fuller’s material, and a little bird told me Royston was recording her own stuff a few days before this show. Shamie Royston: Remember the name!
One name we all know is the Bad Plus, whose Bizarro-world approach to jazz has been yanking chains for the better part of a decade. Normally they’re the life of the party in concert, so you could have knocked me over with Sarah Palin’s brain when I realized their set was… BORING! Part of it was the cavernous Main Stage, which eats piano trios like I eat Dim Sum. I thought if anyone could break that streak, TBP could do it, but they went down the hatch like so many before them. The other thing is that the Bad Plus isn’t the weirdest thing on the menu any more. Compared to outfits like Mostly Other People Do the Killing, the Bad Plus seems (gasp!) mainstream. The thrill is gone… or, at least, it was MIA at Freihofer’s.
David Binney’s music is decidedly downtown, with a dizzying complexity and a fierce intelligence – you know, the kind of thing that gets eaten like a chicken wing at an outdoor festival. Not here, though, and not now: You could have heard a pin drop on the grass as the fiery altoist (assisted by pianist/main foil Jacob Saks) served up the most intense Gazebo set since Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey lit the place on fire four years ago. A batch of Skidmore Jazz Institute students sat on one side of the audience, absolutely rapt, as Binney wound the music tighter and tighter until you thought your head was going to burst. It looked like one of the students had fallen asleep, until you realized he was listening as hard as he could.
Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings celebrated their return to the Capital Region by doing EXACTLY the same show they did at the Egg a few months back. That may have packed the amphitheatre, but my therapist told me to cut back on déjà vu, so after a quick dinner break, I went back to the Gazebo to catch the Matt Slocum Trio. Slocum’s name is on the marquee, but you’d be hard-pressed to tell the talented drummer was the leader in this band, because all three players cut an equally wide swath through a quietly intense set of originals. Danny Grissett’s piano has a feather-light touch, and Massimo Biolcati’s content-rich bass was suitably fat as they played music from their upcoming, untitled disc, to be released later this summer.
Wearing an all-white suit onstage is like playing a Flying V guitar: If you don’t come strong, you’re gonna look like an idiot! Donald Harrison Jr. was wearing an all-white suit, and he was blowing from the jump, torching the front rows while pianist Zaccai Curtis alternated between sterling backup work and thrilling solos. And if this was only Harrison’s band, that would have been enough. But this was supposed to be “A Night in Tremé”, a taste of HBO’s biggest show since “The Sopranos,” and Harrison needed a lot more than he had: More horns (Harrison’s alto sax was it), more Neville Brothers (only Cyril was in attendance), and more Mardi Gras Indians (Harrison only had two, neither of them Bo Dollis). Basically, Harrison brought a knife to a gunfight, and the lack of “more” sent me back up the hill in short order.
Good thing, too, because that was where the excitement was. The Pedrito Martinez Group’s Afro-Cuban attack had made the almost-empty amphitheatre jump during their opening set, and in the open air of the Gazebo with an eager (and larger) crowd, it was like pouring rocket fuel on a bonfire. Martinez is one of the best congueros on the planet, but his vocals are equally as mesmerizing, and the chemistry he shares with his international bandmates is a wonder to behold. I’ve never seen any Latin group work without horns and survive, but with the soaring harmonies Martinez and his cohorts can create, horns aren’t even an afterthought. This music was utterly joyful and completely addictive, and it left all of us howling for more.
From a technical standpoint, you couldn’t have asked for more from the latest edition of “Sing The Truth!” Billed as a tribute to vocal icons Odetta, Abbey Lincoln and Miriam Makeba, we got plenty more from three of the best vocalists around: Lizz Wright’s low alto was tailor-made to do Gladys Knight’s “(I’ve Got to) Use My Imagination,” Dianne Reeves and Angelique Kidjo’s duet version of Aretha’s “Baby I Love You” was outstanding, and Reeves absolutely owned Tracy Chapman’s “All That You Have is Your Soul.” The backup band was a jaw-dropper, too featuring heavyweights like keyboardist Geri Allen, drummer Teri Lynne Carrington and guitarist Romero Lubambo.
So why did “Sing the Truth” piss me off?
Because as the show went on, and the three vocalists kept doing numbers that were better than the ones that came before, I wanted to stand up on my chair and yell, “I WANT TO HEAR YOUR MUSIC!” Wright’s sultry magnetism, Kidjo’s boundless energy, and Reeves’ powerhouse presence are some of the reasons why jazz today is as strong as it’s ever been, and shoe-horning these three great talents into a “tribute” situation – no matter how laudable the honorees may be – minimizes these talents of the present in favor of what’s come before. There’s no doubt Odetta, Lincoln and Makeba were great role models for women performers, but we’ve got great role models now. And now is the time to celebrate them – not after they’re gone, too.
Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarcyzk