April is “officially” Jazz Appreciation Month – or JAM, as the Smithsonian repeatedly refers to it; however, between the Tanglewood Jazz Festival, the Lake George Jazz Weekend, A Place for Jazz and the Albany Riverfront Jazz Festival, the Capital Region really celebrates Jazz Appreciation Month in September. Like JAM, Riverfront is celebrating its 10th birthday, and like most ten-year olds, the festival is growing like a weed on steroids.
Michael Benedict & Bopitude got the opening slot Riverfront has always reserved for local acts. But as part of the festival’s ongoing growth spurt, ten other groups vied for an additional slot on Riverfront’s program by participating the night before the festival in the Downtown Albany Jazz Fest Competition, a multi-club “battle of the bands,” with the winner decided by audience members. Given the short notice and the first-year status of the contest, voter participation was pretty decent, and there’s talk of expanding the competition next year.
The inaugural winner was Out of the Box, a sextet of scene veterans – two of whom have been playing together since the ’70s. They gave us a half-hour set of Latin-infused standards ranging from Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints” to Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day.” Saxman John Savage burned it up on Duke Ellington’s “Caravan,” and vocalist Sharon Edwards acquitted herself well on a medley of Burt Bacharach’s “Call Me” and Tommy Tutone’s “867-5309 (Jenny).” The band’s assured performance was a great scene-setter for what would be an eventful afternoon.
Bopitude’s debut disc has been getting good airplay since its release earlier this year, but they kicked their standard-based set up a couple of notches at Riverfront. Brian Patneaude’s started his third festival appearance in five years by sinking his teeth deeply into the sax solo on Dexter Gordon’s “Cheese Cake,” displaying the range and passion he’s developed with his own band and with Keith Pray’s Big Soul Ensemble; Patneaude and trumpeter Chris Pasin make a hellacious front line, complementing each other beautifully, and they blew the doors off Bobby Watson’s “Heckle & Jeckle.” The thing that worked best, though, was the combination of Bruce Barth and an electric keyboard. The pianist’s content-rich solos are always a joy, but giving them that tasty Fender Rhodes sound truly made every tune crackle.
A lot of second-generation artists try to run away from their famous parents, demanding we judge them on their own merits. By contrast, vibrant vocalist Simone heartily embraces the work of her mother, jazz diva Nina Simone. “I think my mother would love what I did with this song,” she declared at the end of a wild take on “Black is the Color (Of My True Love’s Hair).” While Simone’s mother didn’t have a “classically-trained” voice, she more than compensated with impeccable phrasing and an undeniable passion; Simone has all of that, plus a nuclear-powered voice reminiscent of Dianne Reeves and a physical presence that radiates confidence and light. By the end of her riveting set, the Hudson High School alum had hit Nat Adderley’s “Work Song” like it had lied to her, and she had the crowd happily chanting the URL of her website. Now that’s viral marketing!
The best description of the Jeff Coffin Mu’tet’s mix of jazz, rock and funk came from a crowd member at their College of Saint Rose earlier this year: “I just wanna dance!” The crowd at Riverfront definitely got with that program, as more and more people filled the “dance floor” in front of the stage. Because keyboardist Kofi Burbridge is on the road with the Tedeschi Trucks Band, the Mu’tet was one man short. If anything, though, that seemed to make Coffin more determined to blow the place down, as he found new and different ways to tear up our minds with a saxophone. Trumpeter Bill “Spaceman” Fanning, guitarist Mike Seal and bassist Felix Pastorius (speaking of second-generation jazzers who kick ass) matched Coffin’s quality and energy note for note, and Jeff Sipe’s closing drum solo was absolutely thunderous. The Mu’tet’s hour set absolutely flew by, leaving screaming converts in its wake.
“Big Sam” Williams was the trombone player in the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, but any link between Big Sam’s Funky Nation and “traditional” New Orleans outfits stops right there. Even though Williams and trumpeter/co-vocalist Andrew Baham were blowing it up big time, Funky Nation’s Godzilla-big music is more about mixing rock, R&B and hip-hop, a not-unfamiliar mix on NOLA’s current scene. Guitarist Takeshi Shimurra got just as much air time as the horns, and he laid it down thick and hot as the Nation mixed Old School songs like “It’s Yo’ Thang” and “Sex Machine” with original crowd-pleasers like “Funky Donkey.” If the crowd on the dance floor loved the Mu’tet, they were downright infatuated with the charismatic Williams and his quintet of hell-raisers, who proved once again that New Orleans music is more than Bourbon Street – a lot more!
I don’t remember a lot about Kevin Eubanks’ first post-Leno disc “Zen Food,” but if it had been anything like the electrifying closing set Eubanks’ bare-bones quartet laid down, I probably would have liked the disc a lot better. Sitting on a stool at the side of the stage, Eubanks started in the clear, finger-picking and slapping a fuzzy, feedback-laced sound that was definitely not shy. The band alternated between bopping jazz and gut-grabbing blues, with tenorman Bill Pierce blowing a fearsome lead while drum icon Marvin “Smitty” Smith gifted Eubanks with the same adamantine foundation he’s been laying down for nearly six decades. I don’t know if Eubanks has been building this repetoire or he was inspired by Funky Nation’s barn-burning set, but the result was a performance that surpassed all expectations. Kevin Eubanks is a full-time band leader again, and if he keeps making mind-blowing sounds like he did at Riverfront, we might forget what he used to do for a living.
Review by J Hunter