For 28 years, Jazz at the Lake has been one of the last outdoor festivals on the schedule, which means it’s one last blast of summer. Neither rain, wind, fog, paddle-wheeler horns or Revolutionary War re-enactments has stopped Paul Pines, John Strong and the merry band of folks at Lake George Arts Project from annually delivering two straight afternoons of musical bliss. So when the sunshine at showtime was only going to be temporary, and one in four people sitting on the hillside and in the amphitheater was wearing some kind of fleece, what would be the most appropriate music to get this party started?
Afro-Cuban, of course!
Actually, that’s not a joke. To my mind, the sound Cuban-born pianist Osmany Paredes hit us with us comes from the brightest, happiest, most party-friendly sub-genre you’ll find in jazz, and Paredes’ dynamic quartet gave us a lovely warm feeling that was equal to anything provided by the sumptuous butternut squash soup being served at the concession stands. Pines billed Paredes as “classical jazz”, but for most of the set, that characterization seemed only related to the fact that Afro-Cuban was a gift from the late Dizzy Gillespie. Paredes’ quartet was a four-man percussion section, sculpting vibrant, energetic originals that made heads bob and shoulders shimmy. The curveball came when drummer Ludwig Afonso, conguero Mauricio Herrera, and all-in-white bass monster Yunior Terry left the stage, and Paredes launched into a solo original that wasn’t just “classical jazz,” it was “classical music.” And it showed that Paredes’ technical skill is just as massive as the passion that ran through all the music that got us warmed up for a long, lovely afternoon.
For the most part, John Ellis & Double-Wide stuck to music from their sophomore CD “Puppet Mischief,” but that was fine and dandy. Ellis’ wonderfully whimsical creative concept doesn’t just shatter stereotypes about the sound of New Orleans as it stands today; they also shatter stereotypes about the instruments that are key to this unique musical hybrid. For over a century, the Sousaphone has been relegated to making loud fart-like noises from the back of the line, but Matt Perrine morphs the foundation-maker into a deadly counter-force, and the new tune “Bovine Boogaloo” amply demonstrated Perrine’s soloing abilities. Alan Ferber’s own muscular solos were light years from the elephant calls normally attached to the trombone, and keyboardist Gary Versace showed us that the accordion isn’t just for polkas and zydeco any more. A pleasant surprise was the inclusion of drummer/entrepreneur Kendrick Scott, pinch-hitting for Double-Wide’s regular drum major Jason Marsalis. Scott kept it pretty simple, but that left more room for Ellis and his partners to knock us all out with a rampant set that refused to be predictable, offered nothing but fun and games, and ended with the only NOLA tradition that really matters – a rocking second line that went right around Shepard Park.
About halfway through Grace Kelly’s transcendent set, I got in a text war with a friend of mine after I declared, “No 19-year old should sound this good!” After my friend bombarded me with former teen screams like Esperanza Spaulding and Tony Williams, I amended my declaration: “No normal 19-year old should sound this good!” I realize linking Kelly to the aforementioned monsters sets the bar pretty high, but Kelly easily levitated above that bar – and a great deal farther – at Lake George. Alternating between alto and soprano sax, Kelly’s content-rich solos blew us away when she wasn’t teaming with trumpeter Jason Palmer to lay down wild harmonies and dizzying conversations. When she wasn’t playing, she bopped and danced to her band, eyes closed and mouth open, totally locked into the moment. And if being a hellacious instrumentalist and composer wasn’t enough, Kelly also sings at a level many veteran vocalists wish they could reach. The vulnerability in her original “Eggshells” was painfully palpable, and she offered a mesmerizing interpretation of “Bye Bye Blackbird”, accompanied only by bassist Zach Brown. Kelly ended the afternoon with “a little lullaby”: A marvelously intimate take on “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” that stuck with the original but never lost her own voice.
Don Byron couldn’t believe there were people in the park waiting for him to start the evening set. “You’d have to get John Coltrane comin’ back from the dead to get me out in this cold,” he laughed. It’s prescient that the UAlbany educator mentioned Coltrane, because the Don Byron New Gospel Quintet indirectly builds on Trane’s late-career focus by mixing traditional gospel forms with outside-the-box jazz excursions. The music was primarily gospel standards that vibrant vocalist DK Dyson sang with the fervor of a newly-minted missionary. While she worked her own wonderful interpretations into the songs, she played it all pretty straight. Meanwhile, Byron and pianist Orrin Evans played it anything but, finding solo and counter lines that (on their face) seemed to live in a completely different universe from Dyson’s stylings. The thing is, though, it worked like a charm. Theoretically, it shouldn’t have, but somehow the juxtaposition of styles hit a home run on every tune. Byron and Dyson also have a terrific chemistry that mixes deep respect with playful humor. During their fiery encore, Tyson made her second trip out into the crowd, eventually sitting in an empty chair in the amphitheater. “Okay, baby,” she called to Byron, “show me what you got!” To say that Byron and the band responded is an understatement, and the volcanic conclusion literally led right into the lakeside fireworks that put a cap on a sensational first day.
Review by J Hunter
Photogrphs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
Additional photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk at Albany Jazz