Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Rudy Lu
It’s always a bummer when a party has to end early, but what are you gonna do? Organizers of the Albany Riverfront Jazz Fest have had pretty good luck with weather in the past, so it’s understandable that they would roll the dice one more time… only this time the dice came up snake-eyes. The size and potential violence of oncoming storms forced the city to pull the plug a little after 3pm on Saturday, long before Terri Lyne Carrington’s Mosaic Project, Charlie Hunter or Delfeayo Marsalis had a chance to grace the stage. In the eloquent words of Nippertown drum boss Dave Calarco, “It is what it is.”
“Can we at least enjoy an amazing band?” asked “Mike,” one of the fest emcees and a representative from Crush 105.7 (which had become “PopCrush 105.7” the afternoon before). Not only did we get to enjoy a short-but-HOT set from that “amazing band” (aka, the Pedrito Martinez Group), but the early risers and early arrivals got great music from three bands – two of them from Nippertown, and all of them a tribute to Riverfront’s ongoing effort to show jazz is living, breathing, and (most importantly) evolving!
The Chronicles got the honor of opening the festivities by winning the second annual Downtown Albany JazzFest Competition the night before. A six-piece band that stuffs jazz, funk, R&B and a few other influences into a blender isn’t going to win any fans from the traditionalist side of the genre; in other words, they don’t swing. But as we saw from the skin-tight charts that went with reedman Jeff Nania’s opener “Purple Diesel,” that’s just the point! This group is about hitting hard, moving fast and stretching boundaries on several levels: They stretch jazz by pumping it with indelible R&B/pop sensibilities, and they stretch R&B and funk by letting Nania morph from Junior Walker to Eric Dolphy whenever the moment calls for it. Trombonist/frontman Bryan Brundige hit it hard on Jeff Coffin’s “Tag” (a tune Coffin played at Riverfront last year), and Tyrone Hartzog added solid electric piano and cool vocals to an R&B exploration of Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” Maybe the purists weren’t having fun, but the Chronicles had made a lot of new friends by the end of their 45-minute set.
Another member of the Chronicles that impressed me was guitarist Justin Henricks, but not as much as he impressed me in the next group, Way Down. This band’s only been together since March, and have no recordings to their name, but the opening chords of their first tune “Poor Amy” made your head snap around, and the funky grooves of the follow-up “Morning After” proved Henricks wasn’t being ironic when he said, “This next one’s a dance tune.” Some of the licks Henricks played during the opening set pushed the Chronicles’ non-traditional vibe a little bit further, but it’s in Way Down where he really blossoms. With muscular support from bassist Dylan Perrillo and drummer Kevin Urvalek (both of whom have distinctive solo voices), Henricks cranked out the kind of intoxicating, laser-focused jam-band jazz Jeff Coffin and John Scofield brought to Riverfront in past years, and Way Down was hearing it big-time from the crowd as they left the stage. Let’s keep an eye on these guys!
Both the wind and the clouds had been threatening all day long, and thunderheads were making serious tracks over Rensselaer when pianist Ariacne Trujillo and bassist Alvaro Benavides laid down a figure for the Pedrito Martinez Group’s opening number; Martinez and percussionist/vocalist Jhair Sala picked it up and ran with it as Martinez – decked out in sleeveless white t-shirt and sweats and sporting a green Yankees cap – urged us all to clap along. Martinez has a voice that reaches right down to your soul and yanks it up into the sunshine, but when all four members hit a lyric in full voice, the effect is absolutely glorious; so is the mix of Latin and Afro-Cuban music that brought people out of the stands and down on the dance floor. It didn’t matter if you could salsa-dance or not. This music gets you moving, and resistance is futile.
The massive grins all four members of PMG wore throughout the 50-minute set (20 more than they were supposed to play) showed how much this group enjoys its work and each other, even in a truncated situation like this; towards the end of the set, Martinez got in a contest with Sala and Trujillo to see who had the best dance moves. Trujillo is a show in her own right: Her raucous keyboard attack recalls Tania Maria in her prime, except Maria never had the vocal range Trujillo uses with devastating effect. Benavides slides and pops a galvanizing bass over and under the percussion wall sitting in front of him, while Sala adds an MC vibe to the mix, answering Martinez’ lyrics with vocals of his own. At the end of the day, though, this band belongs to Martinez – a heady mix of musicianship and magnetism who held that stage and that crowd in his hand, even in the face of the oncoming storm. Stage hands might have been striking the equipment around them, but PMG just followed their leader and kept on keeping on, and they stayed long after the show to sign autographs and CDs.
The storm hit just as I rolled into my garage, and it stayed on the job well into the evening. As much as I was bummed about not seeing the last half of the bill, I still came away with a damn good afternoon of music – not to mention a determination to see the Martinez Group when they play A Place For Jazz in Schenectady on Friday, November 9.
More of Rudy Lu’s photographs at Albany Jazz
Excerpt from David Singer’s review at The Daily Gazette: “The Pedrito Martinez Group was the last group to play, rising to the occasion. Cuban percussionist Martinez, a staple in the New York City club scene, put on a fun show, treating the venue like an Afro-Cuban jazz dance club. Venezuelan bassist Alvaro Benavides and Cuban keyboardist Araicne Trujillo were excellent on their instruments. With them, plus Martinez on conga and Jhair Sala on cowbell, the sound was full and strong. They were less about chops and tricks: instead they sang in Spanish, shouted, called and answered each other through the verses, shook their bodies at one another, and generally drove high energy at the audience for nonstop entertainment.”