Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
Additional photographs by J Hunter
I’d seen almost everyone on the bill for Day One of the Lake George Jazz Weekend (aka, Jazz at the Lake), and my iPod Classic contains music that has each performer in either a starring or a featured role. Therefore, I expected to get what I usually get at Shepard Park every year – an afternoon (and, on Saturday, an evening) of sublime music in one of the coolest settings on the planet. What I didn’t expect was to get my ass kicked by four world-class pianists, but that’s the way it shook out.
One pianist I was ready for was Emilio Solla. A classically-trained Argentinian pianist with six CDs to his name, Solla started out in the clear, playing lilting and evocative lines as the boats floated by on the breeze-stirred waters. He’d started slow, but he built the speed and intensity as Ziv Ravitz added an urgent hand-drummed backbeat on cajon that would lead the rest of the band into the astonishing brightness of “Llegera, Llegera, Llegera.” Victor Prieto’s accordion teamed with Chris Cheek’s reeds to make a unique front-line harmonic, and when Solla chimed in, it was like nothing I could describe, except you couldn’t help but smile like a fool. Solla did a lot of smiling himself as his quintet pulled Astor Piazzolla’s romantic tango firmly into the 21st century, all the while bringing an improvisatory sense other attempts to modernize Piazzolla have sorely lacked.
Most of the band from Solla’s tremendous 2009 disc Bien Sur was onstage at Lake George, which explains the stunning chemistry and instant understanding we witnessed over a joyous 75-minute set. The only “new boy” was Ravitz, who had to step in the shoes of one of jazz’s great drummers on “Hartbeat,” Solla’s epic tribute to the iconic Billy Hart; Zavitz nailed it like he nailed everything that moved. Prieto brought the intimacy that tango needs to be effective, but the brilliant energy he brought to each piece only got bigger on some of his dive-bombing solos. Aside from being one of the genre’s craftier soloists, Cheek has got resonance to burn, whether he plays tenor or soprano, and his depth of tone was matched perfectly by Julian Lage Group bassist Jorge Roeder. Solla and his band left us with “Milonga Mis Amores,” a dizzying take on a traditional Argentinian malonga (“Don’t try and dance this at home,” he advised us. You might get hurt!”), and Jazz at the Lake was off to a marvelous start.
There are exceptions to the rule (Tierney Sutton, to name one), but most vocalists prefer to have bands that are musically subservient to their leader, only stepping to the forefront when the singer needs a break or a drink. Apparently, Sachal Vasandani prefers a little more of a challenge, because the quartet behind him took off like a rocket and kept a cutting (and, occasionally, ragged) edge on a set that was about 95% new material – the only exception being a spirited take on Guy Lombardo’s “By the River Sainte Marie.” The grin Vasandani wore would have lit up an auditorium as he watched them rock out during the instrumental breaks; this group obviously inspires Sachal, as he wowed us all with an attack that was (quite literally) big as all outdoors. This was a man in his element, singing his songs his way, and it was a beautiful thing.
My only past complaint with Vasandani’s live shows has been an inability to make a real connection with the audience. But while his stage patter still comes out of a can, Sachal was selling his lyrics to all and sundry at Lake George, and he shared a palpable chemistry with the enchanting guitarist/vocalist Camila Meza. A Chilean native who’s worked with John Benitez and Bucky Pizzarelli, Meza broadcasts jazz and funk sensibilities through a hollow-body guitar, and the results make you want to hear much, much more. Someone else I’ve wanted to hear more from is keyboardist Fabian Almazan, and both his solos and support work were stuffed with the same acoustic and electric inventiveness that galvanized Linda Oh’s latest disc Initial Here. Drummer Rudy Royston was also on that recording, and the muscular fills he blasted all over Shepard Park were light years from the brushes-only blandness you usually get from drummers that back vocalists. Buster Hemphill’s solid bass lines let Royston drive Vasandani further towards the edge, and the music was all the better for it.
I was hoping for a lot from vibes player Warren Wolf, who thrilled me on Christian McBride & Inside Straight’s disc Kind of Brown, but left me less than impressed when he played with Mike Moreno’s quintet at A Place For Jazz in 2010. On the latter instance, I finally decided it was a case of “Wrong Place, Wrong Time,” because Wolf’s attack is unapologetically traditional while Moreno and pianist Aaron Parks (who also played that date) share a musical mindset that is anything but traditional. To fully appreciate Wolf, you need to see him in the proper context, and the hot quartet he brought to Lake George fit Wolf like a glove during this satisfying mix of originals and standards.
Wolf shares a lot with fellow drummer/vibes player Jason Marsalis, in that Wolf cares more about melody than he does about wowing you with feats of speed or physicality. He can bring it, sure, but it’s all about making the music as great as it can be, and sometimes that means playing one note where thirty notes might be impressive, but would ultimately be overkill. He had a brilliant partner-in-crime in pianist Alex Brown, who picked up the ideas Wolf threw down and expanded them threefold. A recording artist in his own right, Brown had ideas of his own, too, and he shared them with us when he wasn’t working great counters with bassist Kristopher Funn. Drummer Billy Ray Williams, Jr. kept things hopping for Wolf, who closed out the afternoon with a divine take on Cole Porter’s “Just One of those Things,” and encored with a rocking tribute to the Boston jazz club Wally’s Cafe, “427 Mass Ave.”
Donald Harrison, Jr. looked cooler than the ambient temperature when he stepped to the mic and intoned, “You ready for some serious funk?” Sounds like typical rabble-rousing stage patter, right? Sure, except three seconds later he launched into a burning version of Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” that almost made the fleece and down jackets in the crowd seem superfluous. It was chorus after chorus after chorus after chorus of sumptuous, savory, deep-fried alto sax that made your jaw drop a little lower than it was a few seconds before. Harrison was like the pitcher whose last five pitches were faster than his first five: He just kept getting stronger, whether he was playing heady originals like “Young MJ” and “Mr Cool Breeze,” or a beautiful exploration of George Gershwin’s “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” Even when the set turned to smooth jazz (“We call it ‘instrumental pop with a jazz edge to it,'” Harrison informed us), Harrison made it tasty by blowing it up one more time.
Most young players would have thrown down their axes and ran for the hills, but wunderkind pianist Zaccai Curtis stayed right with Harrison, and then he blew it up REAL good whenever Harrison gave himself a rest. Curtis really stood out in Harrison’s “A Night in Treme” band at Freihofer’s last year, and Curtis’ first disc Completion of Proof (with his bassist brother Lucques Curtis) took the jumper cables to post-bop earlier this year. Zaccai’s solos at Lake George were absolutely devastating, showing skills that should be far beyond someone his age. He wasn’t the only thing Congo Square Nation had going for it, though: When guitarist Detroit Brooks wasn’t hitting us with a killing vocal on Roberta Flack’s “Feel Like Makin’ Love,” he was playing solo lines George Benson would have been proud of back when he was still a guitarist. Joe Dyson’s drum work on Harrison’s Blakey-era original “Duck Soup” was off the charts, and Max Moran’s electric bass added jet fuel to “Sandcastle Headhunter.”
Harrison finally got everyone on the dance floor with a medley of the NOLA classics “Iko Iko” and “Hey Pocky Way.” This was the fun side of jazz, the side that gets you grinning from ear to ear as you forget whatever it was that was bothering you the moment before you walked into Shepard Park. “Ain’t no party like New Orleans party,” emcee/artistic director Paul Pines enthused as the crowd gave Harrison and his bad mates the standing ovation they deserved. Day One was done, and there was more to come.
Rudy Lu’s photographs at Albany Jazz