Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
Additional photographs by J Hunter
Day 2: A few less clouds, a little more warmth, and the kind of bright blue sky that makes the green surrounding Lake George seem even crisper. The color explosion that comes with fall hadn’t started yet, but you could see its beginnings in the tinges of orange on the tips of the trees in Shepard Park. Either way, the Autumnal Equinox was still six days off, so the agenda for the afternoon was to sit back, relax, and take in the last day of the last jazz festival of summer.
Anyone who’s experienced Jazz at the Lake knows that the creative force behind the festival – artistic director Paul Pines – used to run a jazz club in the Bowery called the Tin Palace. Pines has talked about it and written about it, but until tenorman John Tank stepped onstage, many of us had never heard anyone else speak about the venue the Canadian expatriate played in the 1970s. Dressed for the season in a yellow jacket, white pants, and a jaunty blue slouch cap, Tank called the Tin Palace “a community-based group.” Although Pines brought in big-name talent like vocalists Sheila Jordan and Eddie Jefferson, Tank said, “If you just lived in the neighborhood, you could work at the Tin Palace.” These were happy and strong memories, and they definitely fueled this opening set.
The only thing warmer than Tank’s words – both about Pines and the Tin Palace – was the rich tone that floated out of Tank’s sax as he led his quartet into the apt-for-the-occasion opener “Indian Summer.” The piece was written by Victor Herbert in 1919, but almost everything else we got were band originals, including Tank’s gorgeous two-part suite “Song of Hope.” This was long-form vanilla bebop, but if you’ve got the right ingredients, vanilla can taste oh so good! Pianist Michael Cochrane’s chord choices joined up with Tank’s off-kilter figures to make the closer “Ghost” seem like the friendliest zombie you’ll ever meet. Bassist Calvin Hill overcame persistent pick-up buzz to serve up dive-bombing solos as lyrical as anything Tank gave us, and drummer Jeff Hirshfeld more than lived up to Tank’s assessment of him: Rather than doing one big thing to draw attention to himself, Hirshfeld did a dozen little things to make every single piece a little bit better. The Tin Palace Reunion Band was a “community-based group”, working together to give the afternoon a warm, friendly start.
Steven Bernstein pulled out all the stops as far as personnel goes with Millennial Territory Orchestra, bringing a killer nonet that featured heavyweights like bassist Ben Allison – whose Jim Hall Project appears at Athens Cultural Center on Saturday (September 29) – reed wizard Peter Apfelbaum, and last-minute addition Allison Miller, who was subbing for drummer Ben Perlowsky. Bernstein started things off by accomplishing something nobody has ever done: Playing Paul Pines off the stage! MTO was already into the opening riff of “Stand” before Lake George Arts Project majordomo John Strong had even introduced Pines, and they held that riff until a laughing Pines gave them a truncated introduction and retreated off-stage. From there, keyboardist Jamie Saft pumped the bluesier-than-usual version with Hammond B3 goodness that was occasionally punctuated by staccato blasts from MTO’s mammoth horn section. Then Bernstein grabbed his valve trombone, turned the band into the flag-waving chorus, and proceeded to knock us all on our asses.
While some of Bernstein’s takes on Sly Stone’s songbook hew pretty close to the original recordings, the new perspectives Bernstein brings to some of the reboots are absolutely outstanding: Vocalist Dean Bowman described the dysfunctional world of “Family Affair” with a delicious Tom Waits growl, while “Everyday People” had an underlying pain-tinged vibe that really spoke to the polarization that runs through today’s society. Bernstein preceded a joyous version of “M’Lady” with the bluegrass duet “Sly Notions,” featuring two “Brooklyn hillbillies,” guitarist Matt Munisteri and violinist Charlie Burnham; then, after telling us “I always try to do something we don’t quite know… to get the TRUE jazz experience”, Bernstein closed the regular set with a funky-but-expansive version of “I Want to Take You Higher” that was shaped during a three-month residency at The Stone in New York’s Alphabet City. Both Apfelbaum and Munisteri went completely off-planet on “Higher,” with solos that took your breath (and your lungs) away. Bernstein encored with the “Oakland blues, as only Sly could write it” of “Time,” which Bowman’s vocals absolutely nailed when Munisteri and Saft weren’t bringing their own wrenching blues stylings to the piece. The two standing ovations MTO received made me sigh with relief, as I had worried about how this music would be received by Jazz at the Lake’s more traditional-minded regulars. I shouldn’t have worried, though, because Sly & the Family Stone touched a lot of childhoods, and this new take on old memories was greeted like a long-lost friend.
I knew there was something missing from the John Benitez Group’s fest-closing set, but I couldn’t put my finger on it until Benitez announced that the music they were playing (from Benitez’ new disc Purpose) was on sale at the concession stand “with more percussion.” And there it was! While everything Benitez and his band played had an urgent feel that tickled your soul, it was all just one conguero away from closing the deal – which made the experience interesting but frustrating, because you knew it would be a whole lot better in its original form. Percussion chores were left to 21-year old drummer (and Benitez’s son) Francis Benitez, who definitely brought the noise on his rideout solos, but didn’t really get comfortable in support until the last quarter of the set. That said, there’s a rack of chops there just ready for cooking, and I want to see what this kid can do a few years down the line.
Even though they were short-handed, the band certainly didn’t throw in the towel. Benitez alternated between stand-up and electric to show why he’s one of the most sought-after bassists in the genre, and all his compositions had a real vitality to them. Manuel Valera put a cap on Jazz at the Lake’s onslaught of kick-ass keyboardists by serving up the kind of piano that made you want to salsa-dance, even if you didn’t know how. Altoist Roman Filiu was working like mad out front, but he had to find a new gear when an impeccably-dressed Donald Harrison Jr. came onstage for the last half of the set. Thelonious Monk’s “Evidence” had some salsa poured on it as Harrison gave us a succulent taste of what he was serving the night before, and then Benitez called another new tune which had Harrison dancing on the side of the stage when he wasn’t blowing up at the front of the stage.
And that was it – another great weekend in the Happiest Place on Earth. And even though I was bummed that it was over, the thought of what might happen at Jazz at the Lake’s 30th anniversary next year will tide me over nicely as the mercury falls with the leaves, and we all have to go back inside again.
J Hunter’s review of the Lake George Jazz Weekend, 9/15/12 (Day One)