Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Rudy Lu, Richard Brody and Cheri Bordelon
It’s taken a few years, but nowadays I’ll cop to the fact that I’m a pretty negative person. The glass is always half empty, and the weather is “mostly cloudy”, not “partly sunny.” So I had a lot of worries going into the 12th annual Albany Riverfront Jazz Festival – not about the bill (which was as solid as ever, despite having only two national acts), but about external factors. Forget that there were two decent-sized music festivals happening at the same time as Riverfront: Rest Fest in Troy and the New Music Festival at Empire State Plaza. Was Riverfront going to suffer repercussions from last year’s (albeit necessary) weather-related mid-fest shutdown?
As usual, I should have taken an extra chill pill before heading down to Corning Preserve. It was just like old times, as the early-comers coated themselves with sunblock at the top of the amphitheater more than a half-hour before the first act hit the stage; the crowd was growing nicely by the time Sensemaya was mid-way through their super-sweet set, and both grassy knolls flanking the space were filling up with lawn chairs and blankets. People were bopping and swaying and ready to get stuck in for a good time, and not even the steady drizzle that came down later in the day could dampen their spirits. People just popped their umbrellas or snapped up their hoods and said, “Bring it on! This year, we’re here to stay!”
“This is a little early for us,” admitted pianist Jake Pinto, whose band preceded Sensemaya on the initially-sun-drenched stage, kicking off the fest at noon. “Usually, it’s twelve hours later when we start our set!” Winners of the Downtown Albany JazzFest Competition the previous evening, the Jake Pinto Trio is the first non-Nippertown band to snatch Riverfront’s opening slot; the Brooklyn-based unit does have a local link in trumpeter/Greenville HS alum Rhys Tivey, who would be gigging with the trio the following weekend. That said, the Pinto Trio’s opening take on “Bye Bye Blackbird” showed they didn’t just win the gig on downstate rep. Pinto’s in-the-clear opening solo set a cool, meditative tone that stayed strong after bassist Marty Kenney and drummer Noel Brennan kicked in a faster tempo. The 23-year-old keyboardist kept a tight rein on the group’s palpable intensity throughout their set, mixing his own originals with inspired covers that swung from Brian Wilson (“That’s Not Me,” from the Beach Boys’ classic album Pet Sounds) to Thelonious Monk (“Blue Monk” and the swirling closer “Bemsha Swing”).
The Pedrito Martinez Group gave everybody a party before they ran from the rain last year, and Sensemaya brought that same vibe back to the stage for 2013. Mind you, pianist/leader Dave Gleason has a lot more weapons in his arsenal than Martinez. It can be argued that Sensemaya packs one the best front lines in Greater Nippertown, and they showed that in spades as they fought through sound problems to get the growing crowd swaying and shaking. Gleason calls trombonist Ben O’Shea “our secret weapon,” but there’s nothing stealthy about O’Shea’s attack, which comes at you like a rabid Hummer. Pete Giroux’s trumpet is right behind O’Shea on the intensity level, and multi-instrumentalist Tim Williams showed both his control and his versatility on the “Naima”-like “Duas Caipirinhas.” Showing a percussive bent equal to conguero Tony Garcia, Gleason led Sensemaya through a dancing set that was an almost-even split between their two discs Havana Before Dawn and Shake It! Garcia may have been working with a hurting paw, but you wouldn’t have known from the fire he brought to every piece. Maybe only a few people got on the dance floor, but the crowd was obviously glowing from Sensemaya’s heat.
“We’re gonna play some garage-band jazz for you today,” guitarist Roger Noyes told us before counting the Arch Stanton Quartet into their first steel-edged number from their debut disc Along for the Ride. Maybe I should copyright that phrase, since I’m the one that came up with it. Then again, there aren’t many groups in this genre that boast the same mix of bopping jazz and alt-rock attitude that the ASQ brings to the table. Looking natty in his short leather slouch cap, Terry Gordon’s trumpet was wide open on the disc’s title track, and his flugelhorn on McCoy Tyner’s “Contemplation” was right on the money. Noyes tends to play more outside than inside on a general basis, and he had to go further out when he broke a string in the middle of a tune. But although Gordon and Noyes seem to be poles apart stylistically, they both approach their roles with an energy that grows exponentially when they join forces. Combine that with the championship foundation built by drummer Steve Partyka and bassist Chris Macchia, and Arch Stanton had a lot more fans by the time they left the stage.
Guitarist Charlie Hunter was one of the acts that got rained out last year, but that actually may have been a good thing, because it gave Hunter and drummer Scott Amendola a chance to expand on their unique duo act. Jazz duets are usually quiet and reflective in nature; Hunter and Amendola are anything BUT that! These longtime co-conspirators apply a blues-rock sensibility to jazz forms, and the results are as subtle as a flying mallet, and as addictive as White Castle sliders. Facing each other more than they faced the crowd (Amendola’s kit was completely in profile to the audience), the two Bay Area stalwarts displayed an undeniable glee as they brought the stripped-out buzzsaw noise they’ve developed over the discs Pucker and Not Getting Behind Is the New Getting Ahead. Amendola never stopped smiling during the set, but that smile was a lot wider during his dive-bombing in-the-clear opening solo to the latter disc’s title track. Now freed from having to make room for “extra instruments,” Hunter floated like a butterfly and stung like a Predator Drone as he spit out brutally elegant lines while maintaining a bass line that one observer compared to the work of Jack Bruce. The duo’s originals were hot, but it was surprise takes on John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy,” Stevie Wonder’s “Livin’ for the City” and the Broadway classic “Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets” that had the biggest impact. It took a year, but it was worth the wait.
In pop-music terms, Oleta Adams has been invisible since her Gulf War Classic-era hit “Get Here” dropped off the charts. Happily, she’s maintained a solid following culled from the jazz, gospel and R&B worlds, so the Seattle native had plenty of fans at the foot of the stage when Mayor Jerry Jennings introduced the last headliner of his term. Adams has a voice as big as a skyline, but she sculpts it to fit the shape of whatever she’s singing. Adams is a pretty good keyboard player, too, although she left the solo-centric stuff to guitarist Jimmy Dykes, who was more than up to the job. Adams had horn players and back-up singers, too, although they lived inside the laptop that sat next to drummer John Cushon. Ten years ago, that would have been an outrage; nowadays, it’s the cost of doing business – but that doesn’t mean I have to like it! The crowd didn’t seem to have any objections, though, as they cheered and sang and danced in the now-spitting rain, as Adams and her quartet provided some last musical fireworks before the real thing exploded over the Hudson.
Rudy Lu’s photographs at Albany Jazz