Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Rudy Lu and J Hunter
In our last episode, I mentioned that Joel Harrison recorded this knockout take on Gregg Allman’s “Whipping Post” where strings were featured prominently. Christian Howes’ violin was one of those strings, and he played a death-defying solo on that recording that helped Harrison take a southern rock anthem to a totally new place. Although the quintet Howes brought to Jazz at the Lake was called Southern Exposure, he wasn’t planning to reboot the Dixie Dregs, Steve Morse’s vastly under-appreciated country-jazz fusion outfit. Late last year, Howes teamed with world-class accordionist Richard Galliano to record a whip-smart take on “nueva tango,” Astor Piazzola’s answer to the happy marriage of jazz and samba. Although Galliano didn’t make this gig, Howes did bring Victor Prieto, a squeeze-box master in his own right who Howes feels a real kinship with, in that they are two guys who play classical instruments that want to be part of “‘La Real’ – the real jazz music scene!”
“Jazz is a verb,” Howes told us while his bandmates were literally taping their music down to battle the incessant winds off Lake George. “It’s an attitude. It’s a way of being… a way of interacting together in an honest way!” Howes and his partners certainly had the interaction part down as they warmed us up with a glowing mix of originals and new looks at Piazzola (the gorgeous ballad “Oblivion”) and Brazilian icon Ivan Lins (a modern-day version of “Aparecido”). “Tango Doblado” translates to “bent tango,” and Howes’ composition covered both ends of the equation: The opening segment showed clear respect for the Argentinian musical tradition… and then that tradition was shot right towards Jupiter with a soaring exploration led by Howes’ rampant violin and Micah Thomas’ explosive piano. Thomas is only 15 years old, and he already has a sense of lyric that players twice his age will never achieve. Thomas and Prieto helped power Howes’ driving “Cubano Chant,” bringing this opening set to a thunderous close.
I missed almost all of Ben Williams & Sound Effect’s Gazebo Stage set at Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival earlier this summer, and the first 20 minutes of Williams’ JATL set happened while I did an interview for a video documentary on the festival. Still, I was very pleased to have Williams’ muscular originals behind my words, because the bassist is a prime example of why we need to focus on jazz’s future as much as we dote on its past. Having already made amazing forward-thinking music with Pat Metheny and Marcus Strickland, Williams’ 2011 recording State of Art has the same kind of intense, personal, no-nonsense vibe you find on early recordings by Williams’ Concord Music labelmate Christian Scott. And the good news is, there’s more to come: A second release is planned for 2014, and the unrecorded piece “Forecast” was a brilliant, long-form addition to the middle of Williams’ set.
Williams was working with a couple of substitutes on this day, but ohhhhh WHAT substitutes! Multi-instrumentalist Stacy Dillard (who plays with local hero Michael-Louis Smith) truly brought the sweet noise on both soprano and tenor sax, and made a great contrast to the natural-born-killer guitar of Matt Stevens. The other sub – drummer Quincy Phillips – is an old mate of Williams, and they made a formidable rhythm section that brought power and possession to every piece. The big news, though, was pianist Christian Sands, who’s been making serious waves with bass monster Christian McBride’s various acoustic groups. McBride’s music hews pretty closely to the traditional vein, while Williams’ compositions are anything BUT traditional; Sands took the expanded canvas and filled it with blinding colors, making a few of us salivate at the thought of when HE goes out on his own! In the meantime, Williams is one of the young artists that make this genre both revolutionary and evolutionary.
“The Dave Liebman Big Band” sounds like a contradiction in terms. As Liebman himself said when introducing “New Breed” (a tune from his days with Elvin Jones), “This is a straight-ahead jazz tune… or as straight ahead as I get!” Thankfully, this big unit runs in the same vein as the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra and the Captain Black Big Band – groundbreaking outfits that are about as far from Woody Herman as Lake George is from Loch Lomand. And since the Liebman Big Band plays pieces Liebman previously recorded, therefore it follows that the “traditional” isn’t gonna make it! “Stardust” and “Sing, Sing, Sing” may have been on the set list, but VJO arranger Jim McNeely wrote the dizzying charts for “Stardust,” and “Sing” had an otherworldly vibe that would have given Benny Goodman nightmares.
Unlike his contemporary Wayne Shorter (whose solos are starting to make Ornette Coleman scratch his head), the ideas Liebman offers up are still accessible; just be prepared for a wild ride regardless of the piece’s tone or pace, because the 67-year old Brooklyn native breaks boundaries in his sleep, and he can still teach soprano sax players everywhere how to fly like an eagle. This level of frontman needs a band that’s big in more than just size, and Liebman’s got that in spades: Vic Juris can do straight-ahead jazz guitar one minute and go psychedelic (and psychotic) the next. Every member of the rhythm section – pianist Jim Ridl, bassist Tony Marino and drummer Marko Marcinko – busted out a headliner-quality solo moment, and the horn section led by multi-instrumentalist Gunnar Mossblad kept it together even when the charts sounded like they were copied verbatim from one of Liebman’s wilder solos.
JATL curator Paul Pines called Liebman “our national treasure.” Jazz at the Lake is our regional treasure. Long may it wave.