Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Rudy Lu
The last time I attended the maiden voyage of a festival was to the first (and last) Bethel Woods Jazz Festival. The venue was perfect – a state-of-the-art, SPAC-style indoor/outdoor venue built over the hill from the site of the one true Woodstock; everything else about that show was such a rampant clusterfuck that I swore never to attend another brand-new all-day event until they’d worked all the bugs out. I broke that 10-year moratorium for the inaugural Beacon Jazz Festival, and you know what? These guys may be onto something.
Unlike the “traditional” big monster bill Bethel Woods tried to mount, Beacon Jazz is a fest held in an elegant city park right next to the Hudson, with a beautiful view of the Hamilton Fish Bridge. I-84 is five minutes from Riverfront Park, and you park your car in the lot for the town’s Metro-North station, so city folk don’t have to hit up ZipCar for a grand day out. Two well-managed composting stations replaced the usual series of overflowing trash cans, so free-floating rubbish was kept to a delightful minimum. A ticket system added complexity to the purchasing of food and beverages, but the crowd adapted quickly and the fare from Tito Santana Taqueria was uniformly delicious. Throw in craft beers, free whiskey tastings from over a dozen regional distilleries, and a vendor row that emphasized local businesses and organizations, and you combined small-town feel with “downtown” jazz. In my book, that’s a win-win!
Basically, all you needed was your own chair and a large container of sunblock, as the concert space was out in the open, with consistent shade only available on the perimeter of the field. Thankfully, the breeze off the Hudson mitigated any heat and humidity issues as I settled in under a tree behind the soundboard and watched the most purely programmed jazz festival I’ve ever seen. When I say “pure”, I don’t mean in the Wynton Marsalis sense of the word. The promoters had focused on two key elements that were also locally available: The plethora of jazz musicians who make the Hudson Valley their home, and the generally exploratory drive that exists in many of them. In other words, this was the kind of bill I’ve gotten used to seeing at Lake George Jazz Weekend: No pop stars, no posers!
That direction even went with Mike Depozo & the HV All-Stars, an opening act literally thrown together at the last minute. The original concept presented to Depozo was that the group would play a set of standards, which would have been the easy thing to do. The altoist took one look at the sextet he’d been given – all leaders and composers in their own right, including sax monster Eric Person – and said, “Fuck THAT!” With about as minimal a rehearsal period as you can get, the All-Stars rolled out a righteous set of originals that combined a solid sense of swing with voicings and harmonies that would have made Wynton run and hide. All the players brought a savory mix of inside and outside to their solos, keeping the set firmly ensconced in a downtown vibe while leaving it open to anyone who was more used to the conventional.
With his visage on t-shirts, programs and gift bags, Ted Daniel was literally the Beacon Jazz poster boy. He was also the only person on the bill that could come closest to Wynton-approved jazz, as Daniel’s International Brass & Membrane Corps project is dedicated to exploring the musical stylings of Joseph Nathan “King” Oliver, the man who taught Louis Armstrong everything he knew. (“We goin’ back to the beginning,” Daniel declared after knocking out a killer take on “Workin’ Man Blues.”) But even with that, the festival’s experimental vibe was with this group right from the jump, as Daniel applied his group’s Old School instrumentation to Don Cherry’s out-there classic “Art Deco.” With Joseph Daley’s sousaphone keeping the foundation classic, Daniel’s laser-guided cornet and Charles Burnham’s sizzling violin took Cherry’s piece straight back to NOLA. Drummer Newman Taylor Baker completed the antique picture with an epic (and hilarious) solo on spoons during “Mabel’s Dream.” The Membrane Corp’s music was simple, bright, and utterly delicious, good to the last drop of Arnett Nelson’s “Buddy’s Habit.”
George Coleman Jr.’s Rivington Project was conventional in its own right, but definitely not Wynton-approved conventional: The son of hard-bop icon George Coleman has built a bluesy organ/sax trio with teeth like sabers and a sound that’ll grab you by the throat before you get the chance to clear it. And the younger Coleman isn’t the man on the sax, either; he’s the drummer who lays it down hot while Mike DiRubbo blows it up real good on alto and soprano. The Project’s regular keyboardist, Brian Charette, had gotten a last-minute gig in the Czech Republic, but that allowed us to see the day’s first “super sub.” Like Charette, Jared Gold has a series of organ dates on Posi-tone Records, and can also set fire to the trees with incendiary solos that place the B-3 sound firmly in the 21st century. The senior Coleman did show up in the trio’s take on “Amsterdam After Dark” (“If it’s Amsterdam after dark,” the younger Coleman said slyly, “you know there’s a story to that!”), but apart from that, the Rivington Project is George Coleman Jr.’s machine, and it purrs like a kitten.
Given vibes player Karl Berger’s unconventional musical background, you knew the sextet he brought with vocalist/co-conspirator Ingrid Sertso was going to be anything but conventional. That was confirmed when Berger dedicated the group’s set to “the amazing Ornette Coleman.” Berger founded the Creative Music Studio with Coleman and Sertso way back in the day, so this wasn’t going to be your basic tribute to a fallen soldier; it was going to be a labor of love, which began with Sertso reading her poem “Our Beloved Ornette” over grooving rubato that wove around and under Sertso’s singular delivery. She alternated between spoken-word and fast-scatting vocalese as Berger flashed up & down the scale while guest killer Peter Apfelbaum’s tenor sax fought for space with Kenny Wessel’s slashing guitar. Throw in another muscular guest in drummer Tani Tabbal, and you had a musical 800-pound gorilla that did anything it wanted to – from Berger’s own take on Cherry’s “Art Deco” to a wonderful vocal reboot of Coleman’s “Lonely Woman,” and from Sertso reading original poetry about Africa over a swirling Senegalese folk tune to a straight take on Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” It was all stunningly unique, and it was nothing but awesome.
But if Berger & Sertso’s multi-faceted set was not for the musically squeamish, closing act Sun of Goldfinger was guaranteed to shock even the heartiest souls right to the core. Altoist Tim Berne’s longtime group Snake Oil had leveled the Gazebo Stage at Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival last year, and drummer Ches Smith had been a riveting part of that set. This time it was just Berne, Smith and guitarist David Torn, but that’s enough nuclear throw weight to tear another hole in the ozone. Even the start of the set was off the wall: Without a word, Berne and Smith started working off of Torn’s supersonic soundcheck tunings to create a twisted groove, and Torn just fell right in with them, creating loops and shrieks that were only superseded by Berne’s jaw-dropping dissonance. Beacon Jazz emcee James Keepnews, who’d introduced all previous acts, stood by the stage for a full ten minutes before he simply smiled and took a seat next to the stage, joining what was left of the audience in this careening meditation that was as strangely peaceful as it was unbelievably deafening. As closing acts go, there wasn’t a box that it could have operated outside of, and it was one more thing that makes me feel the Beacon Jazz Festival could be the start of something extra special.