LIVE: Albany Riverfront Jazz Festival @ Corning Preserve Boat Launch, 9/6/14
Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Rudy Lu, Andrzej Pilarczyk
After the rainout of 2012, the people behind the Albany Riverfront Jazz Festival weren’t going to roll the dice again when a big green blob of weather was set to head Greater Nippertown’s way come festival day. And since Joshua Bell and the Albany Symphony Orchestra were playing at the Palace Theatre that night, the jazz fest moved to Alive at Five’s rain site – the parking lot of the Corning Preserve Boat Launch under the I-787 overpass. No way could you argue with the practicality of the move, but would people be willing to hang out under a highway for eight hours, even if the music was free?
The answer was a resounding “HELL, YES!” The Riverfront Jazz Fest is an established tradition now, and a little bit of rain (or, in this case, a little rain and a LOT of wind) wasn’t
going to keep people away. While the overall crowd was a little less than if the show had been at Jennings Landing, we saw the same flow-through of festival-goers that the Riverfront fest has seen in the past, and the usual group of hardcore supporters were sitting in their folding chairs when flamenco guitarist Maria Zemantauski took the stage and ran into the day’s only major issue: Acoustics. There’s no way to minimize the massive echo you get in that kind of space with normal sounds. Put those sounds through two stacks of amplifiers? Fuhgeddaboudit!
If you want a roll of the dice, try booking a solo performer as a festival opener, and then adding acoustics that make you think that festival is being held in the Times Square subway station. “I’m playing everything a fraction of a second faster than I normally would,” Zemantauski joked after her opening number. That sounds like a joke, but anyone who saw this personable Troy-based educator play would believe she was telling the absolute truth. When Zemantauski kicked it into overdrive, you had to measure her finger speed by what Mach they were moving at. Echo or no, there is no way you can avoid smiling when you hear flamenco guitar played with the sheer luminosity Zemantauski brings to every single number, and the subtleties you thought would be lost in that venue were there for the listening. Rather than hitting the audience over the head from the outset, Zemantauski set an easy, friendly tone that stayed with the festival throughout a very cool afternoon.
As powerful as Bopitude leader Michael Benedict is behind his drum kit, you don’t see the scope of his lyrical sense until he picks up the mallets and goes to town with Michael Benedict Jazz Vibes. Benedict had Bopitude bassist Michael Lawrence backing him up, but Lawrence has also been doing trio gigs with the rest of the group – Sensemaya keyboardist-leader Dave Gleason and all-Everything drummer Pete Sweeney – so the chemistry onstage was tremendous from the jumping Milt Jackson opener “Little Sunflower” to the jammed-out Mongo Santamaria closer “Afro Blue.” Gleason’s singularly joyful style took the music to an even higher level of enjoyment as he and Benedict drove each other further out on the edge; their fuzzed-up mid-set take on Gary Burton’s “Boston Marathon” was practically psychedelic. Bopitude has surely gotten big in a big hurry, but I’d love to see Benedict develop this edition of MB Jazz Vibes, because this sound is too tasty to set aside.
Professor Cunningham & His Old School may sound like the handle for a bunch of old duffers who play their local pub every Thursday night, but award-winning multi-instrumentalist Adrian Cunningham has built a septet of young killers that can serve up pure, uncut old school NOLA tunes like “Bourbon Street Parade” and “Egyptian Fantasy” and make them sound showroom new. That being said, this group also understands the depth of the Crescent City’s R&B tradition, so they put that funky spirit into party tunes like “Hey, Little Schoolgirl” and “Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand.” The Old School doesn’t treat these tunes like fragile antiques, and when their righteous front line goes off, all you can do is try to remember to wipe the dirt off your chin when you pull your jaw up off the ground. A terrific frontman who alternated between vocals, clarinet and tenor sax, Cunningham also put a personal twist on a quartet version of “St. James Infirmary” by blowing us all away on flute. Throw in a Sazerac cocktail and a Second Line, and the scene would have been complete. As it stood, we all had a hell of a good time.
The conditions at Riverfront were a lot more turbulent than when Catherine Russell played A Place For Jazz last November. But when my favorite vocalist came out swinging on a Hoagy Carmichael tune and then nailed Dinah Washington’s murder blues “My Man’s an Undertaker,” this crowd (now at its height, pressed up against the stage) made the full house at the Whisperdome seem mellow. I didn’t think the title track to Russell’s latest release Bring It Back could be improved, but guitarist/musical director Matt Munisteri pulled the tempo back just enough to deepen the blues and let Russell show just how sexy she could be. Drummer Mark McLean added major muscle to Russell’s skin-tight band: He brought gospel-meeting tambourine to “Darktown Strutters’ Ball,” and put real juice into “You Got to Swing and Sway.” Munisteri had his guitar turned up to 11 as he cranked out sizzling blues, and as big as Russell’s voice is on a regular basis, she was hitting Otis Redding/Sam Cooke proportions here – which was fitting, since my highlight of this set was Russell’s perfect treatment of Cooke’s ballad “Put Me Down Easy.” It’s so rare to see an artist in his or her prime, but Russell’s now given us that treat twice in the last ten months.
Then Jack DeJohnette… At 72 years of age, the number of drummers (in any genre) that can match him in power and creativity can be counted on the fingers of one hand. And unlike some of his peers, DeJohnette’s not resting on his laurels; you don’t play with second-generation monsters like Ravi Coltrane and Matt Garrison if you want to slow down. The trio’s opening space jams “Atmosphere” and “7D” – both heavy on samples and solos – made it known that fusion not only isn’t dead, it ain’t even sick! DeJohnette did chill things out a tad by moving to piano for a semi-free duet with Coltrane on Bill Evans’ “Blue in Green,” but they followed that with a near-psychotic reboot of Lee Morgan’s “The Sidewinder.” Coltrane alternated between soprano & tenor sax as his wailings grew with wildness and wonder, while Garrison’s electric bass leaned more towards Jaco Pastorius than Garrison’s Old School father. This fine, fine madness may have thinned out the crowd, but those that stayed were downright ecstatic when it was all over.
Greg Haymes’ review at The Times Union
Additional Rudy Lu photographs at Albany Jazz
Additional Andrzej Pilarczyk photographs at Albany Jazz
Excerpt from David Singer’s review at The Daily Gazette: “The highlight was Catherine Russell, a strong, Grammy-winning singer who delivered ’30s, ’40s and ’50s tunes with classy, sometimes sensual and often belting vocals. She opened swinging with the old-timey ‘Jubilee’ into a bluesy Dinah Washington tune. She followed with a great ‘Bring It Back,’ the title track from her latest record. She shook around the stage while her sharp band — a quartet — soloed between verses. The Jack DeJohnette Trio, comprising musicians’ musicians, didn’t always give the crowd something to latch onto. DeJohnette, a pioneer of modern drumming and modern jazz, continues to innovate, and Saturday’s set was filled with spacey electronics, complex jams of multiple layers, and straight jazz. The front stage area finally filled with people, probably mostly musicians. Though the music was thick, it was still nice to watch these masters on their instruments.”