LIVE: Jazz at the Lake @ Lake George High School Auditorium, 9/13/14 (Day One)
Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Rudy Lu, Andrzej Pilarczyk, M. Cheri Bordelon
Weather has always been a factor at Jazz at the Lake, but it’s usually just dropping temperatures reminding us that fall is only a couple of weeks away. This year, the rain came down hard enough to move the first day of the festival to the rain site at Lake George High School. As I walked up to the complex of buildings on Canada Street, I had visions of a cavernous gym with a small, old stage under one of the basketball hoops. Fortunately, when the high school got a makeover back in the ’90s, it included a 500-seat theater with good acoustics and great sightlines; unfortunately, school staff couldn’t get the ventilation system working, which made things a bit close as the afternoon went on and the house filled almost to capacity.
Mind you, the crowd could easily have believed the temperatures were just a way of creating a sultry atmosphere for Manuel Valera & New Cuban Express, who went off like a rocket from the first notes of “New Cuban Express,” the title track from Valera’s 2012 release. You can’t help but smile when a good Afro-Cuban band is on its game, and this group had all the ingredients: Manuel Valera is a demon keyboard player and a monster composer; drummer Ludwig Afonso and conguero Mauricio Herrera were a relentless percussion machine, and utility bassman Hans Glawishchnig is as fat on electric 5-string as he is on a stand-up acoustic. But Valera took the extra step of bringing sax fiend/percussionist Yosvany Terry to Lake George, and Terry’s searing alto lines go far beyond simple “Let’s Salsa” flag-waving. Valera’s own solos had the same level of virtuosity, taking the standard A/C formula and shooting it to a dizzying height. Festival-goers were hugging the walls by the time NCE knocked its last shot out of the park, earning them the first standing ovation of the day.
To look at Cyrille Aimee, you’d think the ingénue character from some French drawing-room dramedy had walked off the screen and onto a stage where a Gypsy jazz band just happened to be playing – but that would be a mistake. She’s got seven discs with her name on it (one of which features Greater Nippertown’s own Dylan Canterbury), and not only can Cyrille sing, but also her scat technique (which she amply demonstrated on her own composition “Nuit Blanche” and Nina Simone’s “Love Me or Leave Me”) is on a par with Tierney Sutton. Aimee composed much of the material her skin-tight quintet hit us with, but she also threw some curves in the form of Django-style takes on the Doors’ “People Are Strange” and Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall.” The quintet’s two guitarists – Adrien Moignard on acoustic, Michael Valeanu on electric – took turns serving us ever-more-sizzling chops, all of which had Aimee happily bopping in place like a bobby-soxer hanging by the jukebox. If there had been room to dance, we all would have been bopping to this young, refreshing vocalist who’s taken the Le Hot Club de France platform and built her own home on it.
There’s at least one act at every Jazz at the Lake where I’m rejoicing at the band’s presence while thinking, “Holy shit! Is this gonna fly?” 2014’s wild card was Steven Bernstein’s incendiary alt-jazz quartet Sexmob and their tribute to the music of Nino Rota – the house composer for legendary Italian film director Federico Fellini. This music wasn’t simple when Rota had orchestras playing it; poured into Sexmob’s rampant musical Cuisinart, it’s musical trigonometry. That said, when uber-drummer Kenny Wolleson hit the second line groove on the opener “Volpina,” they got total buy-in from the crowd. Bernstein plays slide trumpet with Sexmob, making his rolling solo lines even more devilish, but his work is almost mainstream compared to saxman Briggan Krauss, who spent most of the show finding the notes between the notes that Thelonious Monk invented. Bernstein and Krauss faced each other for the whole set, taking cues and inspiration from each other as they worked through some wild themes from Fellini’s “Amarcord” and then gave us the twisted swing of “Il Vitteloni.” Tony Scherr may be one of the nastiest electric bassists I’ve ever seen; he and Wolleson are the perfect pair to lay the floor for Bernstein and Krauss, because they bring their own three-dimensional sense of lyric to the party. This wild card paid off big-time, because Sexmob gave us another mind-blowing set that festival veterans will be reminiscing about at future JATLs.
The Saturday evening set is reserved for the heavy hitters, with the last four fests giving us killer sets by Christian Scott, Don Byron, Donald Harrison, Jr. and the New Gary Burton Quartet. But when Paquito D’Rivera calls reed wizard Anat Cohen “one of the greatest players ever of the clarinet,” he’s not blowing smoke. Cohen’s quartet blew away The Egg in 2012, and from the heat she brought to her opening tune – Milton Nascimento’s “Lilia” – it looked like Lake George’s auditorium would get the same treatment. This wasn’t the same group Cohen brought to Albany two years ago, which was both good and bad: While bassist Joe Martin’s solo work was nothing compared to that of his predecessor Omer Avitel, keyboardist Gary Versace (last seen at JATL in 2011 with John Ellis & Double-Wide) dove into Cohen’s songbook like a seal into a fish tank, dropping wicked fender Rhodes chords onto Jason Lindner’s “Anat’s Dance” and breaking out the accordion he used with Ellis to give Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose” the Left Banke feel it requires. Happily, Daniel Freedman’s still with Cohen, because he takes the art of drumming beyond the norm. He was the driver on “Happy Song,” and his vast composition “All Brothers” let Cohen wail us into delirium.
It’s almost a shame that the rain had stopped by the time we walked out to our cars, because we all needed to cool down after one of the hottest days (literally and musically) Jazz at the Lake has ever given us.
NOTE: Fortunately, two of the bands on Day One of Jazz at the Lake are already booked for return appearances in Greater Nippertown. Cyrille Aimee is headed into The Egg in Albany at 8pm on Friday, February 13 ($24), while Anat Cohen and her band will take the stage at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall in Troy at 7:30pm on Friday, February 27, sharing the stage with the Marcus Roberts Trio as part of the inaugural Bridge Jazz Festival ($28, $36 & $42).