LIVE: Woodstock Jazz Festival @ Bearsville Theater, 10/4/14
Review by J Hunter
There are a lot of great reasons to live in Woodstock, but I’d say the best one – or the worst one, if you live somewhere else – is that you have to WANT to get there! It is not a short drive, by any definition of the word “short.” That being said, the muddy parking lot at the Bearsville Theater was chock-a-block with cars and trucks over an hour before the inaugural Woodstock Jazz Festival made its entrance into the world. But then, if you had a shot at seeing the people that hit the stage last Saturday night, wouldn’t YOU fill your gas tank and hit the road?
This was my first trip to Bearsville, and it’s already one of my favorite small venues. The architecture is outstanding, and whoever designed the interior had the Nobel Prize-winning idea of walling off the concert space from the bar area; as such, those who want to have a few and talk loudly – like they’re just at the local pub with their friends – are separated from those who actually go to a concert for the primary purpose of listening to the music. (I know! Crazy, right?) All the music is played through speakers in the bar, so even though I had no seat in the theater, I could still hear the music and watch the action through the big windows behind the bartenders, who were on the go long before festival co-curators Liz Penta and Ben Perowsky introduced the festival’s first act, pianist Uri Caine.
Caine is one of those confounding hybrid artists who is just as much at home re-working Bach concertos as he is funking up Marvin Gaye’s main theme from the classic blaxsploitation film “Trouble Man.” On his recording, Caine had Questlove and Christian McBride helping him out on the latter tune, but at Bearsville, it was just him and a grand piano, but that was more than enough. Essentially, Caine spent an hour challenging us to the best game of “Name That Tune” ever, as he put iconic works like Fats Waller’s “Honeysuckle Rose,” Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight” and Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” through serious deconstruction.
Caine did give us clues by playing the original melodies… for about five seconds. As such, you had to stay alert if you wanted to play the game. This kind of recital-hall experience showed it was a brilliant decision to sequester the bar: While those in the hall met Caine’s musical and mental gymnastics with increasing applause, the drinking talkers became increasingly bemused. I know – I had to listen to them kvetch. Oh, well – you can’t please everyone. Caine’s adventurism sure pleased me, and validated the gamble of starting the show with a solo act.
RedCred could be fobbed off as just another one of keyboard guru John Medeski’s many under-the-radar projects, but if you look at the résumés of Medeski’s cohorts (drummer Perowsky and reed wizard Chris Speed), you realize this trio has some serious throw weight. RedCred just finished their first recording after gigging periodically over the last eight years, so the world will get to hear this group soon enough. For this night, anyway, they were all ours – and, again, there was a serious divide between the listeners and the drinkers.
With the exception of a quick break before their last tune, the trio played straight through their hour-long set, alternating between dizzying rubato, tantalizing groove and deep solo exploration. While much of this appealed to the right-brained people in the crowd (Translation: The drinking talkers’ bemusement continued to come & go), Bearsville was in danger of leaving the ground when Medeski turned up the warp drive on his Hammond B3, Perowsky worked the groove like it owed him money, and Speed raised the bell of his tenor sax to the ceiling and indulged his inner Junior Walker. I’ll wait to see if this chemistry and energy translates to the studio, but it sure worked well here.
The headliners – Medeski, Jack DeJohnette, John Scofield and Larry Grenadier – could have been called Six Degrees of Scofield, since the ebullient guitarslinger was its relational nerve center: He’s the co-headliner in Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood (including on their latest Indirecto release Juice), and he and DeJohnette were part of Trio Beyond, the grand champion of Tony Williams tributes; I’m sure Scofield played with Grenadier at some point during his five-decade career, but even if he hadn’t, Brad Mehldau’s world-class bassist was the perfect floorwalker for a group that featured three of the best soloists in jazz today. Medeski and Scofield were at opposite sides of the stage, facing each other more than the audience and (in the case of Scofield) blocking DeJohnette from half the crowd.
The thing is, though, these guys could have done this show blindfolded, because you could feel the listening that was happening onstage as the quartet rolled through mind-bending takes on John Coltrane’s “Promise” and Miles Davis’ “Airegin.” DeJohnette called out music from Trio Beyond’s righteous double-disc Saudades, and Medeski took it right to heart. While the fused-out version of Milton Nascimento’s “Afro Blue” would have been a perfect capper on the night, the group pulled out a coda that simply couldn’t be beat: A straight-up take on Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry” that featured DeJohnette on lead vocals! As bombastic as his drum solos were on this night, none of it had as big an effect as DeJohnette rasped-out singing voice. It even shut up the drinking talkers, who were too busy picking up their jaws with the rest of us.
The long-term plan is for Woodstock Jazz to expand slowly into a multi-night/multi-venue festival in the same vein as Hudson Valley Jazz Festival. I’m sure Perowsky was going to talk to us about that after the quartet’s killer closer, but after staring out at the crowd, he finally admitted, “I forgot everything I was going to say, so I won’t say anything!” We all understood. It was one of those nights where both the left and right side of the brain was so inundated with great sounds and images, the only thing left to do was shut down and make that long drive home.
ALSO READ: A Few Minutes With… Ben Perowsky
NOTE: Woodstock Jazz Festival co-curator and RedCred drummer Ben Perowsky shifts musical gears this weekend, teaming up with rapper TK Wonder to perform at the O+ Festival in Kingston on Saturday (October 11).