BEST OF 2014: J Hunter’s Top 10 Concerts (And More)
Story and photograph by J Hunter
I actually cut down on my concert diet this year; that means I only went to 36 shows as opposed to 45 or 50! Therefore, all the usual jokes aside, your experience may really vary from mine. Nevertheless, the artists I did see definitely deserve some recognition, and I’m sure the people who shared these experiences will agree with me – mainly because they were applauding as loud as I was at the time.
As usual, I have a couple of bowling trophies to hand out before we do the thing…
THE LOCAL HERO AWARD (Venue Division) goes to… MASS MoCA
I mean, come on! Between the Hunter Center, Club B-10, and the newly minted Courtyard Café (let alone the space they give to FreshGrass), I think our neighbor to the east covered pretty much every musical genre there is, and may have invented a few new ones along the way. MASS MoCA’s musical curators think just as far outside the box as the museum’s artistic curators, which almost guarantees a new experience with every show; that said, they mastered the lesson EMPAC needs to learn that “experimental” and “fun” are not mutually exclusive terms or states-of-mind. Here’s to the hosts of Solid Sound 2015! WHOO HOO!
THE GOLDEN BOOMERANG AWARD goes to… SHAREL CASSITY
This primo NYC-based altoist hadn’t been seen in Greater Nippertown for several years before she made two knockout appearances in 2014 with two of our best local outfits. First she got on Michael Benedict & Bopitude’s front line with Chris Pasin and Brian Patneaude and blew the doors off the Daily Grind in Troy; then she appeared alongside fellow sax mavens Claire Daly and Ada Rovatti in a fire-breathing appearance with the Empire Jazz Orchestra at the Colonial Theatre as the anchor concert for the Pittsfield City Jazz Festival. Come back soon, Sharel – and next time, we want to see your band, with your music!
Okay, as Chris Hardwick once said, “That means it’s time to get down with the clown! IT’S ‘FOR THE WIN!’”
NUMBER TEN… IS A TIE!!!
LINE OF SWORDS (2/21/14) and MATT STECKLER & PERSIFLAGE (4/11/14)
GE Theatre @ Proctors, Schenectady
Proctors should change the name of their “NYC Party Horns” series to “NYC Jazz Lab”, because it’s brought a consistent stream of envelope-stretching experimental goodness to Proctors’ marvelously flexible second stage. LOS was two sets of trombonist Josh Roseman, guitarist Ben Monder and drummer Rudy Royston finding new and different ways to blow our minds, while Schenectady native (and “Party Horns” curator) Steckler brought his “other” band back home to sand-blast the rust off his sound after taking some personal time away from the game. Those who know this series love it to death – and if YOU don’t know, you better call someone ASAP, because these shows are better if you bring a friend.
THE BRUBECK BROTHERS QUARTET
Universal Preservation Hall, Saratoga Springs (8/1/14)
It takes something really, REALLY special to get me into downtown Saratoga Springs during Flat Track season, and this group is that special and more. Working with “a very live room” from an acoustic standpoint, the Brothers gave Uni Pres Hall’s sold-out downstairs space two sets of incredible music, much of which was either written or inspired by Chris and Dan Brubeck’s late great father – and the best part about that was, while the BBQ surely respected the material, they had no compunction about putting their own stamp on it. Along with being another terrific date on the summer concert calendar, it gave added muscle to the Brubeck family’s decades-long association with Saratoga Springs. One hopes for more events from this beautifully developing venue in 2015.
ARCH STANTON QUARTET
Blues for Soli drop party @ Parish Public House, Albany (10/25/14)
It’s always a worry when a club you like quotes Spinal Tap frontman David St. Hubbins (“We hope you like our new direction…”), but the Party Place Formerly Known as Red Square has really just fine-tuned the NOLA vibe they kinda-sorta had in the first place. Either way, it was a wonderfully unconventional place for a wonderfully unconventional group to drop their sophomore release. Even the audience was unconventional: I mean, how many shows do YOU go to where a former U.S. ambassador is in the crowd? Props to the Stanton Quartet for not doing the drop-party thing and just playing the disc as-recorded; they expanded on every number from Soli, including having former drummer Jim Ketterer play tabla on “Groovin’ at the Azur.” The club may have tweaked their direction, but the ASQ’s creative track is working just fine!
JACK DeJOHNETTE TRIO (featuring RAVI COLTRANE and MATT GARRISON)
Albany Riverfront Jazz Festival @ Corning Preserve Boat Launch (9/6/14)
Thanks to the weather and the last-minute venue change, this whole afternoon could have easily been a train wreck. But Riverfront’s got a spirit all its own, so everyone hunkered down for a great afternoon that mixed local talents like Maria Zemantauski and Michael Benedict Jazz Vibes with sublime international acts like Catherine Russell and Professor Cunningham & His Old School. At the end of the day (literally), though, it was this revelatory set of nuclear jazz fusion that left us with our faces melted off, happily howling into the night. DeJohnette is another septuagenarian jazz drummer who can demolish players half his age, while the children of DeJohnette’s fellow Miles alums are living proof that genius does not always skip a generation.
HARRIET TUBMAN AND CASSANDRA WILSON PRESENT BLACK SUN
Swyer Theatre @ The Egg, Albany (3/15/14)
As much as I love Cassandra Wilson, there are times when the sultry vocalist leans too much towards the commercial side in concert. No danger of that on this evening, as she paired up with the towering alt-jazz trio Harriet Tubman and really let her freak flag fly – even taking turns on rhythm (and lead) guitar! To put it mildly, this show had (in bassist Melvin Gibbs’ words) “a different kind of energy” from Wilson’s usual acoustic-based concert fare: She still had the breathy come-hither voice that’s knocked me flat all these years, but when applied to guitarist Brandon Ross’ cascading original “I’ll Overcome Some Day” or the group’s funked-up take on the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows,” the effect was almost surreal. Wilson’s more conventionally minded fans may not get Black Sun, but for those of us who relish those moments when she gets experimental, this was one of those nights you cherish with all your heart.
ERIC HARLAND VOYAGER
Zankel Music Center @ Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs (9/26/14)
The mercurial drummer for James Farm and SFJAZZ Collective had brought his unique musical concept to Skidmore before it even had a name, let alone a recording contract. But that first show was in the late, (not even close to) lamented Filene Recital Hall, which is light-years from the glass-walled acoustic marvel that’s become one of the best concert spaces in Greater Nippertown. The inherent toughness of the compositions on Voyager’s sophomore release Vipassana called for guitarist Julian Lage to leave his usual acoustic/electric thing behind in favor of a snarling white Fender Stratocaster, with suitably explosive results. Even when turned up to 11, Voyager’s sound is both lyrical and spiritual, with plenty of places for band members to make their own powerful statements – and when it was over, we were smiling as wide as Harland himself was for most of the evening.
NETSAYI & BLACK PRESSURE
MASS MoCA’s Courtyard Café, North Adams (7/19/14)
I can’t have been the only one who made the trek to the Berkshires on the strength of one video on MASS MoCA’s web site, because my favorite museum’s newly re-purposed concert space sold out for a UK-born, Zimbabwe-raised singer-songwriter with no commercial presence in the United States. And we weren’t the only ones who were bewitched by Netsayi’s towering talent and undeniable charisma: There was no merchandise table at MASS MoCA because every bit of merch had been sold at a festival in New York City the day before. Although Netsayi has an easy stage presence and is quick with a joke, neither her own heat-seeking originals nor her rock-solid covers of U2’s “One” and Miriam Makeba’s “A Piece of Ground” were any laughing matter. There is no shortage of hard truths in today’s Africa, and Netsayi tells those truths in a way that makes them relatable to anyone living anywhere. Netsayi is not a worldwide, household name… but damn it, she should be!
“JAZZ AT THE LAKE” (Day 1), feat. ANAT COHEN, SEXMOB, CYRILLE AIMEE QUINTET and MANUEL VALERA & NEW CUBAN EXPRESS
Lake George High School Auditorium, Lake George (9/13/14)
As it happens, the weather gods did their best to foul both of Greater Nippertown’s fall jazz festivals: The rain was so prevalent on this day, festival organizers pulled the show indoors for the first time in recent memory. Happily, the Lake George school board had seen fit to make their high school’s auditorium both comfortable and acoustically accessible, so we ignored the lack of climate control and dug into a bill that warmed both our bones and our souls. Not even the ’86 Mets could hit four straight home runs, but that’s what happened here: Valera and sax fiend Yosvany Terry led the charge on an opening set of supercharged Afro-Cuban goodness; the multi-talented Aimee made the Django Reinhardt sound new again with an irresistible mix of well-crafted originals and surprising covers; Steven Bernstein’s death-defying quartet Sexmob took us on a no-brakes-allowed trip into the twisted world of Federico Fellini’s favorite composer, Nino Rota; and Anat Cohen amply demonstrated why she is considered the best clarinet player in jazz today.
ALEXIS P. SUTER BAND with TAS CRU
The Linda, Albany (3/7/14)
“We LOVE virgins,” blues colossus Alexis P. Suter laughingly informed the first-timers in the sold-out crowd at The Linda. “You can MAUL them and make them like you!” She wasn’t kidding, either: By the time Suter and her flame-throwing unit were done, I felt like I’d been hit by a convoy of trucks… who then proceeded to put it in reverse and back over what was left of me. When I call the Brooklyn-born vocalist a colossus, I’m not referring to her girth (something she was more than happy to refer to during the show). Suter doesn’t just sing – she roars, with a bottomless passion and a ground-shaking power most dragsters couldn’t match. Her own compositions are some of the nastiest blues you’ll find anywhere, and her awesome takes on the Who’s “Love, Reign O’er Me” and the Beatles “Let It Be” put both pieces in a completely new place that left us all drained, Suter included. Just having Alexis would have made the night all right, but the killer opening set by Tas Cru (featuring local multi-instrumental young lion Steve Kirsty) was a wonderfully savory appetizer.
…and THE NUMBER ONE CONCERT IN GREATER NIPPERTOWN FOR 2014 is…
JAIMEO BROWN’S TRANSCENDENCE
Sanctuary for Independent Media, Troy (12/6/14)
The last may not always be first, but in this case, it was definitely the first AND the best! The Sanctuary has always had a little alt-jazz on its eclectic musical menu, and this fall’s program included this former Stevie Wonder sideman’s head-spinning mix of African-American spirituals, East Indian meditation and Coltrane-esque free jazz. While Transcendence’s summertime appearance at SPAC had definitely left a serious welt, Brown and his compatriots Jaleel Shaw and Chris Sholar have not only expanded on the 2013 Motema recording that bears the band’s name, but they’ve also created a wild set of new music inspired by field recordings of work songs. Where the older music had a mystical sense that lifts you out of your seat, the new material has a power and a groove that takes Brown’s concept through a brand new door. There is nothing like this music anywhere… and since it can’t be compared, it has to be the best – right?
READ OTHER “BEST OF 2014” LISTS:
Tim Livingston’s Top 10 Albums