LIVE: Bridge Jazz Festival @ the Massry Center, 2/28/15 (Day Two)
To my mind, a really great jazz festival should give you a lot more than terminal heartburn and a farmer’s tan; it should give you the biggest picture possible of what this genre is all about. If the second night of the inaugural Bridge Jazz Festival is any indication, we may be seeing the first blooms of a really great jazz festival! While Night One at Troy Savings Bank Music Hall featured some of the best concert jazz around, Night Two at the College of Saint Rose’s Massry Center for the Arts would show that jazz could have a beautiful intimacy while maintaining (to steal from the late Leonard Nimoy’s signature character) infinite diversity in infinite combinations.
Gretchen Parlato and Alan Hampton have been developing their own sense of intimacy for a number of years now, with the vocalist and the multi-instrumentalist writing for – and singing on – each other’s projects. Recently, they decided to see what they could create when they didn’t have other musicians to make room for, either onstage or in the mix. As such, it was just Hampton with his various axes (including ukulele, which he played on his opening composition “Every Living Part”), Parlato with a few shakers, and a joint harmonic that was as gorgeous as it was unique that led us into this relatively early evening. Hampton’s vocal style won’t ever be confused with Kurt Elling; he’s more like Paul Simon with a little more steel. Between that and his seemingly infinite range, he’s a perfect vocal partner for Parlato, who almost always stays within her sultry alto.
These are two voices that were meant to be together, whether it’s on Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Dona Lisi” or Hampton’s “After All” (during which Hampton bowed beautiful double bass). Mind you, this is also a collaboration between writers, and Parlato brought her own serious songwriting chops to the meditative “Still” and the beguiling “Magnus,” which was inspired by a child singing a lullaby to his mom’s pregnant belly. “Better Than” was done with a full band on Parlato’s 2013 disc Live in NYC, but the intimacy of this show’s duo version made the song ten times better. For those expecting the same kind of “traditional jazz singer” vibe of headliner Cecile McLorin Salvant, Parlato and Hampton’s jazz/folk hybrid was a difficult pill to swallow, but those who got it REALLY got it!
If Gretchen Parlato is not Rosemary Clooney, then Fred Hersch is definitely not Bill Evans, although Hersch certainly displays the safecracker-like touch of Miles Davis’ best-known pianist. The Grammy-nominated artist (whose 2014 release Floating – in Hersch’s words – “lost to a guy named Chick Corea…”) is not a pounder, and yet milks more emotion and electricity out of his 88-key axe than almost any keyboardist I’ve ever experienced… INCLUDING Corea! Hersch is one of those prized people who takes jazz’s beloved piano-trio concept and puts it in the Large Hadron Collider, so the chance to see him and his longtime rhythm section do their thing live is a chance to be snatched up like a lost $100 bill. As a transition between Parlato and Salvant, Bridge Festival organizers couldn’t have asked for better.
The title track from Floating was a perfect metaphor for Hersch’s own playing style: His fingers seem to hover above the keys rather than strike them, but he conjures patterns and chords that totally belie this seemingly passive style. The aptly-titled opener “Whirl” (dedicated to dancer Suzanne Farrell) showed how strong Hersch’s visual style was; you could close your eyes and see a ballet dancer, all in white, swooping across the stage. Hersch always has Thelonious Monk on his mind (“We always close our show with a Monk tune,” Hersch informed us before his dynamic take on “Let’s Cool One”), as we saw during his intricate composition “Dream of Monk,” one of several places where bassist John Ebert showed off his own lyrical style. But Hersch can take other jazz history and make it his own, as demonstrated by his titanic mash-up of Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” and Miles Davis’ “Nardis.” Eric McPherson continues to be one of the best drummers a leader can have, as he kept it relatively minimalist while giving Hersch a foundation that was stronger than rent.
The initial impression you get when you first see Cecile McLorin Salvant is, “It’s all business”: Her tight, short haircut and simple black dress is the polar opposite of someone like Dee Dee Bridgewater, who works overtime to be the center of attention. The closest Savant got to a fashion statement at Massry was her teal pumps and her trademark large-frame white glasses. Those glasses are key, though, because behind those lenses are the eyes of an actress who doesn’t just make the Great American Songbook stand at attention – she literally embodies the protagonist of each piece she attempts. In the spirit of her look, Salvant got right down to business, stepping into Lerner and Loewe’s “On The Street Where You Live” with no introduction and supplanting the lovelorn Freddie Eynsford-Hill like George Bernard Shaw had written the role with Salvant in mind.
Then again, he may have, as Salvant showed her cynical take on love throughout the evening. She introduced Burt Bachrach’s waltzing advice column “Wives and Lovers” with “You may choose to take this with a grain of salt.” Before Richard Rodgers’ “The Stepsisters’ Lament,” she described the evil stepsisters’ horror at Cinderella literally waltzing off with the prince and then interjected, smiling, “and… I’ve been there.” Even Salvant’s own composition “Fog” oozes the feeling of someone who wants to be loved but is disappointed every single time. Like Bridgewater, Savant has a voice that is big as all outdoors; she made Bessie Smith’s “You Ought to Be Ashamed” fill the hall without the help of a mic or a band. That being said, Salvant knows how to handle that voice, backing off beautifully when only drummer Pete van Nostrand was backing her on “Street.” Pianist Aaron Diehl is also a Mack Avenue artist and a rising star, and he certainly put his own stamp on Billie Holiday’s “Deep Song” while Salvant hit the lesser-known ballad screaming over the lights above the right-field fence.
Sadly, Salvant and her band only gave us a second bow after her riveting closer “I Saw You.” My fervent hope is that the Bridge Jazz Festival does more than take the bow it so richly earned this year, and comes back in 2016 with another multi-venue example of how jazz can make the dead of winter seem warm as toast.
Jeff Nania’s review at Metroland
Excerpts from Michael Hochanadel’s review at The Daily Gazette: “Not just nailing and nuancing the notes, she [Salvant] dramatized songs so the near-capacity crowd felt them with her. An Ella Fitzgerald for our time, she reanimated and reimagined blues, show tunes and standards in her strong, swinging way. Fronting pianist Aaron Diehl’s trio (bassist Paul Sikivie, drummer Pete Van Nostrand), Salvant rode their mostly laid-back grooves gracefully, from “On the Street Where You Live” through her own episodic ‘Fog’ and back into the Great American Songbook for the comic jealousy of ‘The Sisters’ Lament.’ In vintage tunes, she gave ‘Let’s Face the Music and Dance’ a buoyant bounce, quavered the vowels of Billie Holiday’s ‘Deep Song’ and ‘What a Little Moonlight Can Do,’ flirted through Burt Bacharach’s ‘Wives and Lovers,’ sent the band off for a breathtaking Bessie Smith solo blues, then slowed down ‘The Trolley Song,’ creating terrific tension against the band’s restless zip and setting the table for the devastating, slow betrayal lament ‘Guess Who I Saw Today.'”