LIVE: Jazz at the Lake @ Shepard Park, 9/19/15 (Day One)
Review and photographs by J Hunter
Additional photographs by Rudy Lu, Richard Brody, Andrzej Pilarczyk, Stanley Johnson
When dressing for the Jazz at the Lake festival, you usually have to hedge your bets. While last year’s torrential downpour was an anomaly, the average temperature in Shepard Park can be anywhere from mildly pleasant to downright chilly – and that’s during the daytime! On this day, though, you would have thought it was mid-summer: Sunny, temps in the mid-80s, and almost every leaf you saw was a deep, dark green. As a matter of fact, we needed the breeze off Lake George to keep things tolerable. In any case, even if the weather wasn’t hot, the music certainly was, as we saw one of the most adventurous bills in festival history.
Guitarist Julian Lage knows about how cold it can get in Shepard Park: Both Lage and bassist Scott Colley had to blow on their hands to keep warm when they played with the New Gary Burton Quartet during the evening set in 2013. For that set, Lage played the Linda Manzer electric/acoustic rig with which he’d established his unique sound. When the NYC transplant stepped onto the stage at Lake George this year with his new trio (featuring Colley and legendary drummer Kenny Wolleson), Lage was packing the white Fender Danocaster he’d used to blow people’s heads off when he played with Eric Harland Voyager at Skidmore’s Zankel Music Center last year. And while this audience kept their heads on their shoulders, it wasn’t because Lage wasn’t trying.
This doesn’t mean Lage has ditched the elegant subtlety that made his earlier work so special. His opening-number treatment of the Jazz Age classic “Nocturne” showed he could give the piece the respect it deserved while confirming he does know how to turn the volume up to 11, and his stripped-out take on “Pocket Full of Blues” showed off every facet of my favorite Charles Lloyd composition. That said, Colley’s deep dark chocolate counters let Lage mount soaring, aggressive attacks that would have been impossible in his previous semi-acoustic format. Throw in the singular stylings of Wolleson, who held down the percussion fort for Bill Frisell’s trio back in the day, and Lage’s steel-spined, sharp-edged mix of originals and covers not only got the day off the ground successfully, but it also previewed a new chapter in one of the most interesting biographies of this present jazz generation.
One of the CDs that stood out for me during the first year of “Jazz2K: The Radio Show” was Jamie Baum’s Sunnyside release In This Life. Fronting the Jamie Baum Septet +, the Bridgeport, CT-born flautist offered a swirling mix of Eastern and Western sounds that was as deep as it was wide. The question for me on this day was whether Baum could bring even part of that multi-layered recording to the live experience – especially considering her genre-crossing compositions seemed more suited for a classical concert hall than a blowy outdoor setting. With ample help from a mid-sized unit filled with world-class killers, Baum bridged that gap spectacularly.
The opener “Nusrat” (named for Pakistani vocalist Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Baum’s inspiration for many of the compositions on In This Life) couldn’t have been more perfect if I’d been playing it on my iPod, and Jason Palmer’s burning trumpet solo set the bar for musical gymnastics at a dizzying level. But, as I said, Palmer wasn’t the only Olympian on this team: Sam Sadigursky was equally death-defying on alto sax and bass clarinet; Brad Shepik’s guitar snarled like a tiger on “Lament”; and wunderkind pianist John Escreet leaped and danced outside the box on “While We Are Here” while maintaining the positive vibe of the composition, and was a wild animal in the magnificent cacophony that is “Monkeys of Gokarna Forest.” While the foundation of bassist Matt Clohesy and drummer Jeff Hirshfeld was a beautiful constant throughout the set, the wild card was the French horn of Chris Komer, who made the concert instrument sound like a curled-up trombone on “The Meeting.” For her part, Baum is as devastating a player as she is a composer, and used just the right amount of effects on all her flutes to take her soaring solos out of the park and into the cloudless blue sky. Concert halls? Who needs ‘em?
As I explained in my interview with JATL impresario Paul Pines, some bands get past you in this genre regardless of your dedication to it. For me, one of those bands was the Jazz Passengers. Hey, it happens – you keep looking in one direction, you miss stuff moving in a different direction… and reed wizard Roy Nathanson’s gonzo vision is seven kinds of different! The fact that we only had the two founding members in Shepard Park (Nathanson and trombonist Curtis Fowlkes, who helped Billy Martin’s Wicked Knee blow up this stage last year) really made no difference, as the Passengers have featured guest artists throughout their existence. The difference is this afternoon’s “guests” were a pride of young lions that gave Nathanson and Fowlkes the best platform possible to make their “comeback.”
The Passengers came out swinging like a drunken Spider Man, with Fowlkes and Nathanson blowing at full steam. Nathanson’s remote mic allowed him to let the music affect him physically, bending his knees almost fully in time with the music; in the madcap spirit that embodies the Passengers, violinist Sam Bardfield bent his knees every time Nathanson straightened up, and straightened up every time Nathanson bent down. As whimsical as that was, Bardfield’s fiddle was a key component of the band, giving the Passengers’ borderline-avant-garde vibe an Old School texture on “Tikkun.” Vibes player Bill Ware is on the way to becoming a big name on that singular instrument, and his brilliant cascading solos made you want to hold your head as much as Nathanson made you hold your belly so your guts wouldn’t come out from the laughter he generated – first with some of his hilarious stories, and then with his serious-but-funny vocal duet with Fowlkes on Peaches & Herb’s “Reunited.” The Jazz Passengers gave us a wild demonstration of true fusion (as opposed to the ersatz stuff playing between sets): The avant-garde laid down with old-time NOLA, and acoustic music hung with electric sounds to bewilder and delight all who were willing to dig it.
Of all the things you can call percussion master Jason Marsalis, a “palate-cleanser” isn’t the first item on the menu. But after the increasingly envelope-stretching music that had come before, the Jason Marsalis Vibes Quartet was almost shockingly traditional – and the youngest Marsalis brother might actually be good with that description. As he told us all during a mid-set rap, the goal of this band is to show that “traditional jazz” is not passé or irrelevant (“And if you think it is,” he firmly declared in fine Marsalian fashion, “you’re wrong!”), and can be a platform for new compositions. So while the band showed great respect to Hoagie Carmichael’s “New Orleans” and Earl “Fatha” Hines’ “A Monday Date,” Marsalis and his partners also gave great voice to originals from NOLA up-and-comers Jason Weaver and Cliff Hines – not to mention powerlifter-strong pieces from the Marsalis Vibes Quartet themselves.
Marsalis is not a showy player on vibes, which is his second instrument. (You can hear him play his primary jam – drums – on Charm, the new release from John Ellis & Double-Wide.) Although his solos are unquestionably arresting, Marsalis refuses to sacrifice a melody for the standard “LOOK AT ME” moment. That’s very cool, given that MVQ originals like “Offbeat Personality,” “18th Letter of Silence” and “BP Shakedown” (a waltzing indictment of Texas congresscritter Joe Barton’s disingenuous “apology” to British Petroleum CEO Tony Hayward) are as enticing as any jazz introduced into this century. And in the solo department, pianist Austin Johnson’s expansion as a soloist gives Marsalis more than just a secondary foil to duel with. Bassist Will Goble has a real sense of depth & lyric, and his own composition “Blessed Unrest” gave the set a lovely reflective moment. All in all, the Jason Marsalis Vibes Quartet may not have moved the earth like past evening acts at Jazz at the Lake, but their quality and sincerity more than made up for that.