LIVE: Jazz at the Lake (Day One) @ Shepard Park, 9/15/18 (Take Two)
“The show must go on.” That was a tired cliché when I first heard it over 50 years ago. In the case of Jazz at the Lake 2018, it seemed almost unnecessary to say: The performers were on hand, and Shepard Park was filled end-to-end with festival-goers ready to hear great music. So kick the tire, light the fire and away we go, right? But it wasn’t that simple – not by a long shot. The gut-punch that came with the recent loss to cancer of longtime JATL impresario Paul Pines was felt on every level of the festival, from the staff and the musicians to audience members who’d been getting their jazz on in Lake George for decades. How do you come back from something like that?
You start by acknowledging the loss, which both Lake George Arts Project Executive Director John Strong and JATL benefactors Ken & Susan Gruskin did right from the jump – Strong in his opening remarks, and the Gruskins in a heartfelt statement near the front of the festival program. But it didn’t stop there: The Gruskin Group set up video cameras in a tent at the top of the park, so anyone who had fond memories of Paul could make them known as well as say their goodbyes.
Finally, there was the tribute to Pines prior to keyboardist Jason Miles’ Saturday evening set. Split between a beautiful tribute saxman Richie Cole did for Paul’s official memorial last month and recordings of Pines talking about the link between jazz, poetry and improvisation, dry eyes were hard to find anywhere. The latter feature was accompanied ex tempore by pianist Daniel Kelly, who emceed JATL 2018 and would be stepping in as festival curator beginning next year, has played Lake George three times, and has vast experience bringing jazz to people through the Brooklyn-based non-profit Connection Works, so Kelly has the right skill set for the shoes he’s been asked to fill – and personally, I think Kelly’s own shoes are more than up to the task.
There’s another old cliché: “Music heals.” It’s that rare cliché that happens to be true, and a lot of us needed a lot of healing, so the Bootsie Barnes Quartet got us on that road. Barnes is an old soldier who played with Lee Morgan and Tootie Heath, so he was about as “straight ahead” as we’ve seen in Shepard Park for some years. But here’s the thing: Although Pines’ reputation as a booker trended towards the “out there” end of the scale, Paul loved straight-up jazz as much as the next guy: Witness his repeat bookings of Sheila Jordan and Lee Shaw. Plus Bootsie brought Lucas Brown and his Hammond B3 to Lake George, and a Hammond B3 is like good coffee or crisp bacon: It simply makes the day better.
Barnes plays tenor sax the way I like it: Fuzzy like a peach and oh so nasty, just like Mobley used to make! Bootsie’s opening take on Duke Pearson’s “Big Bertha” charged right down the middle, with righteous accompaniment by trumpeter John Swana and drummer Byron Landham. Swana also played EWI, adding a nice synth effect to John Coltrane’s “Central Park West.” But although Barnes told us “We like to mix it up,” reinvention was not his primary goal. The primary goal was to give it to us straight with no chaser and very few mixers. “Step Lively” was a slow, slinky blues that would have made it in any NYC dive back in the day, and Barnes’ closing blast of Morgan’s “Party Time” was true to the title of the piece. As a tone-setter and a gateway to JATL without Pines’ physical presence, we couldn’t have asked for better.
Ryan Keberle & Catharsis is a lot closer to the “out there” portion of Paul’s booking history, but the trombonist’s boundary-stretching quintet is also right at the heart of Pines’ booking philosophy: “If it’s good, put it out there, and let the audience decide for themselves!” Catharsis’ last two discs have taken Keberle’s love for South American music and mashed it up with an electric jazz sound and an indie-rock sensibility, so the crowd was going to have a lot to think about after the meat & potatoes Bootsie Barnes served up. Processing that change didn’t take long, though, because by the time the band had finished off Keberle’s bubbling Ivan Lins tribute “Quintessence,” everyone in Shepard Park was on board the train.
Although Catharsis started out as a piano-less quartet, Keberle now mixes a mini-keyboard into his own arsenal, adding to the literal and figurative electricity that courses through the group’s repertoire. More of that literal/figurative electricity comes from Camila Meza, whose is ruthless on guitar as she is heavenly on vocals: While there was once a stunning two-part harmonic with Keberle and trumpeter Mike Rodriguez, Meza’s vocalese adds a third layer as sweet as Crème Brulee.
Rodriguez didn’t make the trip to Lake George, but his replacement was none other than multi-instrumentalist Scott Robinson – who not only brought a killer trumpet to the party, but whose tenor sax made Keberle’s whip-smart compositions tumble off the plate in a most delightful way. The swirling closing suite “The Hope I Hold” (inspired by the Langston Hughes poem “Let America Be America Again”, which Keberle read) amply showed that limits are something to be ignored with Ryan Keberle & Catharsis, and everything they do from here on out should never be ignored.
Charlie Sepulveda & The Turnaround is the closest JATL has ever come to a “hit act.” As of this writing, Sepulveda’s latest HighNote release Songs for Nat is in the Top 10 on the JazzWeek charts, which means it’s getting serious airplay around the world. But just like Sharon Jones and Bob Seger, Sepulveda is no overnight sensation: His extensive resume includes stints with Dizzy Gillespie, Eddie Palmieri, Hilton Ruiz and Tito Puente. And while Sepulveda’s lilac tux/shirt combination may have been straight out of “Saturday Night Fever,” it was big, bright, joyous Latin jazz that Sepulveda came to play, and play it he did, from the first notes of the rampant “Sepulveda Boulevard” to the last notes of an outstanding take on Lennon & McCartney’s “Come Together” that drew the band a wild standing ovation.
All of Sepulveda’s flame-throwing set came from Songs for Nat – “Nat” being Sepulveda’s wife Natalia, not Nat Adderley. Needless to say, Natalia has a piece named after her, and it was the only time Sepulveda and his mates took their collective foot off the gas pedal. Drummer Francisco Alcala and conguero Javier Oquendo made up the turbocharged V12 engine that drove this dragster, while pianist Giovanny Rodriguez acted as a perfect foil when he wasn’t wowing us with his own solos. While we all felt the heat and the beat, nobody felt it more than the baseball-capped pre-schooler who danced and jumped in front of the stage during “Frenesi,” getting an ovation of his own at the end of the tine. “He’s been practicing with us for a month,” Sepulveda laughed. “He’s our secret weapon!”
After the video tribute to Pines, Jason Miles added a tribute of his own, prefacing the JATL evening show by reminiscing about all the times he and his wife hung out at the Tin Palace, Pines’ jazz club in the pre-gentrification Hell’s Kitchen. Tributes are actually a big thing with Miles: His Whaling City Sound rave-ups of Grover Washington Jr.’s songbook and Miles Davis’ electric vibe were two of the most interesting recordings of the last two years, and Jason was walking the tribute beat at the start of the century with the TelArc release Celebrating the Music of Weather Report. Miles commemorated the latter recording (and his re-release of that material) with an absolutely towering set of material by one of the baddest groups – of any genre – ever to walk the earth.
Mammoth music needs a mammoth band, and Miles definitely had one of those. (“You’ll see what they’ve got,” he told us, “because this music makes you show what you’ve got!”) Joel Frahm basically confirmed what we all knew about him by blowing us all into next week with his soprano sax on the funky opener “Mysterious Traveler” and then reeling us in on “Elegant People” with a tenor sax quote from Miles Davis’ “Jean-Pierre.” Frahm wasn’t the only star on “Elegant”: Violinist Karen Briggs flew in from Los Angeles just for this show, and she stunned us all with a searing solo that would have made Jean-Luc Ponty take up the kazoo. Briggs didn’t play on every tune, but she made us all scream every time she did play, particularly on the burning rideout to “Birdland” which closed the regular set.
Along with a killer rhythm section in drummer Tony Morales and bassist Fema Ephron, Miles’ tribute benefited from the inclusion of an actual Weather Report alum – percussionist/vocalist Mino Cinelu, who mostly worked a Futureman-like electronic pad that allowed him to “play” whatever percussion instrument a piece required. Tack on vibrant vocalese and the rollicking rendition of his own composition “Conflans,” and Cinelu was the biggest gun in Miles’ formidable arsenal. The keyboardist strung it all together with thrilling keyboard magic worthy of the late great Joe Zawinul. This was the best Saturday evening show in JATL history, and that’s in the face of epic sets by the New Gary Burton Quartet and Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah. Sunday’s show would have to work hard to meet this high-water mark.