LIVE: Jazz at the Lake (Day Two) @ Shepard Park, 9/16/18
In the past, some sort of fleece was a standard feature of my Jazz at the Lake supplies, because while September afternoons in Lake George were usually quite comfortable, the evenings were downright CHILLY! When Don Byron played the Saturday night set in 2011, the renowned reed wizard marveled at us, “You’d have to get John Coltrane comin’ back from the dead to get ME out in this cold!” But that was then, and this is now. James Inhofe insists climate change is a hoax; if that’s true, the hoax was working overtime in the Adirondacks for the second straight year, and everyone (myself included) was diving for whatever shade we could grab in Shepard Park. JATL regulars have simple tastes: We want hot jazz, not hot temperatures! That said, once we all got sunblocked and hydrated, we were ready to commence.
When the subject is jazz history, the kneejerk reaction is to reach for icons like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. But the alternative side of jazz has a vast history of its own, and saxman Paul McCandless’ meditative group Oregon has just as hallowed a place in that history as Weather Report, whose catalog was the star of JATL 2018’s Saturday night show. But while Oregon’s music has faded into catalog limbo, McCandless has kept right on going, putting out recordings and guesting on other people’s releases – the most recent being pianist Yelena Eckemoff’s marvelous L&H Productions date Desert. McCandless would be guesting on this day, as well, pairing up with the acoustic/electric fusion outfit Charged Particles.
The now-California-based group has a long history of its own, with alumni like pianists Kim Pensyl and Jim Maneri, as well as bassist Andy Woodson. However, while the current trio displayed admirable energy during their opening number “Un Nuevo Dia,” their attack was clearly missing an X factor that could take them from Mundane to Special. That factor was McCandless, who came out at the end of the opener and promptly lit into his own composition “Tonal Areas.” The reed icon may be a frail 71 years old, but his playing on “Punch,” “Turning to You” and his newish composition “Ionia” was both ageless and amazing.
McCandless and Charged Particles have been collaborating for a while now, and they obviously inspire McCandless as much he inspires them. In fact, keyboardist Murray Low was inspired to write the lovely “Reflections in Talas” for McCandless, and he wrote it especially for this show. The only glitch in the set happened when a cell phone rang before the start of “The Glide” – and, as it turned out, it was McCandless’ phone! When he turned it off without comment, drummer Jon Krosnick cracked, “He just turned down a gig offer!”
Jim Ridl hasn’t been lacking for gigs around Greater Nippertown: The pianist was part of Dave Liebman’s big-band tribute to John Coltrane at JATL 2017, and Ridl teamed with mallet master Joe Locke earlier this year on a duo date that thrilled the packed house at Senate Garage in Kingston. But Ridl’s also been working as a leader for quite some time, appearing in either trios or quartets. The latter config was how we would see Ridl on this day as he played pieces from Blue Corn Enchilada Dreams, a 2012 set of expansive music inspired by time the pianist spent in New Mexico.
As Ridl explained, all the pieces began their lives as poetry, and Ridl prefaced many tracks by reading their corresponding poems. This went to the heart of all of us who were mourning the late Paul Pines, who was a poet himself when he wasn’t a Jungian therapist or the booker for JATL. Ridl’s music is both powerful and personal, whether it’s a rocking tune like “Chilis Rule” or a reflective piece like “The Wind Gleans.” The ideas are all deep and wide and colorful, and you may not hear a musical or geographic link to the Land of Enchantment, but the weight of Ridl’s New Mexico experience is plain to see and hear.
While Ridl’s own solos rippled with muscle and detail, he never took the first break out of the box; that honor went to horn blower Terrell Stafford, who (like Ridl Quartet bassist John Benitez) also appeared on Blue Corn. To my mind, Stafford doesn’t get near the love he deserves. Whether he plays trumpet or flugelhorn, Stafford’s big, bright, open sound comes at you like a freight train. You could say Ridl ceding every opening solo speaks to his sideman ethic, but I think it comes down to Ridl caring more about his compositions getting their best exposure than he does about showing off his own formidable chops.
It wasn’t until recently that I found out Sharel Cassity’s first festival appearance as a leader EVER was at Jazz at the Lake 2010! Backed that day by trombonist Michael Dease and veteran bassist John Lee, Cassity was the righteous surprise of that weekend as she played tracks from her JLP release Relentless. The thing is, though, I felt the same way then as I did when I saw her later Greater Nippertown appearances with Michael Benedict & Bopitude and the Gary McFarland Legacy Ensemble: “This woman is capable of so much more!” That potential finally bloomed full flower this year with Evolve, the first release from Sharel Cassity & Elektra.
A heady mix of modern acoustic jazz and bold electric fusion, Evolve is the crystallization of a musical vision Cassity shared with me a few years back, and that vision was made flesh on the Shepard Park stage when Cassity and Elektra put a decided exclamation point on the weekend. Starting the set on alto sax, Cassity slid into the title track of Evolve off of Mark Whitfield’s hypnotic guitar riff. She and trumpeter Ingrid Jensen flew formation on a great harmonic, and then Cassity took off like a bird, buoyed by Miki Hayama’s rising electric keyboard work.
Evolve blazes its own trail even as it feeds its engine with music by composers ranging from Mulgrew Miller to Bjork; in concert, that engine roars like a dragon as it gets right in your face and makes you its new BFF. And when lyrics were needed to complete Bjork’s “All Is Full of Love” and Cassity’s own composition “Wishing Star,” Christie Dashiell’s bright, shining vocals added another layer of warmth to a sound that was finding new friends with each passing second. Having Jensen on the front line raised both the bar and the final result: There are few trumpet players on the current menu who can boast the Skidmore Jazz Institute faculty member’s combination of raw power and scintillating artistry.
Drummer Luciana Padmore and bassist John Sims laid down a formidable foundation, despite Sims being a last-minute replacement for regularly scheduled bassman Rashaan Carter. The biggest surprise (and biggest pleasure) was Whitfield, who I’m used to playing from a more reserved position. Here he swapped a suit for t-shirt & jeans, dancing to the music as he cheered Cassity and the rest of the band on. And while Whitfield may have been playing his traditional hollow-body guitar, everything he played ran through a delicious set of effects boxes to make it all so funky, particularly Whitfield’s late running partner Mulgrew Miller’s composition “Hand in Hand.”
It all ended with Cassity & Elektra nailing a marvelous rundown of Alicia Keys’ “New Day” – a great closing tune and a prophetic message for the future of Jazz at the Lake. While the world is a lot less interesting without the physical presence of Paul Pines, the festival he helped build will not only survive, but I truly believe it will continue to thrive. And while we won’t ever be graced again by Pines’ signature grin, his spirit will always live in Shepard Park.