ALBANY RIVERFRONT’S “ALL-AMERICA CITY” JAZZ FESTIVAL
(feat. Joe Lovano – Us Five, Lizz Wright, Dirty Dozen Brass band, Dan Loomis Quartet, and Lee Shaw Trio)
September 12, 2009
by J Hunter
GOING “ALL IN” – Halfway through the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s jumping mash-up of Professor Longhair’s “Big Chief” and Troy Andrews’ “Ooo Poo Pah Doo”, drops of rain started to hit my notepad. Here we go, I thought. The skies had been threatening all day, and it looked like the gamble to not move into the Palace Theatre rain site was headed for Epic Fail territory. But like many World Series of Poker winners, we caught a winning card on the River: The rain backed off, staying away until the closing minutes of the Joe Lovano – Us Five set, and then it only came as a light drizzle that gave the best Riverfront ever a refreshing end.
GIVE THE LOCALS (AND THEIR NEW CD) SOME LOVE – I’m not surprised Lee Shaw keeps making interesting music as she approaches the middle of her ninth decade; dave Brubeck – whose sound I referenced when I reviewed Shaw’s 2006 release Little Friend – is 85, and he’s still dazzling people. However, Brubeck’s ensconced himself in a groove we all expect, while Shaw has not; she’s still got the precision of a safecracker, but her sound has become bigger, bolder, and bluesier in the last couple of years. She displays this on her latest release Blossom, the contents of which made up most of Shaw’s fest-opening set.
The Shaw Trio’s onstage proximity is a great metaphor for this musical family that finishes each other’s sentences and puts each other in the best light possible. Shaw kicked things off with Fats Navarro’s “Fats’ Blues” and ended with Ahmad Jamal’s “Night Mist” (which may be becoming their theme song, and I’m not complaining), but almost everything in between was an original from one member of the band. Rich Syracuse’s bass solo on Shaw’s “Blues 11” had a marvelous fluidity, and Shaw found new insight into drummer Jeff “Siege” Siegel’s “Shifting Sands.” The Same Old Thing just isn’t in Lee Shaw’s inventory, and that made things even cooler for Riverfront’s early arrivals.
BROOKLYN IN THE HOUSE – St. Louis native Dan Loomis has been making serious noise since he made the New York scene: The bassist has garnered critical acclaim with projects like Spoke and The Wee Trio, and the Dan Loomis Quartet’s I Love Paris was one of my Top 5 Discs of 2007. Loomis revived the DLQ for his maiden voyage up the Hudson, and if first impressions make the most impression, then Loomis and his partners definitely left a mark. As the Riverfront crowd settles in for the afternoon, there’s usually a lot ofconversations during the first couple of acts. By the time Loomis was bowing through the free-style middle section of “Queep”, there wasn’t a word to be heard, as the audience’s attitude went from “Who cares?” to “Who ARE those guys?!?”
Loomis’ compositions have hard-bop foundations, but there’s a symphonic quality to his playing and arranging that brings deep levels of strength and surprise. (The fact that he plays snapping, dynamic bass lines that grab you by the ears doesn’t hurt, either.) Trumpeter Eli Asher’s unmated horn combined razor-sharp accuracy with a power reminiscent of Freddie Hubbard, while Belgian reedman Robin Verheyen used tenor and soprano saxes to snake-charm us all. The front line’s harmonies were simply unearthly, and Loomis’ longtime collaborator Jared Schonig contributed dialogue of his own with some of the most animated drumming Riverfront has seen to date. The Dan Loomis Quartet is a prime example of the jazz revival that’s happening on the Brooklyn side of the Hudson River. With any luck, they’ll be bringing more revolution this way very soon.
GETTING’ ON UP – As for Dirty Dozen, they’re just more proof that a hot NOLA brass band can seriously carbonate your hormones. The front of the stage was filling up before the band even started their opener “Blackbird Special”, and by the time they tore into the Funky Meters’ “Sissy Strut”, the “dance floor” was completely awash with dancers ranging from ‘tweens (one of whom had streaks of purple in her long brown hair) to fossils (like Yours Truly, who has no hair to streak). Dirty Dozen’s sousaphone player didn’t make the plane, but local bassist Eric Margan brought serious funk to his fill-in spot, and flutist Sean Schulich added a Herbie Mann-ish color splash to the last few numbers, including a fiery take on Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” that had the crowd howling for more.
THAT WAS THEN, THIS IS NOW – I was entertained when I saw Lizz Wright at Freihofer’s a few years ago, but I wasn’t floored. She had a great voice, to be sure, but I had little problem dismissing her as another “crossover artist” brought in to bump up the gate. The difference in Wright between then and now is staggering. The artistry I only saw in glimpses at SPAC has bloomed full flower, and Wright’s achieved it by doing more with less; all she had to back her here was a quartet, but by the looks of approval she gave to solos by keyboardist David Cook and guitarist Robin Macatangay, they gave here everything she wanted or needed.
The music was stripped to its bare essentials, leaving a stunning intimacy where Wright’s rich, sultry voice has an unimpeded shot at the soul. About half of the set came from her 2008 release The orchard, including the slow cool blues “When I Fall”, which she co-wrote with Toshi Reagan. Wright’s gift for interpretation went to the heart of Neil Young’s “Old Man”, morphed “C.C. Rider” into a quietly lusty love ballad, and shrank Led Zeppelin’s “Thank You” down to a simple statement that was passionate but personal. Most importantly, Wright radiated the joy and commitment of an artist making music she genuinely believes in, and that made the experience better – for her and us.
NIGHT OF THE HEAVYWEIGHTS – As much as I wanted this band to play here, I have to admit I was nervous: The music on Us Five’s disc Folk Art is some of the heaviest Riverfront has ever booked, and had the potential to explode more than a few heads around the Corning Preserve. My fears were unjustified. The crowd (which had only lost a few of its members after Wright’s tremendous performance) packed the front of the stage and gobbled up everything this monstrous quintet served up. Lovano led the band through six tracks from Folk Art, letting the moment take the music in whatever direction it demanded. The encore, a wondrous exploration of John Coltrane’s “Spiritual”, was the perfect lead-in for the post-fest fireworks.
For once, Lovano wasn’t the main attraction, even though his performances on tenor sax, taragato, and aulochrome snatched away whatever breath you had. Us Five boasts two drummers – no biggie for fans of the Grateful Dead or the Allman Brothers, but it’s rare in jazz. Francisco Mela and Matt Wilson played Can You Top This for almost ninety minutes: While one drummed, the other embroidered, and then they’d switch while bassist Cameron Brown commuted between the grooves. As amazing as the results were, it was even more fun to watch Wilson and Mela’s hilarious non-verbal communication, each of them getting off on the other’s work while the music went higher and higher.
J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz Programming) and Q104 WQBK/Albany. He is a frequent contributor to the web site All About Jazz and to the monthly music magazine State of Mind. He currently resides in Clifton Park.