& THE FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH BAND
w/ THE RPI JAZZ ENSEMBLE
Experimental Music & Performing Arts Center RPI
October 18th, 2008
by J Hunter
Notes from my first trip to the Experimental Music & Performing Arts Center (aka EMPAC), and from the pinch-hitting appearance by Roy Haynes & the Fountain of Youth Band:
FIRST IMPRESSIONS Driving up 8th Street past Winslow Hall, you get the full effect of EMPAC, and that effect is gargantuan. Think of a spacecraft made of beautifully polished wood, encased in a glass box over five stories tall. If Williams Colleges 62 Center for the Arts was a Borg shuttle craft, EMPAC is its Mothership. And the parallels dont stop there. EMPAC shares the 62 Centers exemplary sightlines and quirky side-of-the-hall seating, and both venues contain enough blond wood to start a chain of IKEA stores.
EMPAC also offers the same skewed perspective you get from the Eggs Hart Theatre: One minute youre walking into an indeterminate half-sphere; the next, youre in an eye-popping, high-ceilinged concert hall with acoustics only a musician could love. There was a lot of grousing about this facilitys final cost, but RPI definitely got its moneys worth. Forget being a state-of-the-art facility for the Capitol Region EMPAC is state-of-the-art for almost anywhere!
THE KIDS WERE ALL RIGHT The RPI Jazz Ensemble kicked off the evening with a short (4 tunes, 15 minutes) set of pure vanilla swing. The 20-plus-piece orchestra did change it up a little at the end with a pretty cool take on the NOLA traditional Little Liza Jane, finishing the tune by playing in the aisles a al Preservation Hall. Both the band and its leader knew the groups place in the evening, literally clearing the stage in five minutes and making an intermission unnecessary. Members of the Ensemble also provided post-concert swing music in EMPACs café near the orchestra-level entrances.
THE DRUMMER FROM ANOTHER PLANET Compared to the Ensembles matching black pants and monogrammed polo shirts, Haynes looked like an outer-space peacock: Off-white silk jacket, French-cuffed red-white-and-blue striped dress shirt, black jeans, and snakeskin cowboy boots no 3-piece pinstripes or wrinkled Slackerwear for Haynes, who has always had his own sense of style. I was pleased when I heard Haynes would be subbing for an ailing Ramsey Lewis; to my mind, Haynes was seriously off his game at this summers Freihofers Jazz Festival, and I wanted to see if this was a consistent problem. And the answer is: Sort Of.
No, Haynes isnt the storm bringer Id first seen fifteen years ago, and hes not filling like a demon on every tune. But for pitys sake, the man is in his 80s now! When Im 80, Ill be happy if I can lift my head without the use of hydraulics! Who cares if there isnt a lot of snap to Haynes time-keeping? He still rides the cymbals like a rodeo star. And while Haynes did nothing but time-keep on the opening number, he added a little more color with each successive tune. When it was time for his solo spot, Haynes grabbed a pair of mallets and played flat-out tympani, full of the thunder and lightning hes always been famous for. Haynes has still got it, no question about it. Its just that like most of us nowadays, he needs to warm up a little first.
The only downside was Haynes made almost no stage announcements, which made logging his set an exercise in guesswork. The fact that he took time to introduce his players is an indicator, because its obvious that he not only enjoys playing with them, but they honestly inspire him, and he was happy to give them plenty of room to move. After a blazing take on Pat Methenys Question and Answer, Haynes stepped away from his kit, put a boot on his stool, grinned at his band, and looked out at us as if to say, Arent they amazing? And they were particularly reedman Jaleel Shaw, who snake-charmed us all on soprano sax, and was literally wailing on alto at the end of the set.
AND NOW, SOME HEALTHY ADVICE EMPACs listed address may be 8th Street, but dont plan to park there. The box office is at the top of the facility, with 8th Street at its foot. And since theres no elevator at the 8th Street entrance, there are only two ways to reach the box office: Scale the multi-tiered hillside next to EMPAC, or climb five very long flights of stairs!
I chose the latter route, and was looking for a respirator when I finally staggered up to Will Call. My pain lessened somewhat when a friend of mine (who is at least 20 years younger and over 60 pounds lighter) told me hed opted for the hill climb, and suffered severe oxygen deprivation of his own. Nevertheless, I was at the gym bright and early the next morning, even more determined to see less of myself in 2009.
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.