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Big Soul Ensemble

Keith Pray

Lou Smaldone

Joe Barna

Mike DeMicco

Chris Brubeck

Ernestine Anderson

Ernestine Anderson

Doc Gibbs

Greg Riley

David Sanborn

Mike Pope

photos by Rudy Lu & Al Brooks

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(feat. David Sanborn Group, Doc Gibbs & Picante, Ernestine Anderson, the Brubeck brothers Quartet, and Keith Pray's Big Soul Ensemble)
Palace Theatre
Albany, NY 
September 6, 2008

by J Hunter

"Maybe I'm glad it rained!" – Chris Brubeck

Amen, brother! Notes from a thankfully-dry Albany Riverfront Jazz Festival:

HOORAY FOR HANNAH: "Rain Site: Palace Theatre." That's been the contingency plan ever since Albany Riverfront was conceived. Unfortunately, the last two festivals have seen hit-and-run thunderstorms descend after organizers were committed to staying on the Corning Preserve. Thanks to Tropical Storm Hannah, rain was a dead certainty this year, making the choice to take it inside an easy one. Although the move wasn't easy, you couldn't have told from the onstage product. Only David Sanborn started late; everybody else went off on time, and were even lit properly.

The rain may have kept some potential festival-goers away, either because of the severity of the rain or lack of knowledge about the Palace as a fallback. Nevertheless, the unofficial headcount was creeping towards 2,000 by the time Sanborn finally came on. The orchestra seats were almost completely filled by then, and about 50 people had joined me in the lower balcony. It's true that vendor space was severely limited, and a merchandise/autograph area for performers was ill-defined, but that was a small price to pay for spending a dry day inside one of the Capital Region's funkiest concert venues.

GIVE THE LOCALS SOME (BIG SOUL) LOVE: Why does Keith Pray call his titanic big band "the Big Soul Ensemble"? Answer: Because "Capital Region All-Stars" sounds like the name of a pickup basketball team. Nevertheless, the cream of the area's jazz scene was burning through "The Shade of Jade" as I entered the palace for the first time in almost 17 years. Dave Gleason was playing hot piano as I slid into my balcony seat, and his was only one of many sterling performances in Albany Riverfront's too-short-as-usual local-artists' set.

Pray mixed Big Soul satisfiers like "Walking the Dog" and Brian Kaplan's "Buck the Schmuck" with startling new arrangements of Mr. Bungle's "Retro Vertigo" and Chris Potter's "All in All"; Brian Patneaude was astonishing on the latter tune, displaying a broad, soulful sound that is a big addition to his already-loaded arsenal. These next two weeks are huge for Big Soul: They're appearing at The Linda, and they're recording their first live disc at their Lark Tavern home base. From the way they owned the Palace stage, they're more than ready to take these next steps.

REMEMBER WHEN, AND THEN FORGET IT: Unlike Alexa Raye Joel (Last year's second-generation act), Chris and Dan Brubeck are grizzled veterans whose résumés stretch back to when their booming rock band, the New Heavenly Blue, was the opening act for a reunion tour of the Time Out-era Dave Brubeck Quartet. Far too many years later, the brothers gave me a "Remember When" moment; it lasted all of five seconds. After that, I was too busy watching the Brubeck Brothers Quartet energize the Palace with music that had one foot in jazz tradition, and another in the game-changing sound of John Abercrombie and the Pat Metheny Group.

Chris simply radiates joy, whether he's acting as the BBQ's personable frontman or laying down thick, sliding Fender bass lines. Dan's drumming was top notch: He was banging with brushes on the swinging opener "West of One", and he whipped up a tasty timbale sound for the Latin-flavored "Dance of the Shadows" – one of several tracks from their new Koch release Classified. And far from disowning their heritage, the brothers put their own stamp on their father's classic "Take Five"; Chuck Lamb's glorious piano work referenced the original without mimicking it, while pulsating guitar took the Paul Desmond composition in new, exciting directions.

I can't say "the second generation of Brubeck has arrived", because like I said, they've been around a while. But the music Chris and Dan are making with the BBQ stands tall and proud and decidedly on its own.

MUSIC IS A HEALING THING: It was literally painful to watch Ernestine Anderson walk slowly out of the wings and sit carefully down on a chair at center stage. But whatever pain we may have felt was nothing like what the almost octogenarian vocalist has gone through recently: Health problems have curtailed both her recording and touring schedule, and she was going to lose her Seattle home to the sub-prime mortgage crisis until a group of relatives and friends (including Dianne Schuur) came to her financial aid. So it was anybody's guess how Anderson would sound when she took the microphone from sound tech Pat Bailey, who had gallantly helped her onstage.

This frail, aged woman gently took the mic… and this PHENOMENAL voice appeared, belting out the opening lyrics to "This Can't Be Love." Without breaking stride, Anderson turned her head towards the soundman and forcefully said, "Turn it up!" It was plain sailing from then on as she snapped off blues-centric covers of "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To" and "You Made Your Move Too Soon." She stayed in the chair for almost the entire set, her legs occasionally moving like they wanted to do the Twist, and you got the sense she was putting all her energy into that amazing voice. Then, during a ripping take on "Goin' to Chicago", Anderson slowly got up, moved away from her chair (still vocalizing, mind you) until she was clear of the monitors and cables, and did an almost imperceptible dance move that brought the house down. "This is my idea of dancing anymore," she laughed, loving the moment. "This is as good as it gets!" It was more than good enough.

WHEN SMOOTH GOES SOUTH: Doc Gibbs – best known for ramrodding Emeril LaGasse's house band – wanted to make sure we knew his band's name was Picante. "That means hot and spicy," he said fervently. "Ain't nuthin' smooth up here, baby!" How does that Shakespeare quote go? "Methinks thou dost protest too much"? True, Gibbs' quintet did get some of the audience on its feet. For me, though, this was nothing more than a variant on the Smooth-uhh, excuse me, Contemporary Jazz artist trying to prove that his sub-genre is so much more fun than the real thing!

Let's assume Gibbs is sincere about Picante being a legitimate Latin Jazz outfit. If so, it's woefully underpowered: Gibbs needs a lot more brass on the front line than multi-instrumentalist Greg Riley can provide, and Luke O'Riley's piano solos rarely went beyond the serviceable. And while there's no doubt Gibbs is a skilled percussionist, Poncho Sanchez he is not! This set was fun and filling – fun like the bumper cars at Hoffman's Playland, and filling like a microwave burrito. Gibbs' closing number may have been entitled "Bam", but not even Emeril could have given Picante the kick it really needed.

ALL GOOD THINGS COME: Patience is a virtue, and the crowd showed great patience while the sound techs worked the kinks out of David Sanborn's instrumental set-up; the audience even gave Mayor Jennings more cheers than boos when he did his annual "celebrity emcee" routine. Then the band laid down a deep, chunky groove and Sanborn walked onstage, dressed all in black, and coaxed out the first notes of the soul-jazz classic "Comin' Home Baby." It was on from then on, as Sanborn slapped a delightfully funked-up exclamation point on the afternoon.

Recently, Sanborn has been revisiting his salad days as an R&B sideman, as well as paying tribute to influences like Hank Crawford and Fathead Newman. This move has revitalized Sanborn, who attacked old and new material with a searing energy that earned howls of approval throughout his set. Bassist Mike Pope and Keystone drummer Gene Lake lifted the material even higher, and Nick Moroch's guitar solos evoked a time when Robben Ford was a Sanborn sideman. The only annoyance was keyboardist Ricky Petersen's insistent use of samples to make up for musicians Sanborn couldn't bring with him.

LAST CHORUS: Okay, I'm not really glad it rained. Of all the things Albany Riverfront has going for it, it's the backdrop I love the most – the skyline behind the crowd, the wind coursing through the trees, and the boaters anchored just off the Preserve so they can dig on the music, too. Still it was cool to see the move inside go as well as it did, and everyone involved deserves major props for getting it done. With any luck, we're back in the sunshine next year… and if we're not, we know it's a short walk to shelter from the storms.

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.