LAKE GEORGE JAZZ WEEKEND (Day 1) by J Hunter
Lake George, NY
September 18, 2010
Notes from the first day of “Jazz at the Lake”, where the only thing that sounded better than the music was Mayor Bob Blaze’s announcement that Lake George would not be enforcing the parking meters that weekend:
THINK ABOUT THE FUTURE – JOTL impresario Paul Pines wasn’t talking through his hat when he said pianist Daniel Kelly’s music is rooted in “immediacy, integrity, and soul.” The early-arrivals got an immediate example as Kelly led his partners into “Anima/Animus”, which was as turbulent as the wind that kept trying to steal Kelly’s sheet music. 75 minutes later, the crowd was on its feet and cheering before and after the explosive encore “Obfyor.” (“Another totally made-up title,” Kelly admitted, “that has no meaning whatsoever.”)
Kelly’s solos are marvelously organic, their lines growing naturally out of the piece and blooming like a big beautiful flower. The sound is literally grand, with harmonies and progressions that sound more suited to classical music than to jazz; despite that, all of Kelly’s music is like a Frank Lloyd Wright house, with everything that needs to be there and nothing more. Kelly’s power was magnified by JATL veteran Jordan Perlson, whose multi-faceted drumming on “Moroccan Nutchuck” had everybody bobbing. Chris Tally’s electric bass gave the piano-trio matrix a wonderful dynamism, and his thoughtful preface to “Fireflies” had a resonance reminiscent of Jaco Pastorius.
Kelly’s trio didn’t just lay the foundation for a two-day musical feast; this exemplary set was also the first of four instances on the weekend where anyone worried about the future of jazz had to think, “Everything’s gonna be alright, man!”
ATTITUDE OF GRATITUDE – How do you define a man who played with Charles Mingus and Leonard Bernstein, hung out with Jack Kerouac and Allan Ginsberg, wears a variety of talismans on about 20 different necklaces, and has the vitality of someone half his age… which, by the way, will be 80 this November. (“I’m still just a young whippersnapper!”) Words simply failed as an Energizer Bunny named David Amram dazzled us all with his mad brilliance.
Seemingly unaffected by the impromptu 3-hour set he’d done on a pre-fest lake cruise the night before, Amram started “Take the ‘A’ Train” the right way, playing the swinging bit before Ellington’s world-famous piano figure. Amram didn’t stay at the keyboard long, moving to the front of the stage to solo – first on one pennywhistle, then on two pennywhistles – and then grabbed a shanai drum so he could trade 4’s with drummer Kevin Twigg; Amram used the same drum to trade off with his son Adam, who supported Twigg on congas. Amram played everything from French horn to flute (which he used on a haunting solo version of “Amazing Grace”), told winding-but-wonderful stories about the people he’s worked with and the places he’s played (including our own Caffe Lena), and was nothing but riveting every single second.
The cliché goes, “I want to be that good when I’m 80!” With Amram, it’s all about gratitude, something he has in spades: He loves his life both past and present, he celebrates it every second, and he advised us all to do the same. He was, literally, an inspiration.
HELLO (AGAIN), NEWMAN – “Bob Dylan plays Ragtime.” That’s probably the simplest description of Randy Newman’s voluminous catalog. Great as it is, it doesn’t seem to lend itself to jazz. However, somebody forgot to tell Roseanna Vitro, the Texas-based vocalist who’s already taken on the music of Ray Charles and Bill Evans and made it her own. “I’m a mix of catfish and red socks,” Vitro laughingly informed us, “which makes me the perfect person to interpret Randy Newman!”
Vitro’s co-conspirator is pianist Mark Soskin, whose outside-the-box arrangements helped make The Randy Newman Project the surprise of the festival. “Last Night I Had a Dream” was a swinging, full-bodied nightmare that already had a great jazz lyric: “Everybody scared me/But you scared me the most!” Although Vitro played “Louisiana 1927” and “Sail Away” relatively straight, she and Soskin did great deconstructions of “Baltimore” and the Three Dog Night classic “Mama Told Me Not to Come.” (Yup, Randy wrote that one, too!) The X factor was Zach Brock’s scintillating violin, which embodied Newman’s mournful side even as it captured Newman’s mischievous spirit.
“This is all new music,” Vitro explained, “and I appreciate you all being turned on to it!” What she meant was that this was unreleased material (Look out for something in 2011, though), but for many audience members who hadn’t given Randy Newman’s music much thought, it was indeed a great introduction.
POWER IN THE DARKNESS – Having Lake George as a backdrop is just one of the bennies of holding JATL in Shepard Park’s open-ended amphitheater. That said, booking Christian Scott for the festival’s second-ever evening show was pure genius, because the volatile nature of Scott’s music doesn’t need picturesque scenes softening up the images. It doesn’t need keyboards for that very reason, either, which is why I was glad Scott’s band is between piano players at the moment.
Most of the set was a blast from the past by necessity, since altoist Louis had just re-joined the group to fill the keyboard’s space. (Fouché played with Scott from 2006 to 2008, and was with him when Scott thrilled the crowd at Freihofer’s Gazebo stage in ’06.) As such, much of the music came from Scott’s remarkable debut Rewind That; Scott also did “something we don’t do, which is play some straight-ahead stuff” in the form of a warp-speed take on Herbie Hancock’s “Eye of the Hurricane.” But we also got two scalding shots of Scott’s incendiary new disc Yesterday You Said Tomorrow: The horrific background Scott gave us on “Ku Klux Police Department” (called simply “K.K.P.D.” on Yesterday) put the piece’s palpable rage in deadly perspective, and the encore “Angola & the 13th Amendment” was a snarling indictment of an outrage that some people think is gone forever, but still exists at a Louisiana work farm.
That Scott’s own performance was outstanding is not news – he’s simply fulfilling the infinite possibilities we saw at that incredible Gazebo show. No, the headline was the band’s ostensibly jury-rigged matrix: Putting Fouché’s breathtaking alto on the front line and having guitarist/music director Matthew Stevens hold back to comp & fill made the music leaner, sharper, and nasty in the extreme. Bassist Kris Funn (“One of the baddest cats of our generation,” Scott enthused) was devastating in solo and support, and jamar Williams’ monstrous drumming provided depth and range Terreon Gully’s R&B-based sound couldn’t provide.
Just having great young jazz players is not enough; the genre needs
strong voices in order to keep moving forward. Christian Scott’s voice is clear, focused, and utterly uncompromising, and it rang like a bell in the Lake George night.
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.