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Bernhard Theatre @ Skidmore College
Saratoga Springs, NY
July 6, 2009

by J Hunter

It seems like “Jazz: The Next Generation” has been the theme for this year’s Skidmore Jazz Institute concert series. That’s apt, considering part of the annual two-week workshop’s mission statement is to help shape future generations of jazz players. However, this year’s guest artists are literally the next generation: Series opener Gerald Clayton – the son of noted bassist/arranger John Clayton – recently played piano on the Clayton Brothers’ Brother to Brother (ArtistShare, 2009) with his father and saxman-uncle Jeff Clayton; and last Monday, SJI alum Jonathan Batiste showed he’s ready to advance the trail already cut by the Batiste Brothers Band and, not to mention the late avant-garde clarinetist Alvin Batiste.
Bassit Phil Kuehn and drummer Joe Saylor came onstage accompanied by three reed players, one of whom (be-sunglassed bass clarinetist Chris “The Monster” Kapica”) also played electric guitar and Fender bass at various points in the show. As soon as the group got settled, a high piping sound floated into the theatre; Batiste came onstage playing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” on the melodic – a keyboard/wind instrument that’s become prominent in his music. He walked the stage as he played in the clear, a sparkling black scarf around his neck, slowly morphing the nursery rhyme to include equal parts of funk and Monk.
With a mutual nod, Batiste and the band slid into a slow, bluesy take on “Round Midnight.” Still playing the melodic, Batiste stepped carefully into the audience and started slowly climbing the stairs into the audience. Pausing on the step below my row, he turned around and serenaded the rest of the house. Batiste did the audience walk during his gazebo show at last year’s Freihofer’s Jazz festival, but this time the move held more power – first, because his instrument’s sound didn’t get lost in the cacophony of SPAC’s lawn; second, because the Bernhard’s enclosed space didn’t render him as just some guy wandering around in the audience.
This sequence was the first of several “WTF” moments the crowd experienced during the 90-minute show, as Batiste proved he cannot (and will not) be pigeon-holed: He preceded an outstanding version of Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” with an achingly beautiful, in-the-clear excerpt from a Chopin piano sonata; he played the standard “Moon River” in a classic West Coast style, easily evoking Brubeck in his prime; and he prefaced a titanic set-closing take on Miles Davis’ “Decoy” with an almost-straight vocal of “What a Wonderful World.” (“And I said to myself…” he sang, and then added in parental-sounding spoken word, “Self?”)
As I mentioned, Batiste is an SJI alum, so he knows the musical excellence the Bernhard Theatre has seen. But he wasn’t the only alum on stage – Kuehn and Saylor attended the Institute, too. Before he launched their three-song mini-set, Batiste declared the trio “the Skidmore Alumni band!” The chemistry between these three players just boggles the mind, and it’s obvious on so many levels that they love playing together. Kuehn could be a bassist right out of the 1950’s, right down to his Gerry Mulligan haircut and conservative suit-and-tie, but his foundation and soloing is definitely 21st-century stuff; meanwhile, Saylor practically inhabits each peace, with beats and changes showing their effect from his head to his toes.
These three live and feel this music, and their mastery of standards shows they respect its history. That said, they don’t let that history hamstring their ability to put their own mark on it. The air of whimsy never went away, and was heightened by the Ornette-like sound the horns blew on “Kindergarten” and “Sulu’s Back in Town.” Tenorman Matt Marantz blew his heart out at this show, culminating his night with a towering solo during “Decoy” that had the whole band watching and smiling. Altoist Eddie Barbash made his biggest mark with an in-the-clear solo that formed the basis for an encore band jam that eventually turned into Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews’ NOLA classic “Ooh Pooh Pah Doo.”
Batiste played both the Main Stage and the Gazebo at Freihofer’s last year. It’s a good thing he got the Gazebo gig, because the yawning amphitheatre swallowed him and his band in one big gulp; more importantly, the additional set gave people more of a chance to appreciate what a fresh young talent Batiste is. The possibilities of a great show one year later seemed endless. This show was, indeed, great – partly because Batiste’s talent is still firmly on its growth curve, but mostly because this show’s level of unpredictability was so satisfyingly high.

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.