Best of 2011: J Hunter’s Top 10 Live Shows

Okay, before we get to the main event, let’s deal with the “value-added” portion of the program, which involves these virtual statues our benevolent overlords at the home office spared no expense to acquire… which is to say, they were acquired at no expense. But enough with the technical jargon:

Sal Prizio of the Massry Center
Sal Prizio of the Massry Center

NIPPERTOWN’S LOCAL HERO AWARD (aka Best Venue of 2011) goes to…

College of Saint Rose’s intimate recital hall is letter-perfect for classical performers like the New Century Chamber Orchestra and the exquisite 24-year old pianist Yuja Wang. What wins Massry the Golden Dog is the way Sal Prizio goes beyond the space’s boundaries, bringing in everyone from Maceo Parker and Ramsey Lewis (the latter in a wonderful tribute to the late Billy Taylor) to a solo acoustic Tim Reynolds and jam-band stalwarts Soulive’s searing tribute to the Beatles. (And there’s more to come in the New Year, including Chick Corea playing solo piano!)

Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings


The Queen of the Dap-Kings visited the Capital Region three times in 2011, beginning with an ice-melting concert in January at The Egg’s Hart Theatre. Later in June, Jones and her 10-piece revue were part of the Sunday bill at Freihofer’s Jazz Festival at SPAC… and if her set hadn’t been EXACTLY like her set at The Egg (I mean, we’re talking right down to the inflection on her between-song raps), I might have checked her out at Club Helsinki in the fall.

Sunny War
Sunny War


It’s way too easy to say, “All opening acts are the same” or “Everything’s been done; there’s nothing new.” And there’s nothing particularly new about this diminutive 20-year old singer-songwriter who got her start singing on the streets of Los Angeles. It’s just a girl, a guitar… and lyrics that would rip your throat out if they could grow teeth! Sunny War is the real deal – something I didn’t get from Keb Mo, her way-too-polished-for-primetime headliner at The Egg’s Hart Theatre. My wish for 2012 is for some smaller venue (Lookin’ at YOU, Caffe Lena!) to bring her back as a headliner, so she can have more than a half-hour to display her musical wares.


NOLA’s quintessential bar band never had a huge hit song as they worked the road for over four decades. But their followers make Parrotheads seem lackadaisical, and they’re one of the few groups to consistently close the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival – which is where they played their last gig this spring before breaking up for good. But before that, they made one last stop at The Egg’s Swyer Theatre to give us two hours of savory, sumptuous Southern fried musical gumbo. A sad occasion has never seemed so joyful, and vice versa. Merci beaucoup, Radiators! Bon chance!

And now that we’ve got the preliminaries out of the way… LET’S COUNT ‘EM DOWN!

Number 10…
The Gary Smulyan/Ralph Lalama Quartet @ Professor Java’s Coffee Sanctuary, Colonie (01/07/11)
The first show of the season happened in the middle of a raging blizzard that rendered roads impassable and made driving a sweat-soaked experience. Even so, these two longtime friends (and charter members of the cataclysmic Vanguard Jazz Orchestra) had the Sanctuary’s reading-room concert space packed for two knock-down, drag-out sets. The listening skills of tenor player Lalama, bari-saxman Smulyan and local rhythm devils Joe Barna and Lou Smaldone made every song bigger and every idea better, and leaving early was not an option, no matter how deep it was getting outside.

Pedrito Martinez
Pedrito Martinez
Number 9…
The Pedrito Martinez Group @ the Gazebo Stage at Freihofer’s Jazz Festival at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Saratoga Springs (06/26/11)
Like many before them, this tight Latin outfit was swallowed up by the amphitheater during their Sunday opening set. Thankfully, Freihofer’s now gives Main Stage openers a second set at the Gazebo, where listeners may be a little more… engaged. To put it mildly, the crowd was ready to marry Martinez – one of the best congueros on the scene today – as he and his all-vocals, no-horns quartet held a hellacious salsa dance party that had everyone off their seats. “A Night in Treme” was supposed to be the big happening on this day, but even if Donald Harrison Jr.’s all-star band hadn’t been a bust, Martinez’ group still would have out-shone them. (Read his review.)

Number 8…
The David Bromberg Big Band with Al Kooper & the Funky Faculty @ the Hart Theatre at The Egg, Albany (04/02/11)
As great as Bettye LaVette and Lyle Lovett were, this Egg show knocks those other two right out of the box. Bromberg doesn’t tour as much as he used to, and Big Band appearances are even rarer. So when Bromberg does bring them out, you know you’re going to get nothing but bluesed-out, fiddle-licious goodness. We got that and a bunch more – including a hot opening set by Kooper (rock & roll’s answer to Zelig) and his fellow Berklee faculty-members; a great cameo by UAlbany’s Don Byron on the standard “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor”; and a truly acoustic version (i.e. no mics) of “Drown in My Own Tears” that had the Angel Band singing back-up from the audience! (Read his review.)

Number 7…
Joe Locke & Friends @ the Athens Cultural Center, Athens (12/03/11)
A small space, a packed crowd and music stripped right down to the viscera. Throw in a truly insightful question-and-answer session that let everyone see the roots of Locke’s passion for his music and his instrument, and this was a major eye-opener. Although Locke spent some of the Q&A anointing marimba player Ed Saindon “the guru of mallet jazz,” nobody at this show could honestly say Locke’s skill-set on vibes is surpassed by anyone. Locke, bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Jamieo Brown showed how listening skills are important, playing an amazing 75-minute set built on nothing but “possibilities” for songs. (Read his review.)

Number 6…
Brad Mehldau @ Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood, Lenox (08/25/11)
A dazzling light show hadn’t been planned for Mehldau’s appearance at Tanglewood’s beautiful, modern (and, thankfully, indoor) facility, but we got one anyway, in the form of a torrential thunder ‘n’ lightning storm that turned parking lots into mud puddles and had everyone but Mehldau running for cover. If anything, Mehldau’s incredible performance was the reason the storm blew away, as he found new and different ways to approach material as varied as Pink Floyd’s “Hey You,” Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things,” Lennon & McCartney’s “Blackbird” and the Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony.” He respected his material as he reinvented it, and every piece was a boggling surprise. (Read his review.)

Chris Brubeck's Triple Play with Dave Brubeck
Chris Brubeck's Triple Play with Dave Brubeck

Number 5…
Chris Brubeck’s Triple Play with special guest Dave Brubeck @ Skidmore College’s Zankel Music Center, Saratoga Springs (06/10/11)
There were multiple reunions happening on Zankel’s deep blond stage: Aside from Brubeck and guitarist/Skidmore College Dean of Music Joel Brown hooking up musically with their respective fathers, Triple Play recorded their first disc at Skidmore, and Brubeck had been a visiting professor. The first set was joyful roots music that could stand with anything the Wood Brothers can come up with, while the second set put the band together with Chris’ legendary father to explore what hadn’t been done yet with Brubeck staples like “Take Five” and “Blue Rondo a la Turk.” Even in a year that featured knockout shows by Ambrose Akinmusire, Linda Oh and our own Lee Shaw (with John Medeski), Triple Play still gets the nod for one reason: It was too damn much fun! (Read his review.)

Number 4…
The Solid Sound Festival featuring Wilco, Liam Finn, Dave Douglas’ Brass Ecstacy, Jamie Liddell, Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion, et al. @ MASS MoCA, North Adams (06/25/11)
Unlike last year’s picture-perfect weekend, the weather was decidedly schizophrenic, going from bright sunshine to buckets of rain in nothing flat; a lot of Main Stage watchers gave up saving their shoes and just went barefoot for Wilco’s second show in two nights, which sounded… well, like they’d played two shows in two nights. The thing is, though, that didn’t matter because of what came before: Liam Finn channeling Iggy Pop while his father Neil watched from the audience; Dave Douglas’ Brass Ecstacy kicking Preservation Hall right in the nut; Guthrie & Irion playing a riveting opening set and then doing an unannounced acoustic show in one of the galleries; a comedy festival that had long lines all day long; and the most naturally family-friendly festivals on the planet. It’s a tradition now, folks, so keep a chunk of your summer free. (Read his review.)

Number 3…
The Marco Benevento Trio with Pungee @ Red Square, Albany (10/22/11)
The piano trio is a matrix more closely linked to jazz than rock: Bill Evans and Vince Guaraldi’s hushed, elegant works dominate the sub-genre, with the “loudest” music coming from McCoy Tyner. In short, a piano-trio shouldn’t grab you by the balls and throw you against the nearest wall, but that’s what Marco Beneveneto did time and time again for a wall-to-wall crowd at Red Square. His stand-up piano may have looked like it was stolen from a disused middle school, but the laptop and the stomp boxes Beneveneto wired up to it made the instrument a monster of Frankenstein proportions. This was raw power mated with brilliant compositions that were less about soloing than they were about narrative, and all you could do was bang your hand against the wall and exult in the madness. God knows that’s what I did. Nippertown contributor Jeff Nania got back together with his high-school buddies to open the evening with some cooking jazz/funk. (Read his review.)

The Jeff Coffin Mu'tet
The Jeff Coffin Mu'tet
Number 2…
The Jeff Coffin Mu’tet @ the College of Saint Rose’s Massry Center for the Arts, Albany (03/20/11)
“I just wanna dance!” That’s what one daftly grinning CSR student told me after Coffin’s burning quintet had worked us all over for 90 devastating minutes. There’s no question the Mu’tet kicked ass and took names at Albany Riverfront Jazz Festival last September. But compared to their first visit to the Capital Region, that show simply pales. For one thing, Coffin didn’t have keyboardist Kofi Burbridge at Riverfront, and Burbridge’s brilliant Fender Rhodes work takes Coffin’s blinding neo-fusion several levels higher. There isn’t a player in the band who can’t solo his ass off, and together they breath life into a genre that’s ready to go Full Zombie. The Dave Matthews Band may be where Coffin makes his money, but the Mu’tet is where he makes total fucking magic!

Rudresh Mahanthappa and Bunky Green
Rudresh Mahanthappa and Bunky Green
and the Number One Nippertown Concert of 2011…
Apex featuring Rudresh Mahanthappa and Bunky Green @ Jazz at the Lake at Shepard Park, Lake George (09/17/11)
I was going to give the Golden Dog Award to Jazz at the Lake as a whole: I mean, Don Byron and D.K. Dyson seamlessly interlacing jazz and gospel, John Ellis & Double-Wide leading a second line all around Shepard Park, and the phenomenal talent of teenage sax player Grace Kelly? That’s a pretty enticing package. But at the end of the day, it had to be this towering mash-up of Eastern idioms and Western aesthetic. Apex’s effect on people who dig them is similar to shifting a paradigm without using the clutch. It can also close minds that aren’t ready to go beyond the outside of the box. But while some audience members tried to “suffer through” the show, those same people were on their feet with the rest of us, cheering our lungs out at one of the most risk-taking performances we’ve ever seen. The chances of a band like this playing the main stage at a mainstream jazz festival are slim and none. Bottom line: Jazz at the Lake RULES! (Read his review.)

And that’s my list. Your list may – and, probably, will – vary. Call a doctor immediately if you have an earworm that lasts more than three hours, and thanks for supporting live music in Nippertown! Peace!

By J Hunter, Nippertown contributor


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  1. Susan says

    Excellent list and thank you, J, Apex with Rudresh and Bunky really threw down – it was an amazing set. Sal Prizio has done such a great job at the Massry, truly the host with the most… Andrezej’s photo of him is lovely.

  2. Rudy says

    Great stuff. I was at a lot of those shows. Rudresh was mind blowing. Jeff Coffin made my mind dance. Smulyan/Lalama made the snow melt.

    Great post!!!!

  3. hojohifive says

    Sal is good people

  4. DjM says

    how i wish i could have seen Brad Mehldau live in concert. his solo piano renditions are truly something to behold. thanks for posting

  5. Sal says

    Hey Folks,
    Thanks to J Hunter, everyone at Nippertown, and all of you for helping to make the Massry Center a great place for live performances. Here’s to a great 2012!

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