LIVE: Jazz at the Lake @ Shepard Park, 9/14/14 (Day Two)
Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Rudy Lu, Andrzej Pilarczyk, M. Cheri Bordelon, J Hunter
Ahhh, there’s no place like home – even if it is windy, chilly, and you’ve got to get there over an hour before showtime if you want to get a good view. The Shepard Park amphitheater was more crowded than usual at that time, and the “blame” goes to Mayor Bob Blais, who told the Lake George meter readers to stay home that day. With no need to park some distance from park, most of the good spots were taken by the time I rolled up. Some of those who weren’t able to lay their picnics out on the lawn the day before were already setting up lunch, and while I didn’t get my usual perch, the spot I did claim gave me a prime view of one of the most interesting afternoons I’ve ever spent at Jazz at the Lake.
Let’s start with Billy Martin’s Wicked Knee, whose 2013 release Heels Over Head went over my head completely. Maybe I’d been listening to too much Rebirth Brass Band at the time, so I just didn’t feel Martin’s unique variant on NOLA street music. But when I saw the group on stage, in full cry, it all came together for me. Watching Sexmob do its own wild thing the day before might have helped the process; having Sexmob leader Steven Bernstein playing alongside trombone legend Curtis Fowlkes and tuba player Marcus Rojas definitely helped matters. Either way, when that mammoth front line launched its first salvo, you could taste that spicy gumbo, and developing a taste for it was not hard.
Billy Martin is an absolute joy to watch behind his drum kit, stooping down to grab a shaker or play some indeterminate set of gongs to twist whatever tune is playing just a little bit more, and kicking out a tight second line as the horn section blew up real good. The 65-year old Fowlkes packs the same take-no-prisoners attack as contemporary Roswell Rudd, so he more than held his own against Bernstein and Rojas, who had more fun and did more dances than any tuba player I’ve seen. Although original material like “Remington 411” and “Sugarfoot Stomp” (finally) won my heart, their impromptu take on Cream’s “Lawdy Mama” was what made the set, and made me very happy to (once again) be completely and utterly wrong.
Multi-instrumentalist Jane Bunnett’s been bringing back gold from Cuba for some years now, and this time she hit the mother lode: A quintet of strong, immensely talented young women who make up Bunnett’s scintillating new band Maqueque. While their recent, self-titled Justin Time release gives you a sense of what they’re capable of, it’s on stage where Maqueque flies like beautiful birds. Dayme Arocena sang in unison with Bunnett’s playing on many of the songs, but when Arocena broke for her own solos, the power and light in her laser-guided voice was simply breathtaking. Mind you, “Dimey” (as Bunnett insisted on calling her) wasn’t the only singer in the group, as everyone but Bunnett turned one section of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” into a mesmerizing round that Bunnett weaved around on soprano sax.
I’ve always found Bunnett’s playing to favor precision over passion, but her new discoveries really bring her out of her comfort zone: Her sax work on “New Angel” and “Canto A Babba” was absolutely righteous, and her flute solo on their disc’s title track soared right over the trees. Danae Olano wasn’t afraid to shakeup the standard Afro-Cuban piano paradigm with some crushing left-handed dissonance; Celia Jimenez chord-ripped bass solo on “Guajira” had both the band and the crowd howling; and drummer Yissy Garcia and percussionist Magdelys Savigne took turns delighting us with an undeniable talent and a boundless energy. The group goes back to Cuba at the end of this month, but I hope Bunnett videotapes Maqueque before they leave, because the chemistry and artistry these young women possess needs to be seen to be believed.
Jazz may have finally found its answer to Pink Floyd (“Oh, by the way, which one’s Pink?”), since nobody in the Raymond Scott Orchestrette was named Raymond Scott. It turns out Scott was a composer, bandleader and inventor whose mix of swing, classical, Eastern European folk tunes and a personal sense of zaniness delighted many (but baffled more) for almost four decades. You know his style if you’ve seen any Warner Brothers cartoon that involves assembly lines or construction crews, because Scott’s strapping composition “Powerhouse” (which was the Orchestrette’s rampant closer) is usually the background music. That said, there’s plenty of ersatz Scott throughout the WB canon, although any Bugs Bunny/Daffy Duck fan in Shepard Park could see how Carl Stalling could have ripped off/been inspired by a composer who made Spike Jones seem taciturn. In 1999, producer/Scott Estate executor Irwin Chusid commissioned Scott’s music to be re-created without replicating Scott’s original Quintette.
I’d never heard Scott’s non-cartoon music before this day, so I don’t know if musical director/pianist Wayne Barker made the grade, but the wild musical “scenes” the Orchestrette acted out dropped on us like an anvil. Imagine Duke Ellington and Monty Python stuffed into a blender, and you’re still not close. I know that doesn’t sound serious, and neither does titles like “Peter Tambourine” and “Square Dance for Eight Egyptian Mummies,” but some of Scott’s laughter-filled pieces were seriously complex, so the musicians Barker was ramrodding had to be on their toes all the time, and they were all that and more. The front line of saxman Michael Hashim, accordionist Will Holshouser and violinist Sam Bardfield were on point on every tune, while mad scientist stand-in Brian Dewan’s zither (Yes, ZITHER!) was a perfect accent piece even as it sounded like a steel guitar on mescaline. Dewan also brought the house down with his drama-drenched vocals on “Autolite Spark Plugs” and the side-splitting “Yesterday’s Icecubes.” Barker may have been understating it when he said Scott’s music is “hard to pin down.” All I know is I haven’t laughed that hard since I saw George Carlin almost 40 years ago, and this was the first time I walked away from Jazz at the Lake with a massive smile on my face, and the music wasn’t the reason… or the only reason, anyway.