LIVE: Empire Jazz Orchestra with Claire Daly, Sharel Cassity & Ada Rovatti @ Colonial Theatre, 10/18/14
Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Rudy Lu
When I heard that the Pittsfield CityJazz Festival was celebrating its 10th anniversary, I suddenly remembered that I had covered the anchor concert for the inaugural Pittsfield CityJazz Festival in 2005. Dr. Billy Taylor was the headliner, and it will be a deathbed memory that I got to shake the iconic pianist/educator’s hand backstage and tell him, “Thank you for… well, for everything!” Fast-forward to today, where PCJazz has developed a very nice niche for itself: Bringing headlining acts to the area, while showcasing the musical and educational spirit of the community.
Let’s talk about that last bit first. A Wall Street Journal Online article recently discussed statistical evidence that music education can have a direct impact on scholastic achievement. If that’s the case, the Berkshires are going to turn out some smart, smart kids. The opening act(s) at the Colonial Theatre were billed under the umbrella name “Berkshires Jazz Youth Ensemble,” but in fact, they were two distinct groups: The Herberg Middle School Band (which is a feeder group for the Pittsfield H.S. band), and the Rock On Workshop Jazz Ensemble. Both groups performed admirably: Highlights included Herberg’s straight-down-Broadway take on Booker T. & the MGs’ “Green Onions,” and Rock On’s righteous work-up of Freddie Hubbard’s “Red Clay.” Guitarist Ethan Wesley’s amp failed him during Herberg’s two-song set, but his technical issues were resolved so he could tear it up during Rock On’s appearance, capping Ella Sears’ bluesy treatment of George Gershwin’s “Summertime” with the opening lick to “Stairway to Heaven.”
Another impressive Herberg/Rock On crossover was 12-year-old drummer George Bissell, who first appeared at PCJazz when he was five. Along with having chops far beyond his years, this prize pupil of all-Everything drummer Pete Sweeney kept his eyes on his partners during every single number, giving them just the right amount of support for the moment. Bissell had some halcyon partners to support for Rock On’s closing number, as the group was joined by Claire Daly, Sharel Cassity and Ada Rovatti for a kicking version of Sonny Rollins’ “Tenor Madness.” Rovatti had the tenor, and she was blowing it up, but with Cassity’s alto and Daly’s baritone sax, Rock On was on the cusp of being the second big band on the bill. The ensemble swung like Hunter Pence, and the kids all looked like they’d won the lottery.
Obviously, the Empire Jazz Orchestra is not unfamiliar with playing alongside guest artists, and EJO leader Bill Meckley is no stranger to the Berkshires jazz scene: When the Williamstown Jazz Festival was still in existence, Meckley would bring SCCC’s jazz ensemble up for the scholastic competition. So this was essentially a home date for the EJO, and they jumped into it with both feet, rolling out the slick West Coast big-band sound that’s become their trademark. After marking their territory with hot versions of “Disapportionment” and “Strayhorn,” the EJO “traded 8s” with the guest artists, backing each one for a number and then taking the stage back for themselves.
Rovatti is one of the few female reed players I know of that plays tenor, and she is no shrinking violet. The wife of trumpet legend Randy Brecker lost her black high heels immediately upon taking the stage – something she also did when playing with Rock On – and proceeded to wrap Oliver Nelson’s “Daylie’s Double” in a sweet, smoky tone. This was Cassity’s second Greater Nippertown appearance in four months, and this time we only had her for one number, but she made the most of it. EJO gave Lenny Neihaus’ “Tribute to Bird” a big, lush opening, and then Cassity bopped into a sweet Bird-like “chirp,” and the place got really swinging! Cassity nearly burned the place down with a searing in-the-clear moment at the close of the piece, but Daly matched that awesome power with her mournful take on Billy Strayhorn’s “Blood Count.” Daly’s link to our jazz scene is a little more visceral: She was not only an admirer of the late Nick Brignola, but she also performed “Blood Count” with Nick back in the day, and Daly gave the piece the love and respect both Strayhorn and Brignola deserved.
EJO rocked Mary Lou Williams’ “Mary’s Idea,” and Meckley took the time during his introduction to promote the following day’s screening of “The Girls in the Band,” a documentary on women in jazz (and the multiple issues they faced in a male-dominated genre). Then most of the band cleared out as all three women came out to join EJO’s rhythm section for a great rundown of Rodgers & Hart’s “Have You Met Miss Jones.” The ladies stayed as the brass returned for what Meckley called “the oldest rock song ever recorded”… the theme from “The Flintstones.” EJO sax fiends Brian Patneaude and Keith Pray took turns in the spotlight with the night’s special guests, and we got to see some truly accomplished players having fun and grilling chops.
While most of the music on this evening was 50 years old or older, it was the Pittsfield CityJazz Festival’s celebration of youth that stayed with me as I walked out into the chilly Berkshires evening: Between the soon-to-be-young-adults that showed both skill and passion, and the three young women who are vital aspects of today’s jazz scene, it was one of those moments where this music’s present and future looks pretty damn good.