LIVE: Jazz at the Lake @ Shepard Park, 9/20/15 (Day Two)
Review and photographs by J Hunter
Additional photographs by Rudy Lu, Cheri Bordelon, Andrzej Pilarczyk
Usually, a “cool day” at Jazz at the Lake involves fleece, a hat and a couple of cups of coffee (or chili) from one of the vendors up at the top of Shepard Park. A “cool day” on this day had the previous day’s summer-like temperatures to compare to, so temperatures in the low 70s felt like maybe – just maybe – we might see fall sometime in October. What we had on tap for this day, though, was more blue skies, more cooling breezes off Lake George, and more sumptuous jazz… all presented in ways designed to challenge your definition of the word.
Let’s start with a “simple” concept: Accordion jazz. Sounds like the worst night you’ve ever spent at the VFW, right? Never mind that the accordion was a part of this music going back to the days of Django Reinhardt, or that Victor Prieto had already shown his axe’s affinity with the genre two years ago on this very stage, as a support player for Christian Howes & Southern Exposure. But rather than dive into the better-known creative depths plumbed by Reinhardt’s Quintette du Hot Club de France, Prieto’s goal was to meld Argentinian tango jazz with musical styles from the Galician region of northwest Spain where he grew up; that meant mashing up seemingly incompatible Celtic and Brazilian styles with sounds created by none other than Astor Piazzolla. On the compatibility front, Prieto explained that, in Galicia, “If you don’t play the bagpipes or the accordion, you are playing soccer!”
Prieto filled the opener “Frevo” with color and aggression, running through lines that were dissonant but magnificent. Play those lines through a Hammond B3 or a Fender Rhodes, and we’d be wowed, but we’d accept them as the normal fare. Played through an accordion, they seemed exotic and decadent. With only bassist Edward Perez and drummer Vince Cherico to back him up, Prieto was truly in the spotlight, and he handled the pressures and the responsibilities with a practiced effortlessness. Perez’s mournful in-the-clear opening to “Papa Pin” (“My Father Seraphim”) set the table perfectly for Prieto’s wistful, loving ode to his grandfather, and Cherico’s sterling foundation work let Prieto and Perez dance when the situation called for it. For me, the real knockout blow came early, when Prieto demonstrated the almost-lost art of throat-singing on the a cappella “Three Voices.” The control and discipline it took to control each vocal chord separately completely eluded me, but for Prieto, it was just another day on the stage, and he set the stage for the rest of that day perfectly.
Works is a lot more than a deep-diving, ever-exploring piano trio, though goodness knows that would be enough reason to love them to death. It’s only one part of Connection Works, a non-profit formed in 2007 to bring world-class jazz musicians and events to the Brooklyn community. Although the trio put out a disc of their own in 2013, its three-headed hive mind – drummer Rob Garcia, flautist Michele Gentile and pianist Daniel Kelly – have made more inroads in the genre separately. That being said, the dedication to the organization’s mission is quite palpable when they talk about it, and Gentile made it eminently clear that one of the earliest supporters of Connection Works was sax fiend Joe Lovano. While the King of New York was making his first JATL appearance, this wasn’t his first time playing with Works, and that didn’t need to be announced; the rampant chemistry between the four musicians was evident right from the first hard-bopping notes of “Topsy Turvy.”
If you’ve seen Lovano live, you know how he can dominate the stage when he’s raging, and his wireless mic let him rage even more here, letting out one big beautiful howl on “Sounds of Joy.” On the other hand, he’s also one of the best band mates a fellow soloist can have, and the harmonic he created with Gentile’s skyrocketing flute was utterly magnificent. Neither player’s lines were completely conventional, but that suited the mood just fine, particularly with the edge on Kelly’s razor-sharp fills. Bassist John Hebert (last seen at Massry Center with the Fred Hersch Trio, and a frequent collaborator with Works) laid down foundations like a boss, and his own solos were as muscular as anything from the rest of the group. Lovano and Hebert laid out so the Works trio could display their own unique sound and rapport on Garcia’s composition “Will,” handling the free-ranging piece like it was “Chopsticks.” From there, Works and Lovano conjured up a blinding revival of “Conception Vessel,” an early composition by the late Paul Motian. Lovano’s work with Motian and Bill Frisell included some of the great improvisatory moments in jazz, and Gentile prefaced the tune with how much that trio shaped his musical life. The ever-shifting, quicksilver performance Lovano and Works came up with had to shape someone’s life, and Lovano’s heart-felt take on “Body and Soul” brought new meaning to the word “sublime.”
With a few exceptions (Dave Valentin, Kyle Eastwood), the last act at JATL is usually a tumbling knuckleball guaranteed to leave a mental mark. And even on a two-day bill that was filled with divine envelope-stretchers, Ghost Train Orchestra was right in line with past closers like Either Orchestra and the Dave Liebman Big Band. Mixing pieces by forgotten composers from the 1920s (including Raymond Scott) with wild reboots of Beethoven and Chopin, seersucker-suited trumpeter/arranger/director Brian Carpenter’s decidedly unique vision had Garcia doing double duty on drums; violinist Mazz Swift and viola player Emily Bookwater kept the bridge between jazz and classical both wide open and marvelously weird, while trombonist Curtis Hasselbring was one of several members of the like-minded Raymond Scott Orchestrette that made a return trip to Lake George.
Although Scott’s work was better known to those who attended last year’s festival, it was the work of Alex Wilder that got the most love – and the most laughs, with titles like “Old Man at Times Suspicious,” “A Little Girl Grows Up” and “The House Detective Registers” (“Who knows what that one means,” cracked Carpenter. “Maybe a member of the audience can clue me in…”). It was on Wilder’s “New Year’s Eve in a Haunted House” where reed player Michael McGinnis’ klezmer clarinet partnered with Avi Bortnick’s country-rock guitar to show everyone what true fusion looked like. McGinnis and Hasselbring were two of many standouts on the afternoon, and Swift’s wild fiddle playing reminded some of her stellar work with Burnt Sugar at Proctors’ GE Theatre a few years ago. The mark firmly imprinted on our brains, we stumbled off into the Lake George evening filled with another weekend of inspired music, all of us hoping that the unseasonably warm weather would make another appearance next year.