LIVE: Jazz at the Lake @ Shepard Park, 9/16/16 (Day One)
There is always a bittersweet tinge to Jazz at the Lake: While jazz goes on, and jazz concerts go on, it’s the end of the outdoor season and the beginning of fall, which means we’re all going back inside until April, climate change notwithstanding. The leaves had only barely started to change when we arrived at Lake George’s Shepard Park for the 2016 edition, and this particular Saturday had enough warmth and more than enough sunshine to put the lie to whatever reds and oranges were starting to touch the edges of the leaves. And if the weather wasn’t going to make us forget about the oncoming season, the music sure did its best.
Since their first area appearance at the hurricane-drenched 2008 Albany Riverfront Jazz Festival, the Brubeck Brothers Quartet has become one of those Steady Eddie acts Greater Nippertown can always count on to serve up a concert experience that’s bright, fun, technically solid and eminently enjoyable. So as a tone-setter for JATL 2016, festival mastermind Paul Pines couldn’t have chosen better.
From the opening notes of the bubbling “Dance of the Shadows” to their slamming closing take on Dave Brubeck’s iconic “Take Five,” the BBQ was bound and determined to get everyone in the audience to have as big a smile as the perpetual grin worn by effusive bassist/frontman Chris Brubeck. He walked us through every piece with the ease of a man showing off a childhood home he’d always loved and would never leave.
It’s been repeatedly pointed out that the brothers Brubeck show their love and dedication to their late father by working his music into their set, even though they clearly put their own stamp on the material. But there’s a flip side to that situation, in that the pieces chosen showed the elder Brubeck’s love and dedication to his children. The Time Out classic “Kathy’s Waltz” (which opened with a marvelous in-the-clear session by guitarist Mike DiMicco) was written for the brothers’ younger sister, while the Township-laced “Jazzanians” was a tribute to the group’s elder brother Darius Brubeck created while teaching in South Africa.
The BBQ’s own material shouldn’t be discounted, though, nor should the group’s individual talents: Chuck Lamb’s gorgeous in-the-clear opening to “Cool on the Coast” had equal helpings of jazz and classical music, and DiMicco’s “West of One” let Chris show off his not-insignificant scatting skills while Dan Brubeck’s stellar brushwork kept the floor bouncing without making it shake. The elder Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo a la Turk” got an extra layer of blues to bring the crowd to its feet for the first of many times this weekend.
The enthusiastic whoops and claps the crowd gave Charenee Wade at the close of her opener “The Offering” gave me a satisfied smile. Maybe Wade’s “Jazz and R&B Go to Church” vocal style may have stunned the nearly-full Shepard Park, but it was just more of the same for me: This was the third time in 13 months that I’d seen her riveting tribute to the late singer-poet Gil Scott-Heron. She’d blown my mind at the 2015 San Jose Jazz Festival and NYC Winter Jazzfest last January, and this opening salvo told me my cerebellum was about to take another trip, accompanied by the grey matter of those around me. As Wade swung from the warmth of “The Offering” to the divine freneticism of “Home Is Where the Hatred Is”, I started picking up on the little tweaks and differences Wade had made to her band in the name of keeping her interpretations fresh.
Where Lakecia Benjamin’s screaming alto had scaled the heights above Wade’s resonant vocalese, Camille Thurman’s buzzing tenor sax flipped the harmonic script, adding a wide-open voice that blossomed brilliantly below Wade on the cutting “Essex” and the even more cannibalistic “The Vultures.” Thurman also added an extra layer of rebar to the rock-solid foundation laid down by bassist Lonnie Plaxico and drummer Alvestor Garnett.
Garnett’s opening to “Song of the Wind” (“Which is blowing now,” Wade cracked) was a call to arms and a call to the past, while pianist Oscar Perez was a constant revelation, particularly on Wade’s rampant closer “Ain’t No Such Thing as Superman.” Wade had the audience chowing down out of her hand, happily singing and clapping along as the situation called for it, and the two standing ovations they gave her were both fervent and heartfelt.
I’m not sure anyone could have followed Wade’s galvanizing performance and not come off like an anti-climax. Tizer’s primary attack was ostensibly ’70s-era progressive jazz, and they certainly checked off the appropriate boxes. Echoes of Weather Report, Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Frank Zappa floated in and out of the group’s set, with keyboardist Lao Tizer dipping into Joe Zawinul’s synth bag more than once. Unfortunately, I have the same problem with progressive jazz as I do with a lot of progressive rock: If you have to go out of your way to tell me “This is an EVENT you’re listening to,” then I’m usually tuned out and turned off in very short order, and that looked like this was going to be the case.
Fortunately, there was one element of Tizer that kept me more than interested, if only with her: Violinist Karen Briggs used to play with hellgong bass player Stanley Clarke, so there was no way she wasn’t going to come out on top against her partners at JATL. From her first roaring appearance on “16th Heaven” to the light coda “World in Rhythm,” Briggs found every possible note that could be played on a violin and made them fly in formation. Any time she played, my eyes were fixed on her; any time she wasn’t, my eyes were fixed on my phone. It all evened out in the end, but this was one of those few sets at JATL where a choice fell flat.
Normally I’m not a huge fan of traditional big band, but Tizer actually got me psyched for it. Even without that, DIVA jazz orchestra founder Stanley Kaufman (aka “Stanley Kay”) definitely found a kindred spirit in DIVA drummer/leader Sherrie Maricle. Kay was the manager of the Buddy Rich Band, and you can’t watch Maricle bring the big noise without thinking that Rich had been reincarnated. The same can be said for Rich’s band, which was about as meat-and-potatoes a big band that you could find.
DIVA has that classic sound that should accompany World War II films and documentaries on Rosie the Riveter. And that last point is significant, given that DIVA is an all-female big band that kicks ass and takes names as well as (or better than) all-male bands.
As someone who scours the known world for jazz CDs with female leaders, seeing a 15-piece band of women play as hot as these women did fills me with joy. Altoist Alexa Tarantino crushed it all night long, from the swinging opener “We Love Being Here With You” to the epic closer “I’m Gonna Go Fishin.’” Fellow altoist Erena Terakubo may not have the range Tarantino has, but Terakubo went straight Maceo Parker on us on “Fishin,’” which comes from the soundtrack to “Anatomy of a Murder.”
If Jamie Dauber is as great a manager as she is a trumpet player, then DIVA will always be successful, and she wasn’t even the BEST horn player; that went to lead trumpeter Liesl Whitaker, who nailed the Kay composition “To Sweets With Love.” Camille Thurman not only teamed up with Roxy Coss to knock Kay’s “Did You Do That” out of the park, but Thurman’s jaw-dropping vocals on “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” short-circuited a lot of brains in the crowd.
The temperature was dropping and rain was threatening as DIVA brought us to our feet one more time, but we were warm, happy and ready for whatever Sunday’s show might bring – whether it was as good as what we’d just seen or not… and it was.