LIVE: Jazz at the Lake @ Shepard Park, 9/18/16 (Day Two)
As anyone who’s ever experienced the heavens opening up in the middle of a concert can tell you, an outdoor show is always a gamble. With impending doom predicted by the Weather Channel for Sunday afternoon, the smart money had Day Two of the Jazz at the Lake festival moving from Shepard Park to the rain site at the auditorium at Lake George High School. However, someone must have done an “anti-rain dance” or something, because the wet weather held off just long enough for JATL to deliver another surprising second show… outdoors.
This makes two years in a row that the Sunday show opened with an instrument not usually found in today’s jazz: Victor Prieto made an accordion dance for us last year, and this year we were stunned by the musical universe created by Edmar Castaneda’s Colombian harp. And we’re not talking one of those shimmering art-deco things we all saw in symphony concerts and Marx Brothers films: The harmonics Castaneda conjures from his instrument are nothing short of magnificent, and the harp also acts as a second percussion instrument when the moment calls for it. Jaws were dropping all over Shepard Park as Castaneda, trombonist Marshall Gilkes and drummer Dave Silliman delivered a scintillating buffet of South American sounds, all of them made unique by the charismatic Castaneda’s singular axe, and the aggression of it all was as beautiful as it was rampant.
If you closed your eyes during the opener “Room of Corners” or the title track from Castaneda’s first US release Entre Cuerdas, you’d have been hard-pressed to tell if you were listening to guitar, mandolin, hammered dulcimer, or any number of stringed instruments other than the harp. And he had enough pedals and stomp boxes to make Nels Cline envious, so Castaneda could create an army of looping harps at a moment’s notice as he played his version of “the ‘cowboy music’ we play in Colombia.” The depth of Castaneda’s instrument allowed him to cover the bass part of the foundations a la Charlie Hunter, but that depth also let him weave a hypnotic tribute to the late great Jaco Pastorius; Castaneda’s in-the-clear intro on “For Jaco” had me close to tears. Silliman gave every piece the muscle it needed without trampling on the cathedral of bells Castaneda hung from the trees, while Gilkes made the ‘bone sound like Airto Moreira squeaking out a beat on “Room” and brought serious power to the table on the crushing encore “Annenberg.”
The underlying theme for JATL 2016 was “Women in Jazz”, which made the Gary McFarland Legacy Ensemble a perfect choice for the bill: Sharel Cassity’s searing alto sax was one of the many things that lifted the group’s Planet Arts release Circulation: The Music of Gary McFarland onto several Top 10 lists in 2015. The bad news was that real life decided to get in the way once again, so Cassity couldn’t make the gig; the good news was her replacement was Dick Oatts, a truly badass alto player who’s part of a little downtown NYC group called the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. You knew everything was going to be all right before the first chorus of the opener “Chuggin’” had blasted past, and Oatts blew sweet smoke on “Blue Hodge,” McFarland’s tribute to Ellington Band mainstay Johnny Hodges.
Another “new face” to the Ensemble was vibes master Steve Nelson, whose playing style is very different than Circulation malletman Joe Locke. There may have been fewer daredevil runs and more defined notes, but Nelson’s power and precision (particularly on “Dragonhead”) was absolutely killer. “He’s playing my vibes,” Ensemble drummer/leader Michael Benedict told us, “And after today, I’ll never play those vibes again!”
Bruce Barth has held down the piano chair in a couple of Benedict’s bands, but he shines the brightest with the Ensemble, having a total blast on the Getz-quality “Train Samba” and getting totally muscular on “Sandpiper.” Benedict and bassman Mike Lawrence displayed their renowned teamwork one more time, laying the floor for Benedict’s dream project to be its best and do its best. And, not surprisingly, we got this band’s best and a whole lot more.
Amina Figarova’s closing set at JATL came almost 12 years after I became one of her biggest fanboys. The native of Azerbaijan absolutely steamrolled me in 2005 with her 9/11-inspired disc September Suite, and since then she’s released a bevy of discs that combined outstanding jazz piano with a compositional quality that matches Maria Schneider. My only question was the one I ask of every piece of music that reaches for the stars: How does it play live? Well, pretty damn spectacularly, as it turns out.
Figarova brought a monster sextet up from NYC and hit us with a sprawling set of tunes – most of them from her 2015 release Blue Whisper – that ranged from the towering to the pastoral, and all of them seemed to make the views of Lake George behind the stage seem even more idyllic.
Speaking of towering, Alex Pope Norris’ trumpet has been showing up more and more in the liner notes I see, and he was swinging from the fences right from the jump, unmuted and unbound on “Marians” and creating tremendous harmony and riveting dialogue with reedman Marc Mommas on “The Traveller.” Mommas was the utility infielder of the band, showing his versatility as he commuted between tenor and soprano sax on “Blue Whisper.” Flautist Bart Platteau has always been the X factor in Figarova’s music, giving her a foil that combines power and lyricism, and he brought both to the soaring “Hewa.” Backed by the monster rhythm section of drummer Jason Brown and bassist Luques Curtis, Figarova could weave her musical tales into blindingly colorful tapestries that were forceful on “The Hustler” and contemplative on the encore “Moonrise.”
JATL has given us some pretty amazing closers, from Dave Valentin and Giacomo Gates to Either/Orchestra and the Dave Leibman Big Band. To my eyes and ears, Figarova topped them all, and we streamed out of Shepard Park with smiles on our faces as raindrops started to sprinkle down.