LIVE: “Jazz in the Key of Dylan” @ Caffe Lena, 8/19/17
My protracted search for a parking space reminded me why I don’t come up to Saratoga Springs when it’s in the throes of flat-track season; the six-block walk from my car to Caffe Lena only exacerbated my irritation at all things turista. Then again, tourists can serve a useful purpose: In this case, they helped pack the fabled folk venue’s new location for “Jazz in the Key of Dylan,” a daring concept from emcee-musician-show organizer Michael Eck.
Eck has been creating tributes to Bob Dylan for a number of years now, but although his opening remarks focused on how he’s always wanted to put the legendary singer-songwriter’s music through a jazz filter, this show would be his first attempt. While converting Dylan’s music to jazz is not unprecedented, it’s always been through rock that his compositions have really thrived. Nevertheless, Eck pulled some of Greater Nippertown’s best jazzers together for this event, and the results were both surprising and invigorating.
There was a bit of surrealism attached to this evening for me – not because of the music, but because of Caffe Lena’s new home on the second floor of one of the Springs’ many new office-condo structures. The old location’s brick-lined staircase still leads you up to the performance space, and elements of Lena’s long-time decorations are interspersed around multiple areas of the club. However, the club’s hardwood floors, bright red paint and baby-blue stage background was less Saturday Night Hootenanny and more Karaoke Night at the Marriott. You got the sense the space was designed by committee, with every member getting one thing they wanted. At least the club’s old upright piano survived – still up against the back of the miniscule stage, so whoever played the piano got no face time with the audience whatsoever.
All that said, things got seriously coffeehouse when Eck read a section from Dylan’s “11 Outlined Epitaphs” while Keith Pray played extemporaneous alto sax underneath him. Eck would preface each set with a Dylan-related reading while a member of each band backed him up. While all the reading/soloist moments were both interesting and fun, my favorite was when the Arch Stanton Quartet’s Roger Noyes played eerie pedal-steel guitar under Eck’s delivery of Dylan’s acceptance speech for the 2015 MusicCares Man Of The Year Award.
Starting a musical evening with one of Pray’s various musical creations is never a bad thing, and the altoist-educator brought some of his longtime collaborators to Lena for a tight four-tune set, starting with a waltzing take on “Blind Willie McTell” and finishing with a terrific reggae reboot of “I Shall Be Released.” Kevin Grudecki’s loping guitar moved the latter tune from the mournful to the celebratory, and pianist Scott Bassinson injected a healthy dose of gospel to “Lord Please Protect My Child.” Pray’s choice to do four songs ran up against the evening’s time constraints, so each piece seemed frustratingly truncated, particularly Pray’s righteous arrangement of “Masters Of War.” Despite that, his usual teeth-bared attack – supported by drummer Bob Halek and bassist Bobby Kendall’s stellar foundation – galvanized the full-to-bursting house, letting us all know that any we could throw all guesstimates about this evening right into the trash.
While Pray and his partners have been gigging together for many years, the following act, Dylan & Sons, was more of a last-minute get-together: Reed monster Jeff Nania (pianist-leader Lecco Morris’ usual foil) had a previous engagement, so clarinetist Jonathan Greene stepped into the void; Greene had played with bassist Dylan Perrillo in Hot Club of Saratoga, but Morris and drummer-percussionist Rob Morrison had never worked with him. Even so, the quartet burst out of the blocks with “Hurricane,” an appropriate choice to follow Eck’s reading from Sam Shepard’s “Rolling Thunder Logbook.” Greene’s solo on the piece was a heavyweight prizefighter, and then the rest of the band vamped while Perrillo bowed an exquisite solo. If that tune didn’t set you reeling, Dylan & Sons’ driving send-up of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” should have done the job. Their set-closing version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” was remarkably funereal, but when the group stopped dead and started singing the chorus in a monotone a cappella, the audience jumped right in for two reverent rounds.
With the appearance of the pedal steel, I’d hoped the ASQ had found a whole new door to take me through; unfortunately, either the instrument or its amplifier gave up the ghost after Noyes accompanied Eck, so I had to “settle” for Noyes’ regular axe as Terry Gordon fed his trumpet into an effects box to start a blistering rendition of “Ballad of a Thin Man.” The resulting wah-wah gave Gordon’s horn a truly angry tone that dovetailed perfectly with the song’s lyric, and the crowd sang the tune’s snarling chorus completely unprompted. Gordon switched to flugelhorn for a bolero take on “Idiot Wind,” and as usual Gordon took the instrument’s softening characteristics and squashed them like a bug. The group swung hard on their closer “Gotta Serve Somebody,” coming closer to rock than any band on the bill. While Noyes was his usual crunch-tastic self and Gordon was definitely turned up to 11, it was the notes drummer James Ketterer and bassist Chris Macchia didn’t play that mattered, letting the front line do all the major moves that left the crowd howling for more.
While Brubeck Brothers Quartet pianist Chuck Lamb set up for the final set of the night, it occurred to me that the last time I broke my track-season travel ban was when the BBQ played Universal Preservation Hall in 2014. Lamb prefaced his trio’s set by explaining how the late Dave Brubeck told him you have to know the lyrics of a song if you want to cover it instrumentally. If that’s the case, Lamb is well-versed in Dylan’s songbook, because his bluesy opening take on “Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35” was right on the money, and the crowd laughed as it sang the song’s infamous chorus following every verse. Under Lamb’s skilled hands, “Blowin’ in the Wind” had the ethereal quality of Joni Mitchell’s ‘70s jazz period, though a quick snippet of “All Along the Watchtower” gave the piece a flash of fire. “Like a Rolling Stone” had that bitter “Bye, Felicia” tone of Dylan’s original recording, while “Lay Lady Lay” can never be anything but Dylan’s closest try at a love song. Vocalist Ria Curley joined Lamb for a closing rendition of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” that was decidedly brighter than the dirge-like epitaph Dylan created for the Sam Peckinpah bloodfest “Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid.”
As I said, taking Bob Dylan into the jazz idiom is not without precedent: My favorite effort is Ben Flocks’ smiling version of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” But mounting an entire evening of Dylan a la jazz had the potential to be either a golden triumph or a raging dumpster fire. Thanks to Eck’s outstanding choices and the wonderfully varied approaches taken by all the bands, triumph won by at least eight lengths. I’m hoping there will be a sequel to Jazz in the Key of Dylan – preferably at a time when the Springs isn’t awash with racing junkies looking to drink away the day’s losses.