LIVE: Jazz at the Lake @ Shepard Park, 9/17/17 (Day Two)
One of the many unwritten rules of the Jazz at the Lake festival is “the early bird gets the view!” It’s still true that you can roll up to Shepard Park in Lake George any old time and plop yourself down on the nearest green space; however, if you want a really good spot in the amphitheater facing the stage, you’d better get your chair set up right after breakfast.
The advent of the late-summer heat made the selection process even more crucial this year, but after dragging my stuff around the park for better than a half-hour on Day Two, I chose to keep my usual spot to the left of the soundboard – right in the sun for half of the day. While I knew I was going to fry like an egg on a cast-iron skillet, I also knew I’d have a straight shot at whoever was playing piano… and on this day, that was going to be the key to quality entertainment.
I’ve already written about how many new fans singer-tenor player Camille Thurman made at last year’s fest, and I’d already heard several people say how psyched they were to hear the Queens native’s Sunday afternoon opening set. I was psyched about that, too, but I was just as psyched to hear the Darrell Green Trio, the band backing Thurman up.
Green had knocked me flat when he laid the foundation for Theo Hill at The Falcon back in July; Rashaan Carter’s bass was an integral part of Marc Cary’s monster releases Four Directions and Rhodes Ahead, Vol. 2; and pianist David Bryant was the X Factor that elevated the studio side of Marcus Strickland’s aptly-titled double disc Triumph of the Heavy.
Toss in Thurman’s full-throated tenor sax That she hit us with during her opening take at Shepard Park on McCoy Tyner’s “In a Glimpse,” followed by the beguiling singing voice that served up a sweet rendition of Horace Silver’s “Forever Is a Long Time,” and it looked like all expectations were going to be easily exceeded.
Thurman may be an alto at her base, but you can instantly sense the range and power she controls like a show dog at Westminster. The nuance and phrasing she brought to “How High the Moon” was a knockout combination, and her Ella-esque scatting dovetailed with Bryant’s rampant solo to take Green’s basically traditional arrangement through a whole new door.
A tenor sax player should never be a shrinking violet, and Thurman is definitely no shrinker, but she transferred the same level of nuance from her vocals to her tenor solo on “Love Vibrations” and “Won’t You Open Up Your Senses” (another Silver tune); even so, her axe never lost that low, sexy growl that immediately recalled some of Dexter Gordon’s best work. Thurman doesn’t just bring a boundless energy to the stage – she also has a beaming, radiant positivity that that has you smiling when she smiles, and keeps you smiling long after she’s gone.
Camille Thurman is someone the jazz world is going to see a lot more of in the next few years, and woe betide to any industry genius who decides to force her into the same pigeonhole they’ve been trying to stuff Esperanza Spalding into. It ain’t happening here, either, Sparky!
Boundary-breaking pianist-composer Orrin Evans can (and does) do anything he wants to, from fronting a rampaging jazz army like the Captain Black Big Band to replacing Ethan Iverson in the Bad Plus, which Evans will be doing starting next year.
It had been advertised that Evans was bringing a trio to Lake George along with vocalist Joanna Pascale – a slight eyebrow-raiser, since vocals have rarely factored into Evans’ musical universe. On the other hand, the trio would feature bassist Buster Williams (an old friend of JATL) and drummer Ralph Peterson, Jr. (whose health struggles over the last year would render most of us immobile). Combining those Hall of Famers with Evans made the musical possibilities seem endless, and those possibilities expanded even further with the unannounced appearance of tenorman Bill McHenry. “No, that’s not Joanne,” Evans said slyly as McHenry set up at the front of the stage. “But stick around.” We all did, and all of it was amazing – but not necessarily in a good way.
The pattern went like this: The instrumentalists would go off to explore Freedomland, taking the musical margins higher and wider while we did our best to keep the pace. When they returned to reality 10 or 15 minutes later, Pascale would come out of the dressing room, resplendent in a black-and-white full-length dress, and sing a knockout blues or two. (The Sinatra staple “Witchcraft” was her first offering, followed by a killer rendition of Thelonious Monk’s “Ugly Beauty.”)
Then Pascale would disappear, and it was back to Freedomland, with much of the quartet’s efforts inspired by the spirit of Monk, until it was time for Pascale to decompress us again with more blues, this time with a version of “I Want to Be Happy” that you’ll never hear in a dinner-theater production of The Boyfriend.
As a technical exercise, it was completely breathtaking. Evans’ style may stand on the shoulders of greats gone by, but whatever you hear him play is always original, usually daring, and a textbook example of why he’s considered one of the best pianists in the game today. Ben Williams may prove the axiom that the fruit does not fall far from the tree, but his dad showed us the tree is still pretty damn fruitful: His solo on “Ugly” had a lyric that was both beautiful and uncompromising, and his free work plumbed uncharted depths with practiced ease. Peterson may be a walking advertisement for why Obamacare works, but he didn’t come to Lake George just to represent ACA – he was here to make a thunderous noise, and that he truly did while his white slouch cap hung from the boom mic suspended over his drum kit.
But while the crowd greeted every shift and downshift this group made with open arms and clapping hands, for me it was the musical equivalent of autoerotic asphyxiation with a side of unmedicated schizophrenia. The blues was great, and the free play was great, but I would have preferred either one or the other, not both. Either kill me, or let me breathe.
“Music inventor” Emilio Solla has been a busy little bee since he brought his last band Bien Sur to JATL in 2012 – the main event being his crowd-funded epic Second Half was nominated for a 2015 Latin Grammy, establishing him as one of the deeper thinkers in the genre today. Then again, it’s not like Solla started painting his glowing, pastoral masterpieces on large canvasses last week: Solla never builds anything small, preferring to construct ornate musical skyscrapers over functional two-story houses.
None other than Astor Piazzolla praised Solla’s first group, Apertura, over 30 years ago, and Piazzolla’s “nuevo tango” style is a huge influence on Solla to this day. The 30-minutes-plus, multi-part epic ”Suite Piazzolla” that closed Solla’s set wrote some years ago as an effort to break away from imitating Piazzolla and making music that was primarily his own. “I don’t know if I’ve done it yet,” Solla admitted to us, “But I’m still trying.”
Solla closed JATL with the same magic Cynthia Hilts used to open the festival the day before: Solla may have brought a nonet on stage, but La Inestable de Brooklyn came on like the Argentina Symphony Orchestra. Part of that had to do with the multiple instruments used by reedmen Terry Goss and Tim Armacost, augmented by Meg Okura’s jaw-dropping violin and Rodolfo Zanetti’s magical bandoneon (a slightly smaller accordion that made up for the lack of an alto sax on the line). Solla’s arrangements put the beauty down layer on layer on layer, and his partners made every color pulse, with John Bailey’s muscular trumpet painting the boldest lines in the early part of the set.
The harmonic on bassist Jorge Roeder’s in-the-clear opening to “Chakafrik” set the table perfectly for trombonist Ryan Keberle’s strong opening melody as Solla used his piano as a cajon to augment Eric Doob’s snapping drum beat. The romantic light that shone through “Para La Paz” was a fine contrast to the multiple dark spots that ran through “Suite Piazzolla,” but those dark spots reflected the tumult that occurred during the decades-long time frame Solla created before our eyes. When it was all over, all you could do was take a deep breath or ten and say to yourself, “So that’s how you build a mountain!”
Jazz at the Lake 2017 ended not with a bang, but with a swinging crescendo that Solla played as a tribute to the big-band music he listened to growing up. Not even the most complex big bands of that era could match the beauty and complexity Solla and La Inestable de Brooklyn served up on this day. I know that comment won’t sit well with traditionalists, but one of the many great things about Lake George is that, every year, we see how the traditions of this genre have been made better and greater with time, thought and innovation. If that isn’t worth braving a little global warming over the course of a weekend, I don’t know what is.