LIVE: “Jazz at The Lake” (Day 1) @ Shepard Park, Lake George, 9/14/2019

For the previous two years, the weather for “Jazz at The Lake” was extremely global warming-centric: Very sunny and VERY hot, with high temps in the 90s – a far cry from the years where having some kind of fleece in your bag was not optional. This year, things were back to what passes for “normal” in the North Country: Highs at or near 70, with chilly temperatures late. For veterans of this festival, “normal” is a beautiful thing.

We also had to get used to “the new normal” as far as who had assembled the overflowing package of music waiting for us. The late longtime JATL curator Paul Pines has been gone for almost a year-and-a-half, so 2019 would be the first year under the “new management” of NYC pianist/jazz advocate Daniel Kelly, who continued the upbeat MC role he filled last September. Kelly’s first festival program had much of the same attitude Pines brought to the Shepard Park amphitheater for 35 years: Book for quality, variety & originality, and trust the crowd to see the beauty. That said, we had a few returnees from past festivals, albeit with a few differences.

Although Camila Meza’s opening set marked her third appearance at JATL, Saturday was her first time as a leader; and she didn’t go small, bringing a string quartet along with her usual band to make up the Nectar Orchestra, featured on Meza’s Sony Masterworks release Ambar. I rejoice at any chance to see the enchanting Chilean guitarist/composer live, but I’ll admit I had some trepidation: Aside from the complexity of the compositions on Ambar, the string-heavy music was more suited to the concert hall than your standard festival atmosphere; as such, how much of the music would get lost in the open air? Happily, the answer was “None at all!”

In a twist from what usually happens, it was the strings that overpowered both Meza’s vocals and her band for the first part of the set, and as outstanding as bassist Noam Wiesenberg’s charts were, the imbalance did tend to chafe a bit. However, Meza’s stellar guitar work was the great equalizer, and her solos grabbed the audience and held it steady until the sound tech found the range towards the end of Milton Nasciemento’s “Miracle of the Fishes.” Then she jumped into Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Ohla Maria”, and all was right with the world, and the whole package came together on Meza’s riveting reboot of the Pat Metheny / Lyle Mays / David Bowie indictment “This Is Not America.”

In past appearances with Sachal Vasandani and Ryan Keberle & Catharsis, it was Meza who was the foil for the leader of those respective groups; now in the leader role herself, Meza recognized the need for a proper foil, and keyboardist Eden Ladin filled that role more than capably: There were points during “Atarceder” and “Kallfu” where Meza just stopped and watched Ladin’s work with a huge grin on her face, dancing in place like just another fan. Wiesenberg teamed up with drummer Keita Ogawa to give Meza the perfect foundation. And in the middle of it all was Meza herself, whose vibrancy and presence broke through the dingy afternoon to bring another set of smiles to another JATL audience.

While Meza’s music was a gumbo of different influences that approached the crowd from all directions, tenorman Wayne Escoffery’s music was straight-up 21st-century hard bop that came right down Broadway and up into your grill, performed by a seasoned quartet that was tight as an Art Blakey snare drum. For the traditionalists in the audience, it was the kind of sound they come to expect from a festival afternoon. The difference-maker was the freshness of Escoffery’s material: All the pieces either came from Wayne’s 2018 Sunnyside release Vortex or from “my forthcoming album, which will be… forthcoming,” Escoffery deadpanned – and the crowd may have contributed to the latter effort.

Many artists prefer to bury new material in the middle of their set; Escoffery went the other way, opening with a muscular in-the-clear solo that prefaced the dynamic unrecorded track “Chain Gang.” It matched every volt of energy contained in the title track from Vortex, which immediately followed. Then again, that’s not too big a shock, considering the seasoned killers Escoffery brought to Lake George. 

Ralph Peterson has been through cancer treatments that would send most people into retirement, and yet the bespectacled monster is still one of the most powerful drummers in the game, as well as one of its most prolific composers. Escoffery brought out Peterson’s spiritual attitude-of-gratitude piece “Acceptance”, to overwhelming approval. Peterson kept the foundation solid with deep, luscious assistance from Ugonna Okegwo; in a show of respect, Keita Ogawa stood on the left side of the stage for Escoffery’s entire set and watched everything Peterson did.

Dave Kikoski is also a beast in his own right, but it’s in a sideman role where the keyboardist really releases his Inner Animal. His opening piano solo on “Chain Gang” was right in line with every other piece of musical splendor he’s brought to Lake George over the years, but he stunned us all with his late-set work on Fender Rhodes, an instrument I’d never seen him play before. Kikoski’s best moment came on Escoffery’s best moment: A grizzled blues take on George Cables’ composition “AKA Reggie”, which Escoffery and Okegwo had played with Cables at Smalls in NYC earlier in the year. “Yeah, we have to record it,” Wayne enthused at the end of the number, acknowledging demands from the crowd that he should add it to his new release. He added, “It’s sexy! You have to record sexy music!”

Chano Dominguez Piano Iberico was another programming gamble of Kelly’s in that they also brought music & performances better suited for inside a concert hall. When I say “performances”, I’m not just talking about the musicians – I’m also referring to Sonia Olla, a fiery flamenco dancer who periodically took to the mic’d parquet floor laid out at center stage and acted as a physical manifestation of the towering beauty Dominguez created on JATL’s grand piano. While Olla’s talent and magnetism could not be questioned, she needed an actual spotlight to make the picture complete. Her appearances were also too intermittent, spending the rest of her time acting as a percussion section with vocalist Ismael Fernandez, who brought his own set of problems: His vocalese and spoken affirmations may have been in keeping with flamenco jazz, but there did come a point where the sound resembled a fly stuck in your ear.

That was the downside. The upside was Dominguez himself, who is an absolute virtuoso. An unannounced, extended suite he played without the band was utterly jaw-dropping, earning him the first of two standing ovations. The fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree, either, as was demonstrated when Dominguez’ son Marcel came out to play alto sax on a lively flamenco workup of Thelonious Monk’s “Well You Needn’t.” The biggest surprise of all might have been the appearance of bassist Alexis Cuadrado. That he killed it on everything he touched wasn’t a shock; the shock was Cuadrado doing it on electric bass, something nobody could remember Alexis playing – including, as he admitted on a Facebook post, Alexis himself!

Drummer Nate Smith’s Ropeadope disc KINFOLK: Postcards from Everywhere was one of the most interesting discs of 2017 – a mix of jazz, R&B, electronica, and spoken-word that delivered a truly personal message about family and every way that word applies. At one point during Kinfolk’s Saturday evening set, Smith told us that he and the musicians on stage had been developing this sound since 2013, and the chemistry that the sextet shared was evidence of that prolonged woodshedding, which is still bearing fruit: Some of the music we heard will appear on a new disc sometime next year.

The thing is, though, KINFOLK was a perfect example of a product birthed in the studio. As with Meza’s Ambar, there was a real question of whether Smith’s ideas would translate to a live venue. In this case, the answer was “Yes… sort of.” For one thing, the vocal pieces that hewed more towards the R&B world seemed too far afield from the jazz we’d all come to hear. Also, Smith built a lot of his compositions around specific drum figures, and he would preface those pieces by playing the accompanying figure repeatedly, with very little variation. The effect was akin to creating analog loops, but while they were eventually integral to what followed, the process itself became increasingly tedious.

But although the music may have failed some of us, the performances definitely did not. I’ve been a fan of Jaleel Shaw’s for some time now, but he opened a whole new door at Lake George, as Smith’s jazz/R&B hybrid allowed the altoist to be an eye-popping cross between Wayne Shorter and Junior Walker, eliciting howls of joy from the crowd. Jon Cowherd’s knocked Greater Nippertown on its ass when he’s visited with Brian Blade & the Fellowship Band, but even that next-level work paled in comparison to the searing sounds Cowherd coaxed from the grand piano and Rhodes at JATL. Finally, there was vocalist Amma Whatt, who also wrote the lyrics to all Smith’s vocal pieces. Her initial vocalese got lost in the mix and her early spotlight moments seemed breathy and tentative, but Whatt’s confidence grew with each song she sang, providing Smith with another terrific instrument with which he could communicate his vision to us all.

Photo Gallery by Rudy Lu

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