LIVE: Modern Times (feat. Joe Locke, Rachel Z., Omar Hakim, Minu Cinelu, Jay Collins & Scott Petito) @ the Colony, Woodstock, 09/03/2021
Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “second gig” notwithstanding, it’s probably not a good idea to see a band’s first live shows. All the concepts & ideas & discussions that came before may have been fantastic, but the rubber meets the road when you step on stage and look out at a bunch of people thinking, “Okay, suckers, show us what you got!” Happily, in the case of Modern Times, you’ve got a veteran unit who’s seen more and done more than most players, and at the venerable Colony in Woodstock, they dove into their maiden performance like a cormorant in search of its next meal.
Modern Times came out of jam sessions between bassist/producer/bandleader extraordinaire Scott Petito and the redoubtable husband & wife combo of keyboardist Rachel Z. and drummer Omar Hakim. At one point, Rachel suggested they do a show with vibes master Mike Mainieri, her former bandmate in the legendary group Steps Ahead. Mainieri agreed, Petito recruited burning multi-instrumentalist Jay Collins and daredevil percussionist/vocalist Minu Cinelu to fill out the sound, and a “whirlwind tour” was set up, with back-to-back shows at Colony in Woodstock and Live at The Falcon in Marlboro. Sadly, COVID-related issues caused Mainieri to beg off, so Petito and Co. had to “settle” for Joe Locke, whose performances in the Hudson Valley have been the stuff dreams are made of for live-music junkies like myself.
If you’ve never been to the nearly-hundred-year-old ex-boarding house that is Colony, you need to find a gap in your schedule immediately: Great food, great beer, and a spacious beer garden with a professional stage and a righteous sound system. Throw in a wood fire by the side of the stage and kids & dogs running around playing, and that’s America on Labor Day Weekend, baby! Band members ate their dinners at the same picnic tables as the crowd, who had taken up just about every space available by the time the group hit the stage.
Hakim and Cinelu started a bubbling backbeat, Rachel poured percussive chords on top of it, and then the band launched into “Sly Fi”, a funky mid-tempo piece that opened Petito’s 2018 Planet Arts disc Rainbow Gravity. Collins was breathing fire through his tenor sax right from the jump while Locke echoed him on four mallets. Locke may have stepped in at the last second and wasn’t completely familiar with the material, but this kind of souped-up electric jazz runs through his DNA, so he was clearly in his element. Both Locke and Rachel slayed us with some tasty breaks, and then Cinelu weaved his special percussive magic over the rideout as Collins and Locke traded some rocking 4’s.
The band followed up “Sly Fi” with Don Grolnick’s “Pools”, one of several Steps Ahead tunes in the set. For me, Steps doesn’t get nearly enough love, given the people who came through the group and the solid jazz-fusion content they put out over the course of two decades. I saw them live three times, the last of which was a reunion show at Freihofer’s Jazz Festival that emphasized volume over virtuosity and made the music more dated than it should have been. Luckily for the crowd at Colony, all the pieces Modern Times played had nuance and texture in addition to the sizable power this unit could bring to bear. Throw in Collins channeling the late great Michael Brecker through his tenor and Cinelu adding beautiful vocals to the mix, and magic was made again and again.
Collins has been playing Colony quite a bit these days with his own band, so he brought out “Cradle of Civilization” from his own catalog, preceding it by telling us, “With this group, it takes on a whole other groove!” I’ve never seen Collins’ band, so I have no basis for comparison; all I know is that, with Collins working the melody on flute and Locke working the counter, the tune was a knockout, particularly when Rachel pulled out some tasty Fender Rhodes sounds. For his part, Locke pulled out a great “Nature Boy” sub-reference during Rachel’s funky love song “Sensual.” In fact, the original compositions in the set stood toe-to-toe with Steps Ahead classics like the gorgeous “Sarah’s Touch” and the snarling set-closer “Bullet Train.”
There were moments throughout the night where it was clear the band was still feeling each other out, but that’s only natural given the last-minute personnel change. And unlike Petito’s monster cover bands Paper Sun and Reelin’ In The Years, the idea with Modern Times is not to replicate what came before, but to use that history as a jumping-off point for the destination the band wants to reach. Putting the members’ newer material through the same lyrical filter Steps laid down back in the day results in a final product that’s far from dated and could become addictive given half the chance. I wish there had been time for Locke to add some of his own catalog to the set, but it is what it was, which was a night of colorful, joyous music that this COVID-tainted time needs badly. Hopefully, Modern Times will continue beyond their two-night run, because the possibilities with this unit are literally endless.