LIVE: 19th Annual Albany Riverfront Jazz Festival (feat. Allison Miller’s Boom Tic Boom & Lao Tizer Band), Jennings Landing, 09/11/2021

For me, September is the REAL Jazz Appreciation Month in Greater Nippertown, because that’s when live jazz really comes alive in the Capital Region. While the longtime series A Place For Jazz was paused again due to the Covidiocy, we still have two of the best jazz festivals in the country back to back, beginning with the Albany Riverfront Jazz Festival – and, after a two-year break, Riverfront literally brought the world of jazz to the Corning Preserve.

Before the music started, though, we needed to take time to remember all that we lost twenty years ago with an observance of 9/11, led by Mayor Kathy Sheehan and featuring Rep. Paul Tonko, the NY State Police, Albany Fire Department and Albany PD – on foot and horseback. The forty-five-minute ceremony was both beautiful and solemn, and it would have been even better if we’d had a good crowd to view it. Putting the proceedings at the top of a festival where the lion’s share of the audience shows up midway through the event denied the dignitaries of a proper crowd to witness it. The upside was that, because of the late start, the opening band had a pretty decent audience for a change.

Photo by Rudy Lu

Until this day, keyboardist Elizabeth Woodbury Kasius’ world-music collective Heard was one of the few Capital Region jazz outfits I had not had the chance to see, and after their effervescent fest-opening set, I regret that even more – but that’s spilled milk under the Dunn Memorial Bridge. Kasius has developed a tantalizing set of originals that all have jazz at their base but are flavored by musical spices from around the planet, played by a rotating cast of players that are clearly All In on Kasius’ vision. 

There’s a real personal side to Kasius’ compositions that shines on brightly, particularly on the beautifully layered requiem “Watch the Sky” (introduced here as “Prelude” to avoid any bad 9/11 memories) and the electric party piece “Feira Libre”, the latter of which was used by vocalist/percussionist Fosino Nelson to teach the audience some of his best dancing moves. Heard took us to the heart of Africa (with a side trip to Bulgaria courtesy of Kasius’ “space-age accordion” sounds on melodica) and made us feel right at home, and that’s all you want on any trip anywhere.

Michael Benedict Jazz Vibes not only made a triumphant return to Riverfront, but they also began a process of cross-pollination that wound through the local portion of Saturday’s bill. Heard featured Bryan Melick, one of my favorite percussionists in Greater Nippertown; Melick played drums for Heard but pulled out the congas to augment a quartet that’s basically one hot, tight rhythm section. Paired with Pete Sweeney’s always-rocking drum work, and the party was on right from the jump.

Photo by Rudy Lu

Benedict’s a blast in concert whether he’s on drums or mallets, but Jazz Vibes really seems to inspire him: He busted out Steps Ahead’s roaring “Buzz” to get the set off the ground, and then followed up with Antonio Carlos Jobim’s scintillating protest song “Favela.” David Gleason’s piano solo on Sonny Rollins’ “Oleo” was right on point, as was Mike Lawrence’s bass break on Elvin Jones’ “Mr. Jones”, and you can’t NOT have a great time when someone pulls out Eddie Harris’ righteous workout “Cold Duck Time.” Benedict went back to the Gary McFarland songbook for the closer “Street Dance”, where Melick and Sweeney went completely dog nuts!

Gleason and Sweeney kept the cross-pollination going by coming back onstage with Cubaquinto, a relatively new Capital Region outfit that picks up where Gleason’s earlier group Sensemaya left off. The musical cross-pollination kept going too, as the band went from a Mario Bauza classic to a latin shake-up of Horace Silver’s “Nica’s Dream.” Sweeney paired up with percussionist Alex Gonzalez to give every piece a dancing framework, while Gleason’s jumping piano had me grinning like a fool like I always do. 

Photo by Rudy Lu

Cubaquinto features other former members of Sensemaya, so you can see the straight line between the old band and the new. Unfortunately, while trombonist Ben O’Shea blew things up as best he could, this group needs one more horn to make the pictures they draw complete. That said, Cubaquinto represented itself well, highlighting their set with a spot-on take on Duke Ellington’s “Caravan”, and definitely made me interested in where they go from here.

Keyboardist Lao Tizer holds the “distinction” of being the only Lake George Jazz Weekend act to get an unadulterated pan from me. I’d like to say the situation has improved since his Jazz At The Lake appearance in 2016, but that would be a lie: Tizer has gone from 70’s-era prog jazz to the kind of R&B-laced sound that (for some people) passed for jazz in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and the occasional addition of vocalist / “American Idol” alum Elliot Yamin pushed the needle into the R&B zone almost every time.

I could have put up with this mish-mosh for one reason: While Tizer didn’t have a rocking wild-card like Karen Briggs (whose searing violin made Tizer’s Lake George set almost bearable) on the front line, he did have a crackerjack rhythm section in bassist Anthony Crawford, drummer Gene Coye, and longtime Stevie Wonder percussionist Munyungo Jackson – and when I’m bored at a show, I always watch the drums. But mixed in with the erstwhile pop “hits” was a workup of U2’s “Pride (In the Name of Love).” After 62 years on this planet, there’s very little that offends me, but a pop-anthem workup of a song about the assassination of Martin Luther King shatters that barrier into a million fragments.

Photo by Rudy Lu

The headlining act should have been listed as “Allison Miller’s Boom Tic Boom 2.1”, as the only member from the usual BTB lineup at Riverfront was Miller herself: This was basically a last-minute gig for the Hall of Fame drummer and getting together her usual band – all of them leaders in their own right – is not easy on a normal basis. That said, Miller put a call out to old friends & colleagues from other groups and came up with a hell of a pickup band: Trumpeter Jason Palmer, reed player/fellow Artemis member Nicole Glover, keyboardist Shamie Royston, and Sexmob bassist Tony Scherr. That’s a world-class lineup in anybody’s league.

Sticking primarily to tunes from Boom Tic Boom’s last Royal Potato Family release Ghost Wolf, Miller showed the enthusiastic crowd just how sumptuous 21st-century jazz can be. While her recruits don’t have the avant-garde bent of BTB regulars like Myra Melford and Ben Goldberg, the power & lyricism of this front line was on full display from the first notes of the opener “Congratulations & Condolences.” Palmer and Glover kept coming up with new & different harmonies as they dueled and danced on every tune, and Royston’s piano lines were both beautiful and solid. Despite their lack of time with the material, this group gave Albany Riverfront a great representation of what I consider to be the gold standard for modern jazz today.

As Boom Tic Boom played their final number, the fireworks started going off on the other side of the Hudson. While the timing of that could have been better, it was also a nice match to the musical fireworks Miller and her partners had been setting off for the previous 75 minutes. It was a beautiful end to a beautiful day, both meteorologically and artistically, and gave September the kind of start it had missed for the last two years.

Photo Gallery by Rudy Lu

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