Monday, October 02, 2006

Saturday's at the Beantown Jazz Festival

As anyone who has lived in Boston knows, it's the biggest little town in America. For good and for ill, it's much tighter knit (and wound) than most other cities our size, and you can't go anywhere without seeing someone you know, no matter how antisocial you are. (Critics would call us myopic, and they're right, but maybe they mean it in a nice way...)

I bring that up because from the minute I walked onto the site of the Beantown Jazz Festival, I started seeing people I know, which is normal, I suppose. But there were people from as far back as high school band camp, two guys from Cruise Ship X, former students, former teachers, the whole shooting match. The whole thing had a feeling of old home week, and looking around, I wasn't the only one getting that vibe.

The city had closed Columbus Avenue for about four blocks above Mass. Ave, and the festival did its best to use every inch of it. There were three stages, one each at the edge of the blocked off area of Columbus, and one in the corner of the park that abuts it. This worked well for crowd flow, less well for acoustics. When the band on either the park stage or the back stage got even moderately loud, the sounds of the two stages started bleeding into each other. This led to some interesting, Cage-ish juxtopositions (a really steamy vocal rendition of "At Last" creeping into a laid Jimmy Cobb-propelled bop head), which I don't think was the festival's intent. Other than that, the sound was very good across the board

The crowd was still fairly sparse for the opening acts, the NEC Jazz Composers' Ensemble and the Mike Tucker quartet. I played in the NEC band at one point, and know a lot of the players in it, so I abstain comment. And I had pretty much the same reaction to Tucker's group that I had to Esperanza Spaulding's group Friday. Namely, "Oh, that's nice."

The aforementioned Mr. Cobb was next, with a quartet featuring tenor player Javon Jackson. Jimmy still swings his ass off, that's really all that needs to be said. The set was mostly standards- "Sweet and Lovely", "Up Jumped Spring"- enlivened by Cobb's fantastic hookup with his pianist (sorry, I missed the name- bad critic!) and, as old professor Allan Chase called it, "THAT right hand". Javon was less exciting. I've heard him live several times, and while he's certainly a very good player, I've never heard any real spark or energy in his playing, and didn't on Saturday.

Jimmy is, sadly, one of those "see him while you can" kind of guys; when he and DeJohnette are gone, so too is that older style of swing that they, in very different ways, have carried on for so many years.

The highlight of the day was Kenny Garrett. As an alto player, I was absolutely enamored with Kenny in high school and college- nobody sounded like him, and he always played with the intestity of a tornado. (Now, of course, it seems like everyone under 30 sounds like him, usually minus the tornado, which is annoying, but I don't blame him for that) Kenny started a little late, due to a presentation with our mayor Mumbles Menino, but made up for lost time with a blistering opening tune. He continued with a set of tunes from his new album Beyond the Wall, mostly pentatonic melodies which he attributed to Asian folk melodies. It almost didn't matter; in many ways Kenny's music hasn't changed a lot in the last ten years, he comes out firing with a fiery, post-Coltrane pentatonic language, relying a lot on crash-bang interplay with a firebrand drummer (here the new to me, but soon to be on everyone's A-list Jaleel Williams). Jaleel reminded me, both physically and musically, of Kenny's former drummer and personal favority Chris Dave. (That's a very good thing) The crowd, which seemed to include half of Berklee's jazz department, faculty and students, loved every minute of it.

The last act I got to see was an unusual appearance by Christian McBride, featuring DJ Logic and the seemingly ageless Oliver Lake. I'm afraid that it really, really didn't work. The music would sort of fade in, with either McBride or Logic finding a groove, and the other matching it, then either Oliver or the keyboard would blow on top of it, then it would sort of drift away, and they'd do it again. The set lacked any sense of pacing or, except when Oliver was playing, focus. Lake did sound great though, a shining light in an otherwise dim set. (For a much better recent accounting of Oliver Lake, there is great video of him with MeShell N'Degeocello's recent project here).

Other obligations kept me from hearing the rest of the music, but I left a pretty happy camper (Despite some of my tepid prose here). The papers said that the crowd was estimated at almost 50,000, up a lot from last year. And most people I talked to seemed to deem everything- the location, the acts, the layout, the whole day- a success. Hopefully next year is another step up.

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