The sounds of jazz can fit anywhere. Smoky nightclub, expansive concert hall or around the various outdoor festivals now held across the globe. They fit anywhere, because the music lives and breathes – created on the spot and in the moment. And they sound great on the shores of a grand lake amid sunshine and mountains, as they did on a September weekend at the 17th Lake George Jazz Weekend. Even if the crowd is relatively small (hundreds, not thousands, attending) the jazz sounds of surprise drifted across the beach and over the appreciative crowd for two outstanding days of music. As concert promoter Paul Pines is proud of pointing out, the mini-fest doesn’t draw the names people are used to seeing each year at the larger festivals. But the musicians are first-rate, and for 17 years the former New York City club owner has been bringing true art to the little village in the Adirondack Park of Upstate New York. With blue water and boats in the background, this year’s event included the burning baritone sax of Nick Brignola, hot Cuban sounds from Jane Bunnett and Spirits of Havana, funky trumpet of the artful Ted Curson and tasty, thoughtful vocals from Etta Jones. Brignola’s gang led off the events and set the tone for the two days. He’s known for his hard-driving bop and virtuosity on the large horn. That’s what you get. No surprises in style, but plenty of adventure along the way. And this time he brought with him the wonderful Jimmy Cobb on drums, an undeniable treat. The group charged through songs like Kenny Barron’s “Voyage,” Sweets Edison’s “Centerpiece,” Monk’s “Rhythmning,” Coltrane’s “Impressions.” Throughout, Brignola’s improvisations were exceptional, intense, yet logical and often lyrical. The group slowed down for “Darn That Dream,” and the saxman showed he can also negotiate a ballad with finesse and feeling. His guitarist, Chuck D’Aloia, was also outstanding, showing a sweet combination of dexterity and thoughtfulness. Each riff led logically to the next and fit in the context of the attitude of the song. He could burn or caress chords and melodies. Cobb, meanwhile, was typical; a rock; his rhythms perfect, befitting of the grand master’s of the instrument.
”Centerpiece” (which Brignola claimed was called “The Keester Parade” when he first played it with Sweets) was a particular delight, starting out in usual Edison swing, but segueing into a bluesy feel, then a duet between Nick and bassist Otto Gardner and finally back to bebop.
Brignola, D’Aloia and Gardner later joined Curson for the trumpeter’s funky, bop-filled set. The Philly native known for his work with Charles Mingus has been living in Europe for much of the last 35 years and he openly bemoaned the fact that jazz is much more appreciated in Europe and Japan than in America, where it and it’s greatest creators were born. He graciously thanked the audience for attending and noted that in Finland “We do this all the time.”
The group cranked out “Candied” with Brignola roaring and Curson displaying an aggressive and crackling attack. The band wailed. Curson was in good form, displaying a technique owing to Dizzy and Fats Navarro more than the rounder sound of Lee Morgan or Miles. It’s his own bag and the under-appreciated Curson was a pleasure to hear.
”Riva’s Waltz,” he dedicated to Mingus and his mother – the former because of an argument he had with his volatile former boss and the latter for talking him out of quitting the Mingus band. “Summertime” was percussion-laden, with Curson taking to singing and scatting. He also sang on “Blueberry Hill,” and “Beemah’s Blues,” the latter a funkier tune that allowed D’Aloia and Brignola to lace their bop chops with R&B flourishes.
Etta Jones has worked with tenor saxophonist Houston Person since the 1970s and their set was as polished as one might expect with that kind of history. Person opened the set playing songs including “Tenderly,” “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars,” and “I’ll Remember April.” He has a sweet style that can be syrupy and yet flash elements of bebop; his mellow tone a combination of Stan Getz and Stanley Turrentine (the latter had died one day before).
When Jones came out, the two blended perfectly. She would sing a lyric, he would complete the thought, or compliment it. But Person never got in the way, and each phrase either caressed or accentuated the lyric.