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Live Reviews

Lake George Jazz Festival

By Published: March 12, 2004
September 15 and 16, 2001

Music is embedded in each culture, but it's universal in its nature. It takes on many forms and has many uses. It can be a friend and it can be a force. Problems in the romance department? Music is there. Feeling lost? Music. Introspective? Music. Celebratory? Music.
Many have called it a healing force. That theory was put to the test on the weekend of Sept. 15 and 16, just days after the horrific terrorist attacks in the United States, at the Lake George Jazz Festival, a small, but terrific 2-day event on the shores of a beautiful lake in the Adirondack mountains of Upstate New York.
Festival organizers had a decision to make in the wake of the national tragedy: Either cancel the event, like professional sports and some other entities were doing with their respective activities, or go on. They decided to go forward.
The decision was a good one, supported strongly by the musicians. The audience that was fortunate enough to take time out to have some of their troubles washed away – at least for a time – was the beneficiary. Music, and art, were again triumphant in troubled times.

The memorable weekend sent everyone away with a better feeling. The music was a cleansing agent, calming and soothing, conjuring up feelings of sorrow, but also of joy and hope. It has always been thus with music. We need it more sometimes. Like now.

Paul Pines, who books the festival for the Lake George Arts Project, said he conferred with the musicians before making a decision and they stressed to him that music is medicine. "Now is not the time to stop the music," he said.

And so it flowed. From the sharp and swinging guitar of Jack Wilkins; out of the thunderous and wondrous drums of Tony Vacca and World Rhythms; from the searing, good-time bop of the T.S. Monk Sextet and from the erudite, passionate and playful David Amran . They were cognizant of America's heavy heart. They did as good a job of lifting sprits as could be done, with blaring jazz, World Music, and even orchestral works with the local Glens Falls Symphony Orchestra under Amran's direction, playing everything from Bartok to Ellington to works by Thelonious Monk.

The music wasn't just from the jazz repertoire. It was influenced by world events. Amran led the orchestra in the National Anthem, and Wilkins performed a sublime solo jazz-ballad version of "America, the Beautiful." An obviously emotional Monk prefaced a tune by his septet by saying it was about a special place. "My father is there... Miles and Dizzy are there... Charlie Parker and John Coltrane are there. Joe Williams and Ella Fitzgerald are there. Benny Goodman. Buddy Rich... And now 5,000 or so of our brothers and sisters and children are there," he said, choking up for the moment. But then the band then roared through Clifford Jordan's "The Highest Mountain." Hot and vibrant and blazing.

Pines suitably referred to the entire weekend as on ongoing memorial service, and indeed it was.

The highlight of the weekend was Amran and the symphony orchestra with Monk's group. With over 40 musicians on stage, including Monk's men, it was a powerful aggregation, Amran conducted out front, but Monk drove the car with his incessant swing. They covered works by Leonard Bernstein and Bela Bartok, and featured works of Ellington and Monk Sr. From Duke's book, it was the Martin Luther King tribute "Three Black Kings" and the chestnut "C-Jam Blues." The orchestra provided support and different textures to Monk's "Bye Ya," and "Crepuscule With Nellie."

Monk Jr.'s septet, without orchestra, cooked through his father's quirky, bluesy "Think of One." Saxophonists Willie Williams and Bob Porcelli were outstanding, as was trumpeter Winston Byrd, pianist Ray Gallon and bassist David Jackson. The band is extremely swinging and tight, having been together for a long time. On "...Highest Mountain," Monk was brilliant, pushing prodding and soloing his ass off, apparently propelled by the emotion of the day and the moment.

Amran is sheer joy. He has played everything from classical, to jazz, to World Music, to beat poetry readings with colleague Jack Kerouac during his stellar career. He speaks with clarity and enthusiasm about the music and his jubilation is infectious. Jazz is classical music, and there should not be lines of distinction, he stressed, then illustrated his point with an orchestra that only rehearsed twice before the concert.

Amran scatted, invented hip poetry lyrics, played piano, tin flute, talking drum and French horn. His own "In Memory of Chano Pozo" was a delightful Latin romp in memory of the conga player Dizzy used to first introduce the marriage of Cuban and American music. Amran's "Pull My Daisy," from his Kerouac beat days was superb, a simple blues in which all the members of Monk's group soloed joyously. On piano, Amran traded fours with Monk; on French horn, after borrowing a mouthpiece on the spot from an orchestra member, he traded fours with Porcelli. He sang its hipster lyric and scatted out slick rhyming poetry about the Lake George area and about people in general. It was a fun, raucous, spiritually uplifting.

Wilkins started off the festivities on the first day bringing his great touch to staples like "Gone With the Wind," "How Deep is the Ocean," and his own "Kiwi Bird." His quicksilver hands and solid tone are remarkable. Wilkins should be better known, though as Pines noted, among guitarists, he's revered. A great musician.

Another notable set came from Vacca's group that had five people playing percussion instruments from all over the world. There was no traditional trap drum set, but seemingly everything else under the sun. Sound boring? It wasn't. The steady propulsion was captivating and the number of different tones and sounds and rhythms enthralled everyone from the gray-haired to the small children. It was an experience in rhythm, in feeling and in exaltation. It was stirring in its effect.

Vacca, too, recited beat-type poetry that celebrated the oneness of man, and the uniqueness. It wasn't all drums, though they dominated. Joe Sallins also played some bass, and Tim Moran provided tenor and soprano sax melodies over the rhythms at times, evoking a John Klemmer-like feeling. The music was entrancing and charismatic — a great prescription for the numbness that terrorists cast upon a nation earlier in the week.

The only sub-par note of the weekend came from singer Melissa Walker, whose sense of time and pitch were off in a poor set. She said she considered not making the trip, due to the tragic events, and maybe she was affected by it. Based on what was heard, there are hundreds of jazz singers of better quality across the nation. Her reach exceeded her grasp.

But the weekend, at the best "little" jazz festival around, was outstanding. It was also much needed. It was a good call by the organizers to keep it rolling, and it was a great job by the artists to send out a positive and hopeful vibe that hopefully won't soon be forgotten. Music, the most visceral of all arts, proves once again that the human spirit won't be suppressed.



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