Umbria Jazz: Days 1-3, July 10-12, 2009
For all his outsize personality, however, Pleasure wasn't the star of his own bandat least not musically. The tenor saxophonist, "Big John" Eastman, tore through everything he touched, growling and moaning through hearty blues and rock & roll rhythms with wild melodies that avoided cliché, even when they were little more than beefed-up riffs. When Pleasure left the stage for Eastman's instrumental feature "Parking Lot Blues," the sax's hot-sauce sound nearly burned holes in the audience's ears. Also threatening to steal the show was the clear comedian of the group, bassist Shark von Schtoop (almost a clone of actor/nerd icon John Hodgeman), who might have been a show all his own. He literally shook at the refrain of "Shake, Rattle and Roll"; he pretended Eastman was kicking him on "Kiss Me Once, Kiss Me Twice"; he sat down and played the bass over his knees like a guitar on "Parking Lot Blues." With players like these, every second of the set was a great time.
Then came singer KJ Denhert, who was something else again. Her sound while unique, is closely related to the broadly used term of "roots music": an adult-contemporary sensibility that mixes in pop, folk, soul, and world, accented by light jazz touches. But Denhert's music also packs some surprises: on two songs ("What's My Name" and "Little Problems"), drummer Ray LeVier and percussionist "Bujo" Kevin Johnson brew up the hard-edged rhythms of go-go, the party music indigenous to African-American Washington, D.C.but their version is less about dancing and shouting, subsumed in Denhert's sweet melodies and thoughtful lyrics. Elsewhere, she mixed in reggae ("Choose Your Weapon"), African inflections ("He's Not Coming Home") courtesy of bassist Mamadou Ba, and classic rock via an acoustic cover of Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water" (which also featured a ripping alto sax solo from Aaron Heck). When Denhert's set was finished she was cheered as powerfully as the other acts, but there was a different sense to it: this was music where meaning had the most effect.
Call that a temporary change of pace, though; it was followed by Ezra Charles' Texas Blues Band, who brought whooping, hollering, and dancing back to the crowd. The pianist's sextet is a civic treasure in their hometown of Houston, and they brought with them to Italy a hefty stew of musical traditions from the American south. Blues was the base, of course, but there was no shortage of boogie-woogie, country, western swing, jazz, and rock & roll of all kinds, especially Chuck Berrywho speaks through many of Michael Seybold's guitar solosand rockabillyCharles is nothing if not a disciple of Jerry Lee Lewis, with his blond hair sticking straight up, the his nasal twang in his vocal shout, and both his hands and feet running wild on the keyboard. But the dominant flavor in the band is southern soul, courtesy of his three-person horn section: trumpeter Rachelle Akpanumoh, trombonist Nancy Dalbey, and tenor saxophonist Damon Sonnier. Every tune, from Willie Nelson's "Night Life" to Charles' urban original "88 Answers," had tasty horn licks of the Stax-Volt variety running through it. If there were exceptions, they were so not because they didn't have great horn charts but because they gave the tunes a different feel; "Drive Time," for example, couldn't be called anything but rock 'n' roll, and "So Many Women, So Little Time" is as pure as the blues gets. Still, Charles, for all his talent and devotion to the blues, couldn't help but sound a little hokey and anachronisticlike a cranky old guy playing sounds from a world long gonebut the way he and his musicians used the horns refreshed the music.
Alas, at this point it was time to explore elsewhere.
And now for the real stuff.
Even if you didn't know that Freddy Cole was Nat "King" Cole's brother, you'd have drawn a connection between them. The younger Cole shares the elder's knowing, pliant singing voice (if a bit gruffer); the astonishing piano chops; even the instrumentation: Freddy's quartet includes Randy Napoleon on guitar, Elias Bailey on bass, and Curtis Boyd on drums. Their most prominent common trait, though, is the elegance of their music: Cole's pre-dinner performance at a small banquet hall in the Hotel Brufani was an understated set of standard love songs, played and sung with deceptive simplicity.