Undead Jazz Festival: Kenny's Castaways Edition
The Ben Wendel group was the first to hit the stage. Wendel's group, above all else, emphasized the attention to movement and flow that modern jazz has so delicately refined. Wendel, perhaps best known for his work with the evocative, genre-splicing band Kneebody, allowed his effects-driven tenor sound (not to mention his own keen sense of melody) to flow effortlessly through the electric vibrations of the quintet. Guitarist Nir Felder, armed with a particularly un-jazzy Fender Stratocaster, incorporated all the pings and clanks of extended guitar techniques into his fiery soloing. Wendel's bassoon blends surprisingly well with the electric guitar sound, proving that there are still new sounds to be explored in jazz.
Uri Caine's band was introduced as a group that played Mozart and Mahler and that's more or less what they were. However, Caine's "classical variations" ensembles are a far cry from Ellington's rendition of the Nutcracker suite. Caine deviated from his piano sonatas into bebop-flavored jaunts while drummer Jim Black supplied everything from the mysterious rumbles of Middle Eastern percussion to loud, funky break beats. Improvising over 18th century concert music with 21st century textures was nothing for trumpeter Ralph Alessi, who not only navigated this type of fusion but put his own mark on it. In the spirit of genre revival, Caine's group inhaled sharply and gave a rescue breath to classical music, reminding audiences that rondos and dances are meant to excite listeners, not to bore them to tears.
Ralph Alessi's This Against That was a change of pace. It was a very personal mixture of jazz styles that comes out of Alessi's involvement with the highly innovative Brooklyn scene. The group set up sparse melodies and harmonies, while allowing themselves time to stretch into long, thoughtful free improvisations. Alessi and saxophonist Tony Malaby skated beautifully over Andy Milne's Fender Rhodes, while bassist Drew Gress laid a foundation that sewed the ensemble together while allowing him unlimited possibilities.
Drummer Dan Weiss and guitarist Miles Okazaki were next. Duos are sometimes seen as musical dares; the audience wonders what kinds of musical forms two musicians can produce and whether they can sustain interest. In this respect, Okazaki and Weiss were largely a success. The duo kicked off the set with a refreshingly authentic Brazilian piece and then morphed into a middle section comprised of Okazaki's compositions. Okazaki's interplay with Weiss got repetitive at times, if only for the fact that he would show off his enormous talent as a guitarist and then revert to safer waters. Weiss showed off his long hours of studying Indian tabla drum performances, vocalizing and playing over Okazaki's multi-layered accompaniment.
After the two musicians left the stage, 12 replaced them. Tony Malaby's Novela was, simply put, a dangerous ensemble. Occasionally conducted by keyboardist Kris Davis (who also arrange Malaby's music for the ensemble), Novela unleashed a relentless torrent of musical structures that were loud, aggressive, provocative, dissonant and surely controversial amongst the crowd. Malaby's screeching soprano wailings collided with Davis's Fender Rhodes, while the rest of the ensemble, including two bass clarinets, trumpet, saxophone drums and an earth-quaking tuba, plowed through the charts at mostly their own pace. It was an example of how jazz can still shock even the most jaded of audiences. The spirit of Sun Ra is not lost.
After the dust settled, Jean-Michel Pilc's band took the stage. Originally billed as a "trio," Pilc was joined by drummer Ari Hoenig, electric bassist Tim Lefebvre and the surprise return of Okazaki on guitar. Just like the personnel, the music was loose and completely improvised. Hoenig was steady in his groove but delivered high doses of energy while Pilc, Okazaki and Lefebvre improvised in a jam band style that had all the twists and turns of free improvised music.
New York may seem to have the lock on any number of musical styles, but don't underestimate Richmond, Virginia, the hometown of Fight the Big Bull. An elsewhere review awarded this band the "most fun" award and I have to agree. Letting all academic constraints go, this was a band of eight musicians having a blast (with chops to boot, mind you). FTBB had a distinctly "American" sound, one that drew not only from American jazz, but also blues, country and soul. Throw in a healthy dose of the avant-garde and some raucous solo performances and this was living proof that accessibility is about appealing to the soul, not pandering the recesses of the mind.
It's a testament to the hipness of a jazz festival when the Alan Ferber Nonet is the most straight ahead act of the night. Ferber's writing is magnificent; it's lush, intriguing, ever changing and actually swings. His sophisticated, seemingly unlimited trombone playing is a perfect match for his writing. Some truly great and underrated musicians, such as alto Loren Stillman, bass clarinetist Doug Yates and a trumpet player deserving of wider recognition Scott Wendholt, accompanied him.
Josh Sinton's Ideal Bread kicked off the second night at Kenny's Castaways. Sinton's group is part of the historicist school of jazz ensembles, one's that showcase an artist, movement or idea within the jazz legacy in context with the present. Ideal Bread's tributary artist was late avant-garde soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy. Lacy's repertoire is quirky, bluesy and rooted in the 60's avant-garde. It's the challenge of the showcasing ensemble to make it sound fresh while at the same time authentic, and while Sinton's impassioned baritone sax playing coupled with the equally talented Kirk Knuffke on trumpet was satisfying, the group as a whole didn't push the music beyond it's own constraints. The letter of Lacy's music was presented in full glory, but the spirit was lost somewhere.
Chris Speed and Oscar Noreiga
Another chordless quartet followed them. Endangered Blood, featuring Chris Speed on tenor sax, Oscar Noriega on alto sax, and the return of Drew Gress and Jim Black on bass and drums respectively, was certainly the sleeper hit of the festival. The quartet playing was air tight, everyone playing in beautiful synchronicity. Noriega and Speed played together with the mutual assurance of childhood friends as they supported each other's solos with harmonic tones. Some compositions had a definite Latin, almost Mariachi feel. This is the kind of jazz that puts itself firmly in the roots of music, where melody uplifts people and draws them to a unified purpose.
The "New Mellow Edwards" band was the third chordless quartet of the night and it's remarkable how different all of these bands sound. While the latter two aimed for mid-60's avant-garde sound and a Spanish-tinged melodicism respectively, New Mellow Edwards went straight for a funky, somewhat sinister take on the format. Curtis Hasselbring is another fine trombonist that doesn't get the recognition he should; he adeptly navigates his historically difficult instrument with the kind of raw, acoustic sounds of players like Roswell Rudd and George Lewis. Chris Speed gave another great performance on tenor and bassist Chris Lightcap and drummer John Hollenbeck provided a heady, moving foundation throughout.
The Fender Rhodes sitting at the edge of the stage would only be played once that night and it was reserved for Craig Taborn. The trio with alto saxophonist Tim Berne and drummer Dave King felt like it was crafted exactly for the festival (for all I know, it may have been). Another freely improvised set, King showed a sense of restraint. He chose his hits judiciously when it was visible he was eager to do more. Taborn moved carefully throughout the set, wisely letting Berne create an endless stream of melodies. The set got even stranger when Taborn plugged in a keytar with a pre-programmed synth melody that sounded like it was straight out of a DVD-Rom instructional disc King, in his true Bad Plus fashion, played along, pushing and pulling the time. It was an odd duck of a trio, but it certainly worked.
Bill McHenry's Quintet felt like a return to normalcy, even though by all accounts it was not. The three horn fronted quintet, consisting of trumpeter Duane Eubanks and alto saxophonist Andrew DAngelo, was very much like the jazz workshops of Charles Mingus on two levels: 1.) They had an intelligent mix of ensemble playing and individualism and 2.) They were not afraid of covering many facets of jazz. McHenry plays with quiet confidence, complete with a gorgeous tone and a sophisticated ear. Duane Eubanks, unlike his loquacious brother Robin, preferred a calculated approach, letting his short phrases speak for themselves. D'Angelo squeaked, wailed, squawked and screamed his way through the bluesy but modern foundation (and despite all the modernism throughout this festival, they ended on a blues!)
Happy Apple closed Kenny's Castaways for the night. Happy Apple is the kind of band that begs to be put in the "not jazz" category, but plays for an audience that won't let them. They're named after the toy keyboard that saxophonist Michael Lewis likes to fool around with when he's not blowing. Erik Fratzke's electric bass more often sounds like indie rock than it does Ray Brown and Dave King's tenure in The Bad Plus, a band that catches the attention of the mainstream by covering Blondie and Black Sabbath, has no shortage of rock influences. However, no one with working ears can deny Lewis's crystal clear saxophone sound. No jazz fan can deny the presence of group improvisation in their playing. It's the raw, stripped down ethos of the band that draws listeners in and separates Happy Apple from the rest. If I had to give it a name, I'd call it "garage jazz," but this wasn't a festival about labels; it was about singular, unique expressions.
The Undead Jazz Festival was everything most jazz festivals are not: loaded with new artists, cheap and unsponsored. It was uncompromising, loosely organized, rebellious, a little snarky and extremely adventurous. The audience had no distinct demographic, ranging across age, sex, race, etc. There were as many dress shoes tapping on the floor as there were Converse All-Stars hanging from the second floor balcony. Above all else, the sheer mass of people in attendance at just one of the venues (I heard there was a line around the block for John Hollenbeck's large ensemble) should be enough to quell those who fear for the future of jazz. The next time someone asks you if it's dead, respond with "It's undead!" If they don't get it, have them come next year.