Undead Jazz Festival: Kenny's Castaways Edition
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.