Burghausen Jazz Festival 2013
After a powerful and loud opening set from Big Sam's Funky Nation, the Wackerhalle stage was reset, with steps leading up to it, for Larry Graham and Graham Central Station. Graham was the bassist in Sly & The Family Stone in its heyday of groundbreaking appearances at Woodstock and albums like Stand! (Epic, 1969) and Dance to the Music (Epic, 1968), and considered the inventor of the funky slapping and popping technique he calls "thumping and plucking." Leaving Sly in the early '70s, he began his own group, Graham Central Station, which has managed to survive, albeit with considerable personnel changes, ever since.
Graham is promoting a new record, Raise Up (Moosicus, 2012), but surprisingly, he played very little from the album at his B-Jazz performance...not that anyone seemed to care, as the band hit the stage, with his female singer Ashling Cole (nicknamed "Biscuit") riling the audience up for Graham, who came through to the stage from the rear of the house, thumping and plucking all the while. Hitting the stage with a sextet that included, along with Cole, two keyboardists (David Council and James McKinney), guitarist Wilton Rabb and drummer Brian Braziel, Grahamturning 67 later this yearrevealed absolutely no signs of slowing as he kept the energy up throughout the entire set at the pace of a twenty year-old, moving around the stage with choreographed moves and plenty of just plain burning energy.
If there was any complaint to be had, it was that, aside from Graham, whose deep baritone remains intact, the rest of the band members were good but merely average singers. Cole, in particular, had a rather shrill voice, and while the entire show, like Big Sam's, was loud, when she got a solo spot singing the Ann Peebles staple made famous by Tina Turner, "I Can't Stand the Rain," she may have hit every note, but it was the quality of her voice that, sadly, didn't really cut itor, perhaps more accurately, cut through too much. And her schtickmoving around the stage, pointing at various members of the band and mugging for the crowdultimately became tiresome, while her dance moves felt stiff and unnatural, especially compared to Graham.
There was, perhaps, too much preponderance on groove and less on songin particular it would have been great to hear Graham's kick-ass take on Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground," from the new record. But none of this mattered to the crowd and that, in the final analysis, for a show like this, is the determiner of success. With much of the crowd on its feet from the start of the set, Graham brought the set to an even faster boil towards the end when he delivered a Sly & The Family Stone medley that ultimately brought a couple dozen peopleincluding a couple of unsuspecting (and unwilling, but to no avail) journalists, who did their best to make it to the back of the crowd, only to be rewarded with some ear-shattering bass when Graham kicked in his fuzz box for "I Want to Take You Higher"onto the stage to bring the set to a real party close.
Instrumentally, the group did what it needed to do: some searing solos from Rabb, McKinney and Council, rare but powerful spots from Braziel, who managed to keep the relentless pace throughout the set without ever lagging. But it was Graham's show, and along with one costume change (and, when removing the white coat of his first suit, revealing a sequin-studded vest), a bundle of energy and a way to engage the audience (at one point, even inviting some young musicians from the crowd to come up and play with the bandone organist, one guitarist and one bassist being especially good), it may not be a show that would stand up to repeat listens, but at the end of the day it was just plain fun...and, perhaps, that's all it was really meant to be.
March 16: Klaus Doldinger's Passport / Gregory Porter
While the festival promotes its Saturday night as the mainstream night, that's not exactly how the first act would be described. Since forming the group in the early 1970s, German saxophonist Klaus Doldinger has kept Passport a going concern, long after other successful fusion groups have disbanded and faded into the fabric of history.
Maybe it's because Passport's always been on the more accessible side of the fusion equation, strong on melody, groove and, on occasion, some harder-edged grit, that's allowed Doldinger the luxury of keeping it alive for more than 40 years. Of course there are none of the original personnel, save Doldinger himself, in Passport 2013, but the saxophonist has brought together a percussion-heavy septetwith percussionists Ernst Ströer and Biboukl Darouiche, drummer Christian Lettner, keyboardist Michael Horneck, bassist Patrick Scales and, originally from Australia, guitarist Peter O'Marathat was as retro as it needed to be and as contemporary as it wanted to be.
Scales, who also co-leads a band with his brother, guitarist Martin Scales, has been with Passport for nearly twenty yearssomething of a record, but one matched by O'Mara, who moved to Munich in 1981 and since becoming a fixture on the German jazz scene. Both were in fine form at B-Jazz: Scales, a bubbling groove-meister and, during his solo spot during "Bellydance," one with a surprisingly broad command of his instrument; O'Mara largely favoring a densely overdriven, whammy bar-centric but harmonically sophisticated approach that made him the most exciting soloist of the show, overall, demonstrating that he's more than just a fusion player during his solo on "Malesh," where he quoted, amongst other things, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie's "Night in Tunisia." Horneck, too, turned in some fine solos, largely focused on a retro-Rhodes tone, but occasionally dipping into middle eastern tonalities. Lettner had the perhaps unenviable task of keeping the pulse moving while surrounded by a wealth of hand percussion which, for the most part, worked in concert but occasionally became a little overcrowded. But that's often the risk and, for the most part, Doldinger's clear arrangements ensured a group equally streamlined and clean.
As was Doldinger's saxophone playing. Not exactly a virtuoso, he played to his strengths and built solos predicated on melody and intensity of tone rather than furious displays of technical virtuosity. The music dipped back into Doldinger's 40 year-plus Passport repertoire, but also featured music from the group's most recent disc, Inner Blue (Warner Germany, 2011), in particular the hard-and-heavy "Mangroove." Throughout the set, Doldinger engaged the audience in a relaxed fashion, with plenty of stories and hopes to see Passport turn 50 in a little less than a decade. That he continues to work this band, which tours internationally, on a regular basis, is all the more remarkable for the nearly 77 year-old saxophonist, since his work for film and television has long since ensured a healthy income. Clearly Passport still means a lot to him and, judging from the audience's reaction, it means a lot to them too.
On the ascendancy the past couple years, first with his debut, Water (Motéma, 2010) and now with the Grammy-nominated Be Good (Motéma, 2012), singer Gregory Porter proved an interesting case of a singer who looks to be outgrowing his band. Using the same group that first came together at a small club in Brooklyn, New York, where the Los Angeles-born singer now lives, it's hard to deny the value of friendship and camaraderie in a group. Still, a singer is only as good as the band backing him/her up, and in Porter's case, he has grown so rapidly over the last couple yearstouring over 200 dates per year and traveling around the globethat while his performance at B-Jazz was nothing short of exceptional for his contribution, it was difficult not to imagine how he'd have sounded, had he a group at the same level.
Not that any of his group were particularly badthough saxophonist Yosuke Sato could learn a thing or three about the use of space, as every solo was a constant flurry of notes and unrelenting motion across his alto's register, something not helped when Jon Faddis joined the group for a few songs and turned then into a friendly cutting contest that drove Sato to even busier (and more shrill) heights. The group was tight, no doubt about it, hitting all the marks, and supporting Porter capably and with feeling. But there was the sense, especially in songs like Porter's incendiary "1960 What?"about the early 1960s Detroit city fires that the singer delivered with the kind of commitment that almost felt as though he'd been therewhere it became clear that no matter how terrific Porter was (and he was terrific), he'd have been even more so with a band capable of a little more finesse, and a little more subtlety; sometimes its approach was just too obvious.
Irrespective of the band's shortcomings, Porter really is the new male voice in jazz, his rich, dark baritone as capable of Jon Hendricks-style scat it was more soulful delivery. On a version of cornetist Nat Adderley's "Work Song," Porter embedded another blues that gave the tune, about working in prison chain gangs, even greater gravitas. And while Porter's early days in theater have made him a seasoned performer, none of his movements, affects or actions onstage felt any less natural than the way he sang. Even his "Real Good Hands," written in response to an old girlfriend's parents' asking about his intentions, felt as honest and heartfelt as it must have when he wrote it; and it's not hard to buy into Porter really being the picture of a man "slowly coming into view," who feels that his girlfriend's father really is "the picture of the man / That I someday want to be."
Faddis was a masterful guest onstage, though even with him there were times where a little more restraint would have helped. Still, his technique is impeccable, his facility and reach one that few can parallel today. But the show truly belonged to Porterwho, after the show, was awarded the Impala Prize by Membran Media's Götz Bühler, for sales of over 40,000 units in Europe. Clearly Porter's star is on a major ascendancy, and staying on the road is translating into sales rare for even the most established jazz artists. But he's also on a cusp of even greater things, and as hard as it may be for him to first acknowledge and then act upon, his own talent has simply eclipsed that of his band. Porter has already demonstrated the capacity to become one of jazz's truly great singers; now, for the next step, he needs a band capable of putting him there.