Burlington Discover Jazz Festival: Burlington, Vermont, June 3-12, 2011

Doug Collette By

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Burlington Discover Jazz Festival
Burlington, VT
June 3-12, 2011
The mix of anticipation and apprehension at the outset of each year's Burlington Discover Jazz Festival is no doubt something akin to stage fright in the mind of any stage performer, musician or otherwise. Will the string of high-profile events meet audience expectations and generate the publicity that translates into financial solvency? Will the mix of up-and-coming and cutting edge artists offer sufficient accessibility to bring in casual jazz fans and solidify the attraction(s) for dyed-in-the- wool aficionados? And will the educational events, including meeting-the-artist occasions, provide the insight that nurtures an ongoing interest in the art form?

Truth be told, the trepidation's gone the first night Church Street comes alive with music coming from venues that don't always feature sounds, sites that make it a regular occurrence and the now-familiar Long Trail concert series lines at the Marketplace. The inaugural concert on The Flynn Center for the Performing Arts' Main Stage doesn't always represent a bellwether for the ten days festival, but on the night of... no one knows for sure.

If the 2011 Discover Jazz lineup proved anything, it's that the composition of a festival is much like the arrangement of a song rife with seemingly infinite variations on themes that, in just the right proportion, create sparks on the stage and in those present. Thus, this year jazz vocalists took the place of the avant-garde at FlynnSpace, while mainstream acoustic jazz dominated the Mainstage, and the blues tent became the Groove Tent down on the shores of Lake Champlain. And there was no discernible drop-off in excitement or satisfaction from years past: those virtues only came in different guises.

Bitches Brew Revisited Flynn Mainstage June 3, 2011

The appearance of the Bitches Brew Revisited project presents a strong statement on the Discover Jazz approach over the last ten years: recognition of the contemporary redefinition of mainstream jazz. Miles Davis was an icon of jazz longer than any of his predecessors such as Charlie Parker and rightly so, because he repeatedly retooled the music in epochal ways over the course of his career.

As pointed out by the erudite scholars of jazz, Bob Blumenthal and Dan Morgenstern, in a late afternoon panel discussion, the groundbreaking 1970 album was logically presaged in the modal explorations of In A Silent Way (Columbia, 1969) (teased on stage at the outset by turntablist DJ Logic), which now seems a mere sketch for the density and intricacy of the subsequent album. The eight-man band reimagining this music is larger than those ensembles that The Man with the Horn himself used to present the music in the wake of its release (usually with a five or six piece lineup), but their ambitious attempt to not just recreate, but expand upon this forward thinking music, represents a statement in itself on the enduring influence of the original release.

On its own terms, the Bitches Brew Revisited project is largely successful in offering an accurate sonic simulation of the melodic and percussive themes in the form of "Miles Runs the Voodoo Down" and "Pharaoh's Dance." The enrichment of the sound with percussion and the brilliant drumming of Pheeroan AkLaffas well as the imaginative treatments of Logic reminds how Miles Davis foretold the future forty years ago, while the presence of Marco Benevento on Fender Rhodes electric piano and former Living Color electric guitarist Vernon Reid spoke volumes on both the eclectic nature of Davis' vision and the technological advance it still represents today in this digital age.

Given that, it was odd how the sound quality often fell short of the performance, turning oddly thin at times and varying in volume at unexpected points (do the speaker columns on either side of the stage need to be enlarged?) Add to that the imposition of will tendered by organizer and bandleader Graham Haynes, who seemingly curtailed nascent improvisation on the part of the latter two players as they faced each other across the stage: while it's important to present as much material as possible from the Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1970) album within each performance, it does more justice to the open-ended idea behind the music (as opposed to the carefully-wrought production by the late Teo Macero on the original double vinyl LP) to allow those involved to embroider upon those themes when given the opportunity.

Nonetheless, the two-hour presentation excelled from what might be termed an odd angle. In those moments when Haynes took the spotlight with his own horn, the lyrical quality of the material took precedence over the literal electricity and rhythmic intensity that first strikes the listener when encountering this music. If being reminded that Davis never lost the delicacy in his playing is not an epiphany of sorts, perhaps that's because the next night's MainStage performance by Herbie Hancock had to steal the thunder.

Big Joe Burrell Day City Hall Park June 4, 2011

Fastidious as they are, the organizers of Discover Jazz wouldn't presume to say they arranged the balmy weather that graced the area the first two days on the festival schedule. No doubt they would have wanted to take credit for the sunny, breezy atmosphere that descended on City Hall Park the afternoon of Saturday, June 4th, as it was ideal for the annual fete in honor of the late icon of Burlington Music, Big Joe Burrell.

As usual, a number of bands filled the skies with sound as the lawn collected women and children, old and young alike, but of special note had to be the appearance of James Harvey's Jazzilla's Jazzilla. For some years a steadfast figure of the Queen City's music, Harvey assembled an all-star band of sorts, including Nick Cassarino on guitar, Vorza's Robinson Morse on bass and Jen Hartswick on horns and vocals. In keeping with that versatility at his command, Harvey and company were equally at ease with jazz-lie, funk of a greater or lesser groove as the afternoon wore on as well, as a hearty swing through reggae territory. The band received rousing acclamation as they finished and they deserved it.

Herbie Hancock Flynn Mainstage June 4, 2011

As did Herbie Hancock before he'd ever played a note from the Flynn Mainstage on Saturday evening. A disciple of Davis and a living jazz legend in his own right, Hancock has maintained his integrity over the years, even as he has tested the limits of jazz music's accessibility. The keyboardist/composer's outing was a purposeful set throughout its over two-hour length: Hancock began as he ended with a feisty workout on the grand piano, joined by his inestimable rhythm section of Vinnie Colaiuta on drums and James Genus on bass.

Mid-set found the bandleader alone on stage for an extended rumination at the same ivory keyboard, during which time the teases of "Maiden Voyage" echoed over the likes of the theme from "Watermelon Man," originally of the same vintage (and reinvented in the 1970s for The Headhunters). Hancock's synth figures retain an earthy warmth after all these years.

Herbie Hancock gave no short shrift to any stage of his career at Discover Jazz 2011, but rather paid attention to the respective phases in direct proportion to the time he'd devoted to it. So The Imagine Project (Herbie Hancock Records, 2010) was well represented with the aid of Kristina Train on vocals and violin, while technology became an essential element of the show beyond the keytar Hancock brandished twice during the concert: audio samples from his hard-drive augmented the live musicians at least twice.

And even mugging for the audience, ever-so-eager to be pleased, found its level, because Herbie Hancock understands the value of showmanship and why it should not come at the expense of his innate curiosity and well-tempered imagination.

The Ray Vega Latin Jazz Quintet FlynnSpace June 5, 2011

The music that happens in smaller venues than The Flynn during the ten days of Burlington's Discover Jazz Festival often rivals what happens at that venue, at least when it occurs downstairs at the intimate FlynnSpace cabaret. Ray Vega and his quintet inaugurated the series of cabaret-style shows this year, effectively playing the role of opening act with a presentation of Latin-flavored traditional jazz on which he, in turn, let loose brassy brays alternating with more gentle, melodic turns of phrase. Meanwhile, his rhythm section was, not surprisingly, the star of the show, drummer Diego Lopez effectively grooving deeply along with bassist Andy Eulau or leaving light insinuations of rhythm floating in the air to entwine with Zaccai Curtis' electric piano.

JD Allen Trio FlynnSpace June 6, 2011

It was a coup of no small proportions that Discover Jazz was able to nab J.D. Allen for an appearance at FlynnSpace on June 6th. Allen is a rising star within contemporary jazz circles, ascending at a prodigious rate, and his performance did not disappoint. Unleashing a torrent of notes to begin and sustain the first set, he wanted to demonstrate what a thorough grasp of dynamics he possesses by devoting much of the second set to mid-tempo and balladic material that found his saxophone virtually caressing the soft notes as they left his horn.

It's fair to say J.D. Allen exceeded expectations, if you take into account his rhythm section, two musicians who played at nearly as high a level as their leader. Drummer Rudy Royston, in fact, might take credit for strongest propulsion. As it happened, Allen generated as it happened, invariably when the saxophonist stood directly in front of the drummer. For his part, bassist Michael Bates distinguished himself with each solo, which he took as his strength, detailing and creating instrumental short stories.

JazzLab Burlington City Arts Center June 8, 9, & 11, 2011

Discover Jazz regularly presents educational events each year in various forms and perhaps the most enlightening of all those in 2011 was the Jazz Lab. Owners and operators of The Tank Studios in Burlington, Ben Collette and Rob O'Dea took over the second floor of the Burlington City Arts building off City Hall Park, setting up one room with recording and video equipment, the other for three different groups of musicians to play each day.

As the bands played, the music was not only recorded, but broadcast via live stream throughout the city and during breaks in those intervals, Q&A sessions similarly transmitted, were conducted not only with the instrumentalists, but the engineers themselves.

With three markedly different lineups attending these open-to-the-public sessions, including Brooklyn's Snarky Puppy and Burlington's own Barika, and three different purposes for the recording including, actual tracking by the latter two units, The Jazz Lab offered a fascinating real time perspective on the creative and technical aspect of music-making.

Groove Tent Waterfront Park June 9, 2011

Another unique but reliable aspect of Burlington Discover Jazz is the collection of shows conducted each year on the Lake Champlain waterfront. This year dubbed the Groove Tent and the World Tent, the two evenings of music proved successful as Ever,. albeit not in quite the manner expected.

After an almost ideal opening on June 9th with the ((Joshua Panda Band}}, whose irrepressible leader singer made his cross of country and gospel accessible all the way round, Bonerama's set was interrupted by storm warnings of high winds and heavy rain: in their infinite wisdom, organizers of the festival had a contingency plan in place right down to signs leading the attendees to safe haven across the street in a parking garage until it was safe to return and conclude the night with the highly anticipated 10-year reunion of Viperhouse. It was not, to their credit, anti-climactic.

World Tent Waterfront Park June 11, 2011

Hardy Vermonters, no doubt learning to appreciate the color contrast between gray skies and lush green foliage, began to fill the tent virtually at the 3:30 p.m. start time of Saturday afternoon's festivities on the lakefront, even as rain came and went through the afternoon (and into the evening). Having endured such precipitation almost constantly this spring, the attendees were quickly roused to celebration by the spirited eclectics of Toubab Krewe, who mixed exotic string sounds such as the kora with various percussion, plus conventional guitars, drums and bass (brought into serious play on a selection of surf music mid-set. In their own way as perfect an opening act as Joshua Panda two nights before, the band inspired the growing crowd to such an extent that dancing continued as the sextet left the stage and recorded reggae began to fill the air in anticipation of another four-and-a-half hours of music.

Matt Schofield FlynnSpace June 10, 2011

Any festival worth its salt has to suffer from an embarrassment of riches in its live Offerings, and so it was the night between the two Waterfront Tent spectaculars, even with the unfortunate cancellation of Poncho Sanchez's appearance on the Flynn Mainstage due to travel issues. A rare performance by the Vorcza trio in the courtyard at Halvorson's was a hot ticket (and Myra Melford turned out to be the unsung star of Discover Jazz 2011), as Church Street overflowed with crowds enjoying warm, dry weather for a change, but neither that, nor the block party accompanied by Bearquarium, posed any conflict with the 10 p.m. FlynnSpace performance by British blues guitarist Matt Schofield.

In what ought to become a festival tradition, this late night offering made the intimate venue even more so as guitar hero-worshippers whooped it up before the first note was struck. Truth be told, the self-effacing guitarist's fire came and went: it was only after an Albert King cover, tribute to one of Schofield's obvious influences, that his notes flashed an edge. Still, his compact lineup of drums and Hammond organ made for music fluid and strong during the course of a set that extended to near midnight.

Bela Fleck Flynn MainStage June 12, 2011

The voracious music lovers in attendance for Schofield gave the most enthusiasm to mention of the upcoming finale of the festival, Béla Fleck and the original Flecktones, this in contrast to muted response at previous events. Which may explain why ticket sales were initially somewhat soft for the finale, but it was gratifying The Flynn was sold out for the performance come show time: it would've been a shame for any empty seats to deprive a music lover of such a stunning two-set performance as this idiosyncratic band offered June 12.

Extended solos and ensemble playing across complex time signatures, all of which involving lightning speed changes and tradeoffs, all rendered in the casual air of four (and sometimes five, with Sparrow Quartet's Casey Driesen on violin) good friends who happen to be musicians playing for the fun of it. Fleck and The Flecktones know how good they all are, but that doesn't stop grins of admiration and appreciation from glowing across the stage at the sight of Howard Levy playing piano and chromatic harmonica! In fact, this group shared more smiles in the first one hour than most groups will display during an entire evening.

Add in the ever-so-subtle touches of theatrics---Fleck and percussionist Roy "Future Man" Wooten at opposite ends of the stage as bassist Victor Wooten and Levy laid the foundation for the second set—and the thrill of being in the presence of a truly great musical unit was palpable, particularly as their marriage of high-tech and vintage approach to their instruments became apparent.

Fleck traded off his conventional banjo for two electrified versions, one of which was inlaid in the form of a guitar, while "Futureman" added in most of his drum sounds via his self-created drumitar, to which he added accents with bass drum, toms-toms and cymbals via brush. Levy played a Steinway grand piano in a style combining the formalism of classical music with a distinct ragtime feel, while Wooten coaxed sounds from his various multi-stringed basses as fluid as they were deeply resounding

Béla Fleck and The Flecktones were the crown jewel of the 2011 Burlington Discover Jazz Festival, an absolutely spectacular climax to a series of shows missing a comparable number of such vivid moments as occurred the previous year. Representative of the savvy contemporary approach taken by organizers in the last few years, it was one of the first acts to be announced back in April, so anyone who cared deeply enough had months to look forward to the event and, as it turned out, on the evening itself, had the the chance to experience all the scintillating moments to meet and exceed those expectations.

Anyone whose life was consumed with the shows and events of June 3- 12 might've felt some measure of melancholy that the party was over for the year, but the quiet pleasure Fleck and company radiated in performing for the audience— who intuitively appreciated how rare was this level of excellence, even apart from the stylistic distinction of the Flecktones' music (what do you call it?... jazz-grass fusion?), mitigated that melancholy. So, what's to worry about how the Burlington Discover Jazz Festival will satisfy in 2012?

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