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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.

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