Burlington Discover Jazz Festival: Burlington, VT, June 1-10, 2012

Doug Collette By

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Burlington Discover Jazz Festival
Burlington, VT
June 1-10, 2012

Now in its 29th year, Burlington Vermont's Discover Jazz festival generates a tremendous amount of anticipation as its 10-day interval arrives each June. Followers plan their vacations around it, residents arrange family gatherings in time with it and those coming in from afar look forward to it as one of the most significant events of the year.

The level of anticipation for this year's festival ran higher than usual, and not just because of an unusually star-studded roster of artists (though that justified the emotion). The 2011 festival endured the first-ever cancellation of a Flynn Theater Mainstage event, while contingency plans were employed—and quite successfully— when inclement weather brought a temporary halt to one of the Burlington waterfront events. Such an adverse fate couldn't happen again...?...

Such were the community's thoughts, if not implicit in the initial publicity, yet they didn't dampen the optimistic spirit of the welcoming reception on May 31st, held below a waxing moon. And as it turned out, it shouldn't have...in the least. What turned out to be the swansong for director Brian Mital, as well as his associate of six years, Geeda Searforce, turned out to be a homerun of mammoth proportions, artistically (and presumably financially). Is there a better calculation of the success of any festival?

Béla Fleck with The Marcus Roberts Trio Flynn Mainstage June 1, 2012

The 2012 Burlington Discover Jazz Festival couldn't have gotten off to a better start than this absolutely wondrous performance. Anyone doubting the drawing power of premier banjoist Fleck would have been gratified to see the venerable theater fill up, but more so to watch the interaction between the man who's come to be something of an artist-in-residence (four appearances in the last seven years) with a jazz combo possessing all the chops necessary to give a scintillating performance.

As in his performance with Stanley Clarke and Jean-Luc Ponty, Chick Corea and the original Flecktones, Fleck was his usual modest, winsome self between songs, but focused and adventurous during tunes, most of which came from the studio album recorded with Roberts, drummer Jason Marsalis and bassist Rodney Jordan, Across the Imaginary Divide (Rounder/Concord, 2012). The set was as well paced as the CD, the band catching fire with "Petunia" and flying high through material that allowed each of the four musicians to demonstrate there's no discernible degree of separation in skill between them.

Whether in Jordan's intro to "One Blue Truth," Marsalis' drum break later in the two- hour performance, or any of the melody players' solos and interactions, there wasn't a dull moment. Atypical of the usually staid Flynn audience, spontaneous applause arose more than once, and deservedly so: while it's a cliché to speak of telepathy between musicians, there's a truth at the core of the truism, and so Fleck and company demonstrated, with ingenious improvisations like the mini-whirlwind that was the album's title song, rendered near the end of the evening with a stoicism that belied the carefully- channeled physical and mental energy involved in their interplay.

There were enough grins to go around during the course of the concert though— not just among the musicians, but for the audience during fleeting interruptions of the rapt attention they paid to what was happening on the stage— setting a high standard for subsequent shows to come during Burlington Discover Jazz 2012.

Ninety Miles Flynn Mainstage June 2, 2012

The music of this septet was almost as sophisticated as that of Fleck, Marcus et al, but it put greater emphasis on improvisation within composition, rather than material as a jumping-off point for jams. Co-led by vibraphonist Stefon Harris, trumpeter Nicholas Payton and saxophonist David Sanchez, the band paid careful attention to arrangement but nevertheless left room enough for all involved to personalize the performance.

Harris took priority as front man, as much by personality as by his instrument, but he was also more prominent in the range of material than his peers, who tended to take the spotlight when their material was in play. That said, the rhythm team got almost as much emphasis as the melody instruments.

The only one who suffered in that regard was pianist Edward Simon, who got but a single feature during the course of the evening. He might have received more attention, as he did during the fiery exchange at the end of the set proper, had there been more opportunity during the course of the two hours, except that Ninety Miles rigorously applied themselves to exploring the nuances of tunes like Harris' "This Too Shall Pass" and Sanchez' ode to New Orleans, "The Forgotten Ones." There was never a sense of spontaneity short-circuited, though: after all, except for the two horns and the double bass, every other instrument on stage was for percussion, so the group generated and pushed vigorous, rolling beats for the duration, even during the quieter intervals.

Tim Berne & Snakeoil FlynnSpace June 3, 2012

One of the marks of a good festival is the number of real schedule conflicts the music lover encounters. Bonnie Raitt's concert on the Main Stage was due to start close to forty-five minutes after saxophonist Tim Berne and his band finished their set downstairs, at the much smaller FlynnSpace, and chances were few that the attendees gathered near the stage in the intimate low-ceiling venue were planning to move upstairs after the hour-and-fifteen-minute performance. Whether Berne & company met expectations or not, chances were that the foursome had played enough music to last any aficionado for the duration of an evening.

Listening to the group play their two (!) numbers was akin to facing backwards in a moving vehicle: a familiar moving sensation to be sure, but somehow still difficult to fathom from its peculiar perspective. That's because the saxophonist and his idiosyncratic band put the accessible components of their music in the background or the bottom, while the more angular melodic and rhythmic elements took precedence. A challenge to hear, to be sure, but a sure-fire means of shattering listening habits.

Warming up with a ten minute number that sketched an outline for the longer, officially unnamed hour-long piece that followed—informally titled "Static"— Berne and his comrades set the stage for deeper explorations of melody and rhythm in which instruments were utilized in unconventional ways, and in unusual combinations such as Matt Mitchell tweaking the inside of his acoustic piano. The soft charms of drummer/percussionist Ches Smith's vibes playing, not to mention his array of small gongs and quirky use of his drum kit, were effectively hidden behind the tall Berne and rotund trumpeter Oscar Noriega, so that, when he assumed a metronomic beat as regular as could be, it was hard to catch, visually, what might've led up to that point.

Of course, if one of the attractions of good music is its mystery, then Tim Berne and Snakeoil told quite a story on June 3rd, one worth ruminating on till he returns to Discover Jazz (he offered a similarly bracing performance back in 2008).

Craig Taborn FlynnSpace June 4, 2012

Even had he not been roundly praised for conducting a workshop and participating in one of the Discover Jazz "Meet the Artist" sessions, Craig Taborn no doubt would've still evinced a deceptive poise upon taking the stage for his solo piano concert. By the time he was done with his hour plus in performance, he had revealed his personality in the most vivid terms.

The physical exertion necessary for such a show was obvious as Taborn's set hit its home stretch. What had been quick breaks between early tunes got a bit longer, and he took a noticeably deep breath before beginning his next-to-the-last improvisation. But by that time his modus operandi was clear (predictable perhaps to some), in the way he began each interval of playing—save one number bouncy and up- tempo from its very start—with stark ruminative chords and single notes which became densely embroidered as the minutes of playing progressed, to end, as a couple numbers did, in a frenzy of blurred hand motion accompanied by a tensed body language.

It was as if Taborn had engaged both hemispheres of his brain in a dialogue with each other. Declarative statements, in single notes rendered deliberately and patiently, arose from a brainstorm of ideas not yet fully-formed, till the crystallization process took place during the course of a back and forth while he played. Often ending with his head low, near to the keyboard, as if to try and sense the music lying dormant inside the instrument (which rebelled against him by popping a string twenty minutes in) Taborn may also have simply been marshaling his mental and physical strength to fully extemporize the sensations in music. It wasn't necessary to be close to the stage in order to witness the theatre, as the sound he produced filled the venue with increasing drama with each successive piece.

He was right not play an encore, but instead, to simply thank his appreciative audience and engage in some brief reminiscence of his previous visits to Burlington. Craig Taborn had already said what he needed to say without any verbal expression whatsoever.

Vijay Iyer FlynnSpace June 5, 2012

It didn't take the full moon to illuminate the contrasts between Iyer's performance and that of Craig Taborn the night before. Though each man played roughly the same length of time, Iyer's was a far less open-ended approach, each selection performed for little more than five minutes, except for his original "Kolam," based on a ritual from his homeland.

There's much that is remarkable about the fluidity of his playing and the way he uses the full expanse of the keyboard as he plays: on tunes by Thelonious Monk and Andrew Hill, he generated enough ideas to provide substance for upwards of a half dozen additional original tunes by lesser composers than they (or Iyer for that matter).

But there's also an intellectual reserve in his musicianship that prevents too much deep emotion from surfacing. His between song-comments, discussing his vocation and the state of jazz in general, were at some points more eloquent than his piano work. He offered a number about out-of-body experiences on "Autoscopy," but Vijay Ayer probably didn't have one in front of the packed house. And while he no doubt transported more than a few in attendance, it wasn't so great an expanse as traveled by the sparser Taborn crowd the night before.

The Donny McCaslin Group FlynnSpace June 6, 2012

The precision of the Donny McCaslin Group hit a responsive chord with the expectant audience in FlynnSpace, almost from the moment the quartet started playing. And certainly there is much to admire in the carefully-wrought original material, like the tribute to Tower of Power, "Energy Generation," as well as the arrangements of the arguable high point of the set, a two-part medley homage to parenthood, "Henry"/"Tension," (the introduction to which was naturally charming in contrast to the ingratiating name-dropping in another intro).

Yet, at least in the first hour of two, there was something almost too careful about the way the saxophonist and his group played. Even when they were soloing, there was a sense of well-defined boundaries, and while each member of the group was certainly technically sound—drummer Nate Smith most of all—no one took chances or surprised themselves, their comrades or the audience. The fact that the music isn't overly polished is a great advantage in this regard, as the McCaslin Group's carefully disguised predictability wouldn't be camouflaged were the sheen too bright on their sound.

Still, the quick stops and tight turns at transition seemed designed to create the illusion of spontaneity, rather than provide points from which to leap to uncharted improvisation.

Jazz Lab Burlington City Arts Center June 7-9, 2012

An abundance of educational events, most interactive, pepper the BDJF event schedule, all designed to broaden the horizons of even the most erudite music- lover. Workshops such as the one conducted by Craig Taborn were interspersed with "Meet the Artist" sessions conducted by the festival's critic-in-residence, Bob Blumenthal, who acted as moderator of dialogues between artist and audience.

Far and away the most intriguing event, however, is the Jazz Lab conducted by the owners and operations of The Tank Recording Studios in Burlington. Ben Collette and Rob O'Dea set up a full array of equipment on the second floor of the Burlington City Arts headquarters, aiming to collaborate with artists in the ambitious hopes of completing a fully recorded, mixed and mastered track for upload the same day. In 2012, they and the bands in question hit the goal resoundingly every day (which made it all the more disappointing that these sessions, open to the public, were so sparsely attended).

Local DJ and vocalist Craig Mitchell brought his band, Motor City, to Jazz Lab on June 7, with a brand new tune, composed since the release of an EP produced at The Tank. Well-prepared and practiced, the band got the basic track down within a half-dozen takes, as did Mitchell in his vocal efforts. Finishing touches such as handclaps meant to accentuate the rhythm of the song topped off the track, their inclusion indicative of the band's openness to spontaneity as well as their own good humor.

Accompanied by his band The Mood Stabilizers, Joshua Glass was much more craftsmanlike in his approach to recording, admitting during the late-afternoon Q&A session that he'd had all the parts of the track in his head when the song was complete in its composition. Constructing the track piece by piece required the meticulous additions of multiple guitars from producer Sean Witters, while Glass himself proved scrupulous in his attention to detail in the layered vocal tracks he so patiently laid down.

Jazz Lab 2012 was a definite study in contrasts as it moved from almost pure pop to pure spontaneity on June 9. Once-and-future one-man band Mike Gamble got his wish to work with electronicist Greg Davis and the pair engaged in two-lengthy workouts of almost an hour apiece, swirling synthetic computer textures intermixed with treated guitars and the sounds of a good old-fashioned drum kit: the artists were left breathless when each performance concluded, but not so much so that they didn't engage in a fascinating conversation with the event moderator, yours truly [Doug Collette], the engineers and a tiny gaggle of individuals whose curiosity was piqued, and their interest elevated, by hearing and speaking with Gamble and Davis. The finale of Jazz Lab was, appropriately enough, a lesson in the fundamental ambition of the Burlington Discover Jazz Festival (though their mission statement doesn't state it outright): keep your ears as open as your mind.

Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue w/Terrance Simien & The Zydeco Experience Waterfront Bayou Tent June 7, 2012

High-spirited offerings of familiar songs ranging from "The Night They Drove Ol' Dixie Down" to "No Woman No Cry" rendered Terrance Simien and company the ideal opener on a beautifully warm summer evening on Lake Champlain. Yet the momentum the band generated as the tent filled up with dancing people, egged on by the ever- socially-active Ben and Jerry, almost subsided by the time Trombone Shorty and his band took the stage. Some strictly heavy-handed rock, nevertheless greeted with increasingly frenzied acclamation, was beginning to morph into some more traditional NOLA funk by the time the evening's conflicted decision set in: The Mary Halvorson Quintet was occupying the FlynnSpace as of 8:30.

The Mary Halvorson Quintet FlynnSpace June 7, 2012

Not far removed geographically from Shorty's performance, Halvorson and co. were light years removed from that visceral force, substituting an almost scholarly formality in the orchestrated arrangements. This wasn't the academic correctitude of the prior night's McCaslin show nor the challenging approach of Tim Berne and Snakeoil, either, rather it was a contemporary chamber music. Halvorson's guitar took little prominence in the first hour of the performance, except to smoothly complement the discordance that emanated from Jon Irabagon's saxophone. On "Hemorrhaging Smiles," however, her own instrument's angular lines lifted the five- piece ensemble in a way that even the sleek rhythm section could not.

Christian McBride & Inside Straight Flynn Mainstage June 8, 2012

No performers enjoyed themselves at BDJF this year more than Christian McBride and Inside Straight. They went for the gusto and got it, their energy more than compensating for a certain sameness in the arrangements, as well as a lack of true innovation in their choice of material.

The inclusion of a trio number toward concert's end made for an especially effective change of pace, and turned the evening's overall experience into one of the high points of the festival—despite the disappointment of seeing so many empty seats in the theatre, and more so, because the music itself was straightforward to a fault: the musicians nevertheless offered solos with impeccable logic and stylish flourishes that elevated them far beyond the level of the ingenuity contained in the original compositions.

The Duke Ellington numbers, for instance, were basically blues, while the originals, though not pop by any means, bore too close a structural similarity to them that somewhat overshadowed the skill of vibraphonist Warren Wolf and drummer Carl Allen.

Jimmy Cliff w/Touissaint the Liberator & Amandla Waterfront World Tent June 9, 2012

By the time the two waterfront concerts actually took place, snagging big- name attractions like Trombone Shorty and Jimmy Cliff was almost, but not quite, icing on the cake. After the calamity-stricken shows last year—not to mention less than ideal, though not so extreme, inclement weather in recent years—the impeccably sunny warm (but not hot) weather, particularly for the reggae show, was karma well-earned.

No doubt that's why the Cliff show even outdrew its predecessor, as a robust, high- spirited audience whooped it up with increasing loudness while the openers set the proper tone of positive vibrations, and the thoughts of good ol' Saturday night increased the walkup attendance appreciably.

Perhaps it would've been enough to be in the same room with Jimmy Cliff (as he does indeed deserve the appellation of legend) but his occasional vocal frailty aside, his performance was increasingly buoyed by his band: the deeper they dug into a groove, the more animated he became. And the pacing of his set, particularly in the early going, was immaculate, as the tried-and-true reggae themes of pacifism and positivism, now augmented by environmentalism, echoed alongside each other.

It is more important still to hear Cliff's music. It recalls the roots of reggae, originally dubbed ska, which is deeply tied to American soul music and laced with rhythm and blues. In "You Can Make It (If you Really Try) and "Wild World," the punchy, pithy horn arrangements, and echoes of gospel in the female harmony vocals represent not a concession to mainstream pop, but the natural amalgamation of influences. And then there's the fact that only a reggae artist, of Cliff's stature or not, can sing and encourage audience chants of "Love!" with no trace of irony whatsoever.

It seemed there was no better place to be this definitive summer night, than on the shores of Lake Champlain, with Frisbee-playing, strolling and waterside contemplation going on as the sun fell and darkness descended. It was only necessary to walk up a single block from the water's shore to see diners sitting comfortably outside restaurants while bands offered more jazz music, this at the very same moment Dianne Reeves was playing and singing to an audience of her own on the Flynn Mainstage. The waterfront tent was merely the center of a larger universe extending throughout the city of Burlington, still over ten days away from the official summer solstice.

Lee Konitz FlynnSpace June 10, 2012

As if it were an encore to the Burlington Discover Jazz Festival climax on the previous night, the venerable saxman's appearance in the tiny cabaret was a subdued and fitting act of closure to what may, with just short retrospect, be seen as an absolutely spectacular ten-day run of music oriented events. The early part of his seventy-five minutes on stage was the definition of delicacy, as Konitz and his band seemed to be trying to play as gently as they possibly could. That said, there was no note struck not authoritative, a tone set by the leader whose instrument spoke of worlds of experience, almost as if to demonstrate how well he'd learned to avoid hitting the wrong note(s).

Bittersweet all through the set, the sound of the horn remained so, as finger- snapping gave way to tom-tom thumping, rolling bass lines and bouncing piano. The band hit the home stretch sprightly as the man himself who, at eighty-years stood and played as a good-humored role model for a lifetime of creative ideas. Lee Konitz' appearance at Discover Jazz was nothing less than a benediction to an event, or rather series of them, that could not have been more artfully or successfully conceived and executed.

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