Burlington Vermont Discover Jazz Festival 2010: In Service to the Community


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Discover Jazz Festival 2010
Burlington, Vermont
June 4-June 13, 2010

The symmetry of the graphic design for the poster announcing the 2010 Burlington Discover Jazz Festival is emblematic of the balance attained in this year's lineup. More thoroughly traditional than in years past, the event nevertheless could not help but produce a diverse array of styles given the stature of the musicians, including saxophone colossus Sonny Rollins and legendary guitarist Jim Hall. And that emphasis on quality, in turn, mirrored the panoply of activities that took place during the festival.

The Jazz Lab, offered by local recordists at The Tank Studios, allowed musicians to record themselves live in front of attendees present and via webcam. The Meet the Artist sessions, conducted by esteemed journalist Bob Blumenthal, allowed serious music followers to witness interactions between artists such as Allen Toussaint and their audiences in settings other than the performing stage. The Long Trail Concert Series provided live music on Church Street at all times and at various locations along the pedestrian thoroughfare, even as Burlington venues offered live music more often than at any other time of the year.

In addition to concerts at the intimate FlynnSpace—where surprises always abound—as well as the Performing Arts Center MainStage, the tent on the waterfront this year featured contemporary R&B in the person of Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings, plus an extended afternoon/evening bill of reggae artists.

Perusing the colorful, information-packed but eminently readable program required meticulous attention to absorb the level of detail, but such thorough documentation only reaffirmed the impression of a truly great festival. With so much going on, some tough choices and irreconcilable conflicts are inevitable for the visitor intent on taking it all in: not even the most avid devotee of the music can be two or three places at once! The embarrassment of riches only served to call attention to what is perhaps The Burlington Discover Jazz Festival's greatest community service of all: to spotlight what a vibrant ongoing music scene exists in Vermont's Queen City.

Arturo Sandoval
Flynn MainStage
June 4,2010

Whether or not you imagine Sandoval as the opening, rather than climactic, act of a stellar weekend-long triple bill, there's no arguing how astute a choice it was to make Cuban-rooted jazz the kick-off of the entire Discover Jazz Festival. There may be no more infectious sub-genre of jazz, and the enthusiasm of the audience, sparse though it was in some quarters of the venue, was in proportion to Sandoval's own gusto, his ingratiating stage patter only warming the atmosphere further.

The trumpeter and his band certainly sounded larger than a quintet as they roared into action, maintaining a high level of intensity through at least the early part of their set. Thankfully, pianist Manuel Valera provided some variation in dynamics by offering lyrical interludes to offset the frenetic attack of saxophonist Charles McNeal. Sandoval & Co. relied a bit too much on pure technique rather than in-the-moment musical interaction, with drummer Alexis Arca the weak link of the group, as he seemed to struggle to keep up with his rhythm section partner, bassist Dennis Marks if not, in truth, the rest of the group. But the leader displayed an unwaveringly sleek tone from the first notes he played, greeting the audience with impressive aplomb.

Bob Wagner & Friends
Long Trail Concert Series
June 4, 2010

One of four bands sequenced in one of the festival's many outdoor events, Wagner & Friends gave new meaning to classic rock by substituting Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton for the usual heavy-handed fodder found in that niche. A terrific arrangement of "Isis" closed the set, but that followed less resplendent shreds, from Derek & The Domino's "Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad" through a reading of "Down in the Flood" that owed more than a little to The Derek Trucks Band's recent reinvention of The Basement Tapes tune.

And brave as it was for Wagner and his group to tackle Cream's take on "Crossroads," they did more than just acquit themselves well: following the leader, who plays with as much fire as focus (and sings like the words carry personal meaning), they romped through it. They did much the same, albeit at an appropriately slower pace for a slow blues, with "Key to the Highway:" this was one instance where there were no concerns about the artist transcending his influences because he and his accompanists—including wizard-of-a-bassist John Ragone, drummer Russ Lawton and soulful keyboardist Ray Paczkowski—are so firmly and happily grounded in their chosen spirit of the moment.

Allen Toussaint
Flynn Mainstage
June 5, 2010

Allen Toussaint's saxophonist Brian Cayolle introduced him as "the high priest of New Orleans music," a high-falutin' accolade in contrast to the self-deprecating persona the famous songwriter and record producer evinced in his interview with a local Burlington weekly publication the previous week. Toussaint carried himself with dignity throughout most of his extended performance on the MainStage, particularly during the first half: he is one of those rare musicians from whom music flows effortlessly, and when gifted, visionary horn player Don Byron joined the ensemble about thirty minutes into the set, a reverential audience had the rare experience of being in the same room with two undeniably "natural" musicians.

Would that more time had been given to the exploratory strains of Toussaint's latest, highly acclaimed album The Bright Mississippi(Nonesuch, 2009), rather than the extended series of medleys stringing together a clutch of the man's composing and production works. While it was fascinating to learn (or be reminded of) his extended history, it's nevertheless true that even confections of the highest order—like "Get Out of My Life Woman"—can't compare to the atmospheric likes of this night's rendition of "St James Infirmary."

Mose Alison
June 6th, 2010

This venerable pianist-songwriter was accorded almost as much spirited acclamation this Sunday evening as Allen Toussaint had received the night before. And leading an acoustic trio, Allison generally justified the enthusiastic response, despite some minor muffs of lyrics during the course of this first set of the evening.

Such a miscues may be understandable because, though Allison is a bona fide original, marrying fluid blues-based melodies to tongue-in-cheek topicality on his best original material, there is a certain sameness to his approach. (On the other hand, his folk-jazz piano playing and understated singing is so unique it deserves to be called personal style, not shortage of ideas, making it understandable, and certainly forgivable, if even the author might be prone to mix-ups among the tunes in his distinctive repertory. And such slip-ups did not, tellingly, occur on the covers.) More importantly, Mose himself wasn't visibly fazed by the snafus—nor was his rhythm section (during those moments when he momentarily lost the rolling beat of certain tunes). The music was "of a piece," which is why this bluesman-songwriter, who came to New York in the '50s from Tippo, Mississippi to record as a jazz pianist for the likes of Zoot Sims and Stan Getz, fully deserved the loud testament of respect he got both before and after his performance.

Stephane Wrembel & The Django Experiment
Jamie Masefield & Brad Terry

June 7, 2010

Local musicians Jamie Masefield and Brad Terry brought an endearing informality to the stage, and the music they played in such an off-the-cuff manner had the same winning spontaneity. Both spoke of the intuitive communication they discovered when they met just weeks prior to this gig, and certainly they understated it: such uncanny rapport as they demonstrated in playing together is not to be learned even with the most assiduous practice: it is a wholly natural phenomenon if it exists between musicians at all and thus is equally rare and rewarding to behold.

Masefield, the once and future leader of The Jazz Mandolin Project, gladly deferred to Terry's clarinet playing and whistling (!), seeming to take as much pleasure in rhythm work and fills as those moments when he had the spotlight to solo. A man of independence and integrity, the mandolinist exhibited a remarkable humility in this duo setting, as did, to his credit, former school teacher Terry, who introduced a former student of his to play harmonica with the pair two-thirds through the set.

William Gallison elevated the synchrony of the musicianship to another level altogether with the sweet, slightly bluesy sound of his instrument and, as with the two principals, the smooth transitions were all the more remarkable to hear, given the paucity of rehearsal time in anticipation of this show. Every year Discover Jazz is marked by a performance or two (usually in the cozy confines of FlynnSpace) that transcends its unheralded status, and in 2010, the first of these indelible memories was the Masefield/Terry set.

Stephane Wrembel's tribute to Django Reinhardt on the hundredth anniversary of the latter's birth really couldn't compare, despite the daunting technical expertise and well-practiced presentation of the quartet. It's perhaps too disparaging to dismiss the group as a cover band, but the overweening facility with which they blew through the early segment of their set—much to the delight of an audience ready to be so pleased—had all the earmarks of a thoroughly rehearsed act conceived and executed to a level of expertise that quickly became less elevating or energizing than enervating through a lack of genuine fire in the playing. This was icy music, not Le Jazz Hot.

Gerald Clayton Trio
June 8, 2010

Gerald Clayton displayed a poise beyond his years as he began to play his acoustic piano this night, but this was merely a transferral of the dignified air he and his trio evinced as they walked to their instruments upon introduction. In performance, Clayton and company seem intent on assuming the most formal role of jazz musicians on every front, and the fearlessness, not to mention sheer delight, they showed as they played together suggests they are well on their way.

Rare it is to see so many grins of joy shared during the moments of instrumental interaction as evidenced by the interaction among the pianist, bassist Joe Sanders and fiery drummer Justin Brown. Indeed they had a right to be so expressive, as those intimate moments arose directly from an unusually distinctive approach to improvising: Clayton loves to turn melodies inside-out to discover as many nuances as he possibly can, while the rhythm section uncovers the beat intrinsic to the tune in order to render that rhythm more pronounced on their respective instruments. This trio has a remarkably tuneful means of deconstructing the material they choose to play, so it's little wonder they elicited such hearty response from the audience that comfortably filled the tiny venue. Gerald Clayton is the discovery of the 2010 Discover Jazz Festival.

Michael Zsoldos Quartet
June 10, 2010

The Michael Zsoldos Quartet radiated a quiet self-assurance as they took the stage in their classic jazz alignment (tenor sax, bass, piano drums) and played in that mode during most of their hour-plus set celebrating the release of Zsoldos' first album as a leader. The foursome became discernibly more assertive as they reached the end of their set, yet there were no fiery improvisations or truly extended renderings. Most takes, of original material from various sources and covers, including a Coleman Hawkins piece, were in the six to seven-minute range, comprising bright melodious playing from Zsoldos, pianist Miro Sprague and even bassist Martin Wind (whose instrument came though clearly in an impeccable house sound).

The latter applied more than a few rhythmic flourishes whether he was soloing or not, while "the lovely and talented" (Zsoldos' words) drummer Matt Wilson inserted his own slightly eccentric but nevertheless appropriately decorative touches within the ensemble and when he soloed. Whether Zsoldos, familiar as a regionally-based musician and teacher, becomes a genuine innovator remains to be seen, but genuine aficionados of jazz can never hear too much of this kind of rich, accessible acoustic music.

Jim Hall Quartet
Flynn Mainstage
June 11, 2010

If Discover Jazz 2010 had a designated artist-in-residence, Jim Hall might qualify. He appeared at a "Meet the Artist" session, guested with Sonny Rollins during Newk's concert on June 12, and he conducted his own performance the night prior, during which he hosted a brass section composed of Vermont musicians supervised by The University of Vermont's Alex Stewart.

The initial portion of the evening was devoted to pieces from the venerable guitarist's Textures (Telarc, 1997) and, to be fair, drummer Joey Baron stole the show, as much through the obvious delight he takes in playing as through the unconventional approach he takes to drumming. The arrangements, including the brass, with Hall on guitar (more as a table-setter than soloist) and bassist Scott Colley, featured Baron more than anyone, and the drummer took great pleasure in working his way around his kit—literally—spending as much time tapping its stands, the sides as well as the heads of drums and rubbing, as well as slapping or crashing his cymbals; it was hard to take your eyes off him (no small compliment inasmuch as the talented Colley is almost as tall as his double bass!).

The playing and selection of material from The Jim Hall Quartet allowed the strengths of all four men to become visible. The leader, for his part, established a gentle but incisive tone, his rhythmic accents virtually as important to the progression of the group interactions as his soloing. Though his instrument was always clearly perceptible, Hall prefers, as often as not, to approach the changes of tunes from an angle, and his accompanists follow suit: particularly notable in this respect was Colley who, especially on a Brazilian piece, allowed his insinuating style of playing to become even more insistent, in a steady rolling set of emphatic statements.

Saxophonist Greg Osby took a similarly low-key approach to his participation, notwithstanding Hall's frequent mentions and praise of his presence. He was most often content floating comments into the ensemble interplay, thereby fostering the dialogue among his three comrades, so that when he stepped forward on Billy Strayhorn's "Chelsea Bridge," his declarative rendering of the main melody sounded that much more forthright and crisp.

More highlights than that flashed through the hour-long set, the understated magnificence of which culminated in a sharp joyous reading of Sonny Rollin's "St. Thomas;" in his intro to his musician friend's tune, as in his playing and that of his band, Jim Hall displayed a good humor and generosity of spirit that may have belied his frail physical appearance, but which stood as the foundation of guitar playing as fresh and imaginative as a musician (re) discovering the rewards of playing for an audience, like the one in attendance at The Flynn. Pity there were so many empty seats: this was not be to be missed but rather an occasion not soon to be forgotten, if ever.

Sonny Rollins
Flynn MainStage
June 12, 2010

The halting manner with which Sonny Rollins, nattily attired and topped with a gray and white Afro, took the stage belied a seemingly ravenous hunger to play, demonstrated right from the outset through the end of his near two-hour set. It was an appetite shared by his four bandmates—and special guest Jim Hall, who appeared near the end of the concert as perhaps its crowning moment.

"Newk" was careful to move around the stage whenever a sideman, such as long time bassist Bob Cranshaw, took a solo to make sure he did not obstruct the audience's view, but most of the time the venerable saxophonist was center stage, turning melodies inside out, searching out every possible nook and cranny of melody and its connection to the internal rhythm of the song. Approaching eighty years, Rollins played with astounding vigor and ingenuity, all the while enjoying the spirit of the moment(s) on stage far more than his staid appearance at Discover Jazz in 2003.

But the beauty of this much anticipated event was that although the focus was on Rollins (and rightly so), as the evening unfolded it was not all about him. And not just for those rarefied moments when he and guitarist Hall demonstrated the wisdom of their years and a mutual generosity of spirit that manifest itself in the sharing of changes on two numbers just before the conclusion of the encore-less performance. Sonny Rollin's band plays in a near-perfect symmetry, its instrumentalists complementing each other in ways that suggest why the leader selected them.

Guitarist Russell Malone might have warranted more chances to solo, except that when you heard how his construction of melody lines was reflected in Cranshaw's bass patterns at any given moment, it was almost preferable to listen to the indivisible pair in the background. Likewise percussionist Sammy Figeora and drummer Kobie Watkins: the latter's preference for the well-placed downbeat meshed so tightly with the recurring pop of the former's congas that there was a steady current of symbiotic rhythm emanating from the two performers for the duration of any given tune throughout the performance.

Rare it is that a much-ballyhooed show meets expectations in any context, but Sonny Rollins' performance with his band at 2010 Discover Jazz exceeded expectations by a quantum leap or more, leaving the appearance of The Levon Helm Band in the position of offering the ideal encore for this annual Burlington musical milestone.

The Levon Helm Band
Flynn Mainstage
June 13, 2010

The Levon Helm Band may have seemed like an odd choice for a jazz festival unless you've seen the former drummer with The Band in recent years. As he's performed with a full complement of versatile musicians and singers, they've been augmented with a horn section that resoundingly echoes the vintage arrangements written by none other than Allen Toussaint for that iconic rock group's Rock of Ages concerts back in 1972. Levon and Co. are doing justice to the legacy of the unit he once led (then known as The Hawks), and they continued that campaign in the Flynn the final night of Discover Jazz 2010.

There couldn't have been a more celebratory rousing conclusion to the festival than Levon & Co. The Flynn Theatre crackled with the electricity of high anticipation, and when the wiry 70-year old strode jauntily out on stage and bowed to the crowd, the ovation was hearty and genuine. As was the response to the performance (and rightly so): Helm and his band did justice to songs by The Band ("The Shape I'm In"),Bob Dylan ("I Shall Be Released") plus rhythm and blues traditional (Fannie Mae")and contemporary fare ("Everybody Loves A Winner"). The group rendered each style as if it was their sole chosen niche.

All the while, a five piece horn section including famed trumpeter/arranger Steve Bernstein and tubaman Howard Johnson (who played Allen Toussaint's horn charts with The Band live) providing accents and decoration that, often as not, were as uplifting as the featured performers on a given tune. The bandleader himself, though somewhat weak in voice, nevertheless vigorously thumped his drum kit in his immediately recognizable style, a spare approach echoing Booker T & The Mg's Al Jackson: Levon drove the band constantly but knew when to lay out.

And there were surprise song choices that belied any sense that Levon and his band had simply chosen familiar material to play it safe. The drummer's daughter Amy sang "All La Glory," the lullaby from The Band's Stage Fright (Capitol, 1970), in appropriately tender tone, while her vocalist counterpart Teresa Williams displayed a fragility in her voice similar to a young Emmylou Harris when she sang Robbie Robertson's gorgeous ballad "It Makes No Difference."

Multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell has devised a guitar intro to "Chest Fever" that pays homage to keyboardist Garth Hudson's "The Genetic Method" but utilizes the unique characteristics of the electric guitar in the form of distortion and feedback. Likewise, partnering with equally fluent fretboardist Jim Weider, Helm's second-in-command ground out a nasty riff for Dylan's "Blind Willie McTell."

The sound in the room left something to be desired as Brian Mitchell's acoustic piano got shrill at times, and during some intervals, acoustic guitars were way too low in the mix. But Byron Isaacs' stand-up bass had the proper impact, as did the horns throughout the night. It's a challenge to balance such a big band, in more ways than one, but generally speaking, once this two-hour set came to a close, it was apparent that everyone in the room was perfectly satisfied. If you saw no other Discover Jazz shows in 2010, this might well have sufficed, but it would also, no doubt, whet the appetite for what lies ahead in June 2011.

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