Indianapolis Jazz Festival: Day 2, September 27, 2009

AAJ Staff By

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Day 1 | Day 2
The Indianapolis Jazz Festival
Indianapolis, Indiana
Sept. 27, 2009

Day Two of the Indy Jazz Fest at the White River State Park dawned with anticipation, everyone looking forward again to be pulled into the flow of the music. Cooler than Saturday, the weather still held against the vagaries of the local forecasts.

High school jazz bands, first on the roster for the day, usually present one of three possible extremes. One, they're awful, with the bandleader gamely trying to lead them through the honking clams and ragged stops without flinching, possibly imagining the three shots of triple malt he's going to pound when the ordeal is over. Two, they're still awful, but now it's because they're nearly completely tone-deaf and dyslexic from fear; and three, they're really good.

Making it in time for the Fort Wayne Snider High School Jazz Band, Kevin Klee leading, it became clear that there is yet one more possible outcome—that some old jazz masters have reincarnated and are attending high school in Indiana. Two stood out, a solo guitarist and an alto saxophonist; they already have distinctive voices, a rare thing at so young an age. Straight mainsteam jazz, no chasers, but they improvised with a flare that really spoke to their confidence and technical competence.

They were merely called "Jazz Band 3," named after the class level they occupy in the Fine Arts Program at Snider High. Klee didn't need any help to get through the set and neither did the audience. Education in the arts is so very important for development of thinking ability and teamwork, at the very least, yet so many schools are being forced to drop their music programs; the Snider High School Jazz Band is performing an amazing job. A lot of these kids will be playing in New York City before long.

Hananeel, playing at the Festival on the advent of their first album release, performed nearly all of this self-named work (Hananeel Music, 2009). With six members covering guitar, bass, drums, keyboards and sax, it was clear from the outset that this family—most of them are related—know their lexicon well. Theirs is an atmospheric sound, somewhat reminiscent of early Weather Report, with the reverb and the guitars right up front, winding around the motifs. Their compositions were lengthy, but that just gave the audience more time to steep in the sound.

But they weren't always driving down the Pacific Coast Highway; "New York" started delicately with a solo acoustic guitar up in the wooded Catskills and ended with a jazz orchestra promenading down Broadway. "Walking" was again another trip that progressed from the singular to the epic; and a groove that you couldn't help but move to; it was George Clinton meets Frank Zappa. "Untold Stories" invoked the edge of the mystical; jazz is at its best when you see the scenes the music-wielders are trying to invoke; Keith Phelps played a six-string bass that rocked one's heart-sounds, where the best memories live.

Home-grown Pharez Whitted (trumpet), now resident of Chicago, led his sextet in a set that speaks to their surgical precision—they were a well-oiled team with stories of the city. Theirs is a wide range—the spiritual grandchildren of Freddie Hubbard are here in Indianapolis, you can hear it in their sound.

But there the analogy ends, they have taken his athleticism and creativity and added our own times to the mix. Indy is particularly blessed right now—if you aren't a convert to the Midwestern bebop/swing musical narrative when you get here, you will be by the end of the day. Whitted has a new album coming out, Transient Journey (Owl Studios, 2009). The title song spoke to its name with a feeling of travel and images that end all too soon.

Kurt Elling is a straight-forward but idiosyncratic singer, full of complicated, existential lyrics that he should not scat to. Elling has been around for a decade or so, coming from the University of Chicago's School of Divinity, being one credit shy of graduating, which may be where he gets his lyrics based on Hinduism and the koans of Buddhism. Improvising on Zen lends a crazy wisdom to his singing that makes him stand out—as weird as his perfect enunciation sometimes makes it sound. But give him a ballad with that warm voice in the lower registers, and you're ready to give him your phone number. He sang a number of tunes from his latest album, Dedicated to You (Concord, 2009), a homage to John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman's music.

Originally from Milwaukee, Wisc., Rick Germanson (keyboards) has been playing primarily in New York City. Playing from Off the Cuff (Owl Studios, 2009), and a number of covers, Germanson could range from almost the burlesque to a clean, spacious Nordic sound. "It Was A Very Good Year" was not as poignant as Frank Sinatra played it, but was more orchestral and aggressive, and worked surprisingly well. "Autumn Leaves" was much more wistful. But then things heated up when Germanson got Derrick Gardner and Rob Dixon up on stage for Freddie Hubbard's "Little Sunflower." With Gerald Cannon (bass) and Louis Hayes (drums) this performance took off into one of those moments where the music flows through you and for a moment, you become the notes. It was to witness masters of their art; jazz is the best drug on the planet, with no side effects.

The Indianapolis Jazz Festival can easily vie with any festival in the world; there is the talent, the power and enough lovers of jazz behind it to step up to the international plate for years to come. The range of attendees was anything from the little jazz fan with his drumsticks looking, dazzled, up at the stage, to families, to grandmas and grandpas spending the day down by the White River. Make no mistake, everybody here speaks jazz.


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