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Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Experience 2024

Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Experience 2024

Courtesy Geoff Anderson

Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Experience 2024
Aspen, Colorado
June 20-22, 2024

The Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Experience returned this year with 20 acts performing over the course of three nights in various venues around downtown Aspen. JAS has been sponsoring two festivals (or "Experiences") each of the last several years. The June festival has been more jazz and jazz-adjacent and the Labor Day Festival (although still promoted under the "Jazz Aspen Snowmass" moniker) tends more toward pop and even some country.

Similar to last year's lineup, this year's June Experience included some straight-ahead jazz along with a healthy dose of funk, particularly of the New Orleans variety, along with some blues thrown in for good measure. Just like the 2023 festival, there were so many bands playing simultaneously, that it was impossible to see them all. And seeing as many favorites as possible required careful planning and intricate choreography. Trade-offs were inevitable: Stay for entire sets, or stay for partial sets to maximize the number of different bands? Oh, the stress!

Thursday, June 20

The Rumble with Second Chief Joseph Boudreaux, Jr.

The winner of the 2024 JAS award for Best Plumage was, hands down, Second Chief Joseph Boudreaux, Jr. of the New Orleans funk band, The Rumble. Boudreaux is a Mardi Gras Indian, a tradition in New Orleans where some people create their own elaborate costumes vaguely based on Native American garb and form parades through town. "The rumble" is what parade-goers hear from the marching musicians trailing the Indians.

The Rumble is a seven-piece band in the New Orleans funk-party tradition. Everyone in the band sang at one time or another and sometimes simultaneously. Most of the band's material consists of original compositions and most of it is drenched in that New Orleans funky gumbo. The Rumble played in the subterranean Sterling, an intimate joint with a low ceiling perfectly conducive to working the crowd (and the band) into a sweaty funk-frenzy. There isn't even a real stage, just a repurposed seating area and some portable lights and speakers. But the band was successful in recreating that sweaty, funky New Orleans vibe, even with the handicap of playing the first set of the first night.

But that headdress... it just raises all kinds of questions: Does he wear it on the plane? (Seems unlikely.) Does it travel in a custom-made climate-controlled case? What about replacement parts? What's the likelihood of finding a few extra pink feathers for sale in Aspen? (Well, maybe slightly more likely than other towns.) But still, it seems like there should be a repair kit with feathers, beads, sequins and other spare parts in case things get a little too funky on stage.

Mokoomba

After the New Orleans funk-frenzy (and wild plumage) of the Rumble, across the street was Mokoomba, from Zimbabwe, a six-piece band from the other side of the world, but nevertheless a band that could dig a groove as deep as any outfit on this side of the Atlantic.

Actually, their first tune was more of a drone that gradually intensified over the course of seven or eight minutes adding layer upon layer. The building intensity even sounded a bit like Ravel's "Bolero." The grooves kicked in after that with the African rhythms injected by two percussionists and a funky bassist. The guitarist favored a clear, sweet tone heard with many other African bands such as Jaluka from South Africa. The band also engaged in some light choreography where the frontline marched back and forth for a few steps.

They sang a couple of tunes a cappella, sounding a bit like another South African band, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, best known for backing Paul Simon on his Graceland album (Warner Bros., 1986). Lead vocalist Mathias Muzaza didn't sing in English, but his emotion came through loud and clear.



Big Bad Voodoo Daddy

The night closed at the Belly Up, Aspen's concert hall/nightclub. This is one of the biggest venues for JAS holding (not really "seating" because so much dancing goes on) about 450 revelers. The other good-sized venue is the Wheeler Opera House, more of a sit-down affair, seating about 500.

Big Bad Voodoo Daddy is a swing revival band led by Scotty Morris on vocals/guitar/emcee. The band plays a combination of originals, most written by Morris, and swing-era classics. Of the nine-member band appearing Thursday night, seven have been with the band for at least 20 years.

The band's origins go back to about 1989. Since that time, BBVD had some commercial success with songs like "You and Me and the Bottle Makes Three," "I Wanna Be Like You," and "Go Daddy-O." Their sound draws heavily from performers such as Cab Calloway and Louis Prima In concert, BBVD is non-stop swing. Oh, the beats per minute vary a bit, but the swing is the thing, so toes tap and fingers pop through the whole set. If you're not dancing that is. Morris hosts the proceedings, singing lead, introducing the songs and band members, and egging them on for one hot solo after another. He leaves plenty of room for everyone in the band to have multiple turns up front for solos. Big Bad Voodoo Daddy isn't breaking any new musical ground, but that's not the point of the band. They're here to swing and to keep alive the boisterous musical tradition of American music primarily from pre-World War II. And it's a great thing. The music is hard to match for pure exuberance. Having been together for so long, the band lays it down with precision, enthusiasm and authenticity.

Partial Set List
King of Swing; She's the One; Where I Can Go to Save My Soul (Song about New Orleans); The Jitters; Minnie the Moocher; Just Like You; Big Time Operator; You and Me and the Bottle Makes Three; Jumpin' Jive; Go Daddy-O; So Long Farewell Goodbye

Friday, June 21

On Thursday night, six venues were in operation, but on Friday night, JAS turned up the heat with eleven venues making for seemingly infinite permutations for seeing which band where and when. Most bands played more than one set making planning a little easier, but still, trade-offs and compromises were required.

By the way, this isn't a complaint; not only was it impossible to get bored, there were really no bad choices. It was just like planning a ski day at Aspen with new snow on the ground, it's all gonna be great, but where, oh where will it be best? That's the fun of strategy when there's no way to lose.

JAS Student Band Led by Christian McBride

JAS is more than a music promoter. The organization also has an educational component. Collegiate jazz students from around the country can apply for an all-expense paid scholarship for a two-week residency in Aspen learning about jazz from the masters. Christian McBride is the JAS Academy Artistic Director, and he led the current crop of students in several concerts throughout the weekend. The Academy has a great track record of turning out first-class jazz players. Alumni include Jon Batiste, Gretchen Parlato, Christian Sands, Rico Jones, Ulysses Owens, Jr., Ben Williams and many more.

I caught most of the big band's early evening performance at the Wheeler Opera House. McBride led the band through a professional-quality set of swinging tunes. McBride provided ample opportunity for multiple soloists who were all first rate. A highlight of the set was vocalist Maggie Kinney who sang two tunes and displayed the vocal chops and poise of an experienced jazz singer. Trumpeter Brian Lynch was on the faculty, and he joined the band as leader and soloist for a tune.

Over the last several decades, jazz has stood on a rather rickety foundation in terms of popularity. The declaration that "Jazz is Dead" has been tossed around so many times and for so long, it's almost a punchline (as well as the name of a contemporary project focused on revitalizing jazz artists from the past). So it's great to see the fostering of up-and-coming talent at such a high level.

Tommy Emmanuel

Tommy Emmanuel is often referred to as one of the greatest acoustic guitarists on the scene. He has developed a style of playing two, three and sometimes four distinct musical parts on his guitar simultaneously. In his solo set on the rooftop of the Aspen Art Museum, he introduced the members of his "band." He started with the bass line, then introduced the drums, added the rhythm guitar and then put the lead guitar/melody on top.

He played originals and some well-known tunes. Most of the songs were instrumentals, but he sang a few too such as "The House of the Rising Sun." Another vocal was his original "Angelina" for his daughter. He told stories about how he and his brother started to play guitar when they were kids and their efforts to get their dad to buy instruments for them. After playing acoustic guitars for a while, they decided they needed electric guitars and went to work on dad to get some. Dad finally caved in and one day brought home two electric guitars. But no amplifier. They went back to work on dad and finally got an amplifier, but blew it up before too long. It's all worked out OK for Tommy, however, as he tours the world (with very little overhead).

Partial Set List
Just an Old Fashioned Love Song; The Entertainer; Angelina; Mona Lisa; House of the Rising Sun; Guitar Boogie

Cedric Burnside

Astute readers will remember that I reviewed Cedric Burnside's show at Globe Hall in Denver on May 31, 2024. I interviewed him at KUVO the day after the show (video posted on the KUVO YouTube channel), so I figured I needed to stop in and say hello.

Burnside appeared in Aspen with the same trio he had in Denver three weeks prior. His set was a mixture of his original material and tunes written by his grandfather (his "Big Daddy") R.L. Burnside. We heard Big Daddy's "Po' Black Maddie" and Mississippi Fred McDowell's "Shake 'Em on Down" along with originals such as "Closer" and "Toll on They Life."

Katie Thiroux

Bassist/vocalist Katie Thiroux first started gaining widespread attention in 2015 with the release of her debut album Introducing Katie Thiroux (BassKat Records, 2015). She immediately garnered accolades and awards for best new talent and rising star. A second album, Off Beat (Capri, 2017) came along two years later. For her JAS gig, Thiroux brought along Matt Witek, her drummer on those two albums. Denver-based keyboardist Dawn Clement also joined her. The three performed a swinging set with another bassist in the audience looking on, Christian McBride. No pressure. Well, if she felt any, it didn't show.

Thiroux's main bass influence has been the great Ray Brown. She studied with John Clayton, so her hard-swinging style should come as no surprise. The trio played some instrumentals, but it was on the vocal tunes that Thiroux really shined. She has a bright, clear voice and a delicate articulation. At the tender age of 12, she began studying jazz vocals with Tierney Sutton. Friday night at the Wheeler Opera House lobby, she and her band were directly tuned into each other for an energetic set of straight ahead jazz.

Bobby Rush

Bobby Rush has never been a guy to sit still. In his 90 years, he has accomplished more than most people could with several lifetimes. To start with the awards: he holds three Grammys, 19 Blues Music Awards, he's been inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, the Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame and the Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame. His autobiography, I Ain't Studdin' Ya was published in 2021. He's released over 30 albums and dozens of singles, a total of 429 records by his count. He's appeared in movies and on TV. He has his own record label and he's owned a radio station for nearly half a century. There's a Broadway-style play about his life, "Slippin' Through the Cracks."

He played with all the blues greats, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, B.B. King, Buddy Guy. On his recent song, "I'm the One," he explains how he was the guy who "put the funk in the blues." And he still tours, even at altitude (Aspen sits at nearly 8,000 feet above sea level.) Over his career, he was able to keep control of his own music including his compositions and recordings. In an interview, he explained that he just fell into it because he couldn't find someone else to take care of those details, so he just did it himself. He told a story about how Chess Records didn't want to sign him because he could read the contract.

Friday night at JAS, Rush played two sets in the VIP tent. Fortunately, the powers that be opened the tent to the lowly pedestrians who only purchased the base-price tickets. Rush appeared with a four-piece backing band that (no surprise here) played the funky blues. Rush sang, told stories and played harmonica, but no guitar. He was also joined on stage by two dancing ladies. Only one of them sang and that was only at the end of the set. Mainly, the dancing ladies were there as eye candy. Rush repeatedly drew attention to their derrieres, and they happily accommodated by turning around and displaying the goods. And there were significant goods to display; such a vast amount, in fact, that I started to wonder about whether prosthetic devices and/or implants for that area of the body are a thing. That raised questions, especially in a place like Aspen, about how this could be a sensitive topic; objectifying women and all. But Rush is unapologetic. He says, "I joke and talk about sex in a way that people can understand. I'm all for lifting it up, because if it wasn't for sex, none of us would be here." Much of the set revolved around sex. At one point he convinced much of the audience (especially the women) to get up and dance. He suggested they touch their toes, "But don't go too low, I ain't been home in three weeks." But there seemed to be no objections from the well-heeled Aspen audience.

In his pre-concert interview, Rush talked about his life growing up, first in Louisiana, then Arkansas, then moving to Chicago. He told a story of getting a gig shortly after arriving in Chicago as a teenager. The bar that hired him made him come in the back entrance and then play behind a screen so the white audience couldn't see that they were listening to a black man. He was still outraged that something like that would happen in Chicago. He had left the South to get away from that kind of Jim Crow, segregationist attitude. But mostly he talked about his music and lamented that Black audiences have moved away from the blues. He was proud and happy that he could still play the blues and continue to spread the word to those interested enough to listen. As he says of the blues, "it's the root of all music, it's the mother of all music. If you don't like the blues, you probably don't like your mama."

Partial Set List
What's Good for the Goose (Is Good for the Gander); I Be Studdin' Ya; I'm Your Hoochie Coochie Man; Porcupine Meat

The New Mastersounds

The New Mastersounds celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. Originally from England, frontman/guitarist Eddie Roberts now lives in Denver. Somewhat like Bobby Rush taking charge of his music, Roberts, too, has his own record label. Besides releasing records, Code Red Music is a production studio and multimedia platform. Friday night, Roberts was joined by his long-time band-mates, Simon Allen on drums, Pete Shand on bass and Joe Tatton on keyboards. Their energetic set threw down groove after groove. It was all instrumental with many original tunes.

Hailing from England wasn't a handicap that prevented the band from channeling the New Orleans funk. Much of the set dripped with that Southern gumbo. Roberts remarked on one tune that was especially New Orleans flavored, saying that the band wrote it even before ever visiting New Orleans. When they finally did, on their first gig, he said people kept asking "Who dat?" He'd respond, "We're The New Mastersounds." The crowd would holler, "Who dat?" "Well, we're The New Mastersounds." "Who dat?" He started to wonder if there was some kind of communication problem until he finally found out "Who dat?" is a widely-used chant in New Orleans usually applied to the local pro football team but also deployed in concerts.

Saturday, June 22

After seeing six bands on Friday, maybe it was time for a bit of a break on Saturday and only catch four bands. Or maybe that's just the way the schedule worked out. Yeah, it was just the way the schedule worked out.

Headhunters

One of the most highly anticipated acts of the JAS festival was the appearance of the Headhunters. Originated by Herbie Hancock, the band and its eponymous album were hugely popular and influential in the early '70s. So for those of us who were around at the beginning and felt the impact of this band at the time, this performance would be more than just some music, it would also be imbued with heavy doses of culture, nostalgia and history. To put a fine point on the importance of their appearance, the band was scheduled for a single set beginning at 5:30 at the Wheeler Opera House.

The Headhunters celebrate their 50th anniversary in 1024. Or maybe it's their 51st anniversary because the Herbie Hancock Headhunters album (Columbia, 1973) came out 51 years before this performance. Either way, that's quite a chunk of a human lifetime, and similar to other bands with that kind of longevity, the ranks of the original members are dwindling. In this case, the Headhunters are now down to one. Percussionist Bill Summers is the sole member who appeared on that 1973 Headhunters album. Fortunately for all of us, the original leader, Hancock is still kicking, but he hasn't been in the band for decades.

The original Headhunters drummer, Harvey Mason, left the band after that first album and was quickly replaced by Mike Clark who appeared on the second Headhunters album, Thrust (Columbia, 1974). Mike Clark is still with the Headhunters and he appeared with the band on Saturday evening at the Wheeler. So Clark has been with the band for 50 years.

The other members of the 2024 Headhunters included Jerry Z on keyboards, a New York-based musician who has been playing with Clark quite a bit of late. Also on hand was Chris Severin on bass and Donald Harrison on alto sax. Of those three, Harrison is the best known having been a fixture in the New Orleans jazz scene for decades and having been a leader of his own bands for nearly that long. He's also a Big Chief in the Crescent City, but he didn't bring his Mardi Gras Indian suit, instead favoring a dapper white sports coat with black pants.

Summers acted as the band's emcee and talked about his 50-year association with Mike Clark and how they are essentially brothers. Throughout the evening, the two played several percussion duets and the telepathy evolved from a half-century of rhythmic communication was obvious. About halfway through the set, keyboardist Nigel Hall joined the band for "God Made You Funky." Hall was in town to play with Jon Cleary.

The diverse set ranged from the funk like that one to jazz standards like "Monk's Dream" and "ESP" to Headhunters tunes like "Butterfly" and "Watermelon Man" (Headhunters album version). The Headhunters were known for bringing the funk from the beginning and, in fact, that was one of the main reasons Hancock started the band. Fifty (or 51) years later, they still bring the funk, even transfusing it into straight ahead tunes like "Monk's Dream" and "ESP."

Toward the end of the set, Summers offered some African prayers and chants invoking hopes for peace and a better world. The last tune of the evening was for Harrison and his hometown, "Hey Pocky Way," a great tune by The Meters that had the audience singing along led by Harrison on the only vocal of the set.

The only downside of the set was the extensive percussion breaks. Usually, Summers and Clark played these together, but often it was just one or the other. Some of this sort of thing is good, but Saturday night, it seemed overdone taking up at least a quarter of the set time, maybe a third. It left me wondering whether they lacked rehearsal time and used the drums for filler. Otherwise, it was a fun set that brought back some of the old Headhunters tunes and it was fun hearing the Headhunters put their stamp on other familiar songs. Even if they didn't play "Chameleon."

Partial Set List
God Made Me Funky; Monk's Dream; ESP; Butterfly; Loft Funk; Watermelon Man; Hey Pocky Way

Cory Henry

After the Headhunters, it was back to the Aspen Art Museum's rooftop for Cory Henry. His set was scheduled to overlap the Headhunters, but fortunately, he was late getting started so I made it for nearly his complete set. Henry is another funkster and he got down to it with his five-piece band with Henry up front on a Hammond B-3 organ.

His set started with some standards like "Isn't She Lovely" and "Caravan." He soon brought out his three female backing vocalists and broke into a highly rearranged version of "America the Beautiful." From there, things got even funkier with some of his original compositions like "Dancin' Ain't No Sin" and "Rise People Rise." Like Bobby Rush, he coaxed some of the Aspen crowd out of their seats and onto the dance floor. He ended his set with some gospel music, "Lay My Burden Down." Finishing with some gospel music seemed appropriate because his album, released in February 2024 is named Church (Culture Collective). His prior album was Operation Funk (Culture Collective, 2022) so the set drew from both of those elements.

Christian McBride Trio

Along with the Headhunters, the Christian McBride Trio was another must-see act. The trio's performances (two on Saturday night) were dedicated to master bassist Ray Brown, a true giant in the history and development of jazz. McBride is fast approaching that same status, if he's not already there. Like Bobby Rush, McBride's accolades have been piling up: eight Grammys, Newport Jazz Festival Artistic Director, host of NPR's "Jazz Night in America," host of The Lowdown, Conversations with Christian on Sirius XM and teaching and mentorship such as his involvement in the educational efforts of Jazz Aspen Snowmass.

The list of musical luminaries for whom he has held down the bottom end is as long as it is impressive: Five Peace Band (with Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, Kenny Garrett and Vinnie Colaiuta),Bobby Watson, Freddie Hubbard, Benny Golson, Sting, Roy Hargrove, Milt Jackson, McCoy Tyner to name but a few. He has multiple bands of his own ranging from trios like this one to big bands and in-between bands. Then there's his bass playing, and that tone, both impeccable and one of a kind.

Saturday night at JAS, McBride was joined by two long-time comrades in arms, Benny Green on piano and Gregory Hutchinson on drums. The three had played together many times before and all three had played with Ray Brown. Not surprisingly, all the tunes on the program were either written or arranged by Brown.

This set was, quite simply, the state of the art of straight-ahead jazz trio playing. Between their virtuosity and the years playing together, these three could, and did, go anywhere and each could anticipate the next moves of the other two. So often, bass solos seem like something to be endured rather than enjoyed, but McBride's solos were constantly inventive, full of surprises and always upbeat and exciting. Likewise, Green was a constant font of creativity, wringing new phrases and clever lines from the set list predominantly composed of standards. Like the others, Hutchinson is one of the best in the business on his instrument and he continually added, color, sparkle and percussive emphasis in clever and unusual places.

Despite all the musicians in the small town of Aspen at the same time, there didn't seem to be much intermingling among them off stage. This set was an exception. As an indication of the high regard in which the members of this trio were held by the other musicians in town, several of them came to hear this set including Harrison, Clark, Thiroux and her band and opera star Renee Fleming. McBride introduced several of them, including Fleming who, according to McBride, was the vocalist for Illinois Jacquet many years ago. McBride remarked that if she had stayed on that path, she probably would be smoking cigarettes by now and be a whole lot meaner. He invited her on stage to sit in with the band, but she declined. McBride also introduced Harrison who had intentionally appeared without his horn. While it would have been fun to hear some spontaneous interactions with other musicians, this trio left nothing to be desired.

Set List

Jada; Milestones; Blues for Junior; Tin Tin Deo; That's All; You Are My Sunshine; Squatty Roo

Jon Cleary and the Absolute Monster Gentlemen

After the straight-ahead piano trio, it was back to the Belly Up. Wrapping up JAS 2024 was another New Orleans outfit, Jon Cleary and the Absolute Monster Gentlemen. Despite his current home in the Big Easy, Cleary hails from England (just like the New Mastersounds). But Cleary has lived in New Orleans for decades and that's allowed him to play with many of the great musicians from that city. Nigel Hall, who had earlier sat in with the Headhunters, was an honorary Monster Gentleman for the evening, making for a quartet with two keyboards. Rounding out the band were Cornell Williams on bass and A.J. Hall on drums. Everybody sang.

Cleary was a chatty emcee and told tales of musicians he had played with and where the songs on their set list came from. The band led with "Unnecessarily Mercenary," a song Cleary wrote and recorded with Bonnie Raitt. Another of his past associates was Earl King, so Cleary dedicated "Those Lonely, Lonely Nights" to him. Another was Johnnie Taylor, and the tune "Last Two Dollars" was for him. Dr. John was yet another past associate, so "Such A Night" was a natural selection. In fact, Cleary seems to be a bit of a Dr. John character, only with less voodoo, because they both play(ed) keyboards, hail(ed) from New Orleans and ladle(d) on the funky gumbo.

Cleary is a songwriter and his tunes have been covered by, in addition to Raitt, Taj Mahal and John Scofield. Saturday night, he and the band played several more of his songs including "Been a Little Minute" and "Zulu Coconuts." Whether working their way through covers or originals, Cleary and the band maintained the funk and a high-energy party atmosphere. It was an excellent wrap for a festival featuring so much music that could be traced to New Orleans.

Set List

Unnecessarily Mercenary; I'll Be Happy When I Get the Blues; Zulu Coconut; On the Old Piano; Dyna-mite; Those Lonely, Lonely Nights; Been a Little Minute; Dancin' the Boogaloo; Last Two Dollars; Uptown Downtown; Two Wrongs; You Know That She Lied; Such a Night; I Just Kissed My Baby

Epilogue

Thirteen bands in three days. Yes, it was a bit of a marathon, but there was no pain of the long-distance runner. This was nothing but a great time. It's easy to get spoiled though. From now on, will I want to go somewhere just to see a single band play? Yeah, I'm not that spoiled.

Looking ahead, JAS is currently constructing a custom facility in the heart of downtown Aspen around the historic Red Onion Bar, an establishment that dates back to Aspen's silver mining heyday in the 1880s and 1890s. The new building is slated to open in the second half of 2025 and will feature a performance space, rooms for teaching and a studio for recording and broadcasting. JAS plans to hold up to 300 events per year in its new facility and will feature many of the same acts appearing at the June Experience this year and in prior years.

Not stated in the promotional literature on the new building is whether it will supplant the June Experience by featuring the same acts spread over the course of a year rather than nearly all at once in the current three-day festival format. Judging from the "Letter from the President + CEO," by Jim Horowitz, found in the 2024 JAS concert guide and a brief chat with him after Jon Cleary's second set, it sounds like the June Experience concept will continue, "as long as people keep buying tickets." Seems reasonable. With any luck and a little promotion, there should be ample room for both.

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