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Boz Scaggs Review - Syracuse Jazz Festival 2010

Syracuse New Times – Sophisticated Lady

Posted on July 20, 2010

It almost felt like old, swingin’ Syracuse Jazz Fest times when headliner Natalie Cole took to the stage Sunday, June 27, at Onondaga Community College, 4941 Onondaga Road, for the conclusion of this year’s run of our city’s annual celebration of distinctly American music. Cole’s set was the finale to the fest’s return to a three-day run since a 2007 change to a two-day event.

The charming and accomplished jazz and rhythm’n’blues songwriter and vocalist, not to mention nine-time Grammy Award-winner, wafted back memories of female vocalists like Diana Krall (2000) and Diane Schuur (1999), who had projected the sounds of jazz—that is, the genre of music largely derived from and composed of American songbook tunes—into the Salt City night, back when the festival was held in downtown’s Clinton Square prior to its relocation to Onondaga Hill in 2001.

Sights of the sounds: Will Lee again was a Jazz Fest favorite, Richie Havens grabbed the groovy vibe, Jeff Lorber fingered the ebony and ivory, Richard Bona played bass, fans young and old enjoyed the show, Ralph MacDonald beat the bongos, Gil Scott-Heron told stories, Michael Kaeshammer surprised the audience, KJ Denhert blew them away with her musicianship, Kimberly Jordan got reflective and Boz Scaggs ended Saturday on a high note.

This year’s model diverged somewhat from executive director Frank Malfitano’s usually intense focus on booking acts that are, at least in some capacity, cousins of the genre. Co-headliner Boz Scaggs (or, as his mother calls him in admonishment, William Royce Scaggs) came across more as a classic rock act during his enthusiastic performance on Saturday, June 26, despite his 21st-century releases of two albums of “standards”: 2003’s but Beautiful (Gray Cat) and 2008’s Speak low (Decca). Yet Jeff Lorber Fusion’s show on Friday, June 25, balanced the Boz booking, providing one of the true-blue jazz performances of the get-together.

There’s only so much nitpicking and genre-snobbing one can do; after all, the usual tens of thousands made the scene to bask in the genre-blending artistry that invariably stems from each run of the 28-year-old festival. Attendance numbers are difficult to gauge at a free show and this year Malfitano made no mention of the totals on stage, as he has in previous years. but the hills of OCC were just as packed each night as when Malfitano reported 40,000 attended Aretha Franklin’s 2007 appearance at the fest.

Malfitano’s clear difficulty with pulling this year’s fest together has to be factored into its wide-open music slate, given that county Comptroller Robert E. Antonacci II got all “real” and stuff with county funding this year, even suggesting to the Malf-man that he (gasp!) charge an admission fee for the typically free festival. Surely festivals in general in Syracuse have had a particularly difficult year with securing funding, considering that one of the area’s other household-name concerts, the new York State Blues Festival, has been cancelled. (See related story, page 6.)

Funding concerns and programming choices aside, however, you still have to give Malfitano tons of credit for keeping Syracuse’s most beloved event alive—albeit on a musical ventilator this time around.

Knight and Day

Friday night’s festivities kicked off at 5 p.m. with a performance from local smooth jazz saxophonist Evan Knight, the only recent Syracuse-based jazz musician to have the honor of occupying one of Malfitano’s Jazz Fest performance slots. a former student of Jerry Santy, the 2008 Syracuse new Times Syracuse Area Music Award (Sammy) Hall of Fame music educator, Knight picked up Jazz Fest from where it left off in 2009: with sounds akin to a performance from fellow smooth saxophonist Kenny G.

In addition to some props given to Michael Jackson, who passed away exactly a year ago to the date (New York City bassist and frequent Jazz Fest performer Will Lee organized a tribute to the musician during the 2009 run), Knight introduced tunes from Reminiscence, his upcoming album. a highlight came in “Closer,” in which Knight took a break from whipping up his flurry of smooth-sounding solos to allow his bassist, Bob Parker, to shine with some Victor Wooten-like thumb tricks. Yet nearly every criticism and compliment that could be paid to the G-force doubles for Knight’s sound.  

Knight’s set segued into a performance from the Solvay High School Jazz Combo, under the direction of the accomplished educator John Spillet. the performance was one of many local scholastic groups throughout the weekend, all of which give local high school- and college-level musicians a chance to mingle with the greats, but are too numerous to list.

A strong note should be made for the OCC Jazz Ensemble’s Friday-night performance, which featured a lovely group of songs with fetching vocalist Christina Nelson. her voice during “It’s Our Love” carried with it all the pleasantries of actress-vocalist Zooey Deschanel’s throwbacks to 1940s-era swing.

Attention then shifted to vocalist and keyboardist Kim Jordan, whose overly affected keyboard sounds didn’t do much justice to her otherwise high-level musicianship. Scatting into a vocoder-like microphone setup, Jordan’s synthesizer-ish sound came across like a bad 1980s acid trip, far too self-absorbed to be of much merit. (Jordan’s presence at the festival should come as no surprise: She’s both a friend of Gil Scott-Herron, who appeared on Saturday, as well as a sorority member with Natalie Cole in Delta Sigma Theta, an organization of predominantly black females.) Still, Jordan’s “Free to Be” exploded into a kind of transcendental sweep that pulled the crowd into her inspiring messages, formulating one of her set’s higher points.  

Bassist Richard Bona’s band followed, riffing on some world-beat grooves. the Cameroon native did his best bass work during some references to Stevie Wonder’s “Superstitious” and “Sir Duke,” but otherwise underwhelmed without taking any leads throughout his original material.

Jeff Lorber Fusion followed, thankfully cranking up the festival’s energy to an enjoyable level. Featuring a new festival staple, trumpet player Randy Brecker, as well as bassist Jimmy Haslip of Yellowjackets fame, saxophonist Eric Marienthal, and left-handed drummer Lionel Cordew, the group ran through various amorphous jams that spoke to the best sensibilities of true, hardcore jazz fans.

An early 4/7 groove, kept at a sultry tempo, featured a harrowing lead from Brecker, who firmly assured his “cat” status and cautioned the crowd that they weren’t in for your grandmother’s version of jazz, but rather the best of the sonically twisted mindscapes of the 1970s.

A cover of Weather Report’s “Mysterious Traveler” clinched on a nine-chord midsection set of changes that emphasized the qualities that make jazz fusion what it is: a complicated, mind-screw of a genre partially born of keyboardist Joe Zawinul’s genius. the group remained tight-knit through the number, allowing its members to simultaneously solo and congeal in waves of ever-changing, theory-heavy feeling. An encore, referencing Soulive, sent the crowd into a wave of applause, and rounded off the day’s performances with a jazz-centric focus.

Wizard of Boz

Come Saturday, that focus held over through crossover artist KJ Denhert’s set. the vocalist and acoustic-electric guitarist prefaced “Man as a Man” with a story about the fact that the song comes from being at odds with her father shortly before he died. it was a touching, introspective moment that was accompanied by Denhert’s impeccable musicianship.

Denhert gave a turn in the spotlight to bassist Mamadou Ba, who played a solo piece that was an ambient, free-form tune with ethnic African elements. While the meandering rhythmic study seemed to be influenced by the busy notes of Jaco Pastorius, it was an interesting piece of ear candy that appealed to true fans of music.

Denhert’s set transitioned into an appearance from legendary folk musician Richie Havens. Despite the fact that Havens was one of the most obvious examples of the festival’s genre confusion, it was a genuine treat to hear a set from the 69-year-old visionary who opened up the original Woodstock in 1969.

After pulling himself into his musical headspace with some pretty chords (Havens kidded, “Don’t applaud for that; that was just to tune!”) the artist ripped into a rousing cover of Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm,” his left foot stomping out the beat.

Hippies from decades past came out in force to hear Havens and to relive the protest movement of the 1960s, clinging to his every word during the quiet set. Noticing his audience, Havens called out to them from the stage: “to all those {young} guys who are out there thinking their career is in outer space, we already are in outer space. to my generation: we are the best-looking generation!”

“Handouts in the Rain” called upon the audience to have sympathy for their fellow man, explaining that “You can trample on your sister.” it was the kind of songwriting and gentle performance that can cause you to scratch your chin and worry about the world while also feeling like everything is going to be OK.

Havens concluded his set with a suite of tunes from the 1960s, including Dylan’s “all Along the Watchtower,” as well as “Motherless Child,” a.k.a. “Freedom,” the songs with which he opened up the legendary three-day mother of all music festivals. Responding to calls for an encore, Havens sang a touching, a capella rendition of “You Are so Beautiful” to the crowd, affirming his place in their hearts.

Seventies spoken-word musician and poet Gil Scott-Heron, arguably known best as the mastermind behind “the Revolution Will not Be Televised,” showed up a bit late to the festival, having been caught up in some border-crossing drama regarding his arrival. Scott-Heron received a police escort to the stage, kidding about his ride with the fuzz on the way in. the counterculture icon then dabbled on the Fender Rhodes and explained to the crowd that they were going to have to “work for peace,” perhaps qualifying the notions Havens had pronounced during the previous set with the warning.

Prior to giving friend Kim Jordan a chance to recapitulate part of her Friday set, Scott-Heron reminisced about the days when jazz was the prevalent dance music of the day: “Jazz was the music to dance to: the fox trot, the Charleston. Girls put on their dancing shoes and got ready to go to the jazz hall.” those recollections prefaced the song “is that Jazz?”

Finally the throng got what it was looking for when Scaggs took to the stage shortly after 9 p.m. Opening with a few bluesy numbers, the artist did his best to massage his work with a jazzy glaze, but soon after sank back into his usual material with “the Desire,” off of 2001’s Dig (Gray Cat).

Scaggs announced to the crowd that he was “going back to new Orleans with this one,” then played the Fats Domino favorite “Sick and Tired,” perhaps one of the better-fitting tunes of his set in that it functioned well as a boogieing blues. Obvious hits like “Lowdown” followed, along with a cover of Bonnie Raitt’s “Something to Talk About.” the set was certainly crowd-pleasing and everyone seemed to enjoy the grooves.

Cole Position

Jazz guitarist Sheryl Bailey kicked off Sunday’s more laid-back grouping of performances along with producer and jazz educator Jay Ashby. the two performed a set with the OCC Jazz Band to warm up the crowd who assembled early to see Cole’s performance.

That set was followed by Michael Kaeshammer, who seemed to take a cue from Michael Buble with his man’s man swagger and lady’s man charm. Kaeshammer confessed his love for reggae greats, then launched into a genuinely creative take on Peter Tosh’s “stop that Train.”

Kaeshammer put some musical tricks to work by muting his baby grand piano’s strings with his hands while plucking the notes of the chords to the song, emulating a guitar’s “chicka chicka,” an element that defines reggae music.

Drummer mark McLean then played through some compelling solos to that accompaniment, forming the basis of a musical play between the group’s members that cleverly came across. “Lovelight” was a fun follow-up, while an experiment with classical themes mixed with jazz playfulness demonstrated that the vocalist and pianist has genuine skill.

Bassist Will Lee then made his umpteenth appearance on the Syracuse Jazz Fest stage during his collaboration with Toph-E and the Pussycats, a rendition of drummer Ralph MacDonald’s band that also featured Clifford Carter on keyboards and Chris Parker on percussion. MacDonald is responsible for “just the Two of Us,” a song that, as Lee pointed out, has since been featured in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery and other films. the obligatory run of the song drew applause from the crowd, although the band’s set was a little on the average side.

“Blackhouse,” which Lee dedicated to Washington, D.C., had its high points, and the Latin-flavored “Mucho Gusto” got the crowd’s blood going. Lee’s usual degree of charm lit up the set, kidding afterward that the group would sign “CDs, records, parking passes and Frisbees” for fans.

Cole finally took to the stage at around 8:15 p.m., roughly 15 minutes past her scheduled tee time. Prior to her set Malfitano made a cameo to thank all those who make the Jazz Fest possible, while his buddy, County Executive Joanie Mahoney, also lamented about their difficulty securing the Benjamins. “some people at the county level didn’t want to keep this a free fest,” Mahoney commented.

The music that followed the political messages was a peppy and pleasant rendition of Cole’s “Summer Sun,” an act that defied the gloomy clouds overhead. Cole then explained that she would continue with songs from the American songbook. “It’s some of the best stuff ever written,” Cole explained from the stage. “for those of you born after the 1970s you might not be as familiar with this stuff, but your parents know what’s happenin’!”

That introduction continued into “Paper Moon” and a zesty version of Ella Fitzgerald’s take on “A-Tisket A-Tasket.” Neat little Les Paul-influenced guitar solos meshed well with the acclaimed chanteuse’s classic vocal style. Cole modernized the tune a bit, asking in the song’s call-and-response section “Was it Prada?”

Of course, Cole played a “duet” with her late father Nat “King” Cole during “Unforgettable” vis-a-vis a screen projection featuring video of the original King of pop. Cole also dived into some of her more contemporary material with the high-spirited “mr. Melody” as well her 1976 hit “Sophisticated Lady” and “this could Be.”

Although this year’s Jazz Fest was a mix-and-match combo of musical genres (maybe it could be retitled the Syracuse Jazz, Folk and Blues Fest?), Cole’s charming demeanor ensured that fans will look for next year’s edition, regardless of whatever hurdles come from Malfitano’s ongoing fight to secure the green.

Alpha to Omega: Local boy Evan Knight (left) opened the 2010 Syracuse Jazz Fest and legendary singer Natalie Cole closed it. In between, festival director Frank Malfitano did his part, while thousands of fans packed the greenspace at Onondaga Community College.

 

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