Jun 29, 2009
Sunday June 28, 2009 -
A particularly strong lineup for the Gazebo Stage brings me across the park for the start of Day Two. Trumpeter Ralph Alessi’s This Against That band performed a set of complex Downtown new York influenced jazz, with the small confines of the staging allowing for an intimate and challenging performance. Pianist Matt Mitchell was particularly strong, playing off a solid rhythm section and allowing the trumpet and sax solos of Alessi and Tony Malaby to take center stage.
Speaking of piano, SNC favorite Aaron Parks followed, leading his trio through a fluid, melodic set. Parks’ sound is well suited for the smaller stage, as he plays with great grace and passion. The band ended with a cover of Robert Wyatt’s “Sea Song”.
The still underrated George Coleman and his quartet provided a Main Stage set of straight-ahead jazz, with Coleman showing he can still play long, soulful melodies. His song list was spiced by a tribute to the late Freddie Hubbard (“Up Jumped Spring”) and a wonderful group workout on the R&B classic “Where is the Love”. The great Harold Mabern gave the band a real lift during his solos, and played off Coleman like the wily veteran he is.
Nothing could have prepared the crowd for Bonerama, a highly energetic, exciting band from New Orleans fronted by three trombone players. Their set, which mixed blues (“Big Fine Woman”), New Orleans R&B (Fats Domino’s “I’m Walking”) and improvised jazz, was a wonderful gumbo of power-packed horns, spiced with organ and a kicking rhythm section. The set’s highlight began with unearthly sounds being rung from a trombone and turned into a mind-blowing version of Led Zeppelin’s take on “When the Levee Breaks”, with the three horns channeling Zep’s mighty guitar power chords.
The energy didn’t dip when Bettye Lavette made her upstate New York debut with her band. She came out rocking, and quickly moved through a set that included the soulful “Choices”, a pounding take on Dolly Parton’s “Little Sparrow” and a thrilling medley of her early songs that ended with “Let Me Down Easy”, a song she called “her mantra”. A veteran of a 48 year career that only recently has caught fire, Miss Lavette raised the hair on the back of the neck when she performed “A Change is Gonna Come” as she did at the Inauguration Concert on the Mall this past January. She encored with a stirring acapella version of “I Do Not Want What I Have Not Got”.
Dave Brubeck earned a standing ovation merely by taking the stage for his set, which honored the 50th anniversary of his classic Time Out album. Regally dressed in white dinner jacket, the frail Brubeck’s age seems to slip away when he begins to play with his quartet, and this set was no exception. Beginning with a Duke Ellington medley that finished with Brubeck swinging along with the group, the set really caught fire with “Unsquare Dance” a tune written in 7/4 that allowed drummer (and son) Danny Brubeck and veteran bassist Michael Moore to push saxophonist Bobby Militello on to greater heights. Militello brought a little extra panache to “Take Five”, pushing the solo into different terrain than did Paul Desmond in the iconic original. I couldn’t help but feel that if this is the final time the great Brubeck hits this stage, he left his fans still wanting more.
George Benson ended the festival with a split set. The first portion, backed by a 28 piece orchestra, a chorus and his band, was a tribute to Nat “King” Cole. Benson, who successfully brings out Cole’s vocal trademarks, stuck primarily to the “pop years”, allowing Nelson Riddle’s arrangements to buoy songs like “Too Young”, “Unforgettable” and “Mona Lisa”. There is not a little irony that Benson chose this part of Cole’s repertoire to perform – just as Cole left his days as the leader of a swinging piano trio for mainstream success as a singer, so has Benson abandoned his years of being “most wanted” for greasy guitar-organ combos for thirty years of hits with smooth jazz and crossover R&B sounds. Pianist and Orchestra conductor Randy Waldman (who has performed similar duties for Barbra Streisand) led the group through the classic sounds, and added his own arrangement to a moving “Smile”.
The “Benson party” he called for ended the set, as he and his backing performed his funky take on Cole’s “Nature Boy”, segueing into hits like “This Masquerade”, “Give Me the Night” and the encore, “On Broadway”. The crowd danced their way out, ready to make plans for 2010.
(Note - the two live tracks posted here are NOT recorded at SPAC this weekend, but are from other venues intended to give you an idea as to what went down.)