Syracuse Jazz Fest

For 25 years, Syracuse Jazz Fest has been sustained by the sheer over-the-top enthusiasm of its colorful and endlessly energetic leader, festival organizer Frank Malfitano. From its humble origins in 1982 at the intimate Oliver’s nightclub on Erie Boulevard East, this free event has been embraced by the locals and revisited year after year by music lovers from all over New York State. With financial support coming from M&T Bank, Syracuse Jazz Fest has now become a major event on the summer festival circuit, providing music lovers with three full days of jazz, with a little bit of R&B, funk and blues on the side. “It was always a great festival,” says the eternally optimistic Malfitano, a former on-air disc jockey who has also served as organizer for the Detroit Jazz Festival. “It has grown in size and stature and sponsorship, but it was always great.”

David Redfern

Dave Brubeck performing at Jazz a Juan

Over time, the Syracuse festival has reflected Malfitano’s own personal taste in music, which explains past festival dedications to the likes of Peanuts Hucko, Etta Jones, Sal Nistico and Big George Plavocos, along with the more obvious choices of Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Grover Washington, Jr. This year’s festival was jointly dedicated to Dave Brubeck, who performed with his quartet, and to John Francis Pastorius III. As Malfitano, a close friend of Pastorius’, wrote in the festival program: “Jaco was jazz music’s first major rock star and its warrior prince. As we commemorate an historic anniversary, we respectfully dedicate this benchmark edition to the memory of an artist who was clearly one of the most important musical and cultural figures of the past quarter-century.”

Fittingly, Malfitano invited the Jaco Pastorius Big Band, under the direction of Peter Graves (Pastorius’ former employer in his pre-Weather Report days on the South Florida scene and later the musical director of Pastorius’ Word of Mouth big band), to perform at the festival this year. (Full disclosure: Malfitano also arranged for an afternoon panel discussion on Pastorius’ contributions and musical legacy, which was moderated by this writer and featured such Pastorius colleagues as Graves, Hiram Bullock, Will Lee, Brian Melvin and Bob Bobbing. Other afternoon clinics and master classes were conducted by drummer Chico Hamilton, pianist Dave Kikoski, vocalist Nancy Kelly, bandleader and arranger Ed Palermo, bassist Will Lee, guitarist Hiram Bullock, saxophonist David “Fathead” Newman and tuba ace Howard Johnson.)

While Pastorius and Brubeck were duly feted at this year’s Syracuse Jazz Fest, the clear star attraction of this weekend on the campus of Onondaga Community College was the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, who drew a crowd of 40,000 to her show on Sunday night. At 65, Miss Franklin is still very much in command of The Voice. While she may not reach for the high notes as frequently as she did during the ’60s and ’70s, her voice remains a national treasure. And she can still deliver hits like “Respect,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and “Think” (from her Blues Brothers cameo) with unparalleled soul. Her son Teddy, who played rhythm guitar throughout the set, came upfront alongside mom to kick off “Chain of Fools” with that famous guitar lick. And in the jazziest segment of the show, Aretha displayed some liberated scatting chops on a swinging version of “Beyond the Sea,” which was ably supported by her own potent ensemble, augmented by a full horn section of local Syracuse pros.

In one moving segment, Franklin sat at the piano and performed tunes from her new CD, Falling Out of Love, including catchy R&B-flavored numbers like “Is Your Heart Breaking?,” “Loving Him Is Better Than Gold” and “Say That You Love Me Again.” Then after a brief break (possibly to warm up in a nearby trailer since the Syracuse temperatures had dipped into the low 50s by showtime), she returned to rock the crowd with gospel fervor on some real-deal churchified offerings, wailing with spine-tingling intensity and getting so caught up in the spirit that she let loose with a little sanctified dance. Somebody say Amen!

At the conclusion of her brilliant set, Malfitano came onstage and genuflected before her while handing the Queen of Soul a bouquet of yellow roses, which she tossed one by one into the adoring crowd. The fireworks that then lit up the Syracuse night sky seemed the only appropriate response to such a magical set.

Franklin’s Syracuse Jazz Fest debut was followed by a rousing set from the Jaco Pastorius Big Band, a crack 14-piece ensemble comprised of musicians from the Fort Lauderdale-Miami area (including original Word of Mouth trumpeter Kenny Faulk). With Graves conducting and bassist Jeff Carswell holding down the groove, they kicked it off with Pastorius’ standard Word of Mouth big band opener “Soul Intro,” segueing to Pee Wee Ellis’ funk anthem “The Chicken,” which featured a blistering tenor sax solo from Ed Calle along with a stinging guitar solo from Randy Bernsen.

Special guest Will Lee, resident bassist on TV’s Late Night With David Letterman show, turned in a letter-perfect reading of Pastorius’ challenging arpeggiated licks from the Beatles’ “Blackbird” before erupting with a roaring, distortion-laced bass solo that summoned up some of Jimi Hendrix’s sonic seasoning. The JPBB arrangement of this sprightly Paul McCartney piece took a radical shift into son montuno land, with Lee supplying the appropriate tumbao groove underneath. Lee was joined by his longtime associate Bullock (bandmates in the mid ’70s edition of the Brecker Brothers Band and frontline partners in the 24th Street Band from the late ’70s) on faithful recreations of Pastorius staples like “River People,” the soulful Sam and Dave vehicle “Come On, Come Over” and the chops-busting “Teen Town.”

A former bandmate of Pastorius’ in their 1985 power trio with drummer Kenwood Dennard (known as the PDB band), Bullock played with a wireless system on his Strat-like guitar, which allowed him to roam the full length of the stage while unleashing screaming riffs. Both he and Lee provided a kind of showtime aspect that was very much in the tradition of Pastorius, going back to his Weather Report days. Other highlights of the JPBB set included a lush rendition of Pastorius’ affecting waltz-time ballad, “Three Views of a Secret,” and the swaggering set-closer, “Liberty City.”

Earlier on the bill that Sunday, the audacious duo of Bullock and Lee ripped it up with Bullock’s hard-hitting funk-rock quartet featuring organist Katreese Barnes (who also doubled on Maceo Parker-inspired alto sax) and drummer Jeremy Gaddie. They performed material from Bullock’s last two recordings, Try Livin’ It and Too Funky 2 Ignore, and lit up the crowd with slamming versions of “Hang All Night,” “Bean Burrito,” “Can’t Fight the Funk” and “If You Don’t Mean It, Don’t Say It,” while also delivering a faithful reading of Carlos Santana’s “Evil Ways.”

Howard Johnson provided some festival highlights with his eight-piece Gravity, a tuba band he formed in 1968. Charter member Bob Stewart improvised with remarkable fluency on “Summertime,” while Dave Bargeron, the group’s other charter member, offered a wonderful solo turn on Don Pullen's "Big Alice." Johnson himself soloed brilliantly on a rendition of Herbie Hancock’s “Tell Me A Bedtime Story.” Rounding out the tuba ranks were Joe Daley, Earl McIntyre, Velvet Brown (who was featured on a chart of Aretha's "Natural Woman") and Howard's daughter Nedra Johnson, who also sang some down-home blues on the earthy shuffle “Working Hard for the Joneses.” The rhythm section of pianist Carlton Holmes, bassist Melissa Slocum and drummer J.T. Lewis did a good job of propelling this dynamic low-end ensemble.

While it may have been only a coincidence of booking, Saturday was octogenarian day at Syracuse Jazz Fest. In the afternoon, 85-year-old drummer-bandleader Chico Hamilton performed with his working sextet Euphoria, which includes the latest in Hamilton’s long line of guitar discoveries, Cary DeNigris, who joins the ranks of Jim Hall, John Pisano, Gabor Szabo, Larry Coryell, John Abercrombie and Rodney Jones. Hamilton’s outfit shifted nimbly from bossa nova to swing to funk in the course of their spirited set, which included renditions of “Angel Eyes” and “Take The ‘A’ Train,” along with originals like Hamilton’s “My Brother Don” and bass Paul Ramsey’s Pastorius-inspired “Thunder Walk.” Special guest David “Fathead” Newman joined Hamilton and Euphoria on two pieces, contributing some tasty flute and tenor sax work.

The venerable harmonica marvel Toots Thielemans performed a set of engaging jazz standards and Brazilian tunes in the company of pianist Kenny Werner and nylon-string acoustic guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves. Along with his signature tune “Bluesette,” Thielemans also blew sweet melodies on his harmonica on a poignant version of the Sinatra vehicle “All the Way,” on the Brazilian gem “Joanna Francais,” and on a lighthearted Thielemans rendition of “The Pink Panther.” Though he started out slow, seeming to have lost some speed on his fastball at age 85, Thielemans gained strength, fluency and energy throughout his highly expressive hour-long set; another testament to the invigorating powers of music.

Singer-pianist Mose Allison, who actually doesn’t turn 80 until November, slapped his soulful Southern thing on jazzy renditions of blues staples like Willie Dixon’s “Seventh Son,” Robert Lockwood, Jr.’s “Who’s Loving You Tonight” and Percy Mayfield’s “Stranger in My Own Town.” The skies opened up and poured rain on the audience during Allison’s set, dispersing much of the crowd. But the rain stopped in time for a set of elegant, swinging jazz by 86-year-old Dave Brubeck, accompanied by his longstanding drummer Randy Jones, bassist Michael Moore and saxophonist Bobby Militello. The highlight of their hour-long set was an 11-minute rendition of “Take Five.”

Friday was headlined by banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck (pictured) with his remarkably flexible band the Flecktones, featuring Victor Wooten on electric bass, Roy “Future Man” Wooten on drumitar (a manually operated drum synth) and reedman Jeff Coffin, who blew expansive tenor and soprano solos throughout and also engaged in some tricky call-and-response with leader Fleck. At one point in their tightly arranged, highly entertaining set, Coffin played tenor and alto saxes simultaneously, a la Rahsaan Roland Kirk, to the utter amazement of this sprawling crowd of 15,000 jam-band fanatics. Their rousing set included explosive renditions of “P’lod in the House” and “Weed Whacker” from the group’s latest recording, Hidden Land, and a crowd-pleasing solo by Future Man on the old garage band staple “Wipe Out,” in which he played drumitar with the left-hand fingers while reaching out and playing a setup kit of toms and cymbals with a stick in his right hand. Collectively, their uncanny chemistry and unparalleled virtuosity wowed the crowd during a lengthy two-hour set.

Another crowd favorite on Friday was Beatlejazz, an inventive trio consisting of pianist David Kikoski, drummer Brian Melvin and bassist Boris Kozlov, all of whom were raised with the music of the Beatles before turning to jazz. Together they ran down clever, swinging arrangements of Beatles tunes, though there were no obvious choices and no standard arrangements throughout their invigorating set. Kozlov put up some serious funk underneath “Come Together” while Kikoski swung precociously on “Lady Madonna.” Their arrangement of “Beautiful Boy,” John Lennon’s gorgeous ballad for his son Sean, was entirely fresh while they treated “A Hard Day’s Night” the same way that Ramsey Lewis treated “The In Crowd,” in the style of a vintage ’60s jazz piano trio. Drummer Melvin came out front to perform a solo tabla piece, which he dedicated to his former collaborator Pastorius. That hand percussion showcase ultimately morphed into a compelling reading of George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass.” And they closed on a dynamic note with Kikoski playing synthesizer, a la Joe Zawinul, on a burning, uptempo swing rendition of George Harrison’s “Piggies,” to the delight of all the Beatles fans among the 15,000 festival-goers sprawled out on the grassy knoll overlooking the stage.

Another rare treat was offered by Roma Gypsy guitarist Harri Stojka, who performed music in the spirit of Django Reinhardt with his band of expert Djangophiles from Vienna (rhythm guitarist Claudius Jelinek, acoustic bass guitarist Ivan Ruiz Machado and Heimo Wiederhofer on snare drum with brushes). Their set included spirited Hot Club of France fare like “Sweet Sue,” “Honeysuckle Rose,” “Nuages” and “Limehouse Blues,” along with Stojka originals like “Blues Without a Name.” At one point in their sizzling set, Stojka introduced the exotic Slovakian singer Ivana Ferencora, who led the quartet through mournful Roma Gypsy numbers like “Walk the Long, Lonely Street,” which sounded like fado music with a touch of Balkan influence, and effervescent fare like “Little Gypsy Girl” and “My Heart.”

While Stojka had been channeling Reinhardt throughout the set with his dazzling speed, strong-hand vibrato and ornate filigrees up and down the neck of his Maccaferri-styled steel string acoustic guitar, he took a decided detour on the closer, channeling American jazz guitar master Pat Martino on a faithful rendition of “Sunny,” which Martino recorded on his hugely influential 1973 Muse album, Live!.

Ed Palermo’s Big Band Tribute to Frank Zappa featured former Zappa member and theatrical frontman Napoleon Murphy Brock playing flute, alto sax and singing wacky FZ signatures like “Uncle Remus,” “Pygmy Twylyte,” “Village of the Sun” and “Inca Roads.” With Palermo alternately conducting the 16-piece ensemble and playing alto sax, the group turned in letter-perfect readings of such difficult Zappa tunes as “Theme from Lumpy Gravy,” “G-Spot Tornado” and “Redunzel,” as well as the more lighthearted “Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance,” the title track from the group’s Cuneiform Records debut.

On the local front, singer Nancy Kelly adopted a kind of take-no-prisoners approach to scatting and swinging on revved-up renditions of “It’s Alright with Me” and “Jeanine.” A perennial festival favorite since 1982, Kelly is a world-class jazz singer in the feisty, swinging tradition of Anita O’Day. Throughout her scintillating set she demonstrated superb phrasing, excellent time, great intonation and tons of chops, with a load of charisma to boot.

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