09/22/12 By Marjorie Savoie
Matt Wilson, Gary Smulyan, and Sheryl Bailey at The Northampton Jazz Festival
Massachusetts celebrates, "Marion Brown Day" with Jazz in Northampton
Both residents and visitors had plenty to celebrate, as Northampton’s Second Annual Jazz Festival joined forces with Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, who issued a proclamation declaring September 15th to be, “Marion Brown Day”. The late, great alto saxophonist, who passed away in 2010, was best known for his performances with such legends as Sun Ra and John Coltrane in New York’s avant-guarde jazz scene. Brown also made significant investments in the lives of students, as a faculty member at a number of colleges and universities in Massachusetts, Maine, and Connecticut. This must have been a bittersweet day for Governor Patrick, whose father was a baritone saxophonist for Sun Ra for about 40 years. It was fitting that Marion Brown be honored in Northampton, which was his home for several decades.
The Main Stage provided an abundance of talent, including Flava Evolution, Jessica Freeman, Free-For-All, Sheryl Bailey, The Valley Cookers, Gary Smulyan, and Matt Wilson. Event coordinators also kept the future of jazz in mind, giving local artists and students from area colleges a chance to shine. Appearing on the Jazz Futures Stage were, The Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Jazz Quintet, The Greenfield Community College Jazz Quartet, The Amherst College Jazz Quartet, and The Trey Jones Industrial Average (comprised of Hampshire College Alumni). The Thornes’ Basement Stage featured performances by The Joe Belmont Jazz Guitar Trio, The Michele Feldheim Trio, and The Barbara Ween Quartet. I had the pleasure of hearing some really nice performances by local artists and students throughout the day, and I commend each and every musician for their participation, as well as the many volunteers who made this event possible.
Berklee graduate Sheryl Bailey opened her set on the Main Stage with her new tune, “Cactus,” followed by a tune she dedicated to her kick boxing instructor, entitled, “Heavy Bag Blues. Having emerged as an outstanding instrumentalist, a solid communicator, and a gifted teacher, we can expect a rich harvest of musicians from the seeds that she has sown.
My favorite tune in Bailey’s set was “Cedar’s Mood”, which she explains is a love song for jazz pianist, Cedar Walton. Her tribute really embodies the spirit of Walton’s work, as she soars through it with great technique. Keyboardist Ron Oswanski demonstrated some gorgeous soloing on Hammond B3, and this was also the piece that best showcased drummer Ian Froman’s exceptional versatility.
One of Sheryl Bailey’s many contributions to a hurting world is the work she has done for the Ronald MacDonald House, teaching guitar to patients who are battling cancer. “In our darkest moments, music is there, and that’s what gets us through it,” Bailey explained, as she introduced title track of her latest CD, “For All Those Living”. It opens joyfully in 6/8 time, while accented with touches of melancholy and changes in meter, which brilliantly depict the wide spectrum of life’s experiences and emotions.
Sheryl then transitioned into a relaxed swing tune, entitled, “An Unexpected Turn”, followed by some great energy and thoughtful phrasing on “Last Night”. As she closed her set with a fast paced, “Starbrite”, the recognition she gave her colleagues, announcing their names clearly and commending their performance was further revelation of her of strong leadership and a generous spirit.
Soon The Valley Cookers began to sizzle on stage, blending the cool sounds of Geoff Vidal on sax and Jeff D’Antona on piano, with the distinguished grooves of Nat Reeves on upright bass and Bob Weiner on drums. Just a few of the tunes they performed were, “Fee Fi Fo Fum” by Wayne Shorter, “Isfahan” by Billy Strayhorn, and an original tune by Geoff Vidal entitled, “Aubergine”. My favorite number in their set was their creative rendition of Duke Ellington’s “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”, which featuring some interesting changes in meter.
It should be noted that bassist Nat Reeves of the Valley Cookers has a new CD coming out soon, entitled, “State of Emergency”, the title of which was inspired by the Nor’easter which struck Connecticut on October 30’th, 2011, leaving much of the state without power.
Next up was six-time Grammy winning Gary Smulyan, who has once again been named “Baritone Saxophonist Of The Year” for 2012, by critics’ polls from Jazz Journalists Association, Jazz Inside Magazine, Downbeat Magazine, and Jazz Times Magazine, having held this title for several consecutive years.
Smulyan opened with three tunes from his new CD, “Smul’s Paradise”. His edgy, mischievous rendition of, “Up in Betty’s Room”, by jazz organist Don Patterson was characterized by the exceptional articulation and phrasing that has set him apart as THE baritone saxophonist to emulate. When Gary plays, it’s like he’s got a story to tell, and he wants to make sure make sure you catch every juicy detail. He also adds a touch of non-verbal humor into his soloing, to the delight of his audiences.
Accompanying Gary Smulyan were Peter Bernstein, with some great chops on guitar, Kenny Washington, who was oh-so-in- the-pocket on drums, and keyboardist Mike Le Donne who gave a mesmerizing performance on Hammond B3.
My favorite tune in Gary Smulyan’s set was his delightfully fresh rendition of, “Sunny”. This tune was written by Bobby Hebb, in the wake of both the assassination of President Kennedy and the brutal murder of his older brother and mentor, Hal Hebb. Both of these tragedies occurred on consecutive days, and this song is reflective of Bobby Hebb’s resilient spirit. Smulyan nailed every layer of emotion in this piece, and has created a lovely tribute to Bobby Hebb, who passed away on August 3’rd, 2010.
The third tune Gary performed from, “Smul’s Paradise” was his distinctly unique version of, “Blues for DP”, which was originally written and performed on upright bass, by Ron Carter, in dedication to organist Don Patterson. It was upbeat and joyful, and I loved it. Other tunes performed were equally impressive versions of, “When Sunny Gets Blue”, “Love Walked In”, and Charlie Parker’s, “Anthropology”.
Next up, on the Jazz Futures Stage, was The Trey Jones Industrial Average, which is an ensemble comprised of young graduates from Hampshire College. They did a beautiful job, and I heard some really nice soloing, especially on bass. However, they unfortunately had to end their set early, because the sound technician for the festival needed to run a line check on the main stage before Matt Wilson's Arts and Crafts went on. The line check began while the Trey Jones group was still performing, and the volume on the Main Stage was so overpowering that they had no choice but to end their set. I was pretty upset about this, as were other members of the audience. Eventually I had a chance to talk with drummer Matt Wilson, and he explained, "We play many shows a year with no or very little sound check opportunities. The sound people requested we do a line check in which we obliged." Wilson went on to explain that he and his band had not been aware that The Trey Jones Industrial Average had still been performing, and that he would certainly not have agreed to run the line check at that time if he had realized that they were still playing. Thankfully, members of Trey Jones group did not appear to be offended. In fact, as soon as they had packed up, they quickly grabbed some seats up front, and seemed to be looking forward to seeing Matt Wilson's Arts and Crafts perform.
Now here's where I have to confess one of my character defects...I sometimes jump to conclusions and make assumptions without gathering all the facts. But then again, don't we all? So when that line check began on the Main Stage, and I saw the members of the Trey Jones group having to end their set early, all I could think was, "If those were MY kids, I would be furious!" I was offended on their behalf. And since I didn't get to hear, "THE REST of the story," (as Paul Harvey would say) until several days later, my maternal instinct was still on the war path as I was waiting for Matt Wilson's Arts and Crafts to take the stage. To be honest, I didn't want to like them! But, as a writer, and especially as a music reviewer, the only right thing for me to do was to take a deep breath and renew my commitment to listen objectively. I'm so thankful that I did, because the experience that followed has left me wondering how many blessings I’ve missed out on because I allowed resentment to cloud my judgment.
My epiphany dawned as the faint sound of drums drifted in from somewhere behind me. As the sound drew closer, a little parade of musicians came into view, and Matt Wilson’s Arts and Crafts quartet began to transform Northampton into New Orleans, with the joyful sounds of Duke Ellington’s, “Limbo Jazz”. Have I mentioned that I’m a sucker for a grand entrance?
As the processional arrived at the Main Stage, they transitioned seamlessly into Nat Adderly’s, “Little Boy With The Sad Eyes”, featuring Gary Versace playing an adorable comic hook on keys, accented by magnificent trumpet soloing by Michael Rodrigues. Underneath it all was Martin Wind’s caramel-thick, chewy upright bassline, carried along by Matt Wilson’s riveting rhythms. Then suddenly, and seemingly out of nowhere, in wandered Matt Wilson’s, “The Free Range Chicken”! For those who have never heard these tunes, they are the perfect marriage for zaniness. Both tunes have a 1960's sitcom theme song feel, so it sounded something like a fusion between, “The Odd Couple”, “Leave It To Beaver”, and “The Adams Family”. Martin Wind began playing his bass with a bow, and the sound was captivating! Gary Versace also demonstrated his versatility, switching from accordion to Hammond B3, establishing himself as a master of both instruments. There were moments when the whole band was, “crazy goin’ nuts” (to coin a phrase from Billy Crystal’s “Fernando”), with the rhythm dissolving into a chorus of instrumental chaos, accentuated by telegraph noises and cell phone sounds. This culminated in Matt Wilson’s pulling out two items I have not seen since I was a kid: a vintage bike bell and bike horn. It was priceless!
There were several things about Matt Wilson which made a huge impression on me. For starters, he’s a great leader and an intuitive communicator. He positions his drums so that he can maintain visual communication with both his band and his audience. He’s so relaxed and loose when he plays that he could moonlight as a stunt double for Elasta-Girl. His rhythms are innovative, and he knows how to take full advantage of movement, space, and dynamic variation. But what really hooked me was his sense of humor. He takes ingredients that are complex and intellectual, and boils them down into something fun!
Other tunes performed by Matt Wilson’s Arts and Crafts that night were, “Blues Cruise”, “Bubbles”, John Schofield’s “You Bet”, and “Beja Flor” by Nelson Caraquinho. Wilson concluded his show with, “Feel The Sway”, which he jokingly rumored to have become the national anthem of several small countries, including Luxemborg, Lithuania, and Estonia. So from now on, whenever life gets too serious, I’ll just laugh to myself as I imagine this tune being performed by an orchestra at the Olympic games!
In conclusion, I want to thank and commend Northampton Jazz Festival president, John Michaels and all those who worked so hard to bring such outstanding jazz to the Pioneer Valley.
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