Wet weather could not dampen the ebullient spirit and iconic performances at this year’s Syracuse M&T Jazz Fest
By Jessica Novak
Michael Davis PhotosThe 29th annual Syracuse M&T Jazz Fest packed a serious punch this year with three headliner-quality acts back to back on Friday, June 24, and a brilliantly diverse, but extremely talented set of acts on Saturday, June 25, concluding with the untouchable Return to Forever IV. Although the lineup circled around the genre of jazz, with some acts hitting the bull’s-eye and others only drawing vague jazz references, the overall talent that passed across the stage at the Onondaga Community College campus was matched by the excitement of the appreciative audience, who vocalized their hearty approval. It was a damp weekend, to be sure, but the heat from the stage was enough to keep the crowd dry.
It’s Raining Men
The Friday segment of Jazz Fest opened to partly cloudy skies just before 5 p.m. with rays peeking through, strong and hot enough to get a tan. Throughout the set from the marqueebursting City of Syracuse Department of Parks, Recreation and Youth Programs Stan Colella All-Star Band, the ominous weather held off and the students showed off, trading solos on charts including Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish” and a piece by Paquito D’Rivera, arranged by Joe Riposo, Syracuse University’s director of jazz studies.
The Parks & Rec band was then followed by the All-County High School All-Star Jazz Band, directed by Steve Frank, a 2010 Syracuse New Times Syracuse Area Music Award (Sammy) Hall of Fame music educator and director of the OCC Jazz Band. Frank led the students in a set that shifted between old-time swing and a more modern, hip-hop-like groove.
The weather stayed friendly as the stage crew began to set the scene for Felix Cavaliere’s Rascals, but just as the microphones were getting checked, Mother Nature quit holding back and released buckets of rain that came incredibly fast and hard. Stagehands ran frantically to cover the equipment and umbrellas flew up in a flurry over the crowd. But the torrential wetness didn’t last too long and the efficient stage crew had the instruments ready, mikes checked and the stage toweled off within about 30 minutes of the quick downpour.
Cavaliere didn’t waste any time once he had the OK to start. At 68, he’s still as energetic and impeccable on stage as he was in the 1960s. His voice is still powerful, too, with the perfectly focused vocal tone he’s always been known for. As he pounded out one recognizable tune after another on his Hammond B3 and additional keyboard, the crowd slowly shook off the rain, their mouths split into grins and the rainbow that had appeared following the rain seemed absolutely appropriate for the moment.
He opened with the lively “I’ve Been Lonely Too Long” and shifted quickly into a medley of “In the Midnight Hour,” “Thank You (Falletinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” and an unexpected Michael Jackson detour into “Billie Jean,” surely in memory of the two-year anniversary of the Gloved One’s death on June 25, 2009. Cavaliere danced around the stage in Jackson’s familiar style and the band equaled his energy and dexterity on their instruments throughout the song and set, although Cavaliere’s charisma was undoubtedly the show-stealer.
Cavaliere and his Rascals burst through several hits, playing “It’s a Beautiful Morning,” “Groovin’,” which led right into The Temptations’ “My Girl,” a rousing “People Got to Be Free,” a cover of “Mustang Sally” and “Good Lovin’,” which then broke into all-out rock with Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” and Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” followed by a quote from Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On.” Cavaliere is known for his extensive musical vocabulary and ability to transform between genres and deliver each effectively, but to watch his voice, mannerisms and band shapeshift live was captivating. Their medley transitions were tight and clearly well-rehearsed, but not stiff.
Although the showers had withheld during Cavaliere’s set, as the Average White Band was preparing to go on, the rain came down again, more gently this time but still steady, as the crew once again battled to release the captured water from the top of the rig and protect the stage equipment. But once AWB popped right into their well-known “Pick Up the Pieces,” off of the 1974 album AWB, suddenly the rain didn’t seem to matter. They used the short “Pieces” intro to transition into “Got the Love” and their funk-heavy sound became a perfect distraction for the soggy crowd.
The current incarnation features two original AWB members out of six, Alan Gorrie and Onnie McIntyre, yet the band they’ve composed around them gets the job done just as well. Klyde Jones, who tossed himself between guitar, bass, keys, lead and backup vocals, was a powerful secret weapon, adding a distinct and different flavor to the songs, but still faithfully funky to the AWB catalog. The group was devastatingly tight, which was most noticeable in the moments of silence within the songs. Their releases and re-entries were completely on, a great challenge and determinant of a great band.
While Cavaliere had the audience singing and smiling, AWB had them dancing, jumping and even bowing down to the outfit. During a mid-set equipment move necessitated by the resurgence of rain, drummer Rocky Bryant took the opportunity to show off in a wild solo while the stagehands made the relocation. Then the band pushed on and eventually encored with a full-length, industrial-strength version of “Pick Up the Pieces” that had ponchos and umbrellas bouncing around the campus venue.
It was nearly 10:30 p.m. by the time Robert Cray and his band took the stage, with an impressive majority of Jazz Fest aficionados sticking it out to savor the group. Cray noted his surroundings, as he broke into “Phone Booth” and replaced a few lyrics: “I’m here at a Syracuse Jazz Festival / Without anyone to call.”
The group was located far back on the stage, with a subdued presence that mostly kept their energies focused on the music. One exception was the somewhat more lively bassist Richard Cousins; his facial expressions, wide-mouthing of lyrics and swinging dreadlocks adding a little lighthearted personality to the group.
Cray, who was seen smiling and laughing during the gig, was a disciplined bandleader, with a well-paced songlist ranging in release dates from the 1980s to the 2000s. Cray’s voice remained spellbinding throughout, accented by his incredible tone, agility and depth of feeling on guitar.
Most of the set was defined by a mellow coolness that was complemented by the soft pink lights flooding the stage. It was smooth, bluesy and calming for the majority of the songs, with a few more forceful, funky pieces placed throughout. Jim Pugh supplied an additional dimension on the keyboards when he really released and pushed out chords that gave the impression you were going to church. That feeling carried over into the encore that landed on the softer side, releasing the audience gently into the night rather than pounding out a final rocker. As the rain continued its patter, Cray and his band’s last notes rang out over the OCC hill at around 11:20 p.m.
Saturday Night Fever
Jazz Fest’s second day was defined prominently by the diversity of the scheduled acts.
From the 5 p.m. Saturday performance by the OCC Jazz Band and The Steelheads to the last note struck by Return to Forever IV, topped by fireworks just minutes before midnight, the final night of Jazz Fest ran a gauntlet of musical styles and was ferverntly praised by a lively crowd that often rose to their feet to provide ovations.
The OCC Jazz Band and The Steelheads were co-directed by Steve Frank and Jim Coviak, and dedicated to Frank’s retirement from the West Genesee School District. The unique combination of a full jazz band and a large steelhead arrangement made for a massive sound, punctuated by the different textures of horns, percussion and strings.
The super-group finished the set with an engaging version of “Little Wing” by Jimi Hendrix with special guests Sheryl Bailey and Vic Juris both on guitar. The thick instrumentation and unique sound of steelheads releasing the famous “Little Wing” lick was truly impressive and the arrangement, also performed by the Gil Evans Orchestra and the late Hiram Bullock, brought the song to new life.
The next act, Jazz Guitars Meet Hendrix, with Bailey and Juris, did the same, but in a different direction. Bailey explained that she tried to keep Jimi’s music as pure as possible, while making it something that jazz players would also like to play. After all, “Who doesn’t love Hendrix?” she asked from the stage. They played favorites including “Have You Ever Been (to Electric Ladyland)” that was highlighted by Hammond B3 player Brian Charette; “Angel,” dedicated to Jazz Fest impresario Frank Malfitano; “The Wind Cries Mary” and “Castles Made of Sand.”
This fascinating set took Hendrix’s work, usually rough around the edges and tinted with rock’n’roll characteristics, and smoothed it out to fit a more mellow genre. Everything felt slightly delayed, marked by syncopation as each player took solo turns, straying from the tune into flurries of notes, and finally returning to meet up at the familiar Hendrix riff.
Juris looked completely natural on stage and agile on the guitar, putting his experience front and center. Bassist Lincoln Goines often drifted into Jaco Pastorius territory with harmonics. And Bailey ripped up and down her guitar with ease.
The longer they were on stage, the more the group drifted into funkier, more soulful and even rock territory, with distortion effects and an expanded, louder sound. The set was only an hour long, yet it felt like the musicians could continue endlessly evolving into distant Hendrix territory.
With two remaining acts on the Jazz Fest bill, however, the show had to press on. At this point, the rain that had become heavy early in the evening and threatened to dampen the entire night had stopped and the weather became comfortably cool.
The next act took some time to spread across the stage as Late Show with David Letterman trumpeter Al Chez and his Brothers of Funk Big Band settled in with a full jazz band instrumentation: drummer, percussionist, keys player, bassist, guitarist and Chez all on the stage, as well as occasional guest vocalist “Miss Marie,” a.k.a. Marie Berckes, Chez’s step-daughter. As soon as the ensemble began, hands flew to ears as the massive sound boomed from the speakers.
The group was talented, but overpowering, as was Chez’s personality. He marched around the stage and danced, as he directed the band with unbridled energy and tried to coax the audience into responding. It’s impossible to argue with Chez’s musical ability; as a former player with Jon Bon Jovi and Tower of Power, his strength is in his trumpet skills, reaching up into the higher registers with clear tone. However, his vocals weren’t quite up to the same high standards, despite his many attempts to reach that level.
The Brothers of Funk held their own, however, and Miss Marie was a surprise with her booming voice. When she and Chez sang “Unchain My Heart,” it was clear her voice held the power in the relationship.
Chez was a cheesy bandleader, but obviously genuine, energetic and killer on the trumpet, especially when he unleashed a soulful “What a Wonderful World.” The crowd openly appreciated his vigor with a resounding clap and many standing ovations.
There would be more standing ovations to come, and well-deserved at that, for the final act of the night: Return to Forever IV, with Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, Lenny White, Frank Gambale and Jean-Luc Ponty, went far beyond any other act of the entire weekend. Indeed, just before the show began, a delighted Jazz Fest attendee in the crowd informed his friend, “Brace yourself: This is gonna take you on a trip!” Music often gets boxed up into genres, accepted instrumentations, song structures and so on. It’s not intentionally negative, but it can be limiting. Return to Forever IV popped out of every box, just as they have in various forms since the 1970s. As soon as the band exploded into their show of swinging lights and far-out music, it was impossible not to think of all the rules and boundaries they were disregarding.
The chemistry of the group was visibly and audibly clear in their interactions, even the way the stage was set, with Corea and White staring at each other from across the stage and Ponty, Clarke and Gambale lined up between them to facilitate the interaction. Corea, behind his fortress of keys, shot off eye contact between the other members as they intertwined musical lines, especially he and Ponty. They called and answered each other on keys and strings until Ponty took off on his brightly shining blue violin with blazing speed, without ever sacrificing tone.
Everyone on the stage had their turn to step forward and individually blow the crowd’s mind before rejoining the group and doing it again collectively, but it was Clarke who was consistently dropping jaws most dramatically. His techniques on the bass went far beyond slap or harmonics, to reverse strumming and incredibly complex patterns and progressions, with his long fingers absolutely flying over the bass neck that he made look tiny in his gigantic hands.
The group played through tracks including “Medieval Overture,” “Senor Mouse,” “Renaissance” and “Romantic Warrior.” They never announced the song titles, either, as White explained, because the fans would know what they were playing. The fans knew, all right, and responded with overwhelming shouting, clapping and chanting for more.
The band played on, far beyond their planned 11 p.m. end time, to display their unbelievable intuition among each other. The legendary Return to Forever IV was incredible to behold in a live setting, as they demonstrated what makes them so great and yet so impossible to duplicate. The chemistry between these highcaliber musicians combined to create something far beyond the value of the individual parts.
When the band tried to make their stage exit at about 11:45 p.m., Malfitano called them back to present them with “proclamations” he had written up and given to each artist at the festival. But Malfitano had another surprise: a cake was wheeled onto the stage just minutes later to honor Corea’s recent 70th birthday. The cake was decorated with the cover of the 1976 RTF album Romantic Warrior, with the entire crowd singing “Happy Birthday” to the slightly misty-eyed Corea.
The band broke into an encore of “School Days,” finishing the night with power before the annual fireworks display began bursting behind them. As they walked off the stage to an uproar of excitement and appreciation from the crowd, White threw his drumsticks off to a fan, thus encapsulating the brilliance of our annual Jazz Fest: a music festival that makes legends accessible to anyone and everyone willing to make the drive.