(Cover photo: Stephanie Hancock by Jim Peppler)
“Jazz in the Valley”
Wayras Park, Poughkeepsie, NY
Summer of 2016
Imagine a weekend picnic with family and friends, with the setting of a sprawling lawn at an historic state park, with the backdrop of a famous New England river. Filling the frame was the flow of sailboats and sea breeze with seagulls overhead, while you listened to the sounds of live jazz coming off the stage from top talent nationally and internationally — both established jazz legends and emerging cutting-edge musicianship. Where would you be?
There’s a community of jazz listeners that finds its way to the banks of the Hudson River every summer, for the past 5 years running — a celebration of sound, culture and gathering that goes back 16 years thanks to dedicated community leaders. “Jazz in the Valley” returned to eager listeners again this year to offer new and seasoned talent, diversity with a wide range of this unique, experimental and — above all — expressive art form of music.
In one afternoon, at the edge of the fast moving Hudson River, under a big white tent, you find a gathering of tones in color and sound; people mingling, associating, talking, moving and strolling, clapping their hands together to the communal beat — becoming a neighborhood on this late summer Sunday. Small is beautiful.
The audience was treated to two stages of music — The Main Stage tent and the smaller cozier Mike Torsone Memorial Stage. All acts received the attention and applause of an educated and appreciative cultural mix of jazz listeners. The intimate relationship between musician and audience in this small seating outdoor venue transcended any barrier to getting “the vibe” or direction the instrument or artist was taking you. When the temperature of the solo or rhythm rose up or mellowed down, you could feel the difference — nothing was lost.
Featured artists included:
Randy Weston African Rhythms Trio: Randy Weston, awarded recognition as a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master (2001), has been a restless and tireless jazz interpreter throughout a career that followed African and Caribbean rhythm and roots with a piano style that ranges from bebop to boogie-woogie. At 90, on this stage, still actively improvising and stretching out his stellar accompanying musicians: Alex Blake — an extraordinary virtuoso on stand-up bass — strumming, slapping, tapping and climbing over the neck of his instrument while Neil Clarke, international Congo and all hand-drum percussionist showed off his reputation with remarkable dexterity and complicated rhythm beats. Weston then brought it all back to the piano for some stride piano runs and Monk-like chord statements. Wow — they were in the moment.
Jazz By 5: The group’s name doesn’t begin to describe the mix of historic, legendary jazz musicians and session players setting off steaming solo work that afternoon as they moved through a cut or two by Miles Davis from “Kind of Blue” and other stepped up versions of complicated standards. The line up: Randy Brecker, on trumpet, with a resume that spans all contemporary bebop to avant-garde circles — with recordings that include Frank Sinatra, Steely Dan, Todd Rundgren to Frank Zappa, and of course his own funky signature horn sound of the Brecker Brothers Band. Enter George Cables, whose dense piano construction and bebop sound hails from work with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and the legendary Dexter Gordon quartet, also a favorite of Art Pepper’s later recording period. Javon Jackson, accomplished saxophonist influenced by Joe Henderson, graduate of Berklee, and another alumni of Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, formed his own quartet and continues to star as a featured player with jazz recording labels Criss Cross & Blue Note. Eddie Gomez, two-time Grammy Award winning jazz bassist who has brilliantly accentuated so many performers and recordings as the standard sessions bassist on the liner notes of hundreds of jazz albums, including Miles Davis, the Bill Evans Trio, Chick Corea and et al. Finally rounding out the “Jazz By 5” group is Jimmy Cobb, actually having performed on the historic largest selling jazz album, “Kind of Blue” by Miles Davis. There was no letting down your guard amongst a “friendly” competition on this stage.
Charenee Wade: Singer, composer, arranger and educator, Charenee Wade has wide reach in the jazz arena also garnishing awards and accolades for her vocal talent. As the opening act on the Main Stage tent that afternoon, you could begin to appreciate her range and rich tone with the warm-up, ever smiling and spirited, she effortlessly reached the high and low scale with a soulful voice. Her performance was mainly dedicated to the influences of the no-nonsense politically urban street poet and pre-rap musician Gil-Scot Heron and collaborator and soulmate pianist Brian Jackson (her related release is entitled, “Offering: The Music of Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson”). Coupled with her was the extraordinary powerful leading sax solo performances by Lakecia Benjamin, who owned the stage at times with blistering range and searing riffs on the saxophone matched with intensity and mood by Stefan Harris on vibes. Wade left the audience wanting more and in particular — more of Lakecia Benjamin — who practically received a separate ovation.
Craig Harris & Tailgaters Tails: A major force in avant-garde jazz directions, Craig Harris has used his reputation with Sun Ra and trombone to forge his own frontiers. Taking the stage at Jazz in the Valley that afternoon, with trombone in hand and exceptional ensemble musicians, including versatile talents on vocals (Carla Cook), keyboards (Adam Klipple) bass (Calvin Jones), and Drums (Tony Lewis) — it was clear that an energy and statement was to be made. With an eclectic inter-play between Harris and vocalist, with soloing contributions from piano, bass and drums, orchestral shades of a larger band were accomplished with these few musicians. Mr. Harris introduced pieces that were part of a larger compositional group but nonetheless potent with a 5-piece band. A jazz overture of experimental sounds, scat singing and melody found its audience along with the trombone mastery of Craig Harris.
Many additional offerings showcasing the richness and diversity of Jazz were on the Mike Torsone Memorial Stage — which featured Chicago blues influence and James Cotton Blues Band member Slam Allen, also in the New York Blues Hall of Fame, and the local-born Duchess Community College Jazz Ensemble got to show off their “chops” — just in high school but showing incredible promise — under the solid direction of Dr. Christopher Brellochs at DDC, and Stephanie Hancock, an experimenter of styles (latest release “This Happy Madness” 2011) — seek out her website for the latest tracks & projects which find elements of Jazz, Reggae, World Music, R&B — and more. Finally — Matt Jordan, Trumpeter — at nine years old playing classical scores under bandleader father — exceptional sessions player with credits that include Art Blakey, Freddie Hubbard, Billy Taylor, John Faddis and Dionne Warwick.
Live jazz, particularly at these smaller venues, reflect back the remarkable array of talent — up-close — not necessarily found on the air-waves or current CD releases, but nonetheless the quality of musicianship and style and interpretation (or re-interpretation of standards). An array of talent that found its way under the Main Stage tent and Mike Torso Memorial stage that afternoon at Jazz in the Valley. Again, small is beautiful. ∎