Variety defined the 30th anniversary edition of the Syracuse M&T Jazz Fest, held for the first time at sunny Jamesville Beach County Park, on Friday, June 22, and Saturday, June 23. Up-and-comers Cyrille Aimée and Diego Figueiredo stole the show with their fresh twist on old jazz. Mingo Fishtrap shook up the audience with blasts of horns and vocals drenched in soul. Jaimoe’s Jasssz Band proved supergroups peopled with power players like Bruce Katz and Junior Mack can rock with the best. Donovan took fans back in time. And the Average White Band wouldn’t leave without getting the crowd shaking their moneymakers—including festival producer Frank Malfitano, as he boogied on stage with the band during the encore.
The festival’s vibe has changed over the years with its various locations, but by the end of the 2012 edition, Jamesville emerged as a fan favorite. Without the limitations of downtown’s Clinton Square or the mix of hills, pavement, grass and paths at Onondaga Community College, viewers were able to spread out across the park’s gently sloping field, with clear sight lines from nearly anywhere. The freedom and space was appropriate considering the fest’s art form: music that is also freed by space without limitations.
Friday got off to a slow start as people trickled in during the early afternoon. During the 2:30 p.m. performance by the Syracuse Parks and Recreation Stan Colella All-Star Band, only a smattering of die-hards were sprinkled in the grass to hear the talented ensemble of area high school musicians, under the direction of noted saxophonist Joe Carello.
As gypsy swing specialist Harri Stojka took the stage to settle in, he warmed up with a few dizzying guitar licks, guaranteeing a great show before the band even had their microphones set up. Stojka’s group—Claudius Jelinek on guitar, Peter Stutzenberger on upright bass and Heimo Weiderhofer on percussion—display ample charm on the stage, and Stojka is abundantly full of love for the music he performs. Throughout the show he would lean back and yell various exclamations (“Yeah!” “Ohh!” “Hey!”) as his gypsy swing picked up the pace.
His fingers were lightning-fast on his guitar, which is complete with a smaller, oval sound hole, similar to the instrument of his musical inspiration, Django Reinhardt. Just as with Reinhardt, Stojka’s music runs on the precision of the players and their ability to keep the intricate lines entwined together. The gypsy swing swayed and pulsed with a steady heartbeat of bass and a lightly brushed and tapped snare drum.
They mixed Reinhardt classics, including “Minor Swing,” with Stojka originals such as “Gipsy King,” “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Dark Eyes,” a song that opens with quick grinds of strings, then is followed by pointed guitar work that escalates into a flurry of notes, and climaxed with a yelp of approval from Stojka. At moments he would laugh and smile, then buckle down again, heavily concentrating on the strings beneath his fingers and the band beside him. Many of the faster-paced songs sounded like “Flight of the Bumblebee” by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, but performed by a quartet and spiced by the distinctly strong European flair and flavor. Stojka and his posse would return for another afternoon showcase on Saturday.
The European touch continued with the next group. A a model-worthy brunette with a short, curly bob and bright, tight red dress crossed the stage to set the few accessories she needed, as all eyes lingered on the lovely Cyrille Aimée. A few minutes later, Aimée appeared again with Diego Figueiredo, as he began his nimble guitar-work and she let out her raspy yet sweetly old-fashioned, feather-light voice.
Aimée’s voice is perfectly controlled, but her style allows room for scatting and interpretation. She was complemented beautifully by her duet partner, whose nuanced playing was light and lively, reminding the audience of the duo’s youth. There was also a feeling of comforting chemistry that added to their charm. Aimée described how they met at the 2007 Montreaux Jazz Festival, recorded together one year later, and have continued ever since.
They played traditional French songs as well as stateside-originated classics like “Night in Tunisia.” Aimée brought warmth to each song; she held every note firmly in place even as she flew up and down her range, scrunching her nose when she would really stretch up.
During one of the set’s many high points, Aimée took on a vocal challenge as she successfully nailed Bill Withers’ “Just the Two of Us” with perfect sensitivity. Following that, the two showed off solo: Figueiredo displayed his Brazilian roots with tastes of bossa nova and samba and Aimée covered “Fortunate Son” from Creedence Clearwater Revival, using a looping machine to build her own backing track, complete with a little beat-boxing.
The act took old themes and made them new, thanks to a dynamic mix of cultures and a youthful approach. It will be interesting to see how they grow, change and progress as their duet career moves forward.
Mingo Fishtrap, a big band with plenty of horns and all of its
members dressed in black, packed a serious punch right off the bat.
They’ve got the Blues Brothers-type act down pat: The horn line had
synchronized moves, singer-guitarist Roger Blevins Jr. danced back and
forth across the stage, and every song was punctuated with vocals
bursting with soul.
They were clean and tight from start to finish, but not to the point that they sacrificed enjoying the moment or giving in to overtly cheesy gimmicks. Armed with organ, guitar, trumpet, sax, trombone, bass and double percussion, their soul bled through best when they ripped into Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City” and in their tribute to James Brown with a medley of “I Feel Good,” “Soul Power” and “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World.”
Although Staxx and Motown got mentions as major shapers of their act, the influence of Brown became crystal clear once they paid their perfectly polished tribute. Blevin’s vocals are some of the best out there, reminiscent of the soulful, southern Marc Broussard. Thanks to this performance, the Texas-based Mingo Fishtrap succeeded in securing a friendly tour base in Central New York.
The highly anticipated Gregory Porter was next on the program, with a suddenly fuller field of festivalgoers stretched before him. His talent-packed band walked out first—Chip Crawford on piano, Yosuke Sato on saxophone, Aaron James on bass and drummer Emmanuel Harrold—followed by Porter, who was dapper in a tan dress jacket, red bow-tie and his signature ear-flapped hat. And his voice was even more stunning, deeper and richer than his records.
Be Good, Porter’s 2012 release on Motema, opens with the swaying “Painted on Canvas” and so did his Friday show. The song is somewhat reminiscent of a yuletide track, with Porter’s velvet rich voice and Crawford’s delicate piano accompaniment much like descending snowflakes.
Although Be Good is an impeccably produced LP, Porter is a different experience live, as he becomes more musically animated and his sidemen venture out of the box. Mean keyboard solos and impressive sax lines cut between his perfect vocals.
Porter also won over the crowd when he remarked on the scenic beauty of the Jamesville venue. “You’d never know this is New York,” he said. “Everyone thinks it’s all concrete canyons and people who don’t say, ‘Hi.’”
Porter played several numbers from Be Good, including “On My Way to Harlem,” the standout track “Lion Song” and the memorable “Real Good Hands.” The singer scored best when he opened up and let his voice ring out, while his musicians were impressive when they strayed from the straight-away song path and ventured into improv. As Porter concluded the set, Malfitano declared him the next great jazz vocalist, which he very well could be.
The suspense was growing unbearable by the time Kenny G’s 9:30 p.m. set time arrived. He’s known for making dramatic entrances, so the now-massive crowd knew to look elsewhere than the stage when his high-pitched saxophone sound started blaring out of the speakers. His band was rumbling on stage, with smoke and lights adding to the drama, but Kenny G appeared beside the sound tower within the crowd, waving like a king to his adoring public as he kept the screaming notes coming. He eventually made his way to the stage, all the while holding onto a signature extra-long note, which he then terminated when he flew into a high-pitched trill that had his sax sounding like a trumpet.
Kenny G is a talented player and beloved worldwide, as evidenced by his massive CD sales, but his Jazz Fest set seemed to run together with drama, flash and noodles of notes. Favorites including “Silhouette” and “Forever in Love” made the setlist, as well as the Stan Getz tune “Desifinado,” a song the band doesn’t usually play because “our audience usually isn’t as sophisticated as you are,” the G-man said.
“I’m glad to be back in Syracuse,” he said between songs, and he was pleased with the venue because it “looks like a golf course.” He went on to talk about his saxophone, the same he’s played since high school; that style was originally designed in the 1950s, so he replicated it with his own Kenny G-brand saxophone (“On sale now,” he pointed out), one of which was the subject of a Jazz Fest raffle.
In an awkward bit of chitchat, Kenny G mentioned that whenever he put his hands in his pockets and moved them around (and he demonstrated), it’s only because sax players need to keep their hands warm. He even pulled out the hand warmers in his pockets to prove that’s what he was doing. “So when you see my hands moving around in my pockets down there, you know why,” he remarked for those fans who were really curious.
Kenny G stepped aside during “Havana” to allow percussionist Ron Powell to let loose. His talent was obvious, keeping the complex rhythms tight, although when Powell started tossing around his tambourine, it was easy to forget you were at a jazz festival and not a circus. The band eventually closed with “Pick Up the Pieces,” a song crowds would hear again on Saturday night with the Average White Band.
By the way, the aforementioned raffled sax ended up going to local musician Tom “Tommy Tornado” Witcowski, who plays with various jazz, funk and rock units around Syracuse. Kenny G even played a song on the sax before handing it over to a very excited Witcowski, accompanied by his girlfriend, Susan.
Saturday began much like Friday afternoon, with the hardiest of festival patrons ambling in for the 2:30 p.m. performance of the All County High School All Star Jazz Band, under the musical direction of Steve Frank. Returning for a second helping at the fest, Harri Stojka again played several songs from the Friday performance. He was especially poignant when he dug into “Song for My Daddy,” with Stojka explaining that his father “was suffering for eight years and was in a coma.” The song was sad, appropriate in its heartbreaking beauty, and showed the group’s versatility in displaying speed and precision through fast-paced tunes as well as emotionally effective ballads.
Stojka cracked himself up when he announced, “Next we’ll play blues in F major,” which was unexplained, but funny nonetheless. When the crowd roared for more at the close, the group performed “Summertime” by George Gershwin. “Tomorrow we go back to Austria,” Stojka said before playing the encore. “I will take you all with me in my heart.”
The crowd started building earlier on Saturday, perhaps in anticipation of the new group formed by legendary drummer Jaimoe, an Allman Brothers Band founding member and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer. Indeed, Jaimoe’s Jasssz Band, fully stacked with world-class musicians including Bruce Katz and Junior Mack, is still hot off the release of their first studio album, Renaissance Man (Lil’ Johnnieboy Records, 2011).
They hit it deep from the start and it became clear instantly that Mack would be the show-stealer. Katz slammed the keys, his tricky finger work dazzling as it has for years with a variety of notables he’s performed with, including Ronnie Earl and Gregg Allman.
The band dove into the entrancing “Rainy Night in Georgia,” allowing Mack’s full voice to lead the song, accompanied by his careful blues guitar: simple, precise and never overdone. The horns added depth and Katz’s soulful organ lifted the song to gospel levels until Mack brought it all the way down with the final lyric, “world,” plummeting his vocals into the depths of his range.
The supergroup also played originals from both Katz and Mack, with each musician taking time to shine with raw baritone sax solos from Kris Jensen and muted trumpet from Reggie Pittman that added a New Orleans feel. Katz stayed serious on the keys, his bright blue sneakers betraying a light touch to his otherwise gray and black outfit.
“I Believe I Got to Make a Change” drew pain, conviction and brutal truth out of Mack as he sang and soloed emotionally. Jaimoe kept the beat steady and strong for the duration and Jensen stretched out a soulful soprano sax solo that told a story just as effectively as the lyrics. When Jaimoe finally had a chance for a solo, it was amazing to watch the others bow their heads reverently and step aside to let the master work, as he popped and punched, keeping the solo quick, bare and punctuated.
At the end of the set, Malfitano proclaimed June 23 as “Jaimoe Day” and presented the drummer with a proclamation plaque, much to the surprise of the musicians on the stage.
At 6:30 p.m. Billy Vera’s 17-piece big band, composed of some of Syracuse’s best players, hit the stage along with The Beaters, his own rhythm section brought up from New York City. The brassy outfit opened up the stage for Vera, who emerged after a final alto sax solo from Lon Price, who has played with Vera for 33 years. “And I’m gonna keep him with me until he gets it right,” Vera joked.
After an unstable vocal start, Vera hit his groove, and it was easy to see he still had the pipes and the passion to deliver a heartfelt show, filled with his favorite songs from years of performance and songwriting. He educated the crowd with each piece, noting composers, time periods and the meaning of songs: “Cherry,” Vera explained, had a “naughty side” to it, while Savannah Churchill’s “I Wanna Be Loved, But Only By You” is by one of his favorite songwriters, yet her work is “sadly forgotten.”
Vera made sure to acknowledge his local horn section, including Joe Carello, Mike Dubaniewicz, John Rohde, Frank Grosso, Pat Carney, Dave Champouillion, Rob Robson, Paul Merrill, Bill Palange, Joe Colombo, Angelo Candela and Mark Anderson, and noted that it was their debut performance together. Considering it was the first time out, the performance was stellar.
Later in the set Vera delivered the songs audience members had been waiting for, with loud responses for both “Room With a View” and “At This Moment.” As Vera’s voice reached both high and low ends, he sealed the deal that, even at age 69, he’s ready as ever to deliver the goods.
Malfitano emerged again at the conclusion of the set, this time with Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney to recognize Vera with a proclamation, now making it “Jaimoe and Billy Vera Day” on June 23.
The highly anticipated 8 p.m. set from Donovan was confirmed by the teeming turnout ready to hear the legendary Scottish singer-songwriter. He emerged dressed in black pants, white button-down and black vest, and toting a red and green guitar. “I’d like to introduce you to my guitar, Kelly. Say hello to Kelly,” he commanded the crowd at one point. “Kelly, she’s an Irish girl. She’s got red hair and green.”
Donovan is a talkative act who engages his audience through conversations about his songs and his life. Since beginning in the early 1960s, he has provided songs that have become “the soundtrack for many of your lives,” he told the audience. Many shouted back in agreement.
Donovan’s voice might not be as strong as it used to be, and there were some rocky musical moments between him and former Syracuse Symphony Orchestra bassist Daryl Pugh. Yet the overall performance effectively captured Donovan and what he symbolizes in popular culture: an icon that did help shape the world through his own music and the effect he’s had on other musicians.
The set skipped around songs including “Universal Soldier,” “Jennifer Juniper,” “Hurdy Gurdy Man” and a song that Donovan promised he’d never record, but will only play live for his audiences: the appropriately named “The Promise.” Meanwhile, Donovan’s interludes between songs wandered among stories, like being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in April, and song meanings for tunes like “There Is a Mountain.”
“What the hell is he singing about,” he joked. “The mountain is everything you want in life and you say, ‘I’m gonna go for it,’ and then it’s gone.”
He had the crowd singing along for “Season of the Witch” and “Sunshine Superman,” one of the best of the set. “St. James Infirmary” also stood out and the encore, “Mellow Yellow,” drew a wild response from listeners.
Malfitano joined Donovan on the stage to commend him with a plaque, but this recognized the dedication of the entire festival to Donovan. “To have a festival like this for 30 years, you need geniuses like this on your stage,” Malfitano shouted. “Mythological gods in human form.”
Donovan’s response was priceless: “Yeah, very cool.”
Wrapping up the fest was another Scottish act, although one very far from Donovan’s mellow guitar and philosophical lyrics. Average White Band broke out, fierce and loud, but missing the licks of Onnie McIntyre until his levels were raised high enough in the mix, but not unti the band was several songs into the set. Still, the boys kept it tight and funky, with saxophonist Fred Vigdor doing spins across the stage while playing and new singer Brent Carter absolutely shredding the vocals of every song he tackled.
Lead vocalist, bassist and guitarist Alan Gorrie thanked the crowd for having the band back after their last visit in 2011, when their show was hampered by rainy weather. “After last year, this is peaches and cream for us,” he said. Carter enjoyed the Salt City return as well, as he won the crowd over by declaring, “I’ve been a Syracuse basketball fan for a long time,” before rattling off a list of former players.
AWB’s harmonies soared and the pumping funk stayed soulful throughout the set. Songs like “Got the Love” and their cover of Chaka Khan’s “What Cha Gonna Do For Me” sizzled. Instruments rotated among Gorrie and keys player Klyde Jones throughout the set and by the time the band made their way to “Cut the Cake” it was an all-out funky party in Jamesville. Their encore, “Pick Up the Pieces,” burst with explosive energy, just as impressive as the fireworks display held after their set. The audience was on their feet, shakin’ everything they had, and the band made sure to get Malfitano shakin’ on stage right beside them as well.Despite serious challenges, including a tough economy and a new location, the 30th anniversary of the Syracuse M&T Jazz Fest ended on a wild high note. A little variety, a lot of talent, great weather and a perfect location mixed to make this year’s fest a hard one to top.