Midway through his climactic set during the Friday, July 17, portion of the Syracuse M&T Jazz Fest, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis launched his solo on Duke Ellington’s “Braggin’ in Brass,” a frenetic post-bop big band number. Sitting — not standing, as is the conventional deportment, Marsalis raced over the spiky contours with a wild, notey ride, a dense, accelerated filigree of minute detail, as if there was barely enough space for all he had in mind.
A multiple Grammy winner for both jazz and classical recordings, bandleader Marsalis had brought the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, the group that has, more than any other, made democracy safe for jazz, to the 33rd edition of Jazz Fest, the Northeast’s largest free jazz festival. Like similar events that feature a variety of styles, the 2015 edition at the Onondaga Community College campus posted an eclectic lineup, including a substantial dose of local talent, seasoned veterans, a refreshing youth movement, cameos of the past and the future, vibrant pop-rock and celebrated heritage artists, all doused with surprises and drama.
Friday’s slate began with the City of Syracuse Parks and Rec Band, the incubator of local high school and college talent since 1984. Under the direction of saxophonist and educator Joe Carello, aspiring jazz musicians got a chance to solo and acquitted themselves respectably over the daunting terrain of big band standards by Duke Ellington, Buddy Rich and Count Basie, sharpening their chops for future endeavors.
A more mature, condensed ensemble followed. Led by Charlie Bertini, who enters the stage with all the tools a trumpeter can reasonably expect, the AppleJazz Band has performed annually in Cortland for 30 years prior to their encore at Jazz Fest. Strewn with names indelibly etched onto the veneer of local musical culture, including guitarist Mark Doyle, bassist Ronnie France, drummer Dave Hanlon and vocalist Ronnie Leigh, as well as trombonist John Allred and saxophonist Terry Myers, AppleJazz proved to be an egalitarian affair, doling out the solo space evenly while visiting familiar landmarks of Americana, all carefully reimagined.
Even the vocalist-saxophonist Joe Whiting was incorporated on a rock-swing rendition of “Kansas City,” followed by Louis Jordan’s “I’m Gonna Leave You on the Outskirts of Town,” a slow, grinding blues number well within the comfort zone of Whiting and guitarist Doyle, who have performed together for many years. Then vocalist Leigh re-established the jazz gravity with a pensive interpretation of the standard “Bye Bye Blackbird” and an enriched telling of Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” AppleJazz’s set also had the effect of illuminating a jazz-savvy audience, which never failed to acknowledge each solo with respect and enthusiasm.
Everything changed when Buckwheat Zydeco (a.k.a. Stanley Dural Jr.) brought his sextet to the stage. In contrast to the previous act, Zydeco’s music — an amalgam of blues, jazz, Cajun, country and rock — tended to the monochromatic, making a hard landing on a single chord and hammering it ad infinitum with a souped-up pace that never looked back. Opening with his familiar refrain “What Ya Gonna Do,” the accordionist solidified the crowd with a virtually uninterrupted barrage of steady funk riffs and call-and-response inducements that generated unison clapping and dancing. Two encores followed the elongated set, capped by an audience participation finale of Bob Marley’s “Peace, Love, and Happiness.”
The demeanor of the music, and the dress code, took another abrupt turn when the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra appeared in neatly tailored suits, signifying the formal mantel of respect that jazz has achieved after more than a century in the American consciousness. Bathed in chords that could be pliable and gauzy or strident and splashy, the orchestra wound through a set drawn from familiar as well as original sources, presenting oversized sentiments couched in established traditions, proving the idiom is alive and well in 2015 and not confined to the past.
Contrast and local talent were again the order of the day on Saturday, July 18, when Noteified, a precocious regional quintet was followed by the Upstate Burners, a bebop ensemble of established veterans led by drummer Danny D’Imperio. The Burners were just that: virtuostic soloists burning through the bebop repertoire from composers including Tadd Dameron, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus and others with a furious resolve. Notified, anchored by 16-year-old drummer Scottie Madonia, was better received, daring to confront the works of Joe Zawinul (“Birdland”), Duke Ellington (“Caravan”) and even the Average White Band (“Pick Up The Pieces”) with a surprising maturity.
As it has in the past, Jazz Fest 33 was designed to climax with a crowd-pleasing performance artist, chosen to appeal to a broad spectrum of the public. Backed by an 18-piece orchestra that included local musicians Mark Doyle (guitar), Charlie Bertini (trumpet), Joe Carello (sax) and percussionist Josh Dekaney, Aretha Franklin’s highly anticipated act was meant to cap a daylong crescendo and it moved decidedly in that direction. Her splashy entrance in a glittery sequined dress set off a surge of enthusiasm as the burgeoning crowd got a look at what it had anticipated for two days.
But Franklin, winner of 19 Grammys and acknowledged as the “Queen of Soul,” was preceded by Lake Street Dive, the Boston/New England Conservatory of Music-based power-pop quartet, a unique original not tethered to the past. Rousing the crowd from its bebop doldrums, Lake Street Dive re-energized the venue with a mixture of covers and originals, with the focus on three- and four-part vocal harmony, kitschy arrangements and an irresistible delivery featuring the lovely, animated vocalist Rachael Price, who brought the day back into focus with a hearty alto and a sense of total immersion in the art.
It was a hard act to follow, but Franklin, still the Queen after 50 years on the forefront of soul music, began by reprising a string of her hits, including “Ain‘t No Mountain High Enough” and “Chain of Fools,” while her multitude of fans pressed ever forward. Then, inexplicably, she left the stage for more than 15 minutes while the band vamped on alone. Returning as if nothing had happened, Franklin launched into an extended testimony of personal issues, followed by a session at the piano where she covered Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”
Only then did the most accomplished voice in rhythm’n’blues return to her repertoire, re-engaging a patient crowd with a rolling version of “Freeway of Love,” followed by the encore “Respect.” Distractions aside, the audience was determined not to leave without what they had come for, and what they got seemed to be more than enough. Jazz Fest 2015 ended with Franklin tossing yellow roses to the crowd. Once the Queen, always the Queen.