MARYLAND HEIGHTS--It ended up being a very good day for jazz, though the outcome was in doubt for a little while after our performance.
The Saint Louis Jazz and Heritage Festival is now a one-day event (it evidently used to be longer) in Shaw Park in the charming suburb of Clayton. The main stage is set up on what appears to usually be a pair of baseball fields, and there's also a smaller tent for upcoming local acts in another area of the park. Save for a couple of VIP tents off to each side (one of which we had access to, being performers and all), the seating was generally of the lawn variety. Rain had been in the area all week and was forecast for today, but our soundcheck found conditions very warm onstage (leading to a rather sunburned forehead for yours truly).
It's hard to review one's own concert, but we all felt like things went pretty well. As the opening act of a ten-hour showcase, our crowd was not huge, but nonetheless enthusiastic. Things sounded a little different onstage than in any of our previous venues this week (from my seat, I could hear a lot more trombones than usual, but very little of the trumpets), and a swarm of gnats tested our focus, but all in all, it was a good final performance of the tour.
After we were done, we put our instruments on the bus and went back to the seating area to hear the only other college band that had been invited--Southern Illinois. As we watched them set up, we noticed that the skies, which had become rather black in the background as we finshed our set, looked rather threatening at the moment. All of a sudden, an announcement came over the PA, but not an introduction of SIU. Instead, they said that lightning had been detected in the distance, and the park was being evacuated for at least an hour. We made the quick decision to return to the hotel on the bus and wait things out until later in the afternoon, when, hopefully, the headliners would be allowed to perform.
Thankfully, this was indeed the case, and we returned in time for all three of them. Highlights of the rest of the festival follow:
Poncho Sanchez: We had just missed seeing the master conguero and his energetic band last year in Port Townsend, when a late start to his set meant that we had to leave for our own gig before he began. This time, we were here for the whole thing, and it was well worth the wait.
Sitting under the protection of the VIP tent while the last of the raindrops left the area, it was a little hard to hear the titles of each tune, but Sanchez and company offered a spirited collection of Latin jazz tunes by a group heavy on percussion and horns, the latter of which upheld the jazz end of the Latin-jazz amalgam by offering harmonically interesting lines over sometimes static chord progressions (saxophonist Javier Bergara and trumpeter Ron Blake stood out in this regard). The leader himself, when not vocalizing, was often more than willing to share the spotlight with his fellow percussionists, resulting in a memorable bongo solo by Joey DeLeon.
Near the end of the set, the band played some tunes from their newest CD, Raise Your Hand (which was conspicuous by its absence from the Borders tent in the Marketplace area). The title track, featuring vocals from Sanchez, would not have been out of place on a Tower of Power recording. By the end of this set, the chairs out front of the VIP tent had been dried off, and the sound improved considerably from that vantage point. It was good to finally catch this band live, and I look forward to adding a few more of his recordings to my collection. (www.ponchosanchez.com)
George Benson: The prominent guitarist and silky-voiced crooner probably had the most polarized audience of the day; there were some who came to hear him play tasty licks on his guitar (with liberal doses of his trademark scatting along with his solos), while others came to hear him sing his many hits from the past 30-something years. (Lest you wonder in which camp I'm sitting, let it be known that this is my favorite Benson CD.) It was possible for members of each group to walk away satisfied, though the poppier numbers probably would have "won out" had there been a competition. Many tunes mixed both of these elements, and his polished rhythm section laid down solid grooves no matter the genre. The man still plays a mean guitar, the scatting-and-playing trick is as solid as ever, and the man is in extremely good voice. One could argue that his two keyboardists were no substitute for the fuller ensembles that had backed him on his recordings, but they were more successful replacing fewer instruments (like the flute patches on "Turn Your Love Around" and other songs) than many (like the faux-big band sitting in for the Count Basie Orchestra on "Beyond the Sea").
When Benson left the stage with ten minutes to spare, someone around me asked if it was done. I said no way, he still had to come back out and play "On Broadway" as an encore...which is of course exactly what happened. (I also got a kick out of someone in our group who, upon hearing the first few notes of that song, said, "Oh, now I know who this is!")
Some may refer to Benson as a sellout for going the pop-singer route, but his recordings have never completely strayed from his jazz roots, and can there ever be too much scatting or too many hollow-body guitar solos on pop radio? Methinks not. It was good to finally hear him for an entire set. (www.georgebenson.com)
Ramsey Lewis: Up until the final set of the evening, it was quite enjoyable in the VIP tent; there was free food and soft drinks (the frosted Chex mix was superb), and the seats were good (though it was still hard to wrap my mind around there being a fence to keep other people away from me). But just before Ramsey Lewis hit the stage, a whole gaggle of the "talky people" took over the row behind us. We hoped they would stop when the music started, but no such luck; if we were going to hear this piano trio, it would have to be from somewhere else.
[mini-rant] I've spoken before about the delicate nature of the relationship between the wine-and-cheese crowd and jazz: We need their finanical support (of our programs, concerts and recordings), but it's hard to share space with them at outdoor concerts sometimes, because they're not always there for the music, and their constant loud conversation often infringes upon the enjoyment of those of us who are there to listen. We have to treat them nicely, because we need their dollars, but it would be nice if they would give us the same courtesy and not treat the music as background wallpaper. [/mini-rant]
Thankfully, our All Access passes afforded us another listening option: backstage. If anything, the piano sounded much better in its close-to-natural setting (the tinniness of the instrument over the PA was the only true issue with the sound that I had all day), and we could see Lewis and his bandmates through the partitions in the back of the stage, only having to move around to get a better view of one or the other bandmembers or moving out of the way of the festival staff's golf carts that hummed back and forth behind the stage all day.
Lewis' music is beautiful and intricate, melding straight-ahead jazz with elements of both gospel and classical music, and sometimes, as has been the trend over his entire lengthy career, using pop songs of the day as vehicles (among tonight's selections was the '70s soul hit "Betcha By Golly, Wow"). His bandmates supported him with skill and precision: Drummer Leon Joyce offered a variety of timbres in his tasty solos, and bassist Larry Gray was quite impressive with the bow; it's always nice to hear an arco solo that has a pleasing tone quality and is always in tune, and Gray came through in both areas.
A lot of the tunes' titles were not announced, but there was a piece in there from a recent collaboration with the Joffrey Ballet and a closing gospel medley. After watching Lewis garner a number of awards at the recent IAJE convention, it was good to finally hear the trio in action.
Overview: All in all, I was very impressed with this festival. Everything was very well-run (even if a set started late, it still ended on time), and the staff and security personnel were friendly to a fault (I don't know how much the performer's pass played a role in that, but people generally looked like they were enjoying their jobs). I didn't get to explore the city of Clayton like I had hoped to do (the thunderstorm pretty much knocked that out of the schedule for us), but this suburb-with-a-real-downtown looked very cool. I would definitely attend this festival as a paying customer, and it's also a goal of mine to get invited here as a performer apart from the school somewhere down the road.
UPDATE: Read a review of the festival from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.