JAS June Experience review: Jon Batiste, Michael McDonald, Earth, Wind & Fire and Tower of Power at Jazz Aspen June Experience
Jon Batiste soars, Michael McDonald underwhelms, Earth, Wind & Fire and Tower of Power keep the crowd energized at JAS Junefest
It opened with the youthful face of the future of popular jazz and ended with the iconic horn section that founded “Oakland soul” nearly five decades ago. In between, it showcased oldies and new sounds from living legends — the 2017 Jazz Aspen June Experience offered both a nostalgic look back and a glimpse of what’s to come.
Though the festival was headlined nightly by pop music legends with longer resumes and bigger hits, Jon Batiste’s performance will be the one to remember out of this Junefest.
He and his band, Stay Human, opened the festival Friday, playing to a sparsely filled Benedict Music Tent. As the festival crowd dallied on the lawn outside and the seats slowly filled up, Batiste strutted through the aisles playing “Amazing Grace” on his melodica, greeting fans and slapping hands.
From there, he and his three-man band launched into an audacious and playful set that ranged from the children’s song “If You’re Happy and You Know It” to Beethoven’s “Fur Elise.” In between, Batiste sang Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” and played his buoyant original composition “Kindergarten,” and jumped into an extended percussion jam that saw drummer Joe Saylor smash a tambourine center-stage. There was a sincere rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the anthem of Batiste’s hometown New Orleans, “When the Saints Go Marching In.” It wrapped up with Batiste and his band back in the crowd. Batiste moved easily between his Steinway piano, a Hammond B-3 organ, the drums and onto the seats at the Benedict with his melodica in hand.
The adventurous performance bridged pop music and traditional jazz, covered some avant-garde territory and welcomed everybody into Batiste’s sandbox to play. Batiste has limited time to tour — he and Stay Human are in New York taping “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” four nights a week year-round — but hopefully he’ll become a regular onstage around here. He was the ideal headliner to keep the “jazz” in Jazz Aspen at this year’s June festival.
On Sunday a 10-piece version of Tower of Power opened with singer Marcus Scott asking the Sunday evening audience, “Do you wanna hear the horns?” Scott, who joined the band just last year, proved a perfect emcee, band leader and interpreter of the Tower of Power catalog. He took a note from Batiste and spent a lot of time in the audience, serenading the ladies and keeping fans up and dancing.
But the legendary five-man horn section — including founding members Emilio Castillo and Doc Kupka on sax — was still the star of the show, playing over-powering takes on “We Came to Play” and “Soul with a Capital ‘S’” and, of course, “What is Hip?” along with lesser known songs and some slow jams.
And the dependably crowd-pleasing Earth, Wind & Fire brought a 12-member version that included original members Verdine White on bass, Philip Bailey on vocals and Ralph Johnson playing percussion. White, as always, emerged as the star of the show. The 65-year-old, decked out in sparkled and sequined aqua blue pants and a pirate shirt that he tore open by concert’s end, spun and kicked and danced his way through this joyous hit parade. Bailey wowed as well, his voice growing more powerful through the night and hitting the big, long high notes on “After the Love is Gone.” They backloaded their set with crowd-pleasers, tearing through a double encore that included “September,” “Let’s Grove,” “Fantasy” and “In the Stone” and leaving the nearly sold-out audience dancing in the streets of the West End.
In Michael McDonald’s hotly anticipated headlining set Friday night, the singer and his six-man band sounded nearly perfect but leaned too heavily on brand-new songs. In the midst of a fascinating resurgence with a new generation of fans, McDonald is due to release “Wide Open” in September. It’s his first album of originals in 17 years, and he’s clearly excited to showcase the new songs.
But how much can a hitmaker like McDonald expect an audience to get up for unreleased songs they’ve never heard?
His set opened with the Doobie Brothers’ “It Keeps You Runnin’” and “Little Darling,” along with his solo hits “Sweet Freedom” and “I Keep Forgettin’” before veering into the new material that mostly underwhelmed and constituted the bulk of his 90-minute set. (The new track “Free a Man,” played with wild improvisatory style, was the high point of the new stuff). He came back to the oldies at the set’s conclusion with “On My Own” and a roaring encore of “Takin’ it to the Streets.”
At this point in his career, McDonald can do whatever he wants, of course. He left no doubt that he’s got a stellar band behind him and that the 65-year-old’s iconic voice is remarkably intact. As an artist, he’s been invigorated by his big year and recent collaboration with the bassist Thundercat. But still, any fan walking away from the show — not having heard the songs they hoped to — had to be disappointed.
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