JAS pushes the envelope
August 30, 2006
Imagine a favorite restaurant, one you dine at, say, 10 times a year. Each time the waiter comes to takes your order, you insist that the chef concoct a completely different dish from the one you had the last time – and, preferably, different appetizers and side dishes. The meal, you insist, must be as good as all the previous meals you’ve eaten there, or you’re not going to pay the bill, and may even give up on the restaurant altogether, in search of something different.Jim Horowitz, executive producer of Jazz Aspen Snowmass, knows the pressure that chef must feel. In the 16th year of presenting festivals in Aspen and Snowmass, and after 11 years of producing the star-studded Labor Day Festival, Horowitz is facing a restless audience – one that expects at once blockbuster names, fresh faces, and excellent performances. Having already brought such icons as Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Tom Petty, Bonnie Raitt and John Fogerty to the stage, as well as more recently arrived attractions as Widespread Panic, Trey Anastasio and Jack Johnson, all while facing increasing competition from Red Rocks and other Front Range venues, not to mention the fantastically ambitious local club Belly Up, Horowitz wonders how he can satisfy all demands.”There’s two choices,” said Horowitz, who founded Jazz Aspen as a small, jazz-oriented, festival held in late June. “One is to push the envelope. The other is not. We feel the pressure to push. You bring back the same people, and the audience just gets bored. Anytime we bring someone back, there’s an inherent risk of, ‘been there, done that.’ You either push or you retreat.”
For the moment, at least, Jazz Aspen is pushing as hard as it ever has. The Labor Day Festival, which opens today and runs through Monday in Snowmass Town Park, features the boldest lineup of acts ever. All four headliners are making their Jazz Aspen debuts; only one, reggae singer Matisyahu, has appeared in the valley before.Tonight’s headliner is LeAnn Rimes, the first young, mainstream country act to appear at Jazz Aspen. (Previous country acts to play Jazz Aspen are Willie Nelson and Clint Black.) Tomorrow night moves as far afield as imaginable, when Grammy-winning rapper Kanye West makes his local debut. It is not only a huge distance in target audience and sound from Rimes, but also a huge stretch for Jazz Aspen, which makes its first jump into true hip-hop.Sunday’s headliner is an icon of the classic rock era, former Woody Creek part-time resident Don Henley, while Monday sticks with recent tradition, by having a reggae act, Matisyahu, as headliner. But both of these are smaller examples, too, of stretching: Henley is far better known for his membership in the Eagles than he is as a solo act. And Matisyahu, unlike such past reggae acts at Jazz Aspen as Burning Spear, Alpha Blondy and Ziggy Marley & the Melody Makers, is a young talent, rather than an established star. In addition, as a Hasidic Jew reggae artist, he is something of a novelty.Even the opening acts reflect a sense of experimentation. Los Lonely Boys and Del Castillo, both Texas bands with big south-of-the-border influences; singer-guitarist Raul Midón, and the Polyphonic Spree, which combines an indie rock feel with an 11-voice choral section, all make their local debuts this weekend. And all reflect at least a bit of stylistic groundbreaking for Jazz Aspen.Not all of this was planned. Henley was a late substitution for fellow mainstream rocker John Mellencamp. Black Eyed Peas, a funky, positive-spirited hip-hop group – thus, presumably an easier sell in this market than Kanye West – was originally scheduled as Saturday’s headliner. Still, Horowitz sees the current lineup as a response to audience demands, and a test to see how new acts and new styles fly at a festival that has responded best to classic rockers and acts roughly in the jam-band realm.
“Anytime we’re doing something fresh, either an artist or a style, we’re testing the market,” said Horowitz, a 52-year-old who had a career as a jazz pianist before entering into artist management, then launching Jazz Aspen. “We have heard repeatedly, from our constituents at all levels, that they want to hear new artists. They don’t want the same artists, even the ones who are very popular.”Horowitz doesn’t mention names, but he may be thinking of Alpha Blondy. In his first appearance, in 2001, the African reggae singer put on a memorable show. The excitement carried over into another appearance two years later. But last year, in his third Labor Day show in five years, attendance was low, and Blondy bowed out of his set early, complaining of a sore throat.For the most part, however, Jazz Aspen has avoided the temptation to turn to repeat performers. Of the big-name acts, only a handful – including Bonnie Raitt, Lyle Lovett, Ziggy Marley, Buddy Guy and James Brown – have made multiple appearances. And of those, some have split their appearances between the Labor Day and June Festivals.Horowitz professes a preference for trying out new acts, which might not go over with the audience, to risking repeat acts, which might grow stale. The results sometimes surprise even him. When surf-rocker Jack Johnson headlined a Friday-night bill two years ago, Horowitz says he expected a respectable 6,000 to 7,000. Instead, a record crowd of 11,000 nearly overwhelmed the grounds. The experience showed Horowitz how much pull young, current acts could have.”We’re looking for artists who have a current relevance in the music industry,” he said. “Maybe they have a new album, something fresh to what the artist is doing.”As far as hip-hop goes, that’s a genre that’s exploded in the U.S., in the world, over the last 10 years. With Kanye West, it’s gotten him Grammy awards, millions of records sold and a very high profile. He’s at the top of the pack in his area. He’s a very relevant artist.” Horowitz points out that West has been a headline act at two of the country’s biggest music festivals this summer, Coachella and Lollapalooza, and heads from Snowmass to Seattle, where he has top billing at the Bumbershoot festival.
Horowitz’s attention is mostly on the headline acts. But to find a particularly relevant act this Labor Day, one can look down a slot from the top of Saturday’s bill, for Robert Randolph & the Family Band.Randolph is not perfectly fresh; he made his local debut as the 2 p.m. act at the Labor Day Festival two years ago. Randolph, a pedal steel guitarist who came up playing the sacred steel gospel style, electrified the early arrivals. He returns this year not only up a notch on the bill, but also with a new CD, “Colorblind” – his first in three years – due out Sept. 26. “Colorblind” could push the talented Randolph into mass popularity. The album features contributions from Eric Clapton and Dave Matthews, both of whom Randolph has toured with as an opening act.Matisyahu could likewise be considered a relevant act. The 26-year-old reggae-rap singer and devout Jew began earning wide attention with last year’s “Live at Stubbs”; “Youth,” released in March, reached No. 4 on Billboard’s album charts.Horowitz notes that Jazz Aspen has a challenge somewhat unique in the festival world. Most of the bigger festivals are in or near urban areas and have a large population to draw from. Jazz Aspen, pulling from a far smaller potential audience, has to please many tastes. Horowitz divides his two primary constituent groups into older (he uses the term “mature”) and younger (not “immature”).”We try to straddle the lines, catering to young and mature tastes under the same umbrella. That’s unusual,” he said. “Festivals are either adult-oriented or youth-oriented. We have the unenviable task of trying to appeal to both groups. We can’t survive otherwise. We need both demographics. “It’s never a weekend of oldies and icons, with everyone 45 or older. Nor are we a jam-band festival, booking Widespread Panic and 12 other bands in line with that audience. We’d be heroes to the Widespread audience and villains to the other part of our audience.”Booking West, or trying to book Black Eyed Peas, is more an effort to cater to the existing young crowd than it is to try to expand the audience. “Kanye’s audience is young,” said Horowitz. “We’ve tried to court the 30-and-under audience with Widespread Panic and Jack Johnson. They’re different styles of music, but it’s just another part of the young audience. We’ve been hearing requests for this kind of music for years; you can’t imagine how many patrons have told me how excited their kids are to see Kanye West.”
Jazz Aspen has introduced many fresh faces to local listeners, some of whom have gone on to stardom. Audiences can brag about seeing Norah Jones in the Aspen District Theatre, or Diana Krall in the Cabaret Room of the Silvertree Hotel. For this weekend’s festival, Horowitz has his eye on soul singer-guitarist Raul Midón, who makes his local debut with a 2 p.m. set Saturday.To see the rewards of taking chances, one has to travel only as far back as earlier this summer. The June Festival featured three headliners – young British keyboardist Jamie Cullum, rocker Elvis Costello, and Trey Anastasio, from the jam-band Phish – new to Jazz Aspen. The festival was a roaring success in attendance, artistry and crowd satisfaction, but prior to the event, there were question marks everywhere. Costello was well-known and respected, but his career of late has been all over the musical map, and his early fans probably knew they couldn’t count on a set of old, familiar hits. Anastasio wasn’t sure to click in the older-skewing June Festival. Cullum, though a big seller on record, was essentially an unknown quantity who had to work to win over the crowd.Or, you can go back as far as the first day of the first Labor Day Festival, in 1995. The bill that long ago day featured an artist just beginning to make his name, a funk saxophonist who had spent time in James Brown’s JB Horns and George Clinton’s P-Funk. Hardly anyone knew who Maceo Parker was then, but virtually every music fan in the valley does now. From that debut, Parker went on to play numerous local gigs, including several appearances at Jazz Aspen.And there were few complaints about Parker’s repeat performances.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org