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June Festival finds its purpose

Stewart Oksenhorn

In relocating to downtown Aspen’s Rio Grande Park, Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ June Festival seems to have found more than a home. It has found a reason to exist at all.This past weekend’s event had the feel, of all things, like a festival. After several years of stagnating in Snowmass Village, and becoming more and more a second fiddle to Jazz Aspen’s Labor Day Festival, the June Festival found its feet this year, its second in Rio Grande Park.The renewed energy was realized in the most important of places, on the festival’s main stage. Performer after performer put on superb musical demonstrations or, at least, a flashy, over-the-top spectacle. In either event, the crowds ate it up.Topping the musicianship category were two of the jazzier main stage acts, Wynton Marsalis and Medeski, Martin & Wood. Opening the festival on Thursday, trumpeter Marsalis led his quintet through an inspired set of original tunes and jazz repertoire by the likes of Ornette Coleman.Toward the end of the set, Marsalis mentioned the names of two music icons who died recently, Ray Charles and jazz drummer Elvin Jones. Marsalis and his quintet – including pianist Eric Lewis, the superstar of the show – then paid tribute in the best way possible: with a pair of New Orleans-style gospel numbers, the mournful “The Old Rugged Cross” and a joyous version of “Down By the Riverside.”Marsalis closed the evening by presenting a birthday cake and warm wishes to Jazz Aspen founder and executive producer Jim Horowitz, who had the good fortune to have his 50th birthday coincide with Marsalis’ appearance.Surpassing Marsalis, in both daring and understated demeanor, was Medeski, Martin & Wood. The New York keyboard trio uttered not a word until the band introductions at the conclusion of their Sunday night set. But the combo’s music spoke loudly of taking chances and exploring the sonic limits.Not a few of the less adventurous listeners were driven from their seats by the aggressive, occasionally dissonant sounds. But the good number of those who stayed connected deeply with the groove, as confirmed by the thunderous applause following their set.Headliners Al Green and Buddy Guy both showed themselves to be in excellent musical form even in their advancing age. But both also demonstrated a tendency toward over-emoting, as intent on presenting a show as on their considerable skills. And maybe those instincts are right: The audience responded wildly to Green’s high-pitched squeals and his prancing, and to Guy’s guitar theatrics, including his long stroll through the crowd. Guy, especially, provided something for the more serious listeners. The handful of numbers on acoustic guitar that opened the set were filled with honest blues feeling. And his cover of John Hiatt’s “Feels Like Rain,” Guy’s signature tune, was slow, done without gimmicks and tremendously powerful.Opening for Green, singer-guitarist Shelby Lynne gave a straight-up reading of her smart, tough-as-nails, country-touched rock. Drawing mostly from her new, stripped-down album “Identity Crisis,” and backed by a three-piece band, Lynne relied on her robust voice and well-constructed songs, rather than the production that made her earlier album “I Am Shelby Lynne” a hit. Singer Curtis Stigers, opening for Natalie Cole, delivered upbeat, mainstream versions of old standards and new standards like the Beatles’ “I Feel Fine.”The runaway hit of the “outer festival,” the variety of daytime and late-night performances under the June Festival umbrella, was Yerba Buena. The New York-based combo, comprising players from Cuba and South America, hit the mark on both showmanship and musicianship. Led by a colorful, wildly dancing trio of singers, Yerba Buena played pan-Latin music that had crowds at the St. Regis hotel and the Cooper Avenue free stage instantly on their feet.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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