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Music: a language we can all understand

Stewart Oksenhorn

There’s nothing like getting an entirely fresh insight on what music can be about. After a decade of writing about music, I’ve stopped even wondering about such things, trading in the hope of such finds for the smaller pleasures of an inspired concert, a magnificent CD, a groundbreaking new artist. But actually having revelatory musical experiences is not the kind of thing you can pin your daily hopes on and keep your sanity. Such things come only by surprise – and with the frequency of waist-deep powder days.If I was in the custom of going to concerts hoping for transformation, Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ benefit event, JASummerNights Swing, would not have ranked high on the list for such potential. Last weekend’s bash was a relatively high-ticket affair – $125, food and booze included – which generally wipes out any chance of a memorable artistic experience. The headlining band was Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, a neo-swing band that I expected to be good and fun, but too slick to be head-turning. Also on the bill were the five student bands in attendance at Jazz Aspen’s JAS Academy Summer Sessions, a training ground for top young jazz players.The evening started off in fine fashion: On the small indoor stage at Iguana’s restaurant, the Eastwest Quintet made modern, straight-ahead jazz that grabbed my attention and got me dancing; the dichotomy between the youthful face of Simon Kafka and his soulful guitar licks was enough to make the night memorable. On the big stage, the Adonis Rose Quintet filled the tent with the exuberant sounds of New Orleans. Back indoors, Ko, a trio of London teenagers, played innovative hard rock-inspired jazz.Finally, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy took the main stage and fulfilled all of my expectations: polished, retro, crowd-pleasing – and too predictable to shake my soul. After a handful of tunes, my wife went to the lady’s room. When she returned, she said, “I like the music inside better.” I gamely went with her to check out what could be happening while the main act was in the middle of their set.A small group of the student musicians had started to jam but with a twist – all of them had swapped instruments. The music was rudimentary, just a funk beat played endlessly over and over. But there was more: spontaneity, joy and even, in the small pack of listeners, an audience that seemed to be participating in the music as much as the musicians.The tiny little scene took off. More of the student musicians joined in, either playing or dancing. A mike got passed around, and the musicians – especially the New Orleans crew – began rapping over the beat. When Christian McBride – the JAS Academy artistic director and probably the finest jazz bassist of his generation – sat down at the drums, puffing on a big cigar, the energy multiplied. He was joined by Wycliffe Gordon, the noted trombonist from the original Wynton Marsalis Septet, sitting at the electric piano. The music was still far from expert, but the scene was raging. Paul the sound man banged the conga drums. Melissa Walker, McBride’s fiancée, took the mike and dove into a medley from Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life.” The band stumbled through the changes of “Sir Duke” – Wonder’s tribute to Duke Ellington – but as the throbbing crowd sang along with the chorus, the words could not have been more perfect for the occasion: Music is a world within itself,With a language we all understand.With an equal opportunityFor all to sing, dance and clap their handsThis is what music can be about. Not just expert playing, or even raising the spirits of individual listeners, but building a sense of communal joy, even if for just a few hours with people you may never see again. When Big Bad Voodoo Daddy ended its set and the crowd of people streamed inside, their surprised smiles confirmed what was going on in our little dance party. There was no practical division between listeners and players; everyone’s input was added to the whole. Everyone was welcome to join. As the impromptu band finally gave way to Insight, a hot Latin jazz combo from Connecticut, the room was packed and strangers were stopping strangers to click glasses and exchange high-fives. Wynton Marsalis talks about the democratic nature of jazz, with everyone participating on an equal level, and this was that.I’ve seen dozens, if not hundreds, of great performances. But with the rare exception of a Grateful Dead show here, a night at the old Double Diamond there, I’ve never witnessed the magic of music like I did last Saturday night, listening to a bunch of players and listeners basically goofing around.I wish those days could come back once more. Stevie Wonder again.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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