Review: Jazz Aspen plays the name game perfectly
July 1, 2010
ASPEN – Jazz Aspen Snowmass, for better and worse, is an artist-driven organization. Audiences show up for acts whose names they recognize and act, on the whole, indifferent to the idea that festivals are places to make new music discoveries. Which explains in good part why the Jazz Aspen debut of singer-pianist-actor Harry Connick Jr. at last weekend’s June Festival sold out; why Jazz Aspen’s 20th anniversary bash was loaded up with multiple big names from the jazz realm; and why Lynyrd Skynyrd and the duo of Glenn Frey and Joe Walsh, both from the Eagles, are scheduled headliners for the 2010 Labor Day Festival, in September.
But how to explain the enthusiastic reception given Pink Martini, on the closing night of the June Festival last Sunday? The Oregon-based ensemble is certainly nothing like the name brands that Jazz Aspen usually relies on, and going into the show there was an audible “Who are these guys?” in the air. The tickets said “Lounge Attire Recommended,” which might have been intended to give a helpful hint to listeners.
By the middle of Pink Martini’s set, the crowd was hooked, the applause was thunderous, and I found myself wanting to cheer the Jazz Aspen audience as much as I did the 11-member band. The music was ultra-eclectic – a French song followed by something resembling indie-rock, swing jazz followed by Latin beats – and the crowd followed along all the way. Calling it lounge music sort of captures the flavor, but seriously undersells how unique and multifaceted the band is. Just as quirky were the personalities, especially of bandleader-pianist Thomas Lauderdale – a modern-day Liberace, with some Elton John thrown in. Lauderdale played with his back more or less to the audience, and after a while, you could understand why: With his spiky hair and outsized style, facing the crowd might have taken all attention away from the rest of the band. As it was, the audience got plenty of Lauderdale, especially when he did a strange dance segment with lead singer China Forbes.
The exuberance for Connick, on Friday night, was more predictable, but no less tangible. Connick brought a full range of skills, among them his expected ability to croon Sinatra-style. But even a known quantity like Connick surprised with the range of his piano playing; a version of “Junco Partner,” a thick boogie blues popularized by New Orleans pianist James Booker, was a highlight. Connick also endeared himself to the crowd with frequent stories, and the kinetic interplay with his trombonist, Lucien Barbarin.
On Saturday night, Jazz Aspen celebrated its 20th anniversary with a statement of their jazz credentials: A straight-ahead jazz concert, featuring an orchestra and eight featured artists well known in jazz circles, and familiar faces from past Jazz Aspen appearances. The performance opened with a tap-dancer, DeWitt Fleming, an homage to Jazz Aspen’s inaugural show, in 1991, which featured tapper Savion Glover.
There was no questioning the talent; strictly in terms of the music played, this was top-quality. But one by one, from guitarist Russell Malone to vocalist Dianne Reeves to trumpeter Terence Blanchard, the musicians appeared for quick-strike bursts in the spotlight and then made their exit. They weren’t able to linger, didn’t get to show all their facets, robbing the show of some depth. A sequence of bass duets between Christian McBride, the artistic director for the night, and John Clayton at least allowed those two to give listeners some sustained sense of who they are, and was a highlight.
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But the crowd sure did get to see a bunch of big names.