Review: Why jazz actually ruled at the Jazz Aspen June Festival | AspenTimes.com

Review: Why jazz actually ruled at the Jazz Aspen June Festival

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado

Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen TimesTrumpeter and conductor Wynton Marsalis led the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in a closing concert at Jazz Aspen Snowmass' June Festival last Saturday at the Benedict Music Tent.

ASPEN – I don’t generally go to music festivals looking for any big-picture messages. I go to hear the music, to take photos, to commune with people. And yes, to eat.But sometimes, there is a message so apparent that it can’t be ignored. Such was the case with the recent Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Festival, and the message that was shoved in the face of festivalgoers was this: It’s the jazz, stupid!Now, I don’t subscribe to the notion that, just because the organization, 20 years ago, decided to put the word ‘jazz’ in its title was constraining itself to eternity to present one style of music. (I do have a colleague, though, who every single year, when the Jazz Aspen lineup is announced, comes to me, pointing a disgusted finger at the program, and says, “That’s not jazz!” And I should point out, said colleague doesn’t even like jazz.) The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, the big daddy of American music fests, welcomes classic rock acts, zydeco, gospel, jam bands, etc.But the indisputable fact after two weekends of Jazz Aspen’s June Festival is that, at least this season, at least at its June Festival, jazz is king. Sheryl Crow – whose music is too flat and bland to qualify as anything in particular (rock? country? pop?) – slightly exceeded my very low expectations, but her legs were the highlight of the show. (It certainly wasn’t the sound, which was limited to Crow’s voice, drums and the faint hint of some other voices and instruments.) Jennifer Hudson was a joke – not only a bad act, but the wrong act, with an endless gulf between what was happening onstage and the sensibility of the audience. It made me squirm in discomfort, watching the old, white crowd trying to make some sense of the Vegas-style, dancers and lights show onstage.And then there were the jazz acts, which a.) made sense, given the audience and venue; and b.) were routinely outstanding.Rounding out the first weekend in the Benedict Music Tent, alongside Misses Crow and Hudson, was Monty Alexander. The Jamaican-born, jazz-bred pianist was working with a severe handicap: It was announced that his reggae band hadn’t made it to town, due to travel problems. Without the slightest bit of effort, Alexander shrugged off the snafu, turned his attention to his jazz combo – the show, billed as the Harlem-Kingston Express, was scheduled to feature two separate groups flanking the piano – and delivered a kick-ass performance. By a twist of fate, there happened to be a substitute reggae band available: Toots & the Maytals were scheduled to play later that night at Belly Up, and Toots loaned his band to Alexander. That solution turned out just OK, but the jazz portion of the show ruled the day.The June Festival moved later in the week to a club setting, downstairs at the Little Nell. I caught the final of the three acts, the immensely talented and entertaining Hot Club of Detroit. The quintet, making its Aspen debut, models itself after the original Hot Club, the Hot Club of Paris, the 1930s combo led by guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stphane Grappelli. I was initially dismayed that the Detroit version had no violin player: Could it be Hot Club music without a violin? But the group, led by guitarist Evan Perri, with considerable soloing help from saxophonist Carl Cafagna and accordionist Julien Labro, put on a show that was blistering in both pace and quality.The festival-closing performance by the Jazz at Lincoln Center (co-presented by the Aspen Music Festival) was the exclamation point, a demonstration that jazz could be not only intelligent and sophisticated, but thrilling. The orchestra’s leader, conductor and trumpeter, Wynton Marsalis, is often accused of being overly tied to jazz’s past, and on this night, he did lead the 15-piece orchestra through a program of classics, heavy on Duke Ellington. But the performance made me think of Walter Sobchak, John Goodman’s character in “The Big Lebowski,” and his take on being Jewish: “Three thousand years of beautiful tradition from Moses to Sandy Koufax – you’re goddamned right I’m living in the past!” Marsalis and company were only dealing with about 100 years of jazz tradition, going back to Jelly Roll Morton. But their deep, vivid, penetrating performance was a demonstration of why we don’t simply dispose of something exceptional and meaningful, and move right on to the next thing. There’s still something to be learned from an Ellington composition – or a Koufax curveball.stewart@aspentimes.com

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