Sounds of a rebound for Jazz Aspen? |

Sounds of a rebound for Jazz Aspen?

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
C Taylor CrothersCountry act the Zac Brown Band makes its local debut in September at Jazz Aspen Snowmass' Labor Day Festival.

ASPEN – Jazz Aspen Snowmass has tried a mainstream country star before; audiences more or less shrugged. Jazz Aspen has wandered outside its usual realm of rock, soul, jazz and reggae to experiment with a more youth-oriented style; it didn’t work. Last year, the organization reached back in time for a band whose popularity peaked in the ’70s; the reaction was a collective groan.So what does Jazz Aspen do this year? How about, for starters, a mainstream country star; a venture into a more cutting-edge style, to attract a younger audience; and a band that is synonymous with the ’70s.But Jazz Aspen organizers think that this summer will be different. Following a notable downturn in enthusiasm and attendance for the 2010 festival season, the nonprofit organization enters its third decade with a discernible optimism. And after studying the lineup of artists for the coming summer, which was announced on Thursday, there is good reason to believe they are probably right. While there are gambles on country, on a new kind of music, and on a vintage ’70s act, these aren’t necessarily replays of past wagers.Among the acts announced for the Labor Day Festival (Sept. 2-4 in Snowmass Town Park) are Steely Dan, the Zac Brown Band and Girl Talk. Steely Dan might be considered roughly analogous to Lynyrd Skynyrd, a headliner at last year’s Labor Day Festival. Both resonate largely with audiences who came up in the ’70s.But it is a weak comparison. Skynyrd, a Southern rock giant back in the day, had lost virtually all of its members from its heyday; the current Skynyrd is practically a tribute band. Not so of Steely Dan, which still comprises the twosome of singer-keyboardist Donald Fagen and guitarist Walter Becker that conceived the band in the late ’60s at upstate New York’s Bard College. While Skynyrd’s output in recent decades has been marginal – Rolling Stone dismissed the 2003 album with a one-star review – Steely Dan’s re-emergence in the ’00s was largely celebrated. Their 2000 comeback effort “Two Against Nature,” their first album in 20 years, earned a Grammy for Album of the Year. Steely Dan has toured semi-regularly since 1993, and they seem to treat the tours as genuine occasions. This summer’s tour, a three-month outing named Shuffle Diplomacy Twenty Eleven, features an 11-piece band and “an idealistic strategy for World Peace” according to a press release.Jazz Aspen has had middling success at best with such country acts as Clint Black and LeAnn Rimes. But the Zac Brown Band is something different, and something different on the country scene. Though welcomed within the country establishment – the band won the New Artist of the Year in 2010 from the Country Music Association and is currently nominated for nine Academy of Country Music Awards – it has conducted itself much like a scrappy rock band, touring incessantly. The group, led by 32-year-old singer-guitarist Brown, is known to cover Bob Marley, the Band and Van Morrison.Jazz Aspen spread its wings in 2006 by presenting hip-hopper Kanye West. The booking generated some enthusiasm, but the performance fell flat as West seemed indifferent.This year, Jazz Aspen gives cutting-edge dance music a try, by booking Girl Talk. The stage name of Gregg Gillis, Girl Talk appears onstage with nothing other than a laptop computer, which he uses to mash-up sampled bits of everything from old country to modern R&B, metal to Radiohead, with heavy doses of classic rock. The energetic performances he generates – more party than concert – have earned him big audiences, a profile in The New York Times Magazine, and even rave reviews for his albums.Boosting Jazz Aspen’s optimism is the number of new acts they are bringing to the valley. Steely Dan and Zac Brown will be making their local debuts; Girl Talk will have his Jazz Aspen debut. In addition, the summer includes the first area appearances by singer Jennifer Hudson (at the June Festival, June 24-26 in Aspen’s Benedict Music Tent); rocker Lenny Kravitz and Mexican guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela (at the Labor Day Festival); and the Buena Vista Social Club (in an Aug. 22 concert at the Aspen District Theatre).”That doesn’t always happen,” Jim Horowitz, executive producer of Jazz Aspen, said of the debuting acts. “But it was definitely a goal. After 20 years, there are some themes that have emerged. One is, when we can deliver fresh faces, it’s exciting to us and to the community.” He added that AEG Live, the concert giant hired by Jazz Aspen last year to help book the Labor Day Festival, proved to be an asset.Horowitz is also pleased with a few more familiar faces returning to Jazz Aspen this summer. One is Wynton Marsalis, who has performed four times at Jazz Aspen. It was announced earlier that the trumpeter-composer will lead the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in a performance on July 2 at the Benedict Music Tent, co-presented by the Aspen Music Festival. Sheryl Crow, who played the Labor Day Festival in 2004, returns with her soul-oriented 100 Miles to Memphis tour.Also scheduled for the June Festival are a double bill of singer-guitarist Raul Midn and African-born bassist Richard Bona, and club gigs at The Little Nell with the 12-piece Latin band Maraca, and the Hot Club of Detroit. Rounding out Labor Day are Texas singer-songwriter Ryan Bingham, and retro-soul band Fitz & the Tantrums, with two acts still to be announced.The lineup leaves Horowitz hopeful that 2011 will be a rebound from 2010.”It’s not like we don’t understand the market. We do,” he said. But booking a festival “is not like going to the grocery story and picking off the shelf what you want.”