Monday, October 6, 2014

The 2014 Woodstock Jazz Festival: Nuh cry

This year’s renewed Woodstock Jazz festival was notable for both its modesty and the extraordinary level of talent assembled for its rebirth.  The single venue was the Bearsville Theatre on Tinker Street and the assemblage of artists represented music’s finest present-day composers and musicians.

Festival founders Ben Perowsky and Liz Penta wasted no time kicking off the evening, but did offer a glimpse of the past by noting that avant-garde composers Karl Berger and Ornette Coleman had made a prior attempt at an annual event in 1981.  That festival turned out a legendary recording featuring among others, Jack DeJohnette, Lee Konitz, Chick Correa and Pat Metheny, but was not reassembled.  The excitement and anticipation of this evening was palpable.

First to perform was classical-jazz pianist, Uri Caine who moved through a wide-ranging performance that included interpretations of Fats Waller and Thelonious Monk’s Round Midnight.  Caine’s playing was impassioned, technically complex and at times, simply astonishing as he rapidly exchanged chord structures and time signatures with apparent ease.

Following Caine, was the ensemble of saxophonist Chris Speed with Ben Perowsky getting behind the drum kit to bring his substantial chops to a straight instrumental Jazz set that included a number of intricate sax solos from Speed, interlaced with some great counterpoint from the keyboardist John Medeski.  Perowsky’s playing was certainly a highlight of the evening and another example of the supreme caliber of musical talent in our own Hudson Valley.

The third and final set came from a quartet with early Fusion innovators Jack DeJohnette (percussion) and John Scofield (guitar) along with John Medeski on organ and piano and Larry Grenadier on double bass.  For this writer at least, this was some of the finest playing and musical interpretation ever witnessed.  To say this group was “tight” would not convey the intricate weave of sonic interplay and rhythmic framing that delivered a sense of awe as the quartet worked through interpretations of Miles Davis, Coltrane and Scofield-DeJohnette material while moving seamlessly between blues, jazz and post fusion arrangements.  Jack DeJohnette’s understated style was at its peak with his syncopated left hand pauses and his special cymbal artistry.  The master of the rhythm section was energetic and generous in his support of the other players, like Medeski, a lesser known but brilliant composer and musician in his own right.  Medeski, in particular, was able to show his mastery of multiple styles and his wonderfully playful engagement in countermelody in a way that provoked repeated applause from the audience and seemed to excite and motivate the other players.

In an unexpected moment at the end of the night, the band returned to the stage for an encore.  Before they took their places, “Sco” announced that this number would feature a vocalist.  That vocalist was Jack DeJohnette and the group broke out into a soulful rendition of Bob Marley’s “No women, no cry.”  DeJohnette’s voice and rhythmic phrasing carried the song in a way that emphasized both melancholy and optimism, something that is clearly missing in these times.  It is possible that some listeners of this great ballad may miss the song’s essential message, or be confused by its apparent vagueness.  The phonetic understanding of the term is “no woman / nuh cry” where “nuh” in Jamaican patois is equivalent to “don’t” as in “woman, don’t cry.”  Marley had written the song with a friend from his memory of the desperate poverty in the Trenchtown ghetto of Kingston, Jamaica.  But then "Everything is gonna be alright."

For this listener, I couldn’t help but hear both sides of the human equation in Jack DeJohnette’s singing: there is pain and there is sorrow, but there is hope too.

Bravo.  Let's hope the festival returns next year.