Sunday, August 4, 2013

Indy Jazz Fest gets a new stage to herald its return next month

Jazz fans can feel well-served by the efforts that have gone into keeping Indy Jazz Fest alive over nearly a decade-and-a-half.

There is plenty to be grateful for, despite the likelihood that most of us feel there's nothing like a club setting for hearing the music. As it turns out, smaller indoor venues are the primary focus of the 2013 festival, scheduled for next month (Sept. 12-21). Thus, another reason for gratitude.

Still, jazz festivals tend to become viable in the long term by reaching out to welcome musicians of related genres.  This is more than shrewd marketing, because however you define "jazz,"  you can't revise history so as to suggest the music has developed without imbibing at a variety of artistic wells.

Even so, there was something a little too miscellaneous about the program, with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra as host (but not playing), presented Aug. 2 and 3 at Conner Prairie under the rubric "Symphony on the Prairie."

Particularly as it developed after intermission on Saturday night, the focus on Hoosier composers let several camels' noses poke under the big tent we call jazz. Hoagy Carmichael and Cole Porter lent themselves to jazz, and that has been true for decades. And the blues, as represented in this program by the team of Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell, is a chief source of and continuing influence on jazz of all styles.

But early signs of the dangers of a widely cast net occurred early in the show, though the deftness of co-leader-pianist Steve Allee's arrangements muted them. "On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away" and "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" are difficult to wrest from their eras and firmly pre-jazz styles into suitability for jazz; their inclusion at least helped establish the Hoosier theme early in the concert's first half.

Steve Allee heads toward piano to begin a recent set at the Jazz Kitchen.
Bluesman Tad Robinson showed his versatility by going beyond representing the Carr-Blackwell duo when he sang a serviceable version of "I Get a Kick Out of You." Cole Porter also got a showcase in the first half with Cynthia Layne's hearty rendition of "Night and Day," nestled in an Allee arrangement featuring adept band "fills" between phrases of the song.

And Carmichael, though his jazz side is muted in such standards as "Georgia On My Mind"  and "Stardust," inarguably owes much of his reputation as a classic to the advocacy of jazzmen: Louis Armstrong's "Stardust" is one of the early milestones in jazz's assimilation of popular music. Everett Greene was on hand to put his inimitable stamp on these standards, though age has thinned out his upper register.

The first great "ahhh" moment for this jazz fan came during an extended version of Freddie Hubbard's "Red Clay." It had that genuine jazz-festival feeling, with solos all around: saxophonist-co-leader Rob Dixon, trumpeter Scott Belck, keyboardist Kevin Anker, guitarist Sandy Williams, bassist Brandon Meeks and Allee. The ensemble balance was a little off, biased in favor of the rhythm section (though hearing drummer Kenny Phelps is always welcome). Yet this was nonetheless a performance indicative of the jazz talent to be savored in our region.

I suppose I could be pegged with that eyebrow-raising term "purist." But this is how I would put a jazz festival's chief obligations to the music: Sustain the legacy, and advance the cause.

Including the music of Babyface,  John Mellencamp and Michael Jackson doesn't fulfill those obligations. What was especially annoying in the second half was the relative abandonment of jazz after a performance of Wes Montgomery's "Road Song." The great exception was a wonderful duo performance of Porter's "What Is This Thing Called Love" by Allee and Dixon.

The creativity and fresh perspective these two local treasures brought to the song couldn't have been more reassuring about the promise of jazz in the 21st century. Approaching the tune from the outside and only gradually working into its core, Dixon's soprano sax and Allee's piano were remarkably responsive to each other. The performance was on a plane comparable to Wayne Shorter's and Herbie Hancock's outings on those instruments.

Yet radio jock and emcee Tom Griswold, dubbed in the program notes a "huge jazz fan," came back onstage to disparage what we'd just heard, saying something about waking the kids up, there would be something coming up for them to enjoy, and muttering that "I don't know what that was all about."

And then, with the slyly deployed transition of Carr-Blackwell's "Midnight Hour Blues" (which featured an idiomatic tenor-sax solo from Dixon, underlining his versatility), we were off into the vast wasteland of a Michael Jackson medley, spotlighting several vocalists and doing little more than draping the whole evening in a party vibe of the kind purveyed by countless pop concerts.

For the finale, everyone gathered onstage to try pumping some life into the dated 1980s anthem "We Are the World."

We were far away from the stimulation  of jazz by this point, immersed in a lukewarm bath of feel-good sentiments. I can only wish Indy Jazz Fest well, but this marketing tool went awry artistically, despite moments of excellent music-making.

To measure jazz-festival success, I'll stick with my two-part formula, which I believe allows for plenty of artistic freedom:

Sustain the legacy.

Advance the cause.

What are you doing if you aren't doing that?