Sunday, September 20, 2015

Wrapping up the 2015 Indy Jazz Fest: A personal account of music at Saturday's Block Party

A jazz festival should have a certain amount of messiness when it comes to summing up the music, so what follows has no bearing on what seems to have been a well-run finale to Indy Jazz Fest 2015. The messiness is all in my head, a condition to which five-dollar beers made only a slight contribution. (Pause for eye-rolls)

Placement and continuity of the acts on two stages (outdoors near Yats, inside at the Jazz Kitchen) presumably depends on more than artistic direction. Overlapped timing not only nudged me to hear incomplete sets, but also probably resulted in not quite grasping some artists' design of their time onstage. And of course I was selective in any case, satisfying both curiosity and expectation in ways I can't explain. It's a festival thang.

Scott Routenberg, Jesse Wittman, and Cassius Goens entertain.
Adept management of the allotted 75 minutes was shown in the afternoon by the Scott Routenberg Trio. The pianist, who teaches at Ball State University, presented a full scope of piano-bass-drums magic from a personal perspective. His colleagues were Jesse Wittman, bass, and Cassius Goens, drums.

The set ended with Airto's "Misturada," whose drummer-composer's rhythmic elan gave great space to Goens. Routenberg skillfully mines new as well as old pop for useful material: Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life" sat comfortably next to Bjork's "Joga."

Pianists heading a trio are in the catbird seat when it comes to expressing themselves. That's a big part of jazz history. But the good ones also make a strong impression when they and their trio mates accompany singers. You have to seem to be serving the vocalist, but it doesn't help to fade into the background. Otherwise, jazz isn't really happening.

Brenda Williams displays her sassy style.
A master class on working with singers was Steve Allee's achievement behind Brenda Williams and Everett Greene, with firm support from bassist Jeremy Allen and drummer Chris Pyle.  "Vocal Ease" is how Indy Jazz Fest billed the program featuring Williams, Greene, and a third singer I didn't stay for.

Greene and Williams seemed thoroughly at ease, living up to the set's punning title. Greene rolled out "Exactly Like You" and "All Blues" before ending with "Old Folks" in as genuine a rendition of this sentimental favorite as I've ever heard. When the irrepressible Williams came onstage she collared Greene (probably with mutually planned persuasion) into doing "There Will Never Be Another You" as a duet, with lots of teasing byplay. Williams as soloist applied her patented soulful touch to a couple of standards that usually don't go near the bluesy depths she found in "Almost Like Being in Love" and "Masquerade," the latter ending with an extended scatting episode.

There were other vocal showcases in the festival's final day, but I didn't make a point of taking them in. Before Rob Dixon and Triology's vocal guest, he welcomed American Pianists Association's Cole Porter Fellow Sullivan Fortner for a New Orleans-style tribute titled "Blues for Ben." It was quite a romp, featuring a Nick Gerlach tenor-sax solo that moved casually in and out of the blues changes and a relentless Richard "Sleepy" Floyd groove. Fortner was focused and nonplussed sitting in. With Steven Jones resuming the keyboard chair, the band ended its set with a hard-charging "Chameleon" (Herbie Hancock).

The greatest joys of the Block Party for me included the Tucker Brothers Band in midafternoon. This is a smoothly working quartet starring bassist Nick Tucker and guitarist Joel Tucker, with fully equal support from saxophonist Sean Imboden and drummer Brian Yarde.

The indefatigable Mark Sheldon (left) captures the action as the Rob Dixon band takes care of businesss.
Wes Montgomery's "Road Song" was a natural for a set featuring such a first-rate young guitarist. "I'll Be Seeing You," which Joel identified as his favorite standard, lived up to his high estimation in its performance, with his solo nicely throwing out lines and chords, chords and lines, in well-governed profusion.

Much later, having to follow the enlarged Dixon band onto the same stage put Sophie Faught at a disadvantage. Musically, the imaginative tenor saxophonist can hold her own, of course. And with Frank Glover joining her in the front line on clarinet and a fine rhythm section behind them, the letdown was only in the vibe, not the music-making itself.

Dixon and his colleagues happened to pump up the crowd and raise the party mood to new heights as the sidewalk filled from the Yats bandstand all the way to the intersection of 54th and College. They ran over, to nobody's apparent objection. And thus, the interaction that made the Faught/Glover show so enthralling on the Jazz Kitchen stage last month had a hard time finding its own atmosphere to breathe comfortably in, even though the set included some fetching Monk floated upon the crisp autumn air.

A better, more settled and still adventurous Glover exhibition had taken place inside just before, with the Steve Allee Trio participating in far-ranging renditions of "Invitation" (a favorite Glover vehicle for about a quarter-century), "In a Sentimental Mood," and "Windows."

Though a large-scale outdoor park day as an Indy Jazz Fest climax is somewhat to be missed, risking so much of the budget on such programming simply doesn't fly, organizer David Allee told me recently. As the festival's culmination, a Block Party is an acceptable substitute, especially when it is as well run as this one seemed to be. I hope everyone involved is resting easy today. They deserve to.





[Jeff Dunn photos via Indy Jazz Fest]