Sunday, September 22, 2019

Farewell to the 2019 Indy Jazz Fest: The Block Party

Amanda Gardier and her group buoyed up the schedule
The party atmosphere at the annual Indy Jazz Fest finale rolls like a tsunami over the southeast corner of 54th and College as the day wanes. I skipped away from the wave earlier than I had expected, beaten down a bit from an intense self-imposed schedule over the last few days.

The Block Party is a good way to end such a festival for those up to sticking it out for a wealth of music (a dozen bands on two stages), with plenty of opportunity for food and drink along the way. Yats, the Cajun-style restaurant that's long been the Jazz Kitchen's next-door neighbor, was on hand with some of its offerings supplementing the Jazz Kitchen buffet, while the club's bar attracted a crowd shifting almost as adroitly as a band playing "Giant Steps."

Thinking that my best bet was to hit the ground running at 4 o'clock, I took in the tight modern acoustic quartet led by Rich Cohen and Chris Rutkowski. This powerful ensemble has a tasty variety of post-bop originals, most of them written by keyboardist Rutkowski. Cohen, the band's public spokesman, exhibited a commanding presence on alto and tenor saxes.

From the grinding blues "Slow Train to Chicago" to the easygoing, Monkish "Double Barrel Rhythm Thing," the book of this adept small group (competently filled out for this gig by Brandon Meeks, bass, and Dorian Phelps, drums) opens attractively to all comers.

When venturing one time outside the leaders' works, they displayed a knack for making the choice all their own. The Beatles' "Blackbird," this set's example, incorporated a Caribbean feeling that felt authentic, including a quote from Sonny Rollins' "St. Thomas" in the piano solo. Cohen's solo was passionate and well-directed. There were bits of propulsive Phelps in both solo and exchange form.

An inspiration for another original, "NOLA," allowed the New Orleans link to emerge immediately as Phelps laid down a shuffle rhythm. After that introduction, the theme itself bore a friendly relationship to Eddie Harris' "Freedom Jazz Dance," with Cohen floating on alto and meaty solos by bass and drums. The set closed with a Cohen/Rutkowski joint composition, slyly titled "Around the Bend," an allusion to the bypass around South Bend. Cohen was driving on the loop, he recounted, when the seed for this breezy traveling piece sprouted in his head. When you're creative, apparently, you can keep road rage at bay.

My first outdoor set was spent listening to the Amanda Gardier band, billed as a quartet but numbering five participants. The alto saxophonist sported a nicely rounded tone, unmarred by overblowing, in the course of several originals that properly flatter her approach to the instrument. Her manner is complemented by the guitar playing of Charlie Ballantine; in a musical extension of newlywed compatibility, he displayed an easy melodic flow in his own style. This was particularly evident from both players in Gardier's "Two Sided," which concluded the set.

The band opened with the standard "You and the Night and the Music," a number that many small groups use to become comfortably airborne. Everyone was fully on board, including drummer Carrington Clinton, bassist Brendan Keller-Tuberg, and keyboardist Ellie Pruneau. Filling out the attractive set were Gardier pieces called "Forty Tattoos" and "Pure."

My visits to late afternoon shows were too fragmentary and interrupted to allow for detailed impressions here. Outside, the way Owl Studios Music Group has grown to take in a range of rock, fusion and r&b influences got extensive display. Abundant vocals added to the festival's heavy presentation of singers, including a Block Party showcase inside the Jazz Kitchen. Instrumentally focused, the whirlwind muse of Cathy Morris, the go-to exponent of the electric violin hereabouts for many years, caught up a smooth-working ensemble that featured Bloomington guests (another musical couple of distinction) Monika Herzig, piano, and Peter Kienle, guitar.

There was more to come that on paper whetted my musical appetite, but I was physically and mentally sated from what I'd heard  over the past ten days at the 2019 Indy Jazz Fest. Thus, I'm keeping my outchorus brief,  without withholding kudos from this annual September treat under the auspices of the Indianapolis Jazz Foundation.

[Photo by Mark Sheldon]

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