Monday, September 20, 2021

Indy Jazz Fest returns to its in-person, outdoor roots

Host Matthew Socey was right to proclaim from the stage of Garfield Park's MacAllister Amphitheater

Akiko Tsuruga shows Hammond B-3 mastery.

that events like the Indy Jazz Fest are permanently indebted to the pioneering example of George Wein, who died last week at the age of 95.

Wein founded the generating event, the Newport Jazz Festival, in 1954 and went on as impresario of many other music festivals around the world. In his marvelous memoir, "Myself Among Others: A Life in Music," a common theme of his signature jazz festivals was the mixture of musical artists only distantly related to jazz and exponents of the music celebrated in the label "jazz festival."

So it's not a departure from the Weinian model that the IJF has long followed suit, subtly thumbing its nose at the tendency of jazz fans to dig a moat around their favorite music. This year's event, a return to concert performances outdoors, is liberally populated with representatives of jazz's subgenres, as curator and prominent local drummer Richard "Sleepy" Floyd reminded the public in an interview by Kyle Long on WFYI-FM's "Cultural Manifesto."

A subgenre may sound like something of a stepchild, but in this weekend's programming, it is not subject to the mistreatment of that stereotype. On the contrary, talents with good name recognition among the nonjazz-focused public are given prominence to attract the much-desired audience growth as twilight approaches. Sunday's schedule, which I was unable to experience, leans more heavily in this direction than Saturday's.

 Exhausted by more than six hours of Saturday's music, I left as the programming veered away from my interests after Moonchild, an ensemble of three multi-instrumentalists keyed to solo female vocals, had played two songs. Victor Wooten, a  favorite among aficionados of the electric bass, was yet to come. I was curious yet wary, having heard from two sources that the pandemic had idled him from public appearances for well over a year. It was time to go home. Here are some impressions of the bulk of Saturday's performances.

Kenny Banks Jr., a finalist in 2019 American Pianists Awards, opened the afternoon fronting a compatible trio that included Nick Tucker, bass, and Kenny Phelps, drums.  He exhibited a variety of strong, fleeting impressions in the set, in which his partners were fully alert to intricate arrangements. He favored unaccompanied, ruminative introductions that  could sometimes fool you into thinking he'd changed his mind about what he just announced: An original piece about an up-and-down relationship in his past opened with extensive quotation from Hoagy Carmichael's "Skylark."  Banks has titled the piece "The Loony Tune," so alluding to that old song with its line beginning "crazy as a loon" was not  far afield. 

Banks seemed happy to share his compositions with his mates and not overwhelm them with piano. For the "The Price of Dignity," a tribute to the "black Wall Street" of Tulsa, Okla., destroyed by a white mob a century ago, he gave space for Tucker to take a long, brooding solo before the piece attained a bustling speed with a hint of indignation.

Veteran drummer Jeff Hamilton drives Tsuruga's set.

Sticking with the afternoon's other trio performance, let me celebrate the marvel of the Akiko Tsuruga's Organ Trio, in which this electrifying keyboard maestra enjoyed the partnership of drummer Jeff Hamilton, the pride of Richmond, Indiana, and the fluent and soulful young guitarist Graham Dechter. I just became acquainted with Dechter's playing through a new Capri Records release ("Major Influence") in which he and Hamilton are arm-in-arm partners along with customary Hamilton sidemen John Clayton, bass, and Tamir Hendelman, piano.

Their late-afternoon set was a joy from beginning to end, opening with an affectionately rueful, hard-swinging portrait of the organist's pet cat titled "So Cute, So Bad." I thought I picked up the mixture of blues and country influences a la Herb Ellis in Dechter's playing before he introduced the second piece, "Orange Coals," as a tribute to a couple of his heroes, Ellis and tenor saxophonist George Coleman. 

Tsuruga's variety of articulation and timbre on the Hammond B-3 offered constant pleasure. There was some witty quotation as she included a few phrases of "Let It Snow" in her "It's Easy to Remember, and So Hard to Forget" solo. Was that some sly climate-change commentary? Perhaps.  The arrangements put prismatic emphasis on all sides of the trio's rapport. Slide Hampton's "Frame for the Blues" started by featuring Hamilton on brushes, of which he's a supreme master, then went to a virtuoso turn from Dechter. Tsuruga's solo started out deep-toned and foreboding, then ascended and brightened. Before long, it took off in the sweeping, tidal-wave manner of most jazz organ maestros, just as I suspected it would.

An overeager emcee took that performance for the group's finale; the cutoff surprised everyone. Fortunately, he brought them back for Hamilton's wryly titled "Osaka Samba" (in honor of the organist's hometown), a "Mack the Knife" that brought from Tsuruga's protean organ the whispers, moans, sighs, and screams of the title character's victims, then segued directly into a set-closing blues. 

Larger groups filled the rest of the afternoon for me. I'm not sure that Rob Dixon's periodic expansion of his Triology focus on three players is always a good idea. As of Saturday, Triology Plus was up to seven at a time, and the pile-driving intensity of the ensemble could have used more relief, but it went over well with the audience. The textures tended to be thick, and even the ballad-like second number was subjected to the group's tendency to double down on everything. Dixon has done some catchy writing for these forces, dependent on ensemble riffs enunciated by the front line, in which the saxophonist was joined at the hip by trombonist Ernest Stuart, and flugelhornist/trumpeter Marlin McKay. 

He introduced his "Dreams in the Exosphere" as something he hoped might be picked up by technology space wizard Elon Musk. The composer-bandleader made a good impression with some heavy alto playing, and there was a stellar bass solo. The piece was worthy of its inspiration in seeming almost as protracted as human interplanetary travel is bound to be.

The afternoon's second set was a revealing exhibition of what Premium Blend has been up to. Jared Thompson and Ryan Taylor are responsible for about half the book each of this fine quartet, which also includes Brian Yarde, drums, and Brandon Meeks, bass.  The group got some sympathetic assistance from Louisville's Kendall "Keyz" Carter, a keyboardist both graceful and funky. Carter worked especially well with Yarde in the course of Thompson's tribute to his mother, "Teresa." 

The program was well-designed, with a highlight at midpoint  being an excerpt from the suite "38th and Postmodernism,"  Previously heard only virtually, the suite adds three musicians in tasty arrangements by the flutist, Amanda Gardier; the other two guests were Ethan Hodes, flugelhorn, and Rich Dole, trombone.

The featured excerpt, "The Hustler," showed off the firmness and swing of the ensemble. That piece moved directly into Thompson's "Torment," with  flute leading the way, more good ensemble, and a captivating piano solo  by Carter. I like how well the arrangements worked with patterns that explore every channel into which the composers pour inspiration, allowing free play for concise solos as well. Some of the best, here and elsewhere in Premium Blend's set, happened when the band's twin creative forces took the spotlight. Saxophonist Thompson and guitarist Taylor always carried off their solos with lyrical warmth and a firm sense of direction. 

They and their sidemen are among the indications that Indianapolis jazz will be in good hands before audiences to come, whether at festivals or in clubs, in schools or other institutions, as the scene returns to something approaching normal.

Normal, take another chorus or two, please!

[Photos by Mark Sheldon]

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