Friday, July 04, 2008

7.3.08 SPAC Jazz Fest


I really felt bad about bailing on this; any criticisms thrown my way are likely deserved. Guilty! But then if I'd stayed, I wouldn't have written this:

KIND OF BLEW

SPAC Friehoffer’s Jazz Festival

Saturday June 28, 2008

The reunion of Return to Forever at the SPAC Jazz Fest was the only must-see show for me so far this year. In 1974 my college mates and I poured ourselves into the SUNY Ballroom after the usual 1974 pre-concert ablutions and RTF came out, grabbed us collectively by the throat, and didn’t let go for an hour and a half of the most bodacious display of ensemble virtuosity, in any musical genre, the world has ever seen. I’m still not right from that experience. And I’ve always wanted more.

Because the weather all week had been so uniformly skeevy, I checked the NOAA Albany radar reflectivity composite loop (highly recommended, btw) online that showed a skinny band of bad weather maybe a half-hour away from SPAC, with nothing behind it. As I live an hour and a half away, I figured “perfect.”

I figured wrong. Driving up the Northway we got hit around Clifton Park with the kind of serious rain that makes everybody slow down to 30, put on the 4-ways, and wish they were home. This continued all the way to SPAC, and we sat in the VIP parking lot (I had the coveted Metroland parking pass, but there was no one out in the downpour to check it) for 20 minutes ‘till the storm passed. Despite the storm passing, the air was heavy, fetid.

We got inside, and the usual Jazz-Fest happy-vibe was seriously on, and even though folks were soaking wet, they were joyous and chillin’. Nothing was happening in the theater so we worked our way back to the Gazebo, where The Maurice Brown Effect had taken over. Maurice is a happy, dread-locked New Orleans trumpeter, leading a young, killer quintet, playing aggro-post-bop with a splash of Miles and N’Awlins strut. They were special. A song and a half in, raindrops started falling on our heads so we headed to the theater, where the “sax summit” was getting started.

As we didn’t put in for seats ‘till Friday, we were WAY in the back corner of the theater, under the overhang, where the sound is notoriously dead. Our fault, not SPAC’s, but the sound was still dead. I was watching Joe Lovano, Dave Liebmann, and Ravi Coltrane “doing battle” in some kind of tribute to Michael Brecker and John Coltrane. It wasn’t happening. They took turns bleating, then they’d all bleat together. Then they’d take turns again. The rhythm section (Cecil McBee and Billy Hart) noodled in a decidedly non-grooving non-groove. No one seemed to be looking at each other, and sure as shit nobody was smiling. It sounded, more than anything else, like a duck gang-bang in a freight-yard. I snuck down to where another writer/friend was sitting, way up close. I listened for a few minutes and said to him “They sound less like they’re jacking off into their hats than they did back there. But they still basically sound like they’re jacking off into their hats.”

As a good pal and serious jazzbo recently told me, these guys and their self-absorbed ilk are going to be responsible for the death of jazz. And that’s a crime. I mean, just listen to Maurice Brown! Or Brain Patneaude!

Despondent and uncomfortable, we wandered back towards the Gazebo. The rain ramped up a notch, then another. In a food tent near the Gazebo we got some decent overpriced Mexican food, which tasted perfectly fine eaten standing up, with one of those styrofoam boxes and a plastic fork, in a very crowded tent, while the rain outside built and built and the air simply pressed down. It was hot. It was really no different than standing in stinky hot water. We were sweating into our shoes while standing still eating decent overpriced Mexican food.

Nearby, Jenny Scheinman (who I also really wanted to see) and her band were gathered on the Gazebo stage, looking around. A few folks with umbrellas sat on the benches in front of the stage, looking back. The rain bumped up some more, and one by one Scheinman and her band trudged off, instrument cases in hand, for places unknown.

The mood was turning sour. Over a $5 bottle of lemonade, under a different crowded tent, we weighed our options. The only sane alternative was heavy survival drinking, a solution to which many around us had clearly already turned. But we hadn’t brought our own hootch, and “premium beers” were $9, god knows what an honest drink would cost, and besides, it’s a long road back to Housatonic. We were soaking wet, hot, and after less than two hours, miserable. This was no freakin’ fun and there was absolutely no conceivable set of circumstances that was gonna make it fun. I thought about the long drive we made to get here; my journalistic responsibility to Metroland; my need to see Return to Forever one more time; mostly, I though of you, dear readers, who no doubt have been fervently wondering what I might think about the performances at this festival, so much so that you’ve had trouble sleeping, eating, and playing with others.

I looked at my wife and said “let’s get the fuck out of here.”

In any relationship, there are moments of perfect tumescence, where one says or does the perfect thing, moments that live forever in the scrapbook of one’s mind. This was one of those.

As we hit the Northway, the rain again went bat-shit, we slowed to 20 and put the flashers on, and thought, while listening to Garrison Keillor live at Tanglewood on AMC: (a) those poor bastards back at SPAC are getting whooped again; and (b) why didn’t I put in for Garrison Keillor at Tanglewood?

Right now it’s 8:15 Saturday night, I’m sitting comfortably in front of a fan, an honest drink next to me (that cost me, like, nothing), and I’m missing Return to Forever. I’ll bet they’re fabulous.

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