Friday, September 24, 2010

Sailing Away … to Lake George (Roseanna Vitro, Mark Soskin, Christian Scott)

Blogging again. (apologies for the gap in submissions. Hectic summer with other things to deal with. Nuff said.) The festival season in the Northeast has wound down, but came to a nice end in Lake George, NY, with the village’s annual Jazz Weekend.

It featured outstanding musicians like David Amran, Buster Williams--who carried Mulgrew Miller, Cindy Blackman and Stefon Harris in his band--and newcomer Sharel Cassity.

But one of the most interesting bookings was the Randy Newman Project, featuring the vocals of Roseanna Vitro and the arrangements of pianist Mark Soskin.

Newman, of course, is a folk-pop guy (He’s contributed music for films as well) who arose 30some years ago with albums like Sail Away a classic. He’s written tunes that other folks have made popular, like “Momma Told Me Not to Come” and “You Can Leave Your Hat On.” “Short People” (Have No Reason to Live) may be--but shouldn’t be--his most well known because it got a lot of airplay. It also got some idiotic flak from people who thought he was criticizing short people from that group of Americans that continually illustrates that they have waaaaaay too much free time.

[Photos, by me: TOP: Mark Soskin and Roseanna Vitro; BOTTOM: Christian Scott and Christian Scott band]

Anyway -- Vitro, a strong singer with a rich voice and a veteran’s jazz savvy, applied her vocal charm to songs like “Sail Away,” with Soskin playing the familiar piano intro. The song loses none of its beauty, and in fact is brought out beautifully by the singer and Soskin’s superb accompaniment. The violin statement seemed to bring out its emotional quality even more.

“I re-worked a lot of that, definitely,” Soskin told me a couple months back. “In terms of feel and harmony. That’s really a challenge, because a bunch of those songs are so simple. And a lot of the lyrics are talking; they’re more spoken. So, it’s tricky. But that’s a challenge I also like.” It held up real well. A fine set of music.

“In Germany Before the War” and “Baltimore” were lifted from Newman’s Little Criminals, and “last Night I had a Dream” came from Sail Away. Among others, yes, they did the song that Three Dog Night made a hit (“Momma Told Me …). Each selection brought new life to Newman’s ideas. There were unique twists to each and all were quite welcome. As for Soskin’s playing, he was at his usual bent: superb. Soskin is one of hose undervalued pianists who always comes through.

Under valued by the populace that is. Sonny Rollins hired him for about a decade, so someone knew the value. He even brought Soskin out to Seattle for a gig earlier this year. (“It was great,” Soskin said. “I didn’t really see him until we were up on the stage during sound checks. The sound checks are usually us just playing. We almost played up to the performance. The feeling was really great. I said to him at one point, ‘It’s been a while.’ He said, ‘Mark, don’t think like that. It seems like it was just yesterday.’ That was very cool. We have a long past, as you know.”)

Soskin and Vitro were the heroes of those interpretations. As an encore, they tossed in “Blue Monk” from the straight-ahead jazz world and burned like hell over the Thelonious Monk blues theme. Soskin especially. Roseanne sang lyrics by Abbey Lincoln and did it with the perfect sense of time--critical in Monk tunes--and feeling as well. It was the real shit.

This music has already been recorded, Soskin says, but with Sarah Caswell on drums and some guitar work by the exceptional Steve Cardenas. Expect to see it some time next year. In the meantime, there aren’t many gigs featuring the material--something that should change once the CD comes out. Soskin himself was headed out to Helsinki the morning after the Lake George show.

The festival doesn’t usually have an evening sessin, but it did this year with the Christian Scott band. The young trumpeter continues to get better, not only as a dynamic player, but as a super bandleader and composer.

Scott writes about today’s issues and some of them not so nice,. Some are foreboding and take on angry tones at times. After all, it‘s good art that moves people. All the music is injected with modern sounds. Don’t expect to hear ching-a-ching ride cymbals over bebop beats. There are modern, hip-hop influences and other --I’d rather say “today” sounds rather than rock, because so much rock is based on what is now old and moldy ideas--influences. Drummer Jamie Williams is all over the drum kit, crashing, slamming, polyrhythmic. Scott blares out bold and brazen ideas. Majestic, but leaving spaces that let the rhythm build tension before his next exclamation. In that sense, he’s like Miles. An avowed Miles guy, Scott doesn’t let influence lead to imitation.

This is strong, music, not for the mellow. Each of the albums in his early career is impressive. He grabbed stuff from Rewind That, Anthem and Yesterday, You Said Tomorrow. “Klu Klux Klan Police,” based on a racist run-in Scott had with New Orleans policemen in the--sadly--not distant past, was volatile, yet striking and earthy. “Katrina’s Eyes” was a softer song, allowing Scott’s full, powerful sound to show its lyrical side.

The band is first rate, with monster bassist Kris Funn, Williams and guitarist Matt Stevens, whose angular and fluid sounds run perfectly in sync with Scott’s ideas. (He’s been in the band for eight years). Usually he has a pianist, but when the group came north from New York City, Scott brought saxophonist Louis Fouche (pronounced Fu-shay) instead. Lucky for those in Lake George. Fouche, a longtime colleague of Scott, played torrent of alto sax. His fertile ideas and high energy were incredible. He made it seem easy, as if he could have keep going and going and still had good things to say. Think Kenny Garrett. Yikes.

They also through jazz fans a bone with Herbie Hancock’s “Eye of the Hurricane” and blew it away. Stevens bebop licks were super and the horns showed these youngsters can create lines with authority over any style of jazz. Williams turned into Max Roach for a bit and burned. Those young motherfuckers can play!!