Lake George is a scenic village in upstate New York, located about three hours north of Manhattan on the shores of the “Queen of American Lakes.” Once a summer destination for the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, Whitneys and other captains of industry at the turn of the century, the opulent Victorian mansions that used to line the city’s Millionaires Row have long since been torn down, but the lake view stretching for 32 miles along the Adirondack Mountains remains breathtaking.
It’s in this bucolic setting, in the natural amphitheater of Shepard Park, that the Lake George Jazz Festival has taken place since its inception in 1984, attracting jazz fans from throughout the Northeast as well as Canada.
Credit Brooklyn-born jazz impresario Paul Pines—curator for all 33 of those festivals—with maintaining a consistently high level of artistry throughout those years. Former proprietor of Tin Palace, the renowned East Village jazz club he ran from 1970 to ’76, Pines is deeply invested in the music and is blessed with good ears and an open mind.
This year’s festival, billed as “Celebrating Women in Jazz,” showcased such stellar talents as violinist Karen Briggs, rising star pianist-composer Amina Figarova, sensational singer Charenée Wade and the 15-piece all-female big band DIVA, led by drummer and co-founder Sherrie Maricle.
Also appearing at the free festival, held over the weekend of Sept. 17–18, were the Brubeck Brothers Quartet, the Edmar Castañeda Trio, Michael Benedict’s Gary McFarland Legacy Ensemble and the Los Angeles-based funk-fusion trio Tizer, led by keyboardist-composer Lao Tizer.
The Brubeck Brothers kicked off the festivities on Sept. 17 with a solidly swinging set of originals interspersed with renditions of their famous father’s tunes, many of which appeared on their last album, LifeTimes.
With Chris Brubeck on electric bass and Dan Brubeck on drums, accompanied by pianist Chuck Lamb and underrated guitarist Mike DeMicco, the quartet opened with the Latin-tinged original “Dance Of The Shadows,” which had Chris tapping out chords on his fretless bass, à la Stanley Jordan. “Kathy’s Waltz” (from the David Brubeck Quartet’s 1959 album Time Out) shifted nimbly from 4/4 to 3/4 and featured an outstanding solo by DeMicco.
The guitarist’s boppish “West Of One,” underscored by Dan’s briskly swinging brushwork, had DeMicco swinging on octaves and Chris scatting in unison to his fleet-fingered bass solo. Dan’s polyrhythmic aplomb on the kit came into play on the 6/8 drum feature “Jazzania,” while Lamb’s mellow “Cool On The Coast”—which opened with the pianist muting strings inside his instrument—perfectly suited the mood of this lazy end-of-summer afternoon in the park.
The Brubeck boys closed their set with their father’s 9/8 rhythmic puzzle, “Blue Rondo À La Turk,” which had Chris pulling out his bass trombone for a solo on the swing section. And they encored (naturally) with “Take Five,” the Paul Desmond tune perhaps most identified with the Dave Brubeck Quartet.
Next up was Wade, performing the music of Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson. A powerful singer with glorious control, she wove a spell on this Shepard Park crowd with her moody, alluring opener, “Offering.” Her take on “Ain’t No Such Thing As A Superman” was funk with some food for thought in the finest Scott-Heron tradition.
With Lonnie Plaxico on bass, Oscar Perez on piano, Alvester Garnett on drums and bold-toned Camille Thurman on tenor saxophone, Wade delivered Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” with uncommon passion and crystal clear articulation. For an encore, she sang the Leon Thomas-Pharoah Sanders classic “The Creator Has A Master Plan,” her ethereal voice wafting over Lake George like a prayer.
Featuring Cheikh N’Doye on electric bass and Gene Coye on drums, Tizer provided a nice contemporary jazz touch on dynamic pieces like “16th Heaven” and “Forever Searching,” but it was guest violinist Briggs who ignited the bandstand with her virtuosic playing on a slow jam rendition of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” and on Tizer’s clavinet-fueled funk-fusion number “Uptown.”
The latter tune elicited a standing ovation from the crowd, along with a series of horn blasts from several boats floating on Lake George. (The sound system’s speakers were pointed toward the lake so that those on the water could enjoy the music.)
The evening concert on Sept. 17 was a swinging, swaggering set by the DIVA Jazz Orchestra, a tight, Buddy Rich-inspired ensemble driven by drummer Maricle in combination with bassist Noriko Ueda and pianist Tomoko Ohno. The group, which was founded in 1992 by composer-arranger Stanley Kay, performed several Kay tunes throughout its dynamic set. They opened on a swinging note with Peggy Lee’s signature “I Love Being Here With You,” which featured killer solos from reedist Alexa Tarantino, trombonist Jennifer Krupa and trumpeter Jami Dauber.
Roxy Coss was the featured soprano soloist on Kay’s “Nuthin’,” which included a nice breakdown for the five saxophones against some intricate counterpoint from the trumpets. Trumpeter Carol Morgan also turned in an outstanding solo on this Kay swinger.
Baritone saxophonist Leigh Pilzer played the melody on her arrangement of “Pennies From Heaven” before unleashing an inventive solo, quoting from “Lester Leaps In” along the way, while bassist Ueda turned in a solidly swinging Oscar Pettiford-style solo on top of Maricle’s Papa Jo Jones hi-hat beat.
Tarantino, the newest member of DIVA and a recent graduate from the Eastman School of Music, delivered a flowing alto sax solo on a dreamy rendition of Duke Ellington’s “Prelude To A Kiss” before Cross and Thurman stepped forward to engage in a fiery tenor battle on Kay’s “Did You Do That?”
Another Kay composition, “To Sweets With Love” was based on many of the licks and motifs identified with Harry “Sweets” Edison, and served as a feature for the trumpet section. All four trumpeters—Morgan, Dauber, Ally Hany and Liesl Whitaker—performed with mutes in for this relaxed, swinging blues. But the surprise of the set (and the entire weekend) was Thurman, who put down her tenor sax to sing a Johnny Mandel arrangement of “What A Little Moonlight Can Do.”
Thurman’s clear articulation, natural vibrato, soulful inflection and remarkable, Fitzgerald-esque scat prowess (including a virtuosic cadenza at the tag) instantly marked her as the discovery of the festival.
DIVA closed its set in dramatic fashion with the darkly intriguing Ellington tune “I’m Gonna Go Fishing” (from his Anatomy of a Murder soundtrack), which included a show-stopping, unaccompanied Maricle drum solo. And the band encored with Kay’s tribute to Woody Herman, “Three Sisters And A Cousin,” a flag-waver that had the saxes exchanging rapid-fire solo statements like passing a hot potato.