A forecast of thunderstorms for Sept. 18 threatened to move the festival indoors to the Lake George High School Auditorium. But festival founder John Strong’s optimism prevailed, and there were sunny skies for the entire second day.
Edmar Castañeda, a marvel of the Colombian harp, kicked off the Sunday afternoon festivities with his trio of trombonist Marshall Gilkes and drummer-percussionist Dave Silliman. The trio got an immediate standing ovation for its rhythmically charged opener, “Quarto De Colores (Room Of Colors),” and the audience was similarly swept away by the atmospheric “Entre Cuerdas (Between Streams).”
One of the most singular and inspired artists on the scene today, Castañeda simultaneously comps, covers bass lines and solos with passion and virtuosity on his unique blue harp. Drummer Silliman nimbly shifted from the traps set to cajon to Turkish darbuka from tune to tune, while trombonist Gilkes soloed with uncanny expression and facility.
At one point, Castañeda told the audience, “You get so much inspiration up here from the lake and from you guys” before launching into a serene, introspective and lyrical “Jesus De Nazareth,” written for, as he put it, “The one who gave me the gift to play this instrument and praise him through it.” Castañeda next summoned up the groove power and harmonics of Jaco Pastorius on his tribute number, “For Jaco.” And he closed his set in stunning fashion with a lively traditional joropo number from his native Colombia.
Benedict next led his Gary McFarland Legacy Ensemble, featuring a group of virtuosos in pianist Bruce Barth, vibist Steve Nelson, alto saxophonist Dick Oatts and bassist Mike Lawrence. Benedict, who, like McFarland, is also a vibraphonist, explained to the Shepard Park audience that he got more deeply acquainted with McFarland’s music after marrying the late composer’s widow in 1981. (McFarland died in 1971 at age 38 following a career in which he released leader albums, as well as composing and arranging for Stan Getz, Anita O’Day, Gerry Mulligan, Bill Evans and Johnny Hodges.)
The band opened with McFarland’s jaunty blues “Chuggin,” originally written for the Mulligan Concert Jazz Band. Oatts, currently a member of the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, blew with bluesy abandon on alto, then soared on a passionate soprano sax solo on the world premiere of “Dragon Head,” a piece that McFarland composed while attending the Berklee College of Music.
Barth, who wrote the challenging small-group arrangement on this sophisticated number, attacked his keyboard with unbridled energy and a powerful Tyner-ish left hand on top of Lawrence’s unerring bass.
McFarland’s “Train Samba,” his ode to trombonist J.J. Johnson, contained a surprising free section at the end, while “Blue Hodge,” his ode to Ellington’s alto sax great Johnny Hodges, had Oatts wailing with authority. Nelson also channeled his inner Milt Jackson on this bluesy number.
The band closed its set with “Sandpiper” and encored with the uptempo burner “Circulation” (the title track of Benedict’s 2015 Planet Arts outing, Circulation: The Music Of Gary McFarland), which drew a big blast of approval from a steamboat out on Lake George.
The final act of the festival was another pleasant surprise: exciting pianist-composer Figarova. Born in Azerbaijan and currently residing in New York City, Figarova led her crack sextet on material from her recently released album Blue Whisper (In+Out).
With a formidable frontline consisting of flutist Bart Platteau, trumpeter Alex Pope Norris and tenor saxophonist Marc Mommaas, and grounded by the rhythm tandem of bassist Luques Curtis and drummer Jason Brown, Figarova led her stellar crew through the chill title track and the invigorating backbeat number “The Traveler.”
Her “Hewa,” inspired by a trip to South Africa, was a contemplative and airy tune that prominently showcased her husband Platteau on flute. And the closing number, the uptempo swinger “The Hustler,” featured Brown on a Herculean drum solo and Mommaas wailing with Breckerian intensity on tenor sax.
Norris also flaunted major chops in his breakdown with drummer Brown on this exhilarating set closer. The group encored with the reflective ballad “Moonrise,” which had Brown on brushes and Norris switching to flugelhorn for mellower effect. And Figarova, a dynamic presence throughout the set at the piano, offered a cascading solo to close the festival on a calming note.
One of the best-kept secrets on the Eastern jazz festival circuit, the Lake George Jazz Festival is a gem worth discovering.