Jul 02, 2009 Russ Tarby Uncategorized
Kenny G drew massive crowd to OCC at 27th annual Syracuse Jazz Fest
There’s something undeniably fetching about a Kenny G performance.
Partly it’s his presence — boyish, sincere, friendly as a fishing buddy.
Partly it’s his musicianship — golden-toned, melodious, mellow as a warm summer breeze.
But mostly it’s his ability to connect, his willingness to engage his listeners whether he’s holding a single note as he wanders through the crowd or blowing a romantic riff high into the night sky.
The King of Smooth Jazz enthralled an anxious crowd of 35,000 to climax the 27th annual Syracuse Jazz Festival on Saturday night June 27, at Onondaga Community College.
The 53-year-old Seattle-based soprano saxophonist made a spectacular Syracuse Jazz Fest debut by headlining 2009’s two-day event, and festival founder Frank Malfitano characterized his appearance as “historic.”
While Kenny G drew the big crowd — about 5,000 fewer than the 40,000 who turned out for Aretha Franklin’s set in 2007 on the festival’s silver anniversary — a host of other performers also made historic stands on the two stages last weekend.
The kick off
The John Tropea Band kicked things off Friday with an electric guitar-oriented set that aptly paid homage to 2009 festival dedicatee Hiram Bullock, the barefooted axeman who died last July at age 52.
Then the Soulbop band took the stage featuring six world-class players who had often worked with Bullock — trumpeter Randy Brecker, saxophonist Bill Evans, keyboardist Katreese Barnes, bassist Frank Gravis, guitarist Mitch Stein and drummer Rodney Holmes. They played an upbeat Bullock composition called “Give ‘Em the Rock,” which argues in favor of making music, not war.
Bullock’s buddy, bassist Will Lee (who played with Tropea’s combo), returned to the Louis Everding Main Stage with the West Coast/East Coast Dream Band led by keyboardist David Garfield. Halfway through the octet’s set Lee inadvertently knocked over his bass amp. The show continued uninterrupted as crew members scurried to plug Lee back in to his box.
Friday headliner Spyro Gyra demonstrated why they’ve become the biggest-selling fusion band in history with familiar numbers like “Morning Dance.” The band from Buffalo also paid tribute to Bullock with “Old San Juan,” a tune he had once recorded with the group.
A late-night jam session showcased musicians from all of Friday’s acts performing in honor of Bullock as well as the late Michael Jackson. The dwindling audience sang along to a handful of MJ’s hits.
Saturday night special
Saturday’s main-stage set by trumpeter Al Chez & the Brothers of Funk Big Band brought the crowd to its feet.
Chez, whose stratospheric brass work recalled the late Maynard Ferguson, was backed by 17 youthful but enthusiastic musicians from Rochester who turned in a passionate, pulsating set, arguably the best of the festival.
Steel pan master Andy Narell fronted The Steelheads, the Michigan-based steel-drum band that Malfitano discovered in Detroit before making them a regular feature here for the past several years. After creating a carnival of island music, The Steelheads closed with Narell’s strongly caffeinated “Coffee Street.”
Keyboardist Garfield returned to front his own band playing cool and captivating covers such as “Lowdown” by Boz Scaggs and “Babylon Sisters” by Steely Dan.
Hope for the future
Twelve scholastic combos also entertained at the 2009 Syracuse Jazz Fest, offering a glimpse of the future of jazz. The festival’s longtime educational director, Steve Frank, conducted two of the best — the West Genesee High School Jazz Band on Friday and the OCC Jazz Band Saturday.
Three high-schoolers who thoroughly impressed festival-goers included Phoenix High School drummer Kayleigh Moyer who sat in with the 19-piece Paul V. Moore High School Vocal Jazz Ensemble directed by Dennis Goettel; vocalist Betty Etheridge whose awesome articulation enlivened Norah Jones’ “Don’t Know Why” for the CBA Jazz Ensemble led by Tim Davis; and trumpeter Danny Salem blew everyone away with a mesmerizing rendition of “I Remember Clifford” arranged by Joe Riposo for the Liverpool High School Jazz Ensemble, conducted by Jim Spadafore.
While these young musicians certainly have a future in jazz, the future of the Syracuse Jazz Festival remains very much in question.
If every one of the thousands of people who enjoyed the free music this year urge their bosses, banks, businesses and legislators to continue funding the festival, maybe it’ll survive. Otherwise, the 27-year-old festival will simply slide into Syracuse history like the salt industry and the Eric Canal.
To find out how you can help keep Jazz Fest alive and well, contact Frank Malfitano at 437-5627.