I can point to the moment when Indy Jazz Fest really clicked for me. It was near the close of the night when Trombone Shorty, playing trumpet, started a note during his kicked-up rendition of "On the Sunny Side of the Street" — and then held it. Forever. Demonstrating that he can circular breathe with the best of them. And then, as if that weren't enough, about five-thousand bars after he started that note, he ended his solo with a quick slur of notes up to somewhere in the vicinity of his high C. Grandstanding? No doubt, and the trombonist/trumpeter, who closed out Saturday's Indy Jazz Fest with his jazz-rock group Orleans Avenue, certainly sold every bit of it. But there's a lot more to Shorty than fireworks — the 25-year-old knows his stuff, and before he even got to the circular breathing, he knocked out a Louis Armstrong-inspired solo that demonstrated he's about as good a trumpeter as he is a trombonist.
It's a shame the near-capacity crowd had winnowed down significantly by the time Shorty, who closed out the day and the festival, hit the stage; the mix was heavier on those coming for George Benson (who was, not incidentally, terrific) and an afternoon in the sun, and a lot of that population doesn't stay out too late into the night. They missed something special: Shorty, who deserves his reputation as a live performer, put on a show every bit as relevant to jazz fans as anything else on the bill (no longer, for the record, does anything that goes by the name of Indy Jazz Fest host anyone without jazz bona fides, unlike the years when it was also billed as a roots festival).
For those few unfamiliar with Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue's sound, think Red Hot Chili Peppers with a second line, Gogol Bordello with horns, or Galactic with more bass and guitar. There's plenty of musical diversity, but the guitarist (the outstanding Pete Murano) always anchors the sound with crunchy downstrokes, giving a hard-rocking edge to even familiar jazz standards. Shorty isn't the most substantial vocalist, but he gets the job done, approaching every element of the show with a muscular energy (including the part of the show when he strips down to a tank-top to show off his muscles).
George Benson, who immediately preceded Trombone Shorty, likely could've satisfied the crowd with an evening of storytelling. There was the one about going to get chicken and waffles with Indy-born guitar great Wes Montgomery, who took Benson under his wing when he was just a wee tyke. Benson noted that it's like Montgomery is still among the living, such is "his effect on the whole planet Earth" — including across the ocean, where, according to Benson, French guitarists schooled on Django Reinhardt still yearn to play like Wes.
And then there was another one about James Brown: Benson remembers the days when Brown was playing three sold-out shows a night at the Apollo (five on Sundays), while he and Dr. Lonnie Smith were holding down a nightly gig that drew out less than three people a night. And another about John Hammond, the legendary producer and A&R man who told Benson that, while he was capable of doing just about anything, he ought to start out his career in jazz because it would give his career longevity. And then one more about Freddie Hubbard — "old, crazy Freddie Hubbard," Benson called him, joking that only he could call him that — who Benson remembered strutting and preening after briefly surpassing Miles Davis for the title of world's best trumpeter.
In all, one of the world's best jazz guitarists was a perfect pick for Indy Jazz Fest headliner — he can't be questioned technique-wise, he's a crowd-pleaser and he cares about Indy jazz history (Benson made a special point to meet up with Indy-born B-3 master Melvin Rhyne). And, without a doubt, he's still got it, both on the guitar and vocally. All the hits were there: the apotheosis of cheese (in a good way), "The Greatest Love of All," sung effortlessly and movingly; Breezin' hit "This Masquerade," which he closed with an inventive scat solo; the perfect "On Broadway."
Both evening headliners were outstanding, but let's take things back to the beginning of the fest, when there was action on three stages — the main stage in Opti-Park, where the sunning masses camped out on their lawn chairs; the Legacy Jazz Stage, where mostly Indy-based musicians rivaled the outsiders for quality before a smaller crowd; and the riverfront Emerging Artist Jazz Stage, host to a small army's worth of high school and college big bands.
An early highlight on the Legacy stage was WOW!, a pick-up group comprised of three tenor saxophonists — event co-organizer Rob Dixon, the Chicago-based Eddie Bayard and the world-traveler and world-famous Tim Warfield — with the excellent Bobby Floyd on B-3 and Cincy native Anthony Lee on drums. Not really a cutting session — it was early afternoon, and these guys have already proven themselves — it nonetheless saw each saxophonist exchanging ideas with the other, pushing each other during a set that picked up energy as it went along and ended with rhythm-and-blues piece that absolutely burned. Dixon, as usual, played the most lyrically, with a smoky, burnished tone. Warfield was poised and confident, laid back at the beginning of the set but playful towards the end, when he played one chorus by percussively breathing into the sax without sounding a note. Bayard was the most aggressive and rough-edged, hitting his instrument's upper reaches at the close of many of his solos.
Other players on the legacy stage included Melvin Rhyne, who went a little bit MOR in terms of his set list (why both he and Benson played "Tequila" is beyond me), but who still sounds pretty darn good before a portable B-3, with excellent players alongside him like guitarist Kyle Asche (responsible for a solid, concise take on "Prelude to a Kiss").
Perched over White River and a few steps away from most at the action at Jazz Fest, the Emerging Artists stage brought in the kind of talent you'd expect from young people involved in jazz; namely, talented players, steeped in the tradition, showing off capabilities honed during hours and hours of practice. And hours. And hours. It's not easy to break into the jazz world, and while there are certain fields where you can just kind of screw around for years before finally finding oneself (say, most of the liberal arts), you have to respect these musicians for putting in the time necessary to not only master an instrument, but also to learn to compose on it spontaneously.
The second IU jazz ensemble was doing its thing when I stopped by. Conducted by educator/trombonist Brent Wallarab, the group is one of five ensembles at IU-Bloomington. David Baker, clapping away after each solo in the audience, leads the first group; Wallarab the second; and the three others include a newly-founded Latin jazz group. Here's another thing about music students: Not many studying in other fields have to, say, present their dissertation two weeks into the school year like these students, who knocked out tough charts written for the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, among others.
Back at the main stage, the afternoon began with Yellowjackets, who were rained out the last time they tried to play Indy Jazz Fest. The skies were clear for a set heavier on post-bop than any of the smoother sounds that defined the group's earlier work. Russell Ferrante's clean, bright piano led the group, exceptionally on some material from their latest album Timeline that ranged from knotty and syncopated to just flat-out gorgeous. Jimmy Haslip, who, with his goatee and dreadlocks, could not look more like a bassist from the fusion era, was the voice of the band, joking that one classic, "Statue of Liberty," was an oldie recorded around 1846.
I've never gone out of my way to listen to Yellowjackets on record, but something can happen in the transition from album to concert: one doesn't bring as many biases to the table (say, too much synth is cheesy), and the band has more of a chance to stretch out on tracks not specifically intended for smooth jazz radio. Still, while I was impressed by Yellowjackets (and would recommended their new album on Mack Avenue, the label that's currently recording APA Cole Porter Fellow Aaron Diehl), my opinions on Spyro Gyra didn't change: While individual players in the fusion jazz band are plenty talented, their stuff is compromised by bombast and a foul-tasting exoticism (exemplified by tracks inspired by trips to South Africa and the Caribbean that sound like they're from a watered-down Putamayo compilation). That said, solo features for bassist Scott Ambush and drummer Bonny B. were plenty impressive.
In all, Indy Jazz Fest seems to be coming into its own on the footprint of Opti-Park and the Indianapolis Art Center. Two years have passed without rain, and the grounds of the main stage have been nearly full for the headliner for two years running. There's ample room, though, for more attendees during the afternoon, when the Jazz Legacy stage was sparsely attended. And the crowd was, unfortunately, more than halved after Benson's set, which is just kind of shame, given Trombone Shorty's energy and ability to work a crowd (and his band's chops, highlighted during a number that saw the band's two saxes, the guitarist and Shorty passing back and forth blistering solos). But it would be hard not to call Indy Jazz Fest a success this year.
Still, one wonders if Friday night's concert at Madame Walker Theatre — a Jazz Fest tradition three years running, which featured Dee Dee Bridgewater last year — could've been differently handled. Freda Payne, while an effective vocalist in both the jazz and R&B worlds during her heyday in the '60s and '70s, wasn't quite as compelling as one would have hoped. Payne had some difficulty remembering the set list, and her band, while competent, hadn't worked extensively with her before. There was also some confusion over the show's concept: While it was presented as a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald (right there on the ticket), a medley of Lena Horne songs also worked into the mix, and Payne's two hits (presented, disappointingly, with supplemental backing tracks absent from the rest of the program) closed out the night. Sure, some of the crowd was waiting for Payne's hit "Band of Gold," but its presence on a program dedicated to Fitzgerald was troublesome.