By Charley Rosen
On a glorious summer day in August, the fifth and final set of the 14th Annual Jazz in the Valley Festival was thrilling, nostalgic, even historic; transporting the seven musicians and hundreds of enraptured witnesses into Jazz Heaven.
Six of the jazzmen had been members of various editions of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messenger, and they were all world-class artists. Calling themselves “The Message, ” the lineup had Javon Jackson playing tenor sax, Gary Bartz on either soprano or alto sax, Steve Turre sliding his trombone, Eddie Henderson on trumpet, George Cables fingering the keyboard, Buster Williams on bass, and Lewis Nash on drums. For sure, a super-duper tribute group.
The four tunes they dug into were all Messengers classics: “Blues March,” “Night in Tunisia,” “Along Came Betty,” and “Moanin’.” Each tune featured extended solos that were incredibly creative and inspiring.
Jackson had been a leading member of the last graduating class of Blakely’s “Hard Bop Academy.” Literally all of Jackson’s turns in the spotlight were masterpieces. Heartfelt lines brimming with ideas that were suggested, repeated, explored, and developed. All done with his own unique blend of power, funk, and sweet melodic turns.
After playing with the Messengers for five years, Gary Bartz joined Miles Davis’s band in 1970, thereby firmly establishing his rightful place in the pantheon of jazz greats. In this reunion gig, Bartz developed his themes with the patience of a consummate artist, inevitably reaching soul-searing crescendos as he explored the rarest stratospheres of the jazz spectrum— before gently easing back down into the firm and solid groove.
Henderson was the most laid-back of the soloists. Occasionally blowing hot enough to tear down walls, but mostly producing bouncing lines of interest. Gabriel would have been proud of him.
Turre had a brief stint with the Messengers in 1973, and has demonstrated his versatility by also playing with the likes of Rashaan Roland Kirk, Carlos Santana, and Ray Charles. Forsaking his assorted conch shells for the ‘bone, Turre’s phrasing was golden and glittering. Bebopping his merry way through ideas that were at the same time adventurous and organic.
In addition to his work with the Messengers, George Cables has performed with many of the greatest jazz musicians of all time—ranging from Joe Henderson to Sonny Rollins, from Dizzy Gillespie to Woody Shaw, from Max Roach to Roy Haynes. So it’s no surprise that, on that wondrous afternoon, the gnomic Cables played like a giant. Producing large, gushing waterfalls of melodies that sounded both surprising and somehow familiar. Every solo a masterpiece.
One of the earliest Messengers, Buster Williams is also celebrated for his work with all-stars such as Gene Ammons, Jimmy Heath, Miles Davis, and Sonny Stitt. As ever, Williams’ bass-work was the surging undercurrent that both propelled his playmates while also offering innumerable ideas. His tone was exquisite—deep, rich, and clear—and his two extended solos confirmed his status as a bona fide virtuoso.
Back in 2009, after having played on over four hundred recordings with jazz greats like McCoy Tyner, Clark Terry, and Diz, Lewis Nash was named Jazz’s Most Valuable Player by Modern Drummer magazine. No wonder that Nash’s MVP performance on that sweet summertime gig was dynamic and precise.
These cats were all on top of their game, inspiring one another, digging one another. Indeed, throughout their awesome 90-minute set it was hard to tell who was having a better time—the audience or the players.
No doubt a black angel, Art Blakey, looked down from behind his drum kit in the celestial jazz band and gave his blessing.
But The Message was not the only attraction on this glorious day of music.
The festivities were initiated when Mike Torsone brought his quartet to the stage. Playing a vintage Hammond B3 organ, Torsone generated a powerhouse blues and R&B groove that was irresistible. One of the highlights here was the drumming of Adam Nussbaum, whose relaxed syncopation in the Elvin Jones mode lifted the entire group.
Next up was 74-year-old Melba Joyce whose voice is as strong and passionate as it was 50 years ago. Throughout her long, inspiring career, Ms. Joyce has shared top billing with a Hall-of-Fame roster of jazz greats including Louis Armstrong, Louis Jordan, Lionel Hampton, Joe Williams and many others. While she brilliantly sang and scatted her way through such evergreens as “Old Devil Moon” and “Lover Come Back to Me, ” her most memorable songs were originals that dealt with lost loves.
Then came a fiery quintet fronted by a youthful New Orleans trumpeter named Kenyatta Beasley. Along with Keith Loftis (ts), Anthony Wonsey (p), Cochran Holt (b), and Jerome Jennings (d), the group was so hot that the river began to steam. They offered selections from their new album, The Frank Foster Songbook, alternating ballads (“Gray Thursday”), Latin-tinged tunes (”Chicito Loco”), as well as hard-and-fast jazz-blasts (“The Thang”). These guys are the real deal and well worth seeing on their own.
The riverside park was then set to dancing by a fourteen-piece orchestra called Zon del Barrio, who describe their game plan as “Music From the Streets of Latin New York.” And they demonstrated their incredible range by playing virtually every genre of Latin music: salsa, plena, merengue, bomba, and even some funky boogaloo. Every tune was propelled by a relentless, irresistible groove.
The leader and charismatic lead singer is Aurora Flores, but even she was overshadowed by the appearance of two special guests. One was Alfredo “Chocolate” Armenteros, an 86-year-old Afro-Cuban trumpeter whose chops were still electric. The other was Nicky Marrero, a master timbalero and percussionist who furiously backboned the rhythm section.
Highlights included a special tribute to Armenteros called “Zong de Chocolate”, as well as a version of “Anna Carona” that lifted the crowd to their feet. The band ended their knockout set with Joe Cuba’s classic “Bang! Bang!”
How good was this group? So good that they could only be succeeded onstage by The Message.
What a glorious afternoon. In addition to the large tent that sheltered the stage and several hundred folding chairs, the spacious grounds at Waryas Park in Poughkeepsie
, NY, had picnic tables, benches, shade trees, an area for vendors, plus a riverside view of the Hudson.
Jazz in the Valley is just one manifestation of TransArt, a non-profit multi-disciplined organization, headed by the heroic efforts of its founder, Greer Smith. Its stated mission is “to provide awareness of the art, history, and popular culture of peoples of African ancestry.” This mission is fulfilled through arts-based after-school programs for general and at-risk students, plus various workshops and traveling exhibitions that focus on every topic from the building of safe and productive communities to the addressing of critical social issues.
And the best is yet to come: next summer Ms. Smith promises an even more magnificent program for Jazz in the Valley’s 15th anniversary. It will be an event that jazz aficionados of all persuasions should not miss.
Charley Rosen is an author of numerous books on basketball and a lover of jazz. Follow him on Twitter @charleyrosen1 and at hoopshype.com.