The Inaugural Woodstock Jazz Festival was a hit

Music lovers from all walks of life packed Woodstock’s Bearsville Theater on Saturday, October 4 for the inaugural Woodstock Jazz Festival.  The evening began with a highly entertaining piano set from GRAMMY nominee Uri Caine, which featured two sets including John Medeski on the organ; and concluded with an inspired cover of Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry” sang by Jack DeJohnette. The music rolled along for more than four hours and the man who dreamed up the festival, drummer Ben Perowsky, dedicated the festival to local legend Sonny Rollins.

Uri Caine

Uri Caine went on stage at 7:30PM and folks rushed to take their seats or claim standing room. Even the separate bar area was overflowing and, despite a chilly night outside, the cavernous, barn-like theater was warm with bodies packed tight. There were multiple drum sets, an organ and various other instruments on stage but the attention was focused on Caine seated behind a black baby grand piano. Caine’s vaunted resume includes a stint as the LA Chamber Orchestra composer in residence, more than two dozen recorded albums, and the aforementioned GRAMMY nomination for “The Othello Syndrome”; His modernization of Verdi’s Otello. While Caine paid homage to the classics Saturday night, a playful side twinkled through during his Bearsville set. Looking cool and tranquil behind the piano, it sounded like his left hand produced a number for a king’s chamber while the right played something more fitting for a Mississippi riverboat. His unique style had the audience tapping along on their legs or nodding emphatically. Caine’s enthusiasm was evident when he spoke between songs. He played until 8:30PM sharp and drew a huge standing ovation from the crowd.

After a short break, RedCred had their chance to show off. Consisting of tenor saxophonist/clarinetist Chris Speed, drummer Ben Perowsky, and organs/keys player John Medeski, the trio only took one brief break in the middle of a continuous hour-long set. At moments, the three played harmoniously with each other. Then, they would unceremoniously diverge down their own paths. Medeski oozed out thick, eerie notes while Perowsky utilized every surface of his kit— clicking on the snare rim, clinking a cymbal’s edge and blasting out rudiments on the high hat—and Speed belted out sensual sax licks. Just before they lost you in a dense jazzy jungle, they made eye contact and pulled it all back together seamlessly.

Perowsky on the drums with Medeski (L) and Speed (R) in background.
Chris Speed

Perowsky, a NYC native whose talent and exuberance rivaled each other onstage, deserves all the acclaim he received for being the event organizer. Medeski, whose genius is instantly evident in his thoughtful eyes, wowed everyone with his organ-izing. The set concluded with a Weather Report favorite, “Face On The Barroom Floor” which allowed Speed to showcase his ability and versatility, beginning with a clarinet solo and concluding on the tenor saxophone.

Everyone was eager for the last act. Each seat was claimed and extras were brought in; those standing shuffled on tip-toes for a better look at the stage as Jack DeJohnette, John Scofield, and Larry Grenadier joined John Medeski.  Inspired by the musicians’ lofty presences, a ubiquitous awe fell over the room before an impromptu shush-off lightened the mood—someone in the crowd “shhh’ed” the audience, then another “shh” followed and another, until it sounded more like a bunch of leaky inflatables filled the theater than jazz aficionados.

After a good laugh, DeJohnette, who has played with the likes of Miles Davis, Pat Metheny, Herbie Hancock and many others, led the show from behind his drum set as the group covered music made famous by Davis, John Coltrane, and Frank Sinatra. DeJohnette conveys emotion through the drums as well as anyone and does not lack in speed or creativity. He played complex fills and kept obscure time while playing “Inspired By Tony Williams”. He teased the crowd, slowly building up the solo before finally letting loose to everyone’s delight.

Throughout the set, Medeski mouthed each note as he alternated banging on his backless organ and the baby grand while his foot, dancing along frantically, seemed in danger of flying off its leg. Scofield, meanwhile, rocked his guitar into acquiescence, drawing emotional lines from it. During “I Fall In Love Too Easily” he decided it was shredding time.  The band followed Scofield’s lead as he kicked in the wah pedal and belted out slick runs, launching them into the heaviest jam of the night.

Bassist Larry Grenadier attacked his upright, plucking its strings fervently and deftly. With DeJohnette backing him on the drums, Grenadier busted out a mind-boggling solo in the middle of “Promise.” The only time his hand strayed from bass strings was to push his glasses back onto his nose, but even that action seemed part of his time-keeping. Medeski and Scofield smiled on admiringly before joining back in to fill the theater with a full, rich sound. The whole set was electric and reached a climax when they concluded with DeJohnette singing “No Woman No Cry”. While the majority of the night was dedicated to instrumentals, the audience was ecstatic to hear the Bob Marley cover and nearly everyone sang along.

The inaugural Woodstock Jazz Festival proved to be a huge success. Woodstock’s Bearsville Theater provided a comfortable and intimate setting and the musicians did the rest, playing late into Saturday night. The event was run smoothly and one can imagine the night’s honoree, Sonny Rollins, would be proud to know so many people enjoyed an evening of jazz together in his honor.

*photos by Lois Dysard