The 33rd Annual M & T Jazz Fest 2015, Syracuse, N.Y.

Syracuse jazz maestro Frank Malfitano raised his baton on the best “M & T Syracuse Jazz Fest” to date Friday evening. The 33rd annual event once again held on the rolling grounds of the O.C.C. campus, had all of the makings that hold the moniker, “The Northeast’s Largest Free Jazz Festival” true. He and his crew consisting of the most dedicated volunteers, professionals and jazz aficionados, all pull together producing the event with nary a hitch. While uncountable hairs are lost, years misspent and cool attitudes flustered behind the scenes, Mr. Malfitano engaged, cajoled and flat-out loved the place into a frenzy (well, as frenzied as a jazz audience is going to be anyway.) Dancing in the pit and in the wings, his seemingly boundless energy drove the crew, artists and audience for two days straight.

Photo by Sandra Jackson/Sublunar Studios
Photo by Sandra Jackson/Sublunar Studios

Now, when you have such a fabulous mix of bands over the two days, like City of Syracuse Parks & Rec All Star Band, Applejazz: Special Encore Presentation, Buckwheat Zydeco and Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis on Friday, there needs to be room to dance! Add on Saturday, Noteified, The Upstate Burners, Lake Street Dive (all y’all) and The Queen of Soul herself, ARETHA FRANKLIN! You had best be ready for an evening on your feet!! The mix and flow of the bands invited were as smooth as the notes lilting through the air both nights. The benchmark of talent, engagement and performance laid down will be difficult to reach indeed. This is a huge part of what The Maestro gets done, year after year.

The festival had food trucks and cold refreshment stands aplenty and they were far enough away for comfort and close enough for convenience, absolutely wonderful stuff. Plenty of receptacles and recycle bins kept the site amazing clean throughout the event, bonus points for sure. The production was provided by National Audio, Mr. Mark Gummer’s crew gave a fantastic mix that was just exemplary (that’s hard folks!) and the light show for the headliners moved with the artists with a nice touch on the helm by Dan Wells both nights. Our very own County Sheriff’s and a team of others made sure everyone played nice and they did for the most part, it’s a festival, right? From where I sat it was a bunch of fun to watch the people go by, half walking, half dancing and grinning ear to ear.

The O.C.C. site allows for many varieties of seating choices. Because of the natural topography and the fact that its several parking lots creating the site, there are different levels of free seating, grassy knolls and flat areas to sit, stand and dance. As it is, people can come at whatever time they want after the gates open and snatch up the best free seats in town, yes, FREE, this is important people. This includes the prime real estate directly in front of the front of house mixing position, it’s grassy and slightly sloped, directly in back of the seated V.I.P. section. Then, the adjoining parking lot space outside the V.I.P. section on both sides, where people laid out blankets and set-up lawn chairs getting ready for the show.

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Photo by Sandra Jackson/Sublunar Studios

Friday’s entertainment began with the Syracuse Parks & Rec All-Star Band, under the direction of Joe Carello. A great jumping off point to warm the crowd steadily from. A well-executed and well-rehearsed set proved that young people’s chops are coming earlier and earlier. The pace was stepped up by Applejazz, an all-star band that for 30 years played together once a year, but ended last year. Malfitano convinced them to make an exception, hence the program band name. Consisting of CNY legends, ex-pats and friends Mark Doyle (guitar), Dave Hanlon (drums), Ronnie France (bass), Ronnie Leigh (vocals), Joe Whiting (vocals), Andy Calabrese (keyboards), Terry Myers (saxes), John Allred (trombone) and band leader Charlie Bertini (trumpet). They absolutely smoked it, delving deep into a catalog of Jazz, R & B, Soul and Rock & Roll classics, there was plenty of space for each member to cut it loose. With a band made up of musicians that each could have his own and be the star, the fireworks came early from the stage. They love what they do, it’s easy to see and hear, the audience recognized and moved in synchronization with them throughout the set. Silky vibes, hot licks and a groove so deep it chased the sprinkles away.

Buckwheat Zydeco was another experience in itself, down-home, bayou-laced, accordion and Hammond driven zydeco music from a band that lives and breathes it, was raised on it and lets it run through their souls. The crowd jumped to express their joy to witness it. While you may have expected a loose, jammy presentation, these guys are pros, slick, practiced and polished. Although he didn’t begin his journey as a zydeco player, after backing a leading zydeco band on organ in 1978 and the realization of how the music affected audiences, he set out to learn the accordion. He formed Buckwheat Zydeco in 1979 and the rest is history. Three Grammy nominations, an appearance in the movie The Big Easy and opening for Eric Clapton at The Royal Albert Hall for 12 nights propelled the band into the musical stratosphere. He even has an Emmy Award for the music in Pete Maravich: The Life and Times of Pete Maravich. Check out his history, the shows he’s played, the people he has performed and recorded with is impressive, the man is well-travelled to say the least. The musical dynamics of the band and their stage personas kept the Jazz Fest throng jumping and shouting their support through his complete performance.

The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO) with Wynton Marsalis closed the evening with a stellar performance. The eminent group of musicians is directed and trumpeted for by the distinguished Wynton Marsalis, who is also the artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, Inc.. The folks who had been filing in since mid-afternoon had been waiting for this performance and they exceeded expectations with each song. The soloing was glorious with Marsalis giving much deserved space to his bandmates, though he crushed several of his own. The audience even had difficulty acknowledging them without the next one already starting! This was a distinguished, notable performance in jazz’ largest form, finishing the diverse day of music right on point. A day filled with history, presence, a glimpse of the future and remarkable execution by everyone involved. To think there’s another full day to come.

Saturday dawned sunny, hot and sultry, what better a setting than this for another day of jazz. The clouds slipped by to the south allowing the audience and musicians free reign to enjoy the experience of the M & T Jazz Fest 2015 in its full glory. The crowd showed up early anticipating the two headliners for the day, quickly filling the area as far as you could see. We were early enough (and so were a few of the crowd) to listen to Aretha’s band go through a rehearsal, quite the treat to see her pros go through their paces with a group of local luminaries joining them onstage.

The crowd was treated first to a performance by Noteified, a group of young, yes, (age 21 to 16) young musicians who let the attendees know the future of the genre is in good and steady hands. Featuring Dunham Hall of Solvay on sax, David Millen of Baldwinsville on guitar, Rich Bostick of Utica on keyboard, Sam Smith of Skaneateles on bass, and Scottie Madonia of Clinton on drums. These guys have learned traditionally and possess skill-sets enviable by many, their chops came across crisp and clear while their youth showed a little at the size of their audience. Find them on Facebook and see what their repertoire from Zawinul to Snarky Puppy has to offer to you, live.

The Upstate Burners exemplified their name when they chose to do it. Veterans for sure, great chemistry and riffs, but leader, founder and drummer Danny D’Imperio chose to take several moments at the mic dispersing some colorful anecdotes that were received with cricket sounds. This didn’t dissuade him, but after 46 years in the band and his status as a jazz drummer, I guess he has latitude. His band is packed with much-publicized and awarded talents, the mix got deeper and they lit it up, hoping to reach a level worthy of the next two acts. A tough hill to climb.

What can you say about Lake Street Dive (LSD)? One of the hottest acts in hipsterland and everywhere else was greeted by a crowd response only surpassed by the Queen of Soul herself. They’re cool, humble, fun, attractive, brilliantly talented, magnetic and lionized by their legions of fans as well as the press. Trumpet/guitar player Mike Olsen’s hand-picked quartet immediately took hold of their old and new fans with the sound that has propelled them meteorically to stardom. Vocalist Rachel Price, bassist Bridget Kearney and drummer Mike Calabrese combine fluidly with their influences ranging wide from Brill Building girl groups to British Invasion, Stax R & B to Motown with a touch of gospel. Their eccentricities bright and colorful while their chops were steadfast and expressive. They know how to let a set grow, rise, subside and prepare for the next big wave of sound, a trademark of top level bands of all genres. Opening with the title track from their latest release, Bad Self Portraits, Rachel’s vocal command thrust forward, buoyed by their harmonies and making clear her stage presence would be up front all night.

Watching LSD is a tasty bite of what live music should be, people who actually enjoy and revel in being a band together. It’s flat-out joyful! You can check out versions of every song right from their setlist. I could go on and on about this dynamic set, but time and space prevents that, be sure to check out their covers of ‘Walking On Broken Glass’, ‘I Want You Back’ and ‘Jump’! Fantastic reads! When they gather around the central mic to perform for you, it’s a wonder to behold.The depth of their original material is immeasurable, currently setting the bar for those who follow.

Now, The Queen Of Soul herself, Ms. Aretha Franklin. While many times we see stars as their lights have dimmed, but this would not be the case this night. She exuded soul, style and class as she took the stage with her phenomenal backing band conducted by H.B. Barnum. Her voice is as strong as her stature and the crowd was clapping in a frenzy, dancing and singing along with her. She hit on the classics of course, took a quick break in the middle allowing the ensemble a chance to stretch it out, only to return and take the show home. She owns it, prowling her territory and signaling her direction with the flip of her hand. The band was a thrill to view, especially with the local flavor provided by Mark Doyle (guitar), Charlie Bertini (trumpet), Terry Myers (sax), John Allred (trombone), and keyboardist Andy Calabrese from Applejazz, plus Josh Dekaney on percussion and Melissa Gardiner (trombone). She had Aretha’s tambourine player spinning in ecstasy with her solo in the band feature mid-set. Doyle was called in at the very last moment to fill the core chair position held by Franklin’s son, prompting one of his best adages, “To be prepared and not called is sad, but to be called and not prepared is tragic”. Doyle had contracted the local talent for Barnum, when he introduced himself to him on show day, Barnum said, “Hello Mark, got your guitar with you?” Doyle replied, “Why, yes I do!” So goes the story of how he got the gig, literally the morning of it. There were even more, but the evening belonged to The Queen and her court was in full-form. From the opener, ‘(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher’, the Jackie Wilson classic, to her brilliant cover of Adele’s ‘Rolling In The Deep’ with a bridge from ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’, to her rendition of ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ at the piano, she moved the crowd, in many cases to tears. Her soulful delivery is still bigger than life, befitting a living legend and fifty year veteran. She took us all to church on the way out, free-forming love of her God, health and wonderment during a rousing ‘Freeway Of Love’. I had never had the pleasure of seeing Ms. Franklin before, but this one will be burned into my memory for life.

Many, many thanks to the artists, sound and stage crew, staff and audience for this fabulous event, most hearty kudos to Maestro Malfitano for his organization, sponsor acquisition, tenure and exuberant soul! It surely looks as though the annual festival is rolling strong with no hint of hesitation. Well done and well played all!

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