The most original group at the Albany Riverfront Jazz Festival this year was easily the Jeff Coffin Mu’Tet. “Normal” time signatures were left behind in favor of more exotic meters like 11, 15, and 17. That’s not to say they didn’t groove. On the contrary, this group’s heartbeat was provided by two of the groovinest musicians out there—veteran drummer Jeff Sipe and bass legend Felix Pastorius.
Coffin and Pastorius’ co-written tune, “L’esperance,” may have been the highlight of the entire festival. The melody played by Bill Fanning on trumpet and Coffin on flute bordered the line between klezmer, Arabian, and Latin music and did so while plugging along in 17/8. Epic solos were had by all, including an extended drum solo over a repeated groove. Sipe is able to somehow get a huge, full sound (especially from his toms) that delivers a powerful presence without ever overdoing it. He is incredibly precise but also unmistakably human.
Simone (the stage name of Lisa Celeste Stroud, daughter of famous musician and activist Nina Simone) is another musical legend who lived up to expectations. She grew up touring with her mother, and it showed in the throaty deepness of her vocal timbre, as well as her studied showmanship. She kidded with the crowd as if we were all part of a big jazzy family. Then she came down off the stage and wandered about the audience, trading knowing smiles with women and hugging babies, all while singing her tunes. She finished her set with Nat Adderley’s classic “Work Song,” which she has managed to make her own.
Following the Mu’Tet were Big Sam’s Funky Nation, who did everything you would expect a NOLA funk supergroup to do. Frontman and Dirty Dozen Brass Band alum Big Sam Williams got a huge portion of the crowd of thousands standing up and dancing for the group’s powerhouse set that hit everything from Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon” to James Brown’s “Get on Up.” This group’s mantra came in the form of a call-and-response chant when Big Sam said “Look at your neighbor and say, ‘I don’t know what you came to do but I came to party!’”
Sam and trumpeter Andrew Braham worked up a sweat bouncing around the stage in unison like a couple of marionettes. In between songs, as the crowd was clapping, Sam raised his polished brass trombone high over his head like he was He-Man raising his blade.
Kevin Eubanks Quartet took came on just as the full moon was reaching the top of the stage. Eubanks’ fellow Tonight Show Band alum, Marvin “Smitty” Smith, showed off an intriguing side of his personality playing the part of the modern drummer, as styled by the great Tony Williams. Bassist Rene Camacho played an electric upright that gave a round woody tone with great clarity. He stole the show when he played a long grooving solo intro to their last tune. Of course, Eubanks’ juicy barbecue-rib rhythm sound and blazing-fast, John McLaughlin-like single-note lines really defined the group. Bill Pierce rounded out the group with his Pharaoh Sanders tenor sound, approach, and polyphonics.
Jeff Coffin hit the nail on the head when he said, “Every day is a beautiful day for music, but today is a particularly beautiful day for music.” It was.