The SPAC jazz fest is always keen to host the supergroups of the jazz world, and this year they did so with the likes of the Cookers—a cast that features George Cables, Cecil McBee and Billy Hart, just to name a few. McCoy Tyner also led a tour de force that featured the ever-malleable John Scofield, who is able to rise to the occasion in every possible context, as well as veteran saxophonist Gary Bartz.
There were also acts like Big Sam’s Funky Nation, who seek to draw in fans who don’t care to venture too far out into the vanguard of modern jazz, and instead prefer simply to have a good time and move to the powerful groove put forth by Big Sam’s funky band. Ben Williams & Sound Effect took the gazebo by storm with a group that featured saxophonist Stacy Dillard. Tunes like “Home” from Williams’ newest album State of Art provided the crowd with a soulful vibe that was also equal parts Afrobeat and jazz. Williams is a Thelonius Monk International Bass Competition winner, but he is never overtly flashy. He holds the group together like a psychic anchor and provides the swagger of the low end.
The fest was not short on incredible guitar players either. Dave “Fuze” Fiuczynski played a twin-neck guitar through a host of effects with Rudresh Mahanthappa’s new quartet. The group played an early set on the main stage and also a more intimate show later on at the gazebo. Mahanthappa’s group largely played tunes off his newest album Gamak, which does an incredible job of fusing Indian, African, Indonesian, electronic, and American jazz and country elements into one distinctive and ever-relevant package.
On Sunday, Donny McCaslin’s group followed suit, opening up the day on the main stage and relocating to the gazebo for a reprise later in the afternoon. The electronic element was front-and-center with bassist Tim Lefebvre dropping into the sub-bass octaves associated with dubstep and deep house music. Jason Lindner even opened up with some extended electronic sounds on the cover tune “Alpha and Omega” by the Scottish electronica group Boards of Canada.
Former Tonight Show bandleader Kevin Eubanks worked the main stage with his quartet featuring Rene Camacho on bass and saxophonist Bill Pierce. The set reached a high note with their arrangement of John Coltrane’s “Resolution,” and then took it way down for a bluesy closer that sounded the way a good set of barbecue ribs tastes.
A special ceremony honoring the late pianist Dave Brubeck took place Sunday afternoon in which he was posthumously presented a star on SPAC’s walk. His daughter and grandson were both there to witness it, and there was quite a large crowd of interested festivalgoers there to clap when the veil was lifted from the star. Brubeck played 13 times at the SPAC jazz fest—more than any other artist.
Of course, one of the other reasons why so many people were gathered on the skirt of the amphitheater just before the ceremony was because the Preservation Hall Jazz Band had made their way out there for an up-close-and-personal performance that led into a procession to the main stage.
Great vocalists are a potent part of any jazz festival too. This year’s fest saw rising star Gregory Porter and established legend Tony Bennett both grace the main stage. Bennett did a nice tie in with the Brubeck dedication when he sang “That Old Black Magic”—a tune Bennett and Brubeck recorded together 50 years ago.