Up to its ears in haque
JazzFest 2015 serves up food for thought and fuel for dance
With one of the world’s top guitarists in two wildly different gigs, the Midwest’s hottest B-3 organ burner, big bands, singers and a slew of styles from straight ahead to Latin to electronica, the 2015 Lansing JazzFest has everything short of Kenny G burbling up from the Grand River.
Take it from me. You won´t miss Mr. G.
Drummer Jeff Shoup, impresario of the impressive Jazz Tuesdays series at Moriarty’s Pub, used his connections in the jazz world to step in on short notice and put together a strong and varied slate at last year’s JazzFest. Before the weekend was over, festival co-founder Terry Terry tapped Shoup to put together this year’s festival.
Chicago-based guitarist Fareed Haque, arguably the most distinguished of the weekend’s assemblage, embodies the festival’s — and Shoup’s — taste for tradition and adventure.
Haque had a ball at last year’s JazzFest, popping up at his own gig and an all-star jam. This year, Haque asked Shoup if he could bring two groups — one traditional, the other, not so much — to underscore the point that jazz music is alive and kicking.
“It’ll be interesting to contrast,” Haque said. “If we, the living exemplars of this tradition, put this shit in a museum, why should anyone else treat it any differently?” For a guitarist who has toured with Sting, played Villa-Lobos concerti with the Chicago Symphony, grunged it up in a band called Garaj Mahal and traded avant-garde licks with Chicago jazz musicians, tradition is a thoroughbred horse, to be ridden hard and put away wet.
First, Haque will fry the bacon in a classic trio with veteran Columbus-based organist Tony Monaco and MSU’s Randy Gelispie on drums. Immediately after he’ll go sub-orbital with a Moog guitar and the “jazz-tronic” sounds of his current group, MathGames.
“It’s going to be a tight squeeze,” Haque said.
“We’re going to finish on one stage and rush over to the second stage. I’ll be nice and warmed up.”
MathGames is no museum piece. Haque’s weee-ooo-ing Moog guitar doesn’t obey the laws of acoustics as Wes Montgomery knew them.
“It has some analog pickups that are designed to create an infinite sustain on the instrument,” Haque said. “There are a lot of cool things you can do with that.”
Haque’s avid assimilation of classical, funk, jazz, Latin and Indian sounds makes jazz itself look infinitely sustainable.
“MathGames is a modern sound, but still trying to keep harmony and groove in there because those are my roots, he said.
Tony Monaco, a 40-year veteran performer on the Hammond B-3 organ, is a hard man to impress, but he’s in awe of Haque.
“He’s the best guitar player I’ve ever worked with, and I’ve worked with the greats,” Monaco said. “We could go from a sensitive ballad to a shredding jazz tune to a funky tune that’s jam based, and he’s spot on for all of them.”
Monaco himself is a living link to his boyhood hero, jazz organ master Jimmy Smith. When Monaco was 15, he sent Smith a demo tape and a letter. Smith called the young man on his 16th birthday.
“Don’t worry about playing all those notes,” Smith told him.
The advice must have worked. Two years later Smith invited Monaco to play at his California club.
Haque and Monaco met at the Java Jazz Festival in Indonesia several years ago, where each was scheduled to play with his own group.
Monaco got to the hotel about 4 a.m. and recognized fellow Midwesterner Haque, sipping a beer.
“Fareed!” Monaco bellowed, and gave him a hug. Some 10,000 miles from their homes, the extroverted Italian organ cooker and the quiet Indo-Pakistani- Chilean guitar virtuoso found a lot in common.
“We were instantly connected,” Monaco said.
Another highlight of the weekend is Betty Joplin, a consummate vocalist, a favorite of Aretha Franklin, a Grammy winner and JazzFest’s triumphant headliner Saturday night.
Joplin went through some tough years before coming back with a new CD and a new wave of appreciation in the past few years. She was last year’s Jazz Alliance of Mid-Michigan lifetime tribute honoree.
Shoup was the drummer on that occasion, and he’ll back Joplin again Saturday.
“I’m nervous about it,” Shoup confessed.
Infinite sustain is more than a guitar setting. At 80, Joplin keeps the tradition of Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald aglow, while young players carry the torch into new byways and back alleys.
At 26, Detroit saxophonist Marcus Elliot is taking the muscular, spiritual sound of icons like John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter into an heartfelt cry all his own. Elliot’s two CDs are getting national attention from critics and jazz lovers.
Elliot has a lot to say in his own subtly complex, mesmerizing compositions.
“I love what Trane and all those guys do but I’m not trying to do what they did,” he said. “It’s already been done.”
Elliot’s voice on saxophone doesn’t come from the mountaintop. He’s more like an inner voice, or a wise friend sitting across the table, sharing life.
“The reason why I’m so drawn to music is, it makes me feel very human,” Elliot said. “It’s the most human thing I do, I think.”
For in-depth interviews with three fascinating JazzFest artists — guitarist Fareed Haque, organist Tony Monaco and saxophonist Marcus Elliot — see lansingcitypulse.com.
August 7-8 (see page 10 for schedule) FREE Intersection of Turner Street and Grand River Avenue Old Town, Lansing (517) 371-4600, jazzlansing.com
Crossing the streams
Great Lakes Folk Festival revels in cultural connections
Stand in the middle of Albert Avenue in East Lansing this weekend and you may hear polka music drifting out of a tent in the city parking lot. Wander a few yards to the east and the sound of spicy Cajun music takes over. Around the corner to the west, a guitarist is laying down a heavy blues riff. This close-quarters mixing of cultures has become a staple of the annual Great Lakes Folk Festival.
This year’s installment cuts a wide swath through North American folk music, including blues, Cajun, bluegrass and old-time music. There are also nods to our neighbors to the north and south, Mexican Tejano and Canadian Quebecois music, and music from Scotland, the Caribbean and India round out this year’s cultural mix.
The diversity of styles is at the core of the festival’s DNA, explained Patrick Power, the festival’s music coordinator. The festival’s charter names six styles — polka, Celtic, bluegrass, blues, Cajun and Hispanic — which must be represented each year.
“We try to start with those six and branch out from there,” Power said.
While folk aficionados will certainly recognize the big names — the Tannahill Weavers and the Hot Club of Cowtown would draw a big crowd on their own — Power always tries to book a few lesser-known gems. This year Power is excited to bring in Detroit a capella Gospel group Masters of Harmony, led by 103-year-old singer Thomas Kelly.
“He’s probably the oldest performing musician in the state,” said Kelly, jokingly adding that on the phone he “sounded as spry as an 80-year-old.”
The group will perform just once this weekend, taking the stage at 3 p.m. Sunday. Power is also looking forward to several tributes to folk musicologist Alan Lomax throughout the weekend. Two of those tributes will be led by New York-based old-time group the Down Hill Strugglers joined by the generation bridging duo of 83-year-old folk legend John Cohen and 26-year-old blues prodigy Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton.
Eli Smith, founder of the Down Hill Strugglers and a relative young buck in the folk scene at just 33, is what some might call an “old soul,” never really at home in the culture of his peers.
“I always kind of liked music from when I was a kid, but I could never really get into the music that was around me. New York is kind of a rock and rap town. It wasn’t for me,” Smith explained. “But then I started to hear some old blues and then some old string band music. I started to hear this whole other vein of American music that I hadn’t been told about in school, that I hadn’t heard on the radio — it was completely fresh. And it was what I’d been looking for, for all of those years I had liked music but hadn’t heard music that I liked. So I went mad for the music.”
For Smith, playing old-time music is a counter-cultural act, a bastion of humanity in a world that is becoming more and more automated every day.
“The U.S. has become very homogenized. It’s hard to break out of that homogeneity — the highway culture, endless strip malls, the big-box stores and everything — so I don’t think it’s unusual to be attracted to a less homogenous and more humanized music,” Smith said. “(This music is) a way to assert yourself against the forces of homogeneity that are rampant all over the United States. We’re trying not to be dragged down by the forces of disco — very standardized and plastic stuff. That’s such a powerful force, it’s hard to get away from, but we try.”
Returning to the festival this year is Elana James, who has appeared at the festival as a singer/songwriter and with her band, Hot Club of Cowtown. The Austinbased trio brings its Western swing style back to the festival this weekend.
Western swing, James explained, is a uniquely American style of music, created when the cowboy songs of eastern Texas rubbed up against the jazz-soaked culture of Louisiana.
“Bob Wills is the person whose name is most associated with Western swing, and the guys in his band were listening to what was going on in Paris at the time, they were listening to urban jazz players, and there was a lot of interplay. The traditions did mix,” she said. “You’ll hear them playing an American fiddle tune and then someone taking a solo on the violin that sounds like Louis Armstrong. It’s everything from old cowboy tunes to crazy Gypsy instrumentals to standards by Cole Porter and George Gershwin, but played in a hot jazz format. It’s very much a melting pot kind of music.”
One might not expect to talk about Hinduism in a conversation with one of the nation’s top Western swing artists, but James, who majored in religion at Columbia University in New York, is quick to point out similarities between the southern style of music and the South Asian religion.
“It doesn’t matter what it is, Hinduism makes room for it. It pulls everything in,” James said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s Jesus, or the Buddha or the Pope, there’s room for everybody and it all fits together fine. On some level, I think of Western swing like that too. And I think that is very American.”
The format of the Great Lakes Folk Festival gives the performers multiple sets throughout the weekend, shuffling the artists around between the three stages. James appreciates this approach, which will give Hot Club of Cowtown a chance to dig deeper into its catalogue.
“It’s great because we are able to mix it up. We might not repeat any songs the whole weekend, it depends on how we’re feeling,” James said. “We have so many songs, it’s good to dust them off and share them.”
Yann Falquet, who will perform at the festival with Quebecois band Genticorum, will take a similar approach to the weekend’s multiple sets.
“The great thing with Genticorum is that since we’ve been playing for 15 years, we have lots of repertoire,” he said. “Most of what we’ve done in the past we can pull out and put in a set if we feel that it’s the right number. Knowing that, it’s easy to play different programs for every set. Depending on the setting — some are high-energy dance stages, others are intimate listening settings — we have enough material to cover all that range. That’s something you can’t do if you just do one concert. It’s fun to have these multiple sets to show different personalities.”
Similar to Western swing, Falquet explained, the Quebecois style of music that Genticorum performs is a unique blend of cultural influences.
“Like all ‘new world’ music, it’s a mix of different things. The French settlers who founded New France, or Nouvelle-France, brought with them their songs and some of their dances,” he said. “And when the Irish and Scottish arrived, their style influenced what we’re doing now in Quebec. It’s sometimes described as Celtic music with a French accent.”
Perhaps the style’s most interesting quirk is its percussion, which isn’t provided by a traditional drummer. “We do have percussive dancing — it’s not really dancing because it is done by the fiddler and the fiddler is sitting in a chair playing percussion with his feet — I think it infuses a whole lot of energy into the fiddle tunes and into the arrangements,” Falquet said. “It’s definitely a very danceable music.”
While most of the bands at this weekend’s festival exist at the fringes of the music industry, James sees that as an advantage.
“We are in no way whatsoever commercially indentured to anyone — financially, artistically, nothing,” she said. “There’s something very liberating and pure about a folk festival where commerce is not the driving force. You really do see a different kind of show, and the older I get, the more I’m involved in this line of work, the more beautiful and moving that is to me.”
For extended interviews with three Great Lakes Folk Festival artists — Eli Smith of the Downhill Strugglers, Elana James of Hot Club of Cowtown and Yann Falquet of Genticorum — see lansingcitypulse.com.
Great Lakes Folk Festival Aug. 7-9
(see page11 for schedule) FREE Downtown East Lansing greatlakesfolkfest.com