Sunday, April 10, 2011

Le Jazz Hot

How to cheer up a photographer friend who's down in the dumps about a recent break-up (in three easy steps):

1. Admire a print of a Picasso nude of a woman's backside on the wall of Avalon during dinner.
2. Mention that since it may be your best angle, you wish you had such an image of yourself.
3. Watch his face break into all smiles as he enthusiastically says, "We could get started on that right now! Forget about JazzFest!"

Voila! Dumps momentarily forgotten. We'd just finished eating and were admiring all the Picasso reproductions covering the restaurant's walls.

I'd had the baby bok choy salad with braised squid, grilled onion, pine nuts, apples and horseradish vinaigrette, easily one of the most unusual salad combos I've ever had. But I like unusual and I liked this salad. My friend had enjoyed the grilled Cesar with white anchovies and roasted garlic (although not roasted quite enough, he said).

We followed that with pure heaven: grilled Sausagecraft lamb sausage with fennel, apple and red onion compote. My devotion to Sausagecraft's mastery of ground meat only grew stronger with the lamb version, enhanced by the compote, but mouth-watering on its own, too.

Given my friend's state, I let him choose dessert and although he almost went with the apple fritters with vanilla ice cream, we ended up with the boca negro, a flourless chocolate torte. The three slices were almost more than we could finish. Almost.

I invited him to join me at RVA JazzFest, but he declined and I warned him that he'd be sorry. I can't wait to rub it in next time I see him that he made the wrong call.

Arriving in time to get the seat of my choice (second row center), I was immediately befriended by a music-lover (and budding guitarist; at middle age, he's taking lessons from Trey Pollard) named John who, in the course of conversation about our dated names (when's the last time you met a 20-year old Karen or John?), under guessed my age by a decade, making me his devoted servant..

He wasn't perfect, though, because he also said he doesn't make the effort to get out often enough to hear music. He asked if I'd heard any of tonight's bands and I raved about the Scott Clark 4-tet, the only one of the three I'd seen before.

Scott Clark's 4-tet (drums, sax, trumpet and bass) took off burning down the house and never stopped. Scott himself was on fire and the crowd was immediately engaged. Scott's original material, like the amazing "Saucy Pink," bracketed a piece by Fred Anderson and a tribute Scott had written about Anderson after his death last year.

With a fierce set list, the group could do no wrong tonight as they all played ferociously and beautifully. Scott's arms were a blur most of the show, as I discovered when I tried to take some pictures of him with his parents' camera (they were sitting in the row behind me with a blocked view of him).

But their performance was perhaps best summed up in the moment when a drop of sweat ran down bassist Cameron Ralston's nose, hung there for a moment shining from the street light behind him and then dropped onto his instrument. The Scott Clark 4-tet melted everything and everyone in the room.

Old New Things was a sextet of guitar/pedal steel, banjo,drums,sax/bass clarinet, trumpet and bass. They began with a Trey Pollard piece called "Americana" and it was an apt description of a lot of their sound. Banjo player Adam Larabee's piece "Dead Times" was a big crowd favorite for its exotic scales and  intricate composition.

A 16th century chamber music piece once arranged by Bach had been re-arranged last summer for this group; surely it was the first time anyone in the room had heard a Bach piece with banjo and pedal steel. But then they also did one by free jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler, also not a likely candidate for the banjo.

My only complaint with their set was the audience's inability to hear the banjo and, frequently, the guitar or lap steel. The horns dominated and the strings were lost in the mix, a shame since they were the unique part of the group's sound. Hopefully that will be corrected in future performances.

Headlining was NYC's Harris Eisenstadt and Canada Day and they had a rough start when feedback would not go away, showing itself during the first part of a four-part work called "Ombudsman," much to the vibes player's obvious consternation.

Finally after one gigantic squawk that stopped the music for a split second and made all the musicians visibly jump in reaction, they opted out of monitor usage and the show sounded much better from then on.

Two different people told me that they thought it was the best RVA Jazzfest ever and I'd be inclined to agree (and that's certainly what I'll tell my friend). My music-loving seatmate turned to me at the end and gave me his assessment. "You were right about the first band. They should have headlined!"

We can always brag that we saw them when they were just the opener at JazzFest 2011. Too bad my friend didn't join me. In addition to awesome music, he'd have gotten some amazing photographs.

But at least now I know how to cheer him up.

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