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Jazz Visions on the Lake Offered Three Distinct Takes on the Genre

Aug. 7, 2017
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Photo Credit: Leiko Napoli

In furtherance of its mission of promoting jazz in Greater Metro-Milwaukee and putting local musicians to work, Milwaukee Jazz Vision has staged a free, one-day event for the past three years. In the fourth incarnation of Jazz Visions on the Lake, three groups of local players delved into the repertoire of jazz past and intimated its future direction at the Summerfest grounds’ Johnson Controls World Sound Stage.

Scott Napoli’s quartet opened the afternoon, stretching standards (“Alone Together,” “People,” “Simone”) to upward of 12 minutes, giving each musician ample improvisatory room to tell his story. Warming up, tenor saxophonist Jonathan Greenstein tossed off darting phrases with a light tone redolent of Bird With Strings-era Charlie Parker. But, set against pulsing, harmonically languid accompaniment, Greenstein’s roots in John Coltrane came unmistakably to the fore. Pianist Mark Davis is a master of modern jazz piano. Like Hank Jones or Barry Harris, Davis’ crisply articulated lines are placed far on the front of the beat, evidencing an unusually fecund mind and self-effacing technique.

Between tunes, Napoli gave a shout out to Milwaukee’s jazz community (the audience demographic was refreshingly varied and turnout was respectable) but remarked in an elegiac tone that he wished events of this sort were more numerous. During tunes, Napoli held down the drummer’s chair, laying an unwavering foundation and occasionally shifting the rhythmic texture to push the soloists into new improvisatory territory. On the fourth tune the quartet hit their stride. The up-tempo original found Greenstein and Davis reaching in their most boppish bags for beautifully realized solos before, in the immortal words of James Brown, “giving the drummer some,” with Napoli taking a few choruses in which he rumbled on his toms while marking quarter notes on his hi-hat à la Art Blakey.

Fifteen minutes of break down and set up divided the bands. The intermission music veered too close to smooth, elevator jazz for my persnickety ears. My aesthetic contempt was also aroused by fellow audience members munching popcorn and snapping gum. At least Gil Evans had the right idea: Salted radishes are the proper snack for digging jazz.

All hail mighty Thelonious Monk, whose centenary rivals in significance Frank Lloyd Wright’s sesquicentenary. Dreamland—a quartet consisting of trumpeter-leader Jamie Breiwick, the ubiquitous Mark Davis on piano, drummer Devin Drobka and Jeff Hamann on bass, is devoted to Monk’s evergreen oeuvre. The quartet dug up some neglected Monk gems such as “Light Blue” and “Played Twice” but did not neglect classics like “Pannonica,” “Ruby,” “My Dear” and “Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues Are.” Fleet-fingered Breiwick darted across bar lines in his solos, never stooping to empty, brassy proclamations that tempt many trumpet players. Drobka contributed several lengthy drum solos, sometimes modeling his musings on the rhythmic content of the tunes while occasionally sallying forth into freer territory.

The Kevin Hayden Band, described by emcee Neil Davis as exhibiting “a level of virtuosity almost unheard of in Milwaukee,” blew last, taking the stage after an unfortunately lengthy intermission resulting in a small exodus of aggravated audience members. Hayden’s band has travelled far down the path of fusion with effect-laden electric instruments and groove-driven jams that owe as much to funk and hip-hop as jazz. The audience was clearly delighted, gamely answering Hayden’s invitations to clap along and to show the band members some love. Jazz Visions on the Lake 4 rode on a blue note and ended on a high note.

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