RADD Jazz festival ignites saxophone play
Walking into the Falcon’s Nest, I felt as if I had stepped into a suave, downtown jazz club. The dimly lit room was packed. No seats were available at the round tables that filled the main area of the room. I was taken aback by the beauty of the stage.
Three statin, white sheets were stretched artistically on poles behind the band. Green, blue, red and purple lights saturated the sheets and melodically changed colors every 10 minutes or so. What had they done with the hollow, empty space that used to be the Falcon’s Nest. As I walked upstairs to find a seat, I noticed some gentlemen drinking beer out of amber bottles. There was a bar set up in the far corner of the room. The night started out classy, and it just kept getting better.
As I sat down to enjoy the show, the band was just finishing up the first song. The band was five members: electronic keyboard, bass guitar, drums, saxophone and of course Mike Stern on the electric guitar. The crowd gave a rousing ovation as the song ended and I kicked myself for arriving fashionably late. The applause from the crowd died down and the lights on the white sheets turned a deep red color.
The next song started out with a few solo bars by Stern on guitar. The conversation started slow and smooth and the saxophone picked up right where Stern left off. As the conversation went back over to Stern, I could tell the guitar and sax were playing a call and response. I sensed each musician imitating one another in both tone and rhythm.
Then Stern waltzed his way into a longer solo. As the solo went on, Stern’s improvisation became more complex. I recognized familiar notes of the melody, but Stern began to add in trills and syncopated notes for variety. As the tempo increased, Stern began to put his body into the experience, moving with the mood. It was as if he could feel the ambiance and mood of the room. I noticed the saxophone player moving in a similar fashion as he watched Stern play, waiting to join back in on the discussion.
The solo continued and Stern kept the tempo fast as he moved to higher and higher notes in his instrument’s range. Finally as he started to descend back down the scale, he effortlessly tossed the melody back into his improvisation. As a final thought, Stern graciously danced back and forth between the lower notes of the first section of his solo, and notes from the lower range that marked the end of his solo. The period on the last sentence of his solo was a raucous crescendo backed by some seriously kickin’ drum accompaniment.
The song then moved on to a keyboard solo. This solo was much shorter than the first two, but mirrored the style introduced by the guitar and sax. The keyboard played scales up and down keeping in time with the fast paced tempo. I noticed the drums mirroring the staccato piano notes with some rim taps. The balance between drums and keys was soothing and methodical as the scale work lulled me into a state of relaxation. This state of calm did not last long.
As the saxophone took the wheel, the stricter staccato and rhythmic tone that the keys had set up disappeared. The saxophone player took the song in a different direction with many more trills and syncopated beats that were very late on the beat. He seemed to avoid the higher notes, but still stayed within the familiar chords and melody that the song set up. As the sax passed the reigns back over to the bass, the song began to slow down tempo again.
After a bar or so, the sax and keys cut out completely, leaving just the bass and Stern on guitar. Stern and the bass took a few bars to play a duet, and I noticed Stern’s signature groovy strums and melancholy chords. Once Stern began to add some vibrato using the whammy bar, I knew we were really in the groove.
The song concluded with a duet between the saxophone and the guitar, and I remembered the body movements of both the saxophone player and Stern earlier in the song. Looking back, they seemed to be a foreshadowing of the duet that closed the piece.
First Stern would lead a call and response. Then the sax would take the melody in a different direction and lead. As the two instruments blended, the drums began to use some creative cymbal hits: first the sounds were on the beat, then off the beat.
As the tempo increased to the end of the song, so did the volume. The keys and bass joined in with the crescendo and the whole group was working together as a team for the first time in the song. It was delightful to watch the smiles on the performers’ faces as they really hit their stride; it was only the second song.The crowd started the applause before the musicians even finished the final chord.
The fourth song of the night had a much more vibrant feel than the previous songs. The song started out with a strong, defined melody that included all members of the band. After about three repetitions of this melody, the sax and the guitar took over. They were really jamming together. I noticed right off the bat that this song had more of a rock and roll style to it. The drums were keeping a much more structured, rhythmic feel with strong bass drum notes on the beat and normal snare hits on the beat as well.
As the song progressed, a spotlight lit up the keyboard player and it was his turn to shine. Up until this time, the focus had been on the other four members of the group. The keyboard used a synthesizer or organ sounding effect. The keyboard’s higher notes mirrored the lower notes at times, but at other times, it seemed as if the right hand was playing its own melody while the left hand did a completely different melody. It reminded me of the demonstration of split melodies on the piano that Professor Craig Hara demonstrated in class a few weeks ago. It was very impressive stuff.
As the keyboard solo went on, Stern began to follow along with some guitar riffs on the off beats. The two musicians seemed to jab back and forth reminding me of a fencing match, but a friendly one. Stern’s face was so joyful; I understood in that moment why he did what he does. I remembered too how he had lost his original guitar in a robbery and how much it meant to him. I wondered how much more joy he had been capable of expressing with that instrument. Nevertheless, he was swingin’ now and all this during a free show.
The crowd began clapping along with the band and the saxophone took over the improvisation. After a few creative bars, the saxophone solo ended on a long high note. Stern took over the control of the song by matching this high long note and taking over from there. I was impressed that he could not only pick this note by ear, but also match the tone and feel of the note as well. This was definitely the coolest transition between two soloists that I witness the entire night. They seemed to be communicating without words. They were on the same page. It was beautiful.
The song concluded with a keyboard and bass guitar call and response which got a real draw from the crowd. I was not so interested in this call and response, and would like to have seen more involvement from the drums (I was a percussionist in high school so of all the instruments, drums keep my interest the most). Either way, the song was a smash hit and the crowd loved it.
Overall I very much appreciated the performance. I was thoroughly impressed with production services and the way they transformed the Falcon’s Nest into a swinging jazz club. The musicians worked together like a well-oiled machine and they stayed humble while still expressing confidence. That is a difficult line to walk, and all five walked it professionally. I would surely recommend the RADD Jazz series to anyone.