Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Experience, Aspen, Colorado
June 22 – 24, 2023
Jazz Aspen Snowmass (JAS) has been around as a concept for a few decades now. The format and specific locations have changed over the years, but the basic idea remains the same: go to a beautiful mountain location and dig some great music. Mountains and music are a combination that works.
But then, there’s the question of the kind of music. Despite having the word “Jazz” in its name, Jazz Aspen Snowmass isn’t always about jazz. In fact, the Labor Day Weekend edition of JAS 2023 has virtually no jazz. But only purists worry about stuff like that. The rest of us just check the lineup and if it works: Go!
The fact that a music festival featuring no jazz insists on keeping the word “jazz” in its name, just goes to show that the coolness factor of that word and the whole concept of jazz scores at least an eleven on a scale of one to ten. It’s a concept that even those who don’t play or even listen to jazz want to be associated with.
The JAS “June Experience” unequivocally had jazz along with many of its cousins and in-laws and adopted children. The featured bands played straight-ahead jazz, Latin jazz, afro-beat, blues and plenty of funk. Sometimes JAS is held at the Snowmass rodeo grounds. (Yes, rodeo, pardner. This is still the West no matter how cosmopolitan the rich folks want to make Aspen.) Those events often turn the rodeo area into festival grounds with tents for the performers (although whether the music is inside a tent or outside is one of those things that’s evolved over the years) with food and merch vendors in abundance.
In contrast, the June experience this year was held throughout downtown Aspen at 13 different venues, all within a few blocks’ walking distance of each other. Famous Aspen nightclub Belly Up hosted events each of the three nights. Another venue was the historic Wheeler Opera House, a 19th Century theater from Aspen’s glorious silver mining days. Other venues were restaurants, bars and coffee shops with make-shift stages set up in the corner resulting in a variety of sound quality. Some venues were quite tight, putting the audience almost in the band’s lap. But that variety of music and venues and the ability to get close to the performers was a big part of the fun. That, and the uniform high quality of the bands. Multiple bands played at different venues simultaneously requiring careful planning to see the acts one was interested in. Trade-offs were inevitable and it was impossible to see them all.
Aspen, being Aspen, has endless opportunities for conspicuous consumption and flaunting of wealth. Whether it’s owning a fourth or fifth home that exceeds 10,000 square feet, or the size of the private jet depositing the well-heeled at the local airport, or the slamming of that $600 cocktail, or driving an exotic car with extra chrome, the moneyed class shows it off. To cater to that mindset (and those bank accounts), JAS offerd VIP tickets for multiples over the general admission price. VIPs also got special meals and exclusive performances in their own tent. And the choicest seats at the other venues were reserved for them, always in front of the proletariat. But sometimes, it didn’t work out. See, Big Sam, below.
Thursday, June 22, 2023
It was a New Orleans funk throw-down to start the JAS June festival. Two iconic NOLA acts got things rolling Thursday night.
Big Sam’s Funky Nation, The Sterling Aspen
Big Sam doesn’t really play a concert, he throws a party. You can’t go to a BSFN performance and expect to sit in your seat and be entertained. No, you’ll be part of the party. You’ll be expected to dance (the whole time), clap and sing along, sometimes into the microphone that Big Sam puts in front of you on one of his many excursions into the crowd.
Big Sam Williams is a veteran of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and brings that unit’s boisterous enthusiasm to his band.
At the intimate and sweaty Sterling Aspen, Big Sam and his Funky Nation threw the transmission into funk overdrive and kept it in that gear throughout their 75-minute set. It was an unrelenting, high-energy performance simply not for the faint of heart. Big Sam works hard and he expects the same from his audience.
Sam played his trombone, usually in unison with his trumpet player, Drew “Da Phessah” Baham, but most often, he sang or exhorted the packed crowd to have a good time and to get on down to the incessantly funky beat laid down by the Funky Nation rhythm section of Jerry “JBlakk” Henderson on bass, Alfred “Sgt Gutta” Jordan on the drums and Seizo Shibayama on guitar. Baham sang too and joined in the goading of the crowd to get up to get down.
Those reserved seats for the VIP crowd? Forget about it. As Sam and his sidekick Baham repeatedly explained, “You have to get up to get down!” In other words, no sitting! So much for VIP privilege.
Whether that was specifically the point or not, the effect was that everyone was equal in the eyes of the funk. Everybody danced, everybody sang, everybody clapped and everybody had a great time no matter how much they paid for their tickets. The music brought everyone together. As it should.
Galactic with Angelika Jelly Joseph, Belly Up
Probably better known than Big Sam and the Funky Nation, Galactic is no less funky and equally eager to throw a party, New Orleans style. Galactic, these days, is generally a six-piece instrumental band. They’ve been without a full-time vocalist for nearly 20 years so they either play instrumentally or recruit vocalists to sit in. Wanting to remain hip and current, many of those vocalists over the last several years have been rappers. However, Thursday night at the Belly Up, the boys were joined by the charismatic vocalist Angelika Jelly Joseph who was on stage for about 60% of the set. And she sang! Melodies and everything.
And she was good. She could belt it out and added a layer of melodic interest over the incessant funky grooves pulsing below. It wasn’t all a funk frenzy. This is a band with more than one speed. A highlight of Galactic’s slower side was their take on “Compared to What?” Les McCann and Eddie Harris probably recorded the most well-known version of this song as an up-tempo rave. Galactic’s version Thursday night was much slower and more introspective. The pace gave Joseph the chance to linger on the lyrics and call special attention to them. It’s a song that was written as a Vietnam war protest, but the lyrics turned out to be timeless, mainly because politics keeps moving in circles.
Another vocal highlight was “Heart of Steel” from ya-ka-may (Anti, 2010). New Orleans vocalist Irma Thomas sat in on vocals originally. Thursday night’s version, with Joseph doing the honors, was equally satisfying. The band slipped in one rap tune, “Dolla Diva” from Into the Deep (Provogue, 2015). Joseph proved, on that one, that she could deliver the rapid-fire lyrics like she did it for a living. The evening’s encore was another tune from a past album, “Never Called You Crazy” from Rukus (Sanctuary, 2003). That one is drenched in low-down dirty funk and was the perfect selection for ending the set and the first evening of the June Experience.
Stanton Moore, Galactic drummer, is widely considered one of the top drummers in funk today. Thursday night at the Belly Up, he didn’t disappoint, propelling the band through their 90-minute set with constant syncopation and embellishments and, in general, never letting the funk fizzle.
I’ll confess that I’ve never been to New Orleans (I know, I know, this is a real hole in the resume), so I don’t really know what it’s like. But based on the two NOLA bands Thursday night, I think it might be a very noisy city. The reason I say that is because both Joseph and Sam repeatedly exhorted the crowd to “Make some noise!” Repeatedly. So, my theory is that they miss the NOLA noise so much, they need someone to recreate it for them, so they feel at home. That’s my theory, anyway.
Friday, June 23
Chances are, most people have an opinion about Aspen, even if they haven’t been here. Skiing, movie stars, money, lots of money. Yes, the skiing is great. Four different mountains within a short drive or bus ride of each other and each with its own, distinctive personality. I can vouch for all that. But I’ve never seen a movie star (I don’t think) so I can’t vouch for that. And it is expensive. But like many other places, bargains are around for those willing to dig for them. But it’s a beautiful place with magnificent mountains and it’s a quaint little town that tries to preserve its history despite the growth pressures and all that money sloshing around. One of those historic places is the Wheeler Opera House, site of two sets by Brazilian pianist and vocalist Eliane Elias on Friday night.
Wheeler Opera House
Eliane Elias, Wheeler Opera House
Friday’s program began in the elegant Wheeler Opera House with the even more elegant Eliane Elias. Hailing from Brazil, Elias is a top-notch piano player and superb vocalist. Friday’s first of two sets found Elias displaying her Brazilian roots by featuring multiple bossa novas and sambas. The program included selections from her recent albums including Grammy winner Mirror Mirror (Candid, 2021), Quietude (Candid, 2022) and Music from Man of La Mancha (Concord Jazz, 2018).
She enjoyed telling the audience about the songs and recordings including a little history of the bossa nova. She explained that this musical form began in the 1950s in Brazil with people informally getting together with neighbors in their apartments. Someone would bring a guitar, someone else would tap on make-shift percussion instruments and some would sing. She gathered the band members around her for several tunes to recreate the intimacy of the music.
Elias continues to tour with her husband, master bassist Marc Johnson. Two fellow Brazilians rounded out the band, Rafael Barata on drums and percussion and Leandro Pellegrino on acoustic guitar. Together, the band created an intimate, relaxed atmosphere occasionally punctuated by some fiery keyboard work by the leader.
The Wheeler Opera House proved to be a little too elegant for its own good by prohibiting photography, hence, no pictures of this performance.
Eliane Elias, piano, vocal
Marc Johnson, bass
Rafael Barata, drums, percussion
Leandro Pellegrino, guitar
Ruthie Foster, Belly Up
Ruthie Foster seems like an irrepressibly happy person. At least that was her persona on stage at the Belly Up Friday night. She amiably chatted with the crowd between songs about her career and memorable gigs, like the Blues Cruise, stories about her travels to places like Latvia and stories about the songs themselves.
Foster and her band performed a combination of original tunes and covers. Similar to Galactic’s reworking of “Compared to What?” Foster’s rearrangement of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” brought new life to a familiar tune. The slower tempo turned it into a lament of resignation rather than the frustrated regret of the original.
Scotty Miller, on keyboards and mandolin, got a turn in the spotlight when he sang one of his compositions, “Stay.” Foster told a story about attending a tribute to Mississippi John Hurt organized by some of his relatives in his hometown in Mississippi. That inspired her to sing one of his songs, “Richland Woman Blues.”
Foster is known for her powerful and emotive voice, and she sounded great Friday night despite being admittedly challenged by Aspen’s 8,000-foot elevation. Much of the program was blues and roots based and she finished the show with a bone fide blues classic, Son House’s “People Grinnin’ in Your Face.” That one is traditionally performed a cappella, most often by a solitary singer. For this version, she enlisted all her band members and even the audience toward the end.
Ruthie Foster, vocals, guitar
Brandon Temple, drums
Scotty “Bones” Miller, keyboards, mandolin
Larry Fulcher, bass
Brand New Day
Singing the Blues
Small Town Blues
Richland Women Blues
Ring of Fire
I’m a Woman.
Grinnin’ in Your Face
Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears, W Hotel
This was one of those concerts in a bar that’s not set up for live music. The sound system, imported for this occasion, simply wasn’t up to snuff. Oh, it was plenty loud, but sonic details were lost in the murk. So, it was just as well that Lewis had little to say between songs. In fact, in stark contrast to the two female band leaders from earlier in the evening who chatted about each song they played, Lewis talked to the audience only once. Not a word was discernable.
Despite the sound problems, Lewis ripped a spirited set aimed at the party crowd who danced through just about all of it. The band played one moderate tempo tune and all the rest were geared toward Friday night boogieing.
The two-piece sax section played mostly in unison with only occasional solos; most of those were reserved for the leader. The music was mainly blues-based, but not always a traditional blues. Lewis puts his own stamp on the music, sounding much like Gary Clark, Jr.
There were some throw-back sounds mixed in. He played an old blues tune, “You Don’t Love Me” with a similar arrangement to the Allman Brothers’ version from Live at Fillmore East (Capricorn, 1971). Another tune had Lewis sounding like one of the singers on the Stax label from the 1960s. Another tune had one of those infectious licks similar to something Ten Years After used to play. So, Lewis mixed it up and proved that the blues comes in a variety of shades and flavors, even if sometimes the tempo stays pretty steady.
His Aspen gigs found Lewis sporting a new do. Most of his promotional pictures show him with dangling dreadlocks, see below. Friday night, it appeared the dreads were things of the past. Maybe the new look is meant to keep cool this summer.
Chiara Izzi, Felix Roasting Co. @ Jerome Hotel
Italian singer Chiara Izzi appeared in Aspen with a guitarist and bass player. They turned out to be the hardest working act at JAS, performing six sets over the course of two nights. Actually, it was a three-way tie for that honor; Tony Monaco and Kevin Burt each played six sets also, but in their cases, their sets were spread over all three days of the festival.
Izzi’s set of jazz standards, Brazilian tunes and some originals, all performed in a relaxed style was quite a contrast to the Black Joe Lewis frenzy across town. But it was the perfect closer of the evening. Izzi’s petite soprano is similar to Cyrille Aimee and she delivers her tunes with a laid-back attitude. Mostly, she sang in English, but she delivered the Brazilian tunes in Portuguese, and she sang one song in her native Italian.
Most of the songs were covers, but she also sang one of her originals, “Circles of the Mind” about a little girl growing up and turning into an adult. It had much in common with Bill Evans’ “Waltz for Debby.” A highlight was the Pat Metheny/Lyle Mays composition “James,” which was originally recorded on the Pat Metheny Group album Offramp (ECM, 1982). Izzi has worked with pianist Kevin Hayes over the years and Hayes wrote lyrics for the song which turns out to be about James Taylor.
Izzi and her band set up in the corner of a coffee shop inside the Jerome. Although this was another venue not normally used for live music, this performance sounded good. A more moderate sound level and no attempts to blast the music into a dancing audience accounted for the difference.
Saturday, June 24
The weather for JAS June Experience was perfect with blue skies and highs in the upper 70s. That famous Aspen snow was long gone from town, but some was still lingering on the surrounding peaks.
Aspen got its start in 1879 as a silver mining town. By the 1880s, the place was booming. Mines were ubiquitous in the area. Jerome Wheeler arrived in 1883. Unlike most new arrivals, he brought his own money with him. He was president and part owner of Macy’s Department Stores. He quickly found Aspen to his liking and began to invest in the town’s infrastructure and transportation. He built the Hotel Jerome and the Wheeler Opera House, sites of many JAS performances over the weekend. By 1891, Aspen was producing 1/6th of all the silver in the United States.
The incessant gush of money into Aspen in modern times tends to threaten all that history with many of the new moneyed visitors/residents continually suggesting that those old, historic buildings should be bulldozed to allow them to build new mansions (that they’ll probably visit for a week or two a year). It’s a continuing struggle and it’s not always successful, but Aspen has been working to preserve some of its history.
Besides an inventory of Victorian buildings throughout town, abandoned mine workings dot the surrounding mountains, often just a short stroll from town.
Colorado’s early mining history is riddled with “rushes” and get rich quick schemes. Men scoured the mountains in search of valuable minerals. In modern times, the valuable substance bringing people to Aspen is most often snow and on powder days, the rush is on to be the first to put ski tracks through nature’s delightful bounty.
Not unlike the search for gold, silver and powder snow, JAS June Experience set off a rush to maximize the participants’ musical enjoyment. Much like zeroing in on a rich mineral vein or maximizing the number of untracked powder runs, JAS participants had to carefully plan their evening to take in as much music as possible. On Thursday night, only five venues were operating simultaneously, but by Saturday, 13 venues were in operation complicating planning and offering many different options and permutations. Trade-offs quickly became apparent: Band A or Band B? Stay for a full set or catch partial sets in hopes of seeing more bands? FOMO was rampant. (Fear Of Missing Out) Bands, times, venues and distances between them all had to be accounted for and factored into the planning…strategy had to be developed like a General Patton World War II tank battle. Fortunately, no shots were fired and, frankly, there were simply no bad choices.
Chinobay Afro-Jazz Fusion, Here House
This band was easily the most exotic of the weekend. Led by Kinobe of Uganda, the band worked through a set of beautiful flowing melodies played on exotic instruments over quietly undulating polyrhythms. Kinobe sang and played a variety of instruments, some of them traditional, such as the kalimba and others that he modified such as his kora.
Kora, 21 strings
Kinobe was joined by Jonas Yologaza of Cameroon on bass, Olaolu Ajibade of Nigeria on drums and William Pefok of Cameroon and Nigeria on keyboards. “Afro-Jazz Fusion” was an apt description of the music which got deep into the African roots of jazz, but the electric bass and keyboards infused a modern sound into the music.
Unfortunately, this was another sound system that was less than optimal. It was difficult to hear everything Kinobe said between songs as he described his music and his various instruments. He didn’t sing in English so most of the Aspen crowd wouldn’t have understood that part anyway, but it would still have been much better to have heard him more distinctly. Nevertheless, it was a highly enjoyable set of music that was so different from the rest of the music of the weekend, but still had a ring of familiarity to it.
Tuck & Patti, Wheeler Room @ Hotel Jerome
Next, it was back to the Hotel Jerome for a set by the venerable Tuck & Patti. The second married couple of the festival (Eliane Elias and Marc Johnson being the other one) played like they’d been together for 45 years (married for 41 of those).
Many, if not most, of the performers commented on the altitude and/or dry air. At 8,000 feet, singing, if you’re not used to the thin air, can be a bit of a challenge. Blowing a horn can be tough, or playing a guitar, or climbing stairs, especially if you’ve just traveled from sea level, which most of the performers did, wasn’t easy for many of them. As a veteran married couple, Tuck and Patti made no secret of how they look after each other. Between tunes, Patti checked to make sure Tuck had enough water. She also wanted to know if he had enough oxygen. He assured her he did.
Tuck & Patti’s breakthrough album was Tears of Joy (Windam Hill, 1988). Back in the ‘80s, artists recording on the Windham Hill label often got pigeon-holed into the “New Age” category which was a genre many jazz lovers looked down upon. But Tuck & Patti didn’t fit that mold. One reason was the remarkable guitar talents of Tuck Andress who had complete mastery of the instrument and took it places few other players could go. Another reason was the sultry, powerful
voice of Patti Cathcart. A third reason was the duo’s selection of material. They played some original compositions, but they also covered jazz masters such as Bob Dorough, Wes Montgomery and the Gershwin Brothers. They also covered more contemporary artists like Stevie Wonder, Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles.
Their set Saturday night followed a similar pattern. They kicked off their set with “Yeh, Yeh,” a tune written by Jon Hendricks and others and first performed by Mongo Santamaria. Also in the set was “O Cantador” by Dori Caymmi, and an original from that early album, “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright.”
Patti took a break, most likely to catch her breath, and Tuck took over. He talked about how he fell in love with the music of Thelonious Monk as a youth and he would listen to Monk’s music all night, even while he was sleeping, on a reel-to-reel tape recorder. The Monk tune he chose for Saturday night was the beautiful “Round Midnight.” Monk tunes are most commonly covered by pianists, so it was fun to hear this one performed on a different instrument, especially one in the hands of a virtuoso like Andress.
One of those tough JAS choices came into play when we decided to leave Tuck & Patti before they completed their set so we could skedaddle across town to claim a spot in the audience for The Greyboy Allstars at the Belly Up.
The Greyboy Allstars, Belly Up
The Greyboy Allstars were the act for the third night of JAS at the Belly Up. The band first got together 30 years ago as backup for DJ Greyboy, but they quickly lit out on their own. They haven’t played together continually all that time because of side projects and such. But during that time, they’ve released about seven albums and they’ve played thousands of concerts.
After all that time, it’s obvious that they still have a ton of fun playing that funky music. And all that time together means razor-sharp execution. Front-man Karl Denson sings and plays alto and tenor sax as well as flute. Denson has had multitude side projects over the years including Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe. He’s been in the Rolling Stones’ touring band. He’s played with Lenny Kravitz. He’s also worked with such diverse artists as Jack DeJohnette, Dave Holland, Blackalicious, the Blind Boys of Alabama and more.
Original drummer Zak Najor left the band in 2007 and was eventually replaced by current drummer Aaron Redfield. Other than that, the lineup has remained the same, leading to precise execution of one low-down funky groove after another.
Gearhead note: three different bands played on three different nights at the Belly Up. Each featured a Hammond B-3 organ. Righteous!
Karl Denson, vocals, saxes, flute
Elgin Park, guitar, vocals
Chris Stillwell, bass, vocals
Robert Walter, keyboards
Aaron Redfield, drums
Jeff Hamilton Trio, Limelight Hotel
Many of the bands at JAS played music that was a combination of many different styles and influences. The music of the Jeff Hamilton Trio was straightforward, as in straight-ahead jazz. Of course, even that musical form is the result of mixing and matching over the years. Bebop, swing and the blues factored heavily into the trio’s set.
Not surprisingly, for a band like this, they dug into the bag of jazz standards and pulled out tunes like “Thou Swell” and “Falling in Love with Love.” They also played an original composition by bass player Jon Hamar entitled “The Barn.” The highlight, however, was the set closer, The Canadiana Suite by Oscar Peterson. Hamilton spent five years as Peterson’s drummer, and he told stories about his time with the piano great. The Canadiana Suite is a collection of Peterson’s compositions paying tribute to his native country. The suite was inspired by his travels across Canada. The tunes ranged from bluesy to swinging and often both.
The trio’s pianist was Tamir Hendelman who had big shoes to fill when playing that Oscar Peterson material. He slipped right into those shoes like they were his well-worn bedroom slippers and did complete justice to Peterson’s compositions. Hendelman is a leader of his own trio and has played with the Jeff Hamilton Trio since the year 2000. He has two CDs under his own name and plays in many other contexts including as a member of the Clayton Hamilton Jazz Orchestra (another Jeff Hamilton project) and he has backed several jazz singers including Roberta Gambarini, Diana Krall and Jackie Ryan. Hamar also spends some time with the Clayton Hamilton Jazz Orchestra and he’s on the faculty of the University of Tennessee.
Hamilton is one of the most solid and in-demand jazz drummers on the scene today. Saturday night he demonstrated his enthusiasm for jazz and drumming with his between-song banter, regaling the crowd with stories about jazz and the many famous figures he’s worked with as well as talking about his current bandmates. His playing was marked by a continual search for just the right sound. He used sticks, brushes, the handles of the brushes, his hands, and a couple of times, he pressed on the drumhead with one hand to alter the pitch and play a littler percussion melody.
After all the greasy, gritty funk and low-down blues earlier in the festival, this was a great contrast. The Jeff Hamilton Trio is a study in swinging sophistication. And each band member wore a suit and tie.
Kevin Burt, Bad Harriet’s @ Hotel Jerome
Kevin Burt appeared as a solo act. He has some recordings with a backing band, but for JAS, all he needed was his guitar, his voice and his personality.
And it’s a remarkable voice. His multi-octave range is matched by few singers, and he uses it to wring every available drop of emotion from the songs he sings. The program featured covers of well-known rock and R&B songs.
For his set that closed out JAS June Experience, he included two Bill Withers songs, “The Same Love That Made Me Laugh” and the better-known “Ain’t No Sunshine.” The Withers material was a good choice for Burt because his voice has a similar timbre.
Burt isn’t one to perform carbon copies of the hits. He significantly rearranges the tunes and stamps them with his own persona. A fine example of that was his version of “All Along the Watchtower,” a Bob Dylan tune popularized by Jimi Hendrix. Before he launched into it, he talked about how he had viewed the song as being about friends drinking in a bar. I had always thought of the lyrics as more sweeping and perhaps describing intrigue in a royal court of ancient Europe. But Burt stated his case musically and it made some sense.
He touched on current politics and social justice with his introduction to “It’s a Wonderful World” and he marveled at how Louis Armstrong could write and perform such an optimistic song while he was personally subject to such bigotry, sometimes at the hands of the very people for whom he performed. Burt got into some blues with Robert Cray’s “The Dream” and “Messin’ with The Kid.”
He spent a bit of time talking about his custom Delaney guitar. He said he’d been in contact with Mike Delaney for some time trying to get him to build a guitar to Burt’s specifications. Finally, during COVID, Delaney agreed and when he did, Burt had him dedicate the guitar to Burt’s daughter. A future custom guitar will reference not only his daughter but his wife as well. That way, said Burt, when he plays the guitar, he can hold his family in his arms.
Burt closed with a song he insisted was a blues tune. It turned out to be the Doobie Brothers’ “Long Train Running.”
Where would you be now?
Eleven bands in three nights. That’s probably not any kind of record for a music marathon, but it was highly satisfying not just in terms of quantity, but also the high quality and variety of music.
If there’s any regret at all, it’s the performers left on the table, the ones I just couldn’t get to: Monophonics, Tony Monaco, Lucia Micarelli & Leo Amuedo, Cha Wa, Lisa Fischer and that doesn’t even include the VIP only performances: Veronica Swift, Rebirth Brass Band, Django Festival Allstars and Naturally 7.
But there’s no need to dwell on what was missed when the bands I caught were so consistently engaging and the setting, in the beautiful Colorado Rockies, was simply outstanding.
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