European Festivals Leveling Genres
With temperatures in Spain soaring north of 40 degrees Celsius in July, wildfires ripping across some very dry Iberian landscapes, and trains being canceled because the tracks were melting, it was supremely cool to visit San Sebastian. Located near the northern border with France and cooled by the Atlantic’s Bay of Biscay, this town is home to La Concha, the beach featured memorably in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. It is also home to a late July jazz festival.
As I wandered San Sebastian, crossing a bridge to the old part of town, I saw a gorgeous outdoor stage being put up. Posters on every corner of the area laid out a gloriously diverse six days, with musicians from around the world. Headliner/crowd-pleasers were in abundance (Herbie Hancock, Diana Krall, and Gregory Porter – but also Iggy Pop), up-and-coming saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin was on the program, and smaller mainstream swinging pianists Benny Green and Bruce Barth (with Terell Stafford on trumpet) had sweet slots, but so did New Jazz notables Craig Taborn and Steve Coleman with his Five Elements band.
The thrill of this scene is in how it has room for so many different styles, ignoring the need to market the festival as being for one kind of music fan. Perhaps it is particular to New York, but festivals in that jazz center rarely have that kind of range. Hiroshi was in San Sebastian, offering a smooth-ish fusion that might not appeal to Taborn aficionados, but maybe both sets of listeners need to think more broadly. International musicians that I don’t know were threaded through the program, suggesting even more diversity of sound and style.
The US Festival Everyone Is Talking About (Joni Mitchell’s Return)
Between the time my plane took off from Madrid to the time it landed in Washington DC, everyone I am connected to electronically seemed to be posting about only one topic: Joni Mitchell‘s surprise return to perform at the Newport Folk Festival, in a set organized by Brandi Carlile on Sunday, July 24th. Mitchell is a good of how music eschews categories and how the “American classical music” that has mostly been called “jazz” finds its way into so many collaborations. Mitchell’s reemergence in the last year at some tribute events has been thrilling. Her recent illnesses made most of us fear the worst. Now, suddenly, we were not only appreciating this brilliant songwriter and performer during her lifetime but also hearing her voice.
The videos from Carlile’s Newport “Joni Jam” are emotional but complicated. At her best, Mitchell could be masterful and even intimidating to other performers. Watching her teach her song “Coyote” to Bob Dylan and Roger McGuinn in Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder Review documentary is proof. The videos from Newport 2022 show Mitchell many years removed from performing, mostly being propped up by the other musicians, and they can be uncomfortable. The appreciative crowd cheers every time Mitchell gets off a line of a song without help, the cheering (to my ears) sounding like what you hear at the third-grade concert at your local elementary school.
I know this wasn’t the intention, but it is unfair to Mitchell that everyone is so awed by her in these moments. Sometimes the lines are beautifully sung, but they are just as often halting and unsure.
But. This all changes when Mitchell sings George Gershwin’s “Summertime”. Showing off her lower(ed) range but using unique phrasing, Mitchell carries the tune easily, so much so that Carlile’s interjections, the wordless vocal harmony, and the pianist who solos, are mainly in her way. I know that the Joni-heads out there will prefer the slightly disjointed versions of “Carey” and “Case of You”, but it is on this jazz standard that the 78-year-old Joni Mitchell can clearly express herself. As the crowd applauds seriously and the other musicians on stage give her a standing ovation, Mitchell girlishly smiles and laughs.
The Canadian singer-songwriter may be better known for her folky “Circle Game” and “Both Sides Now”, but at her mature height, she was a collaborator with Charles Mingus and Jaco Pastorius. And at this glorious, late date, she strikes me as more comfortable channeling Shirley Horn or Abbey Lincoln than Joan Baez. That’s not to say that her songwriting is not the greater achievement of her career. Nor is it to denigrate Carlile’s curation of the event, though her theatrical astonishment as she listens to Mitchell gets to be a bit much. Rather, it is a happy cheer for the fact that an artist as powerful and important as Mitchell is also a part of the lineage that includes Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday.
In Praise of Local Scenes: St. Louis’ John Covelli and the Hard Bop Messengers
The festival in San Sebastian featured Herbie Hancock, yes, but also plenty of more local musicians whose creativity and industry can be easy to overlook when your eye is trained on Los Angeles, New York, London, or other music hubs. In the US, any sizable town is filled with great musicians, and they aren’t all playing tired standards in bars while people drink. I recently dug into a hip and unusual recording from trombonist John Covelli, who lives in St. Louis, where he studied music at Webster University. (The jazz legacy of St. Louis need not be burnished: Miles Davis, Clark Terry, Julius Hemphill.) Hard Bop Messengers Live at the Last Hotel is a kind of concept album you don’t hear much anymore – a quintet (trombone, saxophone/flute, piano, bass, drums) with a singer, doing a set of hip tunes that tell a story about a band gigging in a mythic hotel (and, yes, before the pandemic, the HBM had just such a steady gig).
The music sits in that pocket once occupied by Horace Silver and his funky 1960s-1980s bands, and Covelli wrote lyrics for most of the tunes much like Silver once included singer Andy Bey in his sound. The idea is a little corny, maybe with lines like “Make the beds, fluff the pillows / Wipe it clean, the dust get rid of / All the mess, prepare the room for guests”. But get past that quibble – “Make the Beds” is a hopping ditty that brings you joy as it slice-of-life the world of a hotel, pianist Luke Sailor taking a snapping solo to kick it off and a sailing tenor solo from Ben Shafer delighting. When the singer Matt Krieg continues with “Didn’t use the iron but the ironing board is set up / Do I even want to know the truth?” you understand the simple wit that Covelli has slipped into every corner of the project.
Krieg is a purposefully modest singer, much closer to Mose Allison than Kurt Elling. But that is okay because he has personality and exudes the relaxed vibe of this project. A Love Supreme it is not. But listen to the skanky funk of “Standin’ Up Against the Wall”, with its punchy horn licks that are part Jazz Crusaders and part Fred Wesley/Maceo Parker. “Hello Robin” has a breezy and original melody that lilts and swings. And the instrumental track “Valet Rally” is a truly strong, more modern tune that channels a bit of Wayne Shorter or Andrew Hill while still creating a little pool of lyrical light. Covelli’s solo on this one is expressive and wise – leaving plenty of space and going just enough outside the harmonies to challenge your ears.
I don’t know that Live at the Last Hotel is must-listen stuff, and the recording quality sometimes gets in the way of its best ideas, muffling the horns’ natural brightness. But it is a wonderful, whimsical treat. It isn’t following a trend or rehashing something you already know from repetition. Listening beyond our usual boundaries, geographically or by association, brings these kinds of gems.