Concert Review: Friday and Saturday Night at WasFest — Reanimating the Past

By Paul Robicheau

WasFest was a unique spread of mostly Blue Note artists covering classic albums of either their own or their inspirations, and the first two nights offered a range of jazz permutations.

Don Was had an easy gig this weekend. The former bassist of ’80s band Was (Not Was), producer for icons like the Rolling Stones and Bonnie Raitt, and decade-long president of Blue Note Records, simply showed up at the Boch Shubert Theatre each night to introduce bills he curated for WasFest. Presented in conjunction with the Boch Center’s Folk Americana Roots Hall of Fame, it was a unique spread of mostly Blue Note artists covering classic albums of either their own or their inspirations, and the first two nights offered a range of jazz permutations.

Friday – The Robert Glasper Experiment and Meshell Ndegeocello

Meshell Ndegeocello at the Shubert for WasFest. Photo: Paul Robicheau

WasFest offered a sort of comeback stage for singer/songwriter/bassist/producer Meshell Ndegeocello in the wake of her excellent Blue Note debut The Omnichord Real Book, except she was there to perform her acclaimed 1993 debut Plantation Lullabies. Faced with recreating a 30-year-old album of some songs she hadn’t addressed for decades, Ndegeocello took a retrenched stance with her R&B fusion on the Shubert stage. She chose to sit through the entire 80-minute set, flanked by two male singers and a five-piece band, including a bassist who deferred when Ndegeocello finally picked up the bass on a stand next to her to play just one song.

In turn, the singer seemed tentative early on, her low-toned vocals slipping into a murky zone (similar to on record), even in the snappy “If That’s Your Boyfriend (He Wasn’t Last Night).” But the Virginia native eventually loosened up, helped by her joyful reminiscences of what inspired those songs, particularly her discovery of Afrocentric poetry, diversity, and love in New York City before the inspired funk glide of “Step into the Projects.” Even better was an animated “Soul on Ice,” and she finally dipped into her new album for the cosmos-musing march “Virgo.”

Robert Glasper, a pianist with a foot in both jazz and R&B/hip-hop (particularly in his collaborators), began his set with frisky bravado, sharing the circumstances for tackling his Black Radio project. Glasper said he cancelled the sessions for 2012’s first in a trio of Black Radio albums three times before guests’ schedules aligned, forcing him to cut a European tour to return to the studio. And everything was done in one take, he said, except for the title track that involved mushrooms…

Naturally it was worth it then (even earning a Grammy Award), as was his cameo-boosted set at WasFest, which largely drew its Black Radio tunes from the debut disc, starting with “Gonna Be Alright (F.T.B.).” Granted, given Glasper’s modest vocal over his stripped-back chording, that song didn’t match its recorded version with Ledisi. But his band featured impeccable musicians in bassist Burniss Travis, DJ Jahi Sundance, and drummer Chris Dave, who accented his tight backbeats with tricky rimshots and cymbals that curved and hung around him like a sculpture garden.

It also wasn’t long until the guest parade, starting with relative unknown STOUT, whose high-flying vocal display suggested a stylistic cross between Mary J. Blige and Dianne Reeves. In a coup de grace, STOUT wound from Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro-Blue” to a gymnastic interpolation of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

Robert Glasper Experiment with STOUT at the Shubert for WasFest. Photo: Paul-Robicheau

Longtime Glasper associate Bilal had a tough act to follow, but acquitted himself well on David Bowie’s “Letter to Hermione,” his lilting voice able to climb to high-register cries when the occasion arose. Bilal returned during Ndegeocello’s cameo for “The Consequences of Jealousy” (where she paced the stage in stocking feet) to jointly croon “Sweet devotion” at the end. The established warmth among the artists extended to Ndegeocello’s playful banter with Glasper over her jealousy for his better stage speaker until he pointed out that she was the one with a tour bus.

Alas, it was getting late when Stokley emerged to sing “Heaven’s Here” with a dreamy, romantic approach that felt anti-climactic. By the time he borrowed a drumstick to dabble in a percussion duet by tapping a bongo in Chris Dave’s kit, the concert was headed for the four-hour mark. And the weekend was just beginning.

Saturday – Julian Lage Quartet with John Medeski and the Gerald Clayton Quintet

Harish Raghavan, Ambrose Akinmusire, and Immanuel Wilkins performing Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil at the Shubert for WasFest. Photo: Paul Robicheau

WasFest offered a rare opportunity for jazz musicians and fans to move from the clubs to an ornate theater — and this was a night for covering mid-’60s classics whose specialized allure apparently filtered into a Shubert audience two-thirds the size of Friday’s robust crossover crowd. However, the ensembles assembled on Saturday to visit vintage works by Wayne Shorter and Grant Green presented a novel, balanced mix of talents uniquely suited to intriguing interpretations.

The Gerald Clayton Quintet was already planning to perform Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil before Shorter’s recent death, which may have added solemnity to the occasion of playing what Don Was called the “crown jewel” of his catalog. The quintet — which was comprised of fine bandleaders unto themselves — certainly remained sensitive and reverent to the music from a grandstanding-free album that seamlessly married hard bop and harmony ahead of the fusion era.

Immanuel Wilkins wove rich, smooth lines on alto sax rather than tenor like Shorter, while trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire supplemented his own rounded tone with rippling highs on opener “Witch Hunt” and added pinched notes in a solo prelude to Clayton’s twinkling melody in “Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum,” which sealed a dynamic complement. Kendrick Scott displayed unerring tactile subtlety in every touch to his drums and cymbals (a step lighter than Elvin Jones, who took his own restrained role on the record) even before a solo where Scott employed only his palms and fingertips. And the ballad “Infant Eyes” served a showcase for softer alto over beautiful piano, plus a bass solo where the group textures parted for Harish Raghavan to poke the upper register of his upright with teasing pizzicato stabs before the quintet picked up the pace to finish with harmonized horns.

Julian Lage Quartet, with John Medeski, at the Shubert for WasFest. Photo: Paul Robicheau

The Julian Lage Quartet played more outside the lines in its approach to Grant Green’s Street of Dreams, alternating that short album’s four tracks with guitarist Lage’s own selections, which were inspired by listening to Green in his youth. Although Green played a hollow-body, Lage brought a similar sunny joy to his Telecaster accents in Green’s “I Wish You Love,” offset by guest John Medeski’s scampering Hammond B-3, which injected the period sound of an organ trio — except Medeski was freed by the rhythmic role of Jorge Roeder’s upright bass.

Then it was off to the races, as technique flipped from traditional to modern, back again, and in between. Lage’s “Speak to Me” adopted a brisk rhythm where the guitarist slid into gnarly cycles of barbed notes and sharply lashed chords. In turn, Medeski stacked chords from another planet to transform his organ into eerie, kaleidoscopic clouds that finally settled into the melodic bed of Green’s “Lazy Afternoon.” Lage’s “Two in One” began with a churchy feel before shifting into nimble guitar runs and a decidedly dancing swing from drummer Dave King, who played in a crisp, more straightforward way than in his frisky role in the Bad Plus. The cheery mood of Grant Green remained, but this group was having its own fun.

Paul Robicheau served more than 20 years as contributing editor for music at the Improper Bostonian in addition to writing and photography for the Boston Globe, Rolling Stone, and many other publications. He was also the founding arts editor of Boston Metro.

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