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Published: 2013/11/15
by Stuart Raper

Jazz & Colors, Central Park, New York, NY- 11/9

Photo by Marc Millman

The Jazz and Colors of Central Park

This past Saturday, visitors to Manhattan’s Central Park were blessed with more than just lovely crisp autumn weather and beautiful fall foliage, as 30 jazz ensembles, all with their own unique styles, filled the park with their amazing musical sounds for a wondrous four hours. Under a blue sky streaked with clouds, and the park raining leaves of immaculate color, those in attendance couldn’t have asked for a more lovely setting to enjoy such an incredible array of musicians.

Though the artists represented many eclectic styles of jazz, they were all given the same setlist, made up of some of the most legendary compositions the art form has ever produced, to interpret in their own ways. This was an enlightening testament to the nature of this art form, giving fans the chance to hear songs like “Caravan” and “So What” played by everything from klezmer groups, to afro-latin orchestras and soul-jazz groovers, amongst so much more.

Getting off at the Colombus Cirlce subway stop, I attempted to bee-line it straight for Phil Lesh’s impromptu set, however found myself forced to slow my pace a tad bit as I passed by Eric Lewis’ ELEW and Nature Of The Next, then once more as I crossed over Pinebank Arch and saw the Jason Marshal Quintet with Ed Cherry on guitar. When I finally got to Phil, though I only caught the tail end of his jam, it was still a dream come true. As a lifelong deadhead and jazz lover, this was surreal. With a crowd of maybe 100-150 gathered around, the great Phil Lesh stood there, between Sheep Meadow and Literary Walk, the skyscrapers of Manhattan behind him, surrounded by the vibrant colors of Central Park’s foliage, with a look of joy on his face as he, longtime Furthur bandmate, Joe Russo, and his brand new acquaintance, guitar whiz Eric Krasno, jammed through an improvised groove that was a thing of beauty. All present, musicians and onlookers alike shared the joy emanating from Phil’s face and his instrument. There was no rehearsal for this, no pre-conceived setlist, Krasno told me he’d never even met Phil before, this was just pure spontaneous energy emanating through the music. Lesh rarely, if ever, plays in a trio setting and it was quite thrilling to watch him be pushed by Russo and Krasno’s incredible energy and to watch them feed off Phil’s individualistic bass style. It was one of those moments in a life spent chasing live music that will resonate with me forever, and it was still just the icing on the cake for what was an illustrious day of musical artistry.

I left this performance feeling like I’d just witnessed some kind of miracle, but the best part about it was that there was still so much more to see. Wandering back towards Pinebank Arch, I revisited Jason Marshall’s Quintet with Ed Cherry on guitar as they gave a wonderful soul-jazz groove-oriented take on Gershwin’s “A Foggy Day In London Town.” I’ve seen Marshal and Cherry perform together as part of Dr. Lonnie Smith’s In The Beginning Octet, therefore I was familiar with their skills, but I really enjoyed seeing them play together with their own band. Jason Marshal’s one of the young forerunners of the NYC jazz scene, while Ed Cherry’s been around for a bit longer, having played with Dizzy Gillespie and many other seminal New York jazz icons over the years. Having only seen them perform in tiny jazz clubs, this was a fresh setting and one that seemed to inspire them further so.

From here I retraced my steps back to catch some more of Eric Lewis’ ELEW and Nature Of The Next. This band, kept it tight and funky, with fabulous upright bass player propelling the groove under a breakbeat infused jazz drumbeat and Eric Lewis banging on his piano like it was a conga drum or an electric clav, even going beyond the keys themselves by hitting the piano wires behind them and illustrating to us all why the piano is technically considered a percussion instrument. Their set was very hip and I really dug their take on “We Live In Brooklyn Baby.” Nature of the Next was quite a suiting title for this group because they were on some next level vibes, pushing the music further into new territory, very cool indeed.

Attempting to take as much advantage as I could out of this event I headed over to enjoy a different setting and sound by catching Frank London’s Klezmer Brass Allstars perform amongst the lovely elm trees of Central Park’s Olmsted Bed. By this time the planned setlist had ended and the groups were all performing original material. London’s band captured the energy of the New Orleans style of brass bands with the technical nuances of klezmer music and did so quite masterfully. Though only 50 yards or so from the previous artists I’d been listening to earlier, their music was worlds apart in their sound bringing a celebrated diversity to the event. From klezmer I moved to latin, closing out my day at the lovely Nauremberg Bandshell with Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra. This band was firing on all cylinders as O’Farrill led the 20(+) musicians with graceful precision from his piano bench, which he barely sat down on. With drums, percussion, strings and plenty of horns this band was quite a musical force to witness. They were razor-sharp with their compositions and delivery, solidifying my reasoning as to why this ensemble is one of the leaders of the Afro-Latin sound in New York City these days. It was a splendid way to close out such an extraordinary day of music.

I’ve been to music festivals all over the world and Jazz & Colors will forever stand alone in my memory as one of the most enjoyable oases a music lover could ever hope to stumble across. The setting, the talent, the sights and sounds were unparalleled in their beauty. I’d never had the privilege of visiting Central Park in autumn before, much less be blessed enough to do so when its filled with music. I saw so many spectacular musicians in this one day and I still barely even began to scratch the surface of all the wonders that this event presented. I pray that this continues to be an annual happening and that the city of New York and all that come to visit it can enjoy this marvelous festival for generations to come.

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