Everything I saw this weekend was as good as anything I’ve seen in the twenty years I’ve been going to the Sacramento Music Festival.
Known originally as the Old Sacramento Dixeland Jazz Jubilee, for which I did a lot of public relations volunteering in the early years, this year’s festival marks the inclusion of a wider array of music genres. Wanting to sample at least a little of each of the genres represented (blues, swing, Dixie, Cajun, zydeco, bluegrass, ragtime, jazz, big band, Latin, country, rock and more), I walked around Old Sacramento tasting the musical flavors of each.
On Friday, the gigs I attended were traditional, experimental, and vibrant. That’s what jazz is at its essence–experimentation in a somewhat formularized way on tunes that have been widely popular in American bars, clubs, cabarets, and concerts over the last century.
The Beth Duncan Jazz Quintet and Clint Baker’s Hot Five are two gigs that are about as different as it gets. Beth Duncan and her threesome were in a cabaret setting in the Golden Eagle Dining Room above the Firehouse Restaurant, which seats about 60 and has great acoustics. These four–Beth on vocals, Steve Homan on guitar, Jeff Minneweather on drums, and Matt Robinson on bass–were very happy playing together. Singing their arrangements from their “hymnbooks”, the group improvises, which means they only looked down at their music stands long enough to get the first few lines right.
Duncan has a great way of working with the audience. Her facial expressions are myriad and follow the lyrics very closely. Steve Homan is great as a laid back riff make on guitar. He has been a player for at least 20 years of this festival, and has spent almost just as many teaching jazz to youth at CSUS. Bassist Robinson is highly involved with his compatriots–always looking for cues to generate emphasis and to provide backup thorough bass harmony. Their ensemble provides the classics done their own way for a knowing crowd. (See them in action with the clip posted here).
Clint Baker’s Hot Five brought the ghost of former San Francisco bandleader Turk Murphy to the Paddle Wheel Saloon on the tail end of the Delta King. This venue sports a medium sized space with both a great view of the river and a postage stamp sized dance floor, peopled with expert Dixieland dancers. Baker brought up at least four extra musicians from San Francisco, none of whom needed any music stands. Especially fine were a banjo strummer and a piano player who got as much bass and treble as I have ever seen, without drowning out the medley. Baker is a master of anecdote and backgrounded every song with composer and players, even with Louis Armstrong’s role in the song “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate”. He didn’t miss a note or vocal line anywhere. (Get a taste of their talent with the video posted here).
There was great food venues in every lot and plenty of choices on the streets. At Graciano’s alley courtyard, I heard Kyle Roland sitting in on a local quartet made up of his former instructor at Sac City College and three others who play there on Sunday nights. He played four serious blues numbers, totally unrehearsed. I got him on my checklist for next year. I also ate a great Po Boy.
Toward the end of the festival, I watched and heard the Au Brothers playing on the Delta King. They are New York artists now, but started here and got a lot of guidance from the local Sacramento Traditional Jazz Society. They write a lot of their own material and sing it loud and clear. Every seat was taken and seasoned swing dancers delighted guests on the polished floor.
The crowds at the festival were big and filled up the large venues, while the smaller venues were at capacity with small lines. As to the Festival tech support, I watched the setup on Friday morning–very organized, on time and sympathetic to customers. The sound systems didn’t interfere with other venues (with the exception of the Firehouse Courtyard) and were working at peak efficiency and capacity thanks to Skip’s Music and the Guitar Center.
As I left I heard the Cajun and zydeco group Tom Rigney and Flambeau at the Riverfront Refuge. The gig was all filled up, but I still got in and heard Rigney announce that the Sacramento Music Festival will be back the 43rd time in 2016. That’s news that makes us all happy. Rigney danced with delight and conducted with his fiddle bow, as he always does.
Photo by Jake Guild, CC Flickr