Music » Echo

Blues and Jazz Festival

Penn Valley Park -- Friday, July 21, 2000

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This year's Friday night Blues and Jazz Festival kickoff couldn't have run more smoothly. The weather was perfect; the park was, despite obvious construction on Liberty Memorial, well kept; the food vendors were out en masse; and the bands simply defied comparison. The Blues and Jazz Festival seems to be getting better and better ever year. It's something metro-dwelling citizens can be proud to call their own and, more important, witness for themselves.

Of course, actually participating in the event is also acceptable. One local band that did so was the blues stage opening act, Four Fried Chickens & A Coke. If this name seems vague and undecipherable, then you're probably not as much of a Blues Brothers fan as these guys obviously are. The members of this large band outfit themselves in black slacks, ties, and fedoras while playing a mean amalgamation of jump-jazz, R&B, soul, and funk -- just like their big-screen counterparts. Certain signature numbers, such as Junior Wells' "Messin' With The Kid" and Sam & Dave's "Soul Man," were obvious choices that nonetheless proved appealing. A Stevie Wonder/Tower Of Power medley was equally enthralling, as was a spicy original tune. This band has an effective blueprint, but here's hoping they add more of their own creations to their solid existing repertoire.

Next up on the blues stage was Louisiana-by-way-of-Nashville's Big Al & The Heavyweights. They stirred up a bluesy zydeco gumbo, then jumped styles quite a bit, with all of the dishes coming out equally tasty. Seeing that they had four albums of original material to choose from, they certainly had enough ingredients to spice up the late-afternoon crowd that was still spilling into the park. The Heavyweights sprinkled some great voodoo magic on the Kansas City fans with such songs as "Mardi Gras Mambo," "Red's Nuts," and "I Must've Had A Real Good Time."

The Heritage stage was my next stop, just to catch legendary native Claude "Fiddler" Williams unspool a lifetime's worth of exceptional music. Born in 1908, Williams has been playing in and around the Kansas City area since the 1920s. The Kansas City Jazz Ambassadors chose to give him a plaque to commemorate his vast achievements before the set began, which framed the event rather nicely.

Recognizing great local talent might or might not be what the festival is about, but the event's organizers seem to go out of their way to highlight local talent. Kansas City's musical heritage is epic, and every year that passes increases the likelihood that another lion like Williams might not be around to share his precious gifts, so any and all accolades are appropriate and well-deserved.

Williams' set was a sprinkling of great swing numbers, such as Duke Ellington's

"In A Mellow Tone" and Kansas Citian Benny Moton's "Moton's Swing." His solos were smooth and on the money, as were his guests, pianist Henry Butler and saxophonist Bobby Watson. Williams even got around to singing a number, "I Can Give You

Anything But Love," and his voice sounded as marvelous as his violin playing.

Meanwhile, over on the jazz stage, the Ravi Coltrane Quartet was in the middle of its set. The son of legendary sax man John Coltrane, Ravi had some pretty big shoes to fill. He went a long way to prove the shoe fits Friday night, nimbly flexing his muscular mastery of the instrument he and his father call friend, fearlessly plunging headfirst into epic solos and intricate song structures as bravely as Dad did back in the day.

Next up on the jazz stage was Medeski, Martin, & Wood, a frightfully funky organ-based jazz ensemble. Over the past decade, the trio has made a name for itself by combining the soulful organic soul of, say, Jimmy Smith, with the experimental flavor of the Sun Ra Arkestra to great result. Imagine Booker T fronting Phish, and you'd be playing with some of the fire this three-piece brings to the party. In fact, the field seemed covered with fans of Phish, who've had a long-standing appreciation of Medeski, Martin, & Wood's abilities. Its set did not disappoint, careening between space-age sci-fi funk and gutbucket soul as the group's young, grungy glow-stick-twirling appreciation society kept moving until shortly after midnight.

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