Saratoga Jazz Festival

Return to Forever takes a bow after their headline set at the Saratoga Jazz Festival
Return to Forever takes a bow after their headline set at the Saratoga Jazz Festival

The second part of my summer vacation brought us to the Saratoga Jazz Festival. This was my first trip to the event, which has become a tradition for the Hewitts and their friends. A tradition that involves far more than just watching good music, as I would soon find out.

Dave leads the drum jam
Dave leads the drum jam

Everyone buys tickets for good seats inside the amphitheater, but we also try to snag a spot on the lawn, under the pedestrian bridge that goes up to the balcony area. Getting this spot usually involves a mad dash at the moment they open the gates, but I was somehow able to avoid being drafted for the task of “running the tarp.” Once we got the spot, everyone pulled out their drums and got a huge drum circle going between acts on the main stage. Everyone around us joined in to dance and shake something, and of course the more people involved, the less cohesive the jam, but nobody seemed to mind.

As for the music that everybody came to see, the lineup did not disappoint. Return to Forever was the Saturday night headliner and they were as impressive as ever. Although, since was a shortened festival set, I would have preferred they skip the lengthy solo pieces and played a few more group songs. I would have died for a Senor Mouse.

Other highlights from Saturday included Chris Botti, Conrad Herwig’s Latin Side (seen above) and the Saxophone Summit of Joe Lovano, Dave Liebman and Ravi Coltrane. Sunday’s main stage highlight for me was Terence Blanchard’s haunting set of music inspired by post-Katrina New Orleans. I spent the rest of Sunday at the Garden stage, which featured tight performances by the Brubeck Brothers and the Aaron Goldberg Trio. Check out this drum solo:

I had a great time seeing all of this magnificent music and meeting some very friendly people. A much belated thank you to Paul, Lorraine, Glen, Terry, Bob, Dave and everyone else who made me feel like one of the gang. And of course to Scott and Doug for making me a part of their family tradition.

Drum Guys Dave and Mike seek shelter from a brief downpour
Drum Guys Dave and Mike

Project: Hewitt

Scott Hewitt at the doorway of creation

In a year full of musical highlights, the ones that I believe will stand out the most occurred during a week-long visit to the Berkshires. My dear friend Scott Hewitt invited me along on a working vacation to put the finishing touches on his “vanity project” of original songs. After a few days of recording at his brother’s studio in Amherst, MA, we’d spend the weekend at the Saratoga Jazz Festival. I kept a mini-journal and took plenty of photos, even some video.

Scott had a few days’ head start on me, so by the time I arrived at Watercourse Studios, he had already done most of the guitar and bass work. After catching up on a little sleep, we went on a mission to borrow some drums from Lorraine and started adding my parts. Our goal was to come away with four new recordings and add some drums to a track or two that Scott had started two summers ago on his last trip to Doug’s.

Way Across the Water is a song Scott wrote years ago that was once a staple of the Verge of Something repertoire, so its calypso rhythm was very familiar to me but still a challenge to synch with the track. I was very comfortable with Norman’s Song as well. It’s one of Scott’s newer ones, but it swings with a groove that Scott and I have honed for years.


Taking the borrowed drums for a test drive while Doug gets the mics in place

I found the other tracks to be far more challenging. Another Bend in the Road is a song that Mystic Canyon plays, so my percussion part has always been more decorative. Here I had to relearn it and provide the rhythmic momentum. Before the Duel was the wild card; we had no idea how this would turn out. We decided to keep it simple with a slow heartbeat that became increasingly rapid toward the end. That simplicity left surprisingly little margin for error.

We got a lot of the drums down on Day 1 and finished them on Day 2, including take after take of silly arhythmic fills for Scott’s old ditty Razzy Hat. The rest of Day 2 found Scott working on vocals and me working on a bottle of rum. I took one late night stab at a backing vocal track for Way Across the Water before we all agreed we needed fresh ears in the morning.

Imagine Doug’s surprise when my first vocal track on Day 3 was nearly indistinguishable from my rum-soaked take 9 hours earlier. He decided to keep them both as stereo harmonies. I added harmonies to a few more songs and a harmonica solo on Before the Duel that unexpectedly took only two takes. Scott added a guitar solo to his beautiful jazz ballad Elsewhere and we wrapped the session just in time to host a party for Doug’s friends.

The Zen Cats ride again - Doug and Scott Hewitt
The Zen Cats ride again - Doug and Scott Hewitt jam at the "Wrap Party"

Of course, it would not be a Hewitt party without some music, and everyone joined in the jam. The recording process had given me a different perspective, as I remember catching details that might have otherwise faded into the groove. Even after dozens of hours of dissecting and reassembling music, we still found the energy to jam into the wee hours. Luckily, Doug keeps a schedule that synchronizes well with our West Coast body clocks.

The next day we took off for Saratoga Springs, but that is a story for another time. Until then, I hope you check out Scott’s Myspace to hear the fruits of our labor.

Theeeey’re Baaaaack!

Phish announced today that they will be reuniting for 3 shows next March at the Hampton Coliseum. And while this is exciting news, you might be surprised that I am not bouncing around the room, desperately trying to figure out a plan to be there. Once upon a time, I would have been all over this, but now I can think of more reasons to stay home than to go.

  • The scene in Hampton is going to be insane. Hotels are already sold out before a single ticket has been sold. There could easily be twice as many people outside as inside, and there are just too many people I’ve encountered who feel they deserve to see the band more than the next guy. I feel bad for the newbies who will be trying to see them for the first time.

    Phish Returns
    Phish Returns
  • They’ve said there will be more touring announced early next year, so I can’t imagine them not returning to the Gorge. And for me, five hours in a car beats five hours in a plane.
  • Given the insane demand, there could be another simulcast, which I really enjoyed for Coventry.
  • Speaking of Coventry, I am sure they wouldn’t even be announcing this if they were not confident that they could give a better performance. But nothing post-first-hiatus really came close to the buzz that I used to travel great distances to feel.
  • I got over the breakup pretty quickly and moved on to other amazing music. I learned to seek that buzz in my own playing.

Ironically, I am far better able to afford such an excursion than I was 10 years ago when I was travelling to Virginia, Massachusetts, Wisconsin and Las Vegas to see my favorite band at the top of their game. And much to my surprise, when I told Donna the news (fully expecting a groan and a roll of the eyes) she was ready to book the trip for both of us until I told her I wasn’t really suggesting that. Even with the means and the opportunity, I’d rather sit this one out. But next summer, West Coast Run? Yeah, I’m probably there.