Concord Jazz Festival

Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Chekere

On Friday, July 27th I had the biggest musical experience of my life so far, and I want to write some things down about it so that I'll remember them and to save myself from re-telling it to people. Here's the skinny.

. . .

4:00 PM — I arrive and start setting up. I'm early, because, being the drummer, I'm the one in the band with the most to set up. Traffic is, for once, not a big deal, so I get there earlier than I expect. No one seems to know what to do with me. I find out we are opening for an opening act (Karrin Allyson), who is opening for Chick, who is opening for Poncho. All this, and some of the stage crew didn't know who we were. The rest of the band starts showing up over the next hour.

5:30 PM — Almost everyone's here from my group. I meet Jeff Ballard, Chick's drummer, who lives up to everything I've heard about him. He's young, probably 30 or so, very approachable and easy going. My drums are ready to roll, Jeff's aren't. Since he's traveling all over the world with Chick, he doesn't bring drums. The venues rent drums for him; he just brings cymbals and a snare. This works great, as long as the store providing the drums provides all the hardware. This store didn't do that. The Concord people finally dig up some hardware that works, but not before asking me three or four times: do you play Yamaha drums? No. Eventually they're set up and ready to sound check.

6:30 PM — Jeff and Avishai Cohen, the bass player, sound check. They jam for a while on stage, doing whatever they want to keep the sound rolling. They're hot. The rest of us start to sweat a little bit. Since Chick isn't there yet, Aaron is asked by the sound guys to sit in with Jeff and Avishai on the piano. I'm not sure how he feels about that, but he keeps up easily. Everyone shoots photos of the whole thing. Aaron Doing His Chick Impression

The rest of the people who are here do their sound checks. We find out that Karrin Allyson has Mulgrew Miller playing piano. He walks in and everyone freaks out, many gravitating to him to watch him sound check. A few of us try to stay back a little bit, but still love it. Mulgrew is regarded as one of the best pianists around, and he played for years with Tony Williams, who is one of my all-time favorites, so his presence is powerful.

Sameer Gupta, the other drummer in our group, arrives. He had the wrong directions to the venue, but makes it in plenty of time considering everything seems to be behind schedule. We get him set up and we're ready to play when we thought we'd be allowed to start: 6:30. Sound checks aren't done, so we have to wait.

6:50 PM — Still waiting. Now the piano's being tuned. Every minute the tuner takes is a minute out of our playing time. No one is going to let a bunch of unproven kids cut into the "real" players' time. The piano tuner knows we're hungry for action, but there's nothing he can do: the pianists have written in their contracts that the piano must be tuned immediately before they perform, or as much as possible. Aaron doesn't even get to play the big boys' piano, but it's Baldwin nine-foot concert grand, so he doesn't mind. We wait.

7:00 PM — The piano tuner, sweating profusely, finishes his duty. We cut our first two tunes from our set list to make sure we come in at the 25 minute mark, where the stage crew has told us we have to finish. We're on.

Us Playing Reconciliation

7:25 PM — About a minute before we're finished, someone from the stage starts bugging Damon, our bass player, and Aaron the pianist. Damon ignores them, Aaron suggests that the gentleman spend the last minute of our set copulating with himself. He apparently takes the hint, and we wrap it up. We're nervous, but I think we sound good. The one or two thousand people there give us some love, and we're off. You can judge for yourself how we sounded.

. . .

Ben And MeThroughout the next several hours, we hear lots of things: praise from friends and family who were there, Karrin's music, people asking if "Chikeria is coming out here; I have this old record for him to sign," and lots more. Chick's new trio tears it up. Four years of touring together, combined with virtuistic talent and hard work, make for a brilliant band. I highly recommend picking up their CD, but to really appreciate them, you need to see a performance. Unfortunately, once this tour finishes up, which it soon will, Chick is taking a break until next May or so (according to Jeff). The disc will have to do for the moment, but Avishai and Jeff will both continue playing, and both are well worth seeing. Look for Jeff playing with Kurt Rosenwinkel and his own group, and Avishai with his International Vamp Band.

Poncho's band goes on last, and they also tear the roof off. I've been learning about salsa and latin jazz over the past six months, so being able to watch Poncho and Ramon Banda, his timbal player, is especially cool for me. Again, buy his records if you think afro-cuban music is something that interests you. Buy them anyway. Damon, Francisco (our guitarist), and all the rest of us backstage are dancing around to the mile-deep groove Poncho's band lays down. One of the highlights is the chekere breakdown in the last tune, where almost everyone in the band plays a chekere (pronounced SHAY-ker-ay, here's a picture) together. As they introduce the band, they play little snippets of songs like Who Let The Dogs Out? and the Entertainment Tonight theme song, very cute. By 11:30, all the music is finished. But the night is young.

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