New Universe Music Festival: Day 2, November 21, 2010
To make the final evening of the first New Universe Music Festival even more special, a grand finale billed as an "All-Star Tribute to John McLaughlin" gave no indication of what that was to mean, of what shape it was going to take. With Gary Husband as the primary mover and shaker behind the eventorganizing the rehearsals, writing the charts and acting as the cordial MC who introduced each of the five tunes, culled from across McLaughlin's long careerrehearsal time was short, and so it was important to assess the performances for what they were: a tribute to a guitarist who has altered the shape of music, and whose legacy remains alive and evolving. They were far from perfect, and some were more successful than others, but it was the spirit that was most important, as almost everyone who performed at the festival received an opportunity to weigh in with their own interpretations of McLaughlin material.
The set opened well, with Husband on keys, leading a group that included guitarist Tom Guarna, Neal Fountain on bass, Mark Mondesir on drums, and Arto Tuncboyacian on percussion, for a powerful version of "Friendship," from Johnny McLaughlin: Electric Guitarist (Columbia, 1979). As the group switched, Husband and Tuncboyaciyan then performed an ethereal, improvised duet where the percussionist sang and whispered to great effect, bringing down the pace and atmosphere, so that when the two were joined by guitarist Wayne Krantz, drummers Mark Mondesir and Lenny White, keyboardist Matt Slocum and bassist Neal Fountain for a Mahavishnu Mark II tune that ultimately provided more promise than delivery, it was still thrilling for the audience, many of whom were too young to have ever had the opportunity to hear this music live back in the day.
As the line-up switched yet again, Tuncboyaciyan suddenly appeared singing and blowing into a bottle, with the kind of irreverent humor that's so fundamental to his own music. The percussionist was then joined by guitarist Alex Machacek, drummer Jeff Sipe, bassist Matthew Garrison and Husband on keys for a version of "Fallen Angels," from The Heart of Things (Verve, 1997)an album also featuring Garrisonwhich proved to be one of the better songs of the set, as Machacek approached the song with his own voice rather than trying to channel McLaughlin. The same could be said for Krantz when he joined the groupalong with Ranjit Barot and Cliff Almond taking over the drum chairsfor a fiery version of "Jazz Jungle," from 1995's The Promise (Verve), his playing a combination of quirky personal idiosyncrasy and McLaughlin-esque heat.
From left: Jimmy Herring, Gary Husband and Matt Slocum perform "Dance of the Maya"
The set closer was, perhaps, the tune that had the potential to light the biggest firea version of Mahavishnu Orchestra Mark I's "Dance of the Maya," where Husband (on drums) channeled his inner Billy Cobham alongside pianist Slocum and bassist Richie Goods. Jimmy Herring had the challenging task of not just covering McLaughlin, but Mahavishnu violinist Jerry Goodman as well; and while the performance was spirited, it was no small or easy task, as Herring navigated between the necessary chordal passages and the song's soaring melody. The group segued into "Resolution," the closer to Mahavishnu's megahit, Birds of Fire (Columbia, 1973), with Goods kicking in some overdrive and assuming Goodman's violin part. It didn't entirely work, but, equally, it didn't matter: what did, was the opportunity to be a part of an event that acknowledged McLaughlin's seminal influence, and the participants' clear love and respect. What the tribute suffered in lack of rehearsal time, it more than made up for in spirit and commitment.
Another unexpected and important aspect of the final day's performance was when Alex Machacek's wife, Sumitra Nanjunjdan, came onstage to express the appreciation that everyone was feeling for the work of two people instrumental in making the New Universe Music Festival happen, and become such a meaningful success for its first year: Souvik and Shweta Dutta. Souvik's vision for Abstract Logixfirst an online fusion storefront, then a label, now a festivalhas been consistent since inception, but it's been a remarkable journey to watch, as he's gained expertise as a label head, tour manager, festival programmer and much, much more. The opportunity to experience the festival from behind the scenes with an all-access pass only made it more remarkable to see just how smoothly everything went, with nary a hitch or hiccup. Nanjunjdan presented the couplealso expecting their first child in the spring of 2011with a copy of their festival poster, signed by all but two of the participating artists.
From left: Souvik and Shweta Dutta
It's still too early to assess the ultimate success of the New Universe Music Festivalwhether it was, for one thing, financially viable enough to allow it to continuebut equally, it takes time for most festivals to gain traction. Thanks to the hard work of Souvik and Shweta Dutta, as well as their administrative person, John Angelowho could be seen doing everything from driving artists to moving furniturethe New Universe Music Festival has already begun gaining that traction as an event with a concept that both sets it apart from virtually every other festival, and possesses the potential to make a real mark on the international stage as a premiere festival for contemporary fusion music.
All Photos: John Kelman
Day 1 | Day 2