6th Annual Jammys : The Theater at Madison Square Garden, New York, NY 4/20/2006

At the Jammy Awards, the musical reach is broad and a sense of history is cherished. Not only that, but it’s done so in an organic way that, despite similarities in intent, manages to pull off the type of shaggy genuineness that the museum-enshrinement theatrics of the Grammys and the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame just can’t seem to nail.

Where else do you get an awards show with NBA tower Manute Bol offering up the inaugural Global Rhythm World Music Award to Baaba Maal, or Thelonious Monk nominated alongside Phish? Year after year, the whole, blob-like enterprise emerges as a satisfying gumbo–a primo celebration of "music for the mind" and raffish, loose-limbed, trainwreck-bordering fun.

For its sixth installment, the Jammys had a new role–a sort of kickoff and "keynote" to the inaugural Green Apple Music Festival, by all accounts a success, and impressive in its breadth of artists and venues participating.

There was also, with this year’s performers, an emphasis toward "Guitar Gods." All walks of them traipsed through the Theater at Madison Square Garden over the course of the evening, with classic power rock, jazz, fusion, blues and most styles in between, given due exploration.

The awards are still rather excessive compared to the music, but they felt right this year, with some of 2005’s better musical happenings. The justly celebrated emergences of Grace Potter and Tea Leaf Green, the release of Phish’s essential 12/31/95 Madison Square Garden show and a banner year for archival recording getting spot-on accolades made this year’s go-around ideal.

The crowd knew it, too, and although the venue didn’t quite sell out, it was also the most enthusiastic and interested assemblage since the Jammys moved from Roseland to this scallop shell-shaped theater in 2004. Co-hosts Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, affable and energetic, seemed to feed off the energy, and kept things moving.

Overall, this year’s collaborations were not nearly as random, artist-wise, as in years past. The stylistic links between, say, Blues Traveler and Bettye LaVette, or Bela Fleck and McCoy Tyner, or even Richie Havens and the Mutaytor, are fairly facile pinpoints as there was no Travis Tritt-meets-the-Disco-Biscuits whatthehell fact. This year, each and every set brought a true "hittin’ the note," "zambi," "wow" moment, and by the halfway point of the show, when Steve Kimock and Stephen Perkins brought their ad hoc ensemble to the stage, those moments were getting pretty regular.

Perhaps most importantly, it was a night that Frank Zappa might have enjoyed, even though, as presenter Chick Corea pointed out during his tribute speech to the zany genius, award show-style pageantry was anathema to Zappa’s whole raison de etre.

Zappa, feted posthumously as this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award recipient, received his share of salutes, and his music was also the subject of the night’s best set. This musical escapade was a powerhouse version of the soon-to-tour "Zappa Plays Zappa" band fronted by scion Dweezil (whose technical prowess on guitar is ever more superlative) and the beloved, exuberant vocalist/saxophonist/flautist Napoleon Murphy Brock. Ridiculously tight and well-oiled, the Zappa band delivered A-1 versions of "Inca Roads" and "Florentine Pogen," the former with a spaced-out Moog breakdown from Corea and the latter with a blazing solo from Umphrey’s McGee shredder Jake Cinninger.

The evening’s performances took a little while to get going. Richie Havens brought us his "Freedom" to lead off, but he was gone quickly, as were the members of the wildly multifaceted media troupe The Mutaytor, who backed him briefly and then offered some of their own flavors. Following the presentation of the New Groove Award, most deservedly handed to Grace Potter, came a fun, if too-short, go-round from Blues Traveler and DJ Logic, who led off with "NY Prophesie," and then added recently re-emerging soul queen Bettye LaVette for "Joy" and a jumping "Magic Carpet Ride."

Bela Fleck and the Flecktones–enjoying a return to form with their brand new The Hidden Land and a lifting of their tour hiatus–led what might have been the night’s most explosive music had their set not suffered from a raw mix and a triumph of virtuosity over musicality. Their sparring partners were inspired choices: jazz master McCoy Tyner–whose grand piano was unfortunately drowned in an oblong sound mix–and tap dancing great Savion Glover, whose shoes became a percussion instrument to play off Futureman’s synthaxe drumitar.

The onstage arrival of Kimock, Jane’s Addiction drummer Stephen Perkins, Banyan trumpeter Willy Waldman and Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey bassist Reed Mathis was a certain fire starter. With Banyan blowing fusion trumpet fills into a chunky groove, Kimock led a tear opposite Joe Satriani; the two sharing a stage to do a little shredding is a Dream Team scenario, and didn’t disappoint. Still, their freewheeling jam took a backseat to Grace Potter’s earthshaker pipes. Coming up behind a keyboard, she absolutely dismantled a bloodcurdling, acid jazz take on Neil Young’s "Cortez the Killer," so groovy at times as Satch, Kimock and Waldman passed the solo baton around that it was nearly R&B.

Following the Zappa presentation came a crowd-stoking set from Guster, who led no less than Peter Frampton through their own "Beginning of the End" and then backed him for a fist-pumping "Do You Feel Like We Do," featuring the predictable Frampton face-melter solos and talkbox play. Singer-songwriter Martin Sexton added guitar and backing vocals, as well, but his contributions were sadly minimal.

Jammys and jam scene veterans moe. picked up live performance of the year for their semi-fabled Tsunami Relief Benefit on 2/10/05 at Roseland. Their two-song set alongside top flight dub producer Mad Professor was a mini-masterpiece: tight, uncluttered, unforced, and scintillating. The Clash’s "Guns of Brixton" was the opening choice, and a richly funky "Buster" was next.

With the showtime waning, Hart and Kreutzmann kicked off their Rhythm Devils set. The collaboration featured a worldbeat, percussion-driven collective with the Dead men behind the skins, members of the Mutaytor and others drumming away on a chorus line of djembes and other instruments, Kimock, Mike Gordon on the low end, and exalting vocals from Baaba Maal and Angelique Kidjo.

It was a visceral unit, primed for a fast-paced, beat-heavy stuff, and it cycled through many of the selections that Hart and Kreutzmann had delivered the night before at the Canal Room with most of the same cast. Santana’s "Jingo" was an easy highlight, as was a Kidjo-led version of Hendrix’s "Voodoo Child," long one of her own concert staples. Given the number of musicians on stage by the time the unit rumbled into "Iko Iko" (including LaVette and blues harp legend Charlie Musselwhite), you’d be forgiven for thinking the annual "Final Jam" was underway.

The evening’s closing duties fell ably to Little Feat, who cleared any remaining dust in the theater with a blues medley that included "The Sky is Crying," delivered with considerably gritty soul by vocalist Shaun Murphy. Musselwhite’s buzzsaw harp was again a focus, but the guest attraction was elder blues statesman Hubert Sumlin. He wasn’t given much time, but the always-nattily-dressed Sumlin tipped his fedora and wrought a pristine solo in his signature spare style. Of all the "Guitar God"displays over the course of the evening, his was both disarming and ingraining–no bullshit, not a single note wasted, entirely old school.

Regrouping, Little Feat next added Kimock and both Stephen and Ky-Mani Marley, who shined on an otherwise cursory "Jammin’." The inevitable "Dixie Chicken" saw its first verse and chorus, before bleeding into an all-hands "One Love" that saw Fleck, Satriani, Hart, Kreutzmann, Gordon, Mutaytor members, Frampton, Perkins, LaVette, Maal, Kidjo and others all climb aboard to do a little bounce ‘n’ sway.

Unlike in previous years, no one musician stepped up to drive the bus and call solos, although Kanye West protege Consequence slipped on stage near the end to lay down a few choice rhymes. If you closed your eyes and soaked it all in, though, you could draw out and enjoy all the flavors of the evening. From Fleck’s banjo plucking alongside Satriani’s furious fills, to the melting pot of vocal harmonies between the Marley boys, Maal, Kidjo, LaVette and Little Feat, it was all messy as hell, of course, but it was quintessential Jammys.

Chad Berndtson writes about music for The Patriot Ledger, Glide, Relix, Jambands.com and other publications. Drop him a line at cberndtson@gmail.com.

Photo courtesy of Andrew Zrike

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