This afternoon I discovered that some idiot (that'd be me) somehow forgot to include a bio for the group J.M.O.G. in City Newspaper's 2012 Jazz Guide. So I felt obligated to start my Saturday night at the fest by checking out the group's early show at Xerox Auditorium. The band - an acronym for Jazz Men on the Go - is made up of American and Canadian musicians, several of whom are playing in multiple shows at this year's festival: Pat LaBarbera (tenor/soprano saxophone), Don Thompson (piano), Neil Swainson (bass), and Joe LaBarbera (drums).
The quartet focused on original compositions by its members, which tended to be mid-tempo (or slower) and feature meandering melodies with ample aural embellishments. There's no question that every member of J.M.O.G. is a fantastic musician, but ultimately, the music did nothing for me. It was pleasant. It sounded good. But by the third song it started to become predictable: Pat LaBarbera typically took lead, and then gave each member a chance to improvise in extended solos. Wash, rinse, repeat. Each song sounded distinct, but none of them moved me.
Conversely, I was immediately moved by the Sultans of String when the quintet started its earlier show at the Big Tent. From the first note I was hooked, as was the rest of the packed tent, which was visibly bopping along with and clapping to the various world styles being spun out on the stage. The Sultans are based in Toronto and feature a percussionist, two guitars, a bassist, and violin and fiddle played by apparent band leader Chris McKhool. Everything about this set worked. The Sultans started out with some exotic gypsy tunes, switched to Irish/Scottish folk songs, threw in some jam-band sounds, segued into American honky-tonk blues, took a detour to Lebanon, and even included a fascinating song about a killer whale that may have been the reincarnation of an aboriginal Canadian tribe leader (it was way cooler than sounds, I swear).
The truly astonishing thing about this group was the way it worked dynamics and the sounds of its instruments to produce a wide range of intonations. McKhool and one of the guitar players (I'm sorry, I missed the name) in particular produced notes that at times almost mimicked the human voice. It was the kind of awe-inspiring musicianship I've come to expect from the Jazz Festival, and I was chagrined to discover the Sultans were only playing tonight. I ran into a friend on the street and implored him to see the group if he got a chance.
I tried to finish the night by hitting pianist Gerald Clayton's late set at Max of Eastman Place, but the place was totally packed. After a (very polite) festival handler explained that I could not stand in front of patrons sitting in the chairs that lined the back wall of the venue, I found the lone open spot, which afforded me a fantastic view of a giant cement pillar. I could literally see nothing that was happening on the stage -- but it sure sounded nice. Clayton's playing is cool, assured, and what I would call cerebral - he toys with melody, rhythms, and time signatures, and his band ably followed along. The quiet, contemplative start to the set was marred by the very loud music coming in from Gibbs Street, but the band built things nicely and soon enough dominated everyone's attention.