The Syracuse Jazz Fest

by Miguel Balbuena

The Jazz Fest, which this year took place between June 8 and 10, is usually one of the more exciting festivals of the warm season in Central New York, along with the Taste of Syracuse and the Latino American Festival.

Frank Malfitano, the festival’s executive producer, said on stage during the event that it would not have been possible without the support of 56 generous sponsors, with CNY Latino being one of them.

The three-day extravaganza featured 11 artists, including four Grammy Award-winning performers: Asleep at the Wheel, Ramsey Lewis, the Rebirth Brass Band and the Mavericks.

At the top of the festival’s Grammy-Award grabbers was Asleep at the Wheel with 11 trophies, six of them in the category Best Country Instrumental Performance, in the years 1978, 1987, 1988, 1993, 1995 and 1999; three in the category Best Recording Package, in 1995, 2000 and 2016, and; two in the category Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal, in 1994 and 2000.

Following Asleep at the Wheel was Ramsey Lewis, who garnered the prize in 1965 in the category Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, Small Group or Soloist with Small Group; in 1966 in the category Best Rhythm & Blues Group Performance, Vocal or Instrumental, and; in 1973 in the category Best Rhythm & Blues Instrumental Performance.

Rebirth Brass Band with one, in 2012 in the category Best Regional Roots Music Album, also made it onto the elite list.

Veteran rocker Todd Rundgren led the festival’s grand finale while the Mavericks headlined the event the previous night.

Having sat through all 11 artistic acts for two days in the row, it was time for me to select whom to grant my two prestigious accolades: Most Valuable Performer (MVP) and Most Valuable Song (MVS).

According to the Recording Academy’s reports, the Mavericks have been nominated for the Grammy Award six times but only won it in 1995 in the category Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal. Twenty-two years later they took home my coveted MVP Award, and the tune “Harvest Moon,” which they played in the encore to their act, received my MVS Award.

The Mavericks are a band founded in Miami and are fronted by Cuban-American vocalist Raul Malo. They wowed the crowd by performing a variety of musical styles such as rockabilly, country, zydeco, Mexican norteño and Cuban rhythms. For some of these styles, the Mavericks employed claves,  Caribbean percussion instruments, and an accordion.

“Harvest Moon” is not an original song released by the Mavericks. In fact, it was written by Canadian musician Neil Young, who earned fame in the ’60s as a member of the group Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, which played at the Woodstock Music & Art Fair in 1969, and previously was a member of Buffalo Springfield.

“Harvest Moon” was included in Young’s studio album that came out in 1992. Eighteen years passed and the song figured prominently in the soundtrack of the film “Eat Pray Love.”

As it might not be totally obvious for everyone, “Eat Pray Love” has three parts: eating, praying and loving, which are staged in Italy, India and Indonesia, respectively. “Harvest Moon” sets the tone for the last section of the movie, in the island of Bali’s paradisiacal Padang-Padang Beach resort. With lines such as “When we were strangers, / I watched you from afar / When we were lovers,/ I loved you with all my heart” it provides the aural aspect of the romance between Liz, an American played by Julia Roberts, and Brazilian Felipe, by Javier Bardem.

What made “Harvest Moon” the MVS of the 2017 Jazz Fest was its captivating riff. A riff is a relaxed short motif recurring cyclically in the same pitch throughout a song.

The easiest way to create a memorable song is first to come up with a riff and then build the rest of the song around it. A cursory review of my exclusive list of the Top 100 Rock and Roll Songs of All Times indicates that most of them, if not all, have a structure that revolves around a powerful riff. To illustrate initially this, a case in point:  “Dancing Days,” composed by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, both with Led Zeppelin.

John Lennon has to be considered the King of the Riff as he placed seven melodies on my Top 100 list: “Doctor Robert,” “Tomorrow Never Knows” (his first psychedelic melody), “Rain,” “A Day in the Life,” “I Am the Walrus,” “Cold Turkey” and “Mind Games.”

About the author: Miguel Balbuena is a writer in the academic, scientific, journalistic and literary fields (in the fiction and non-fiction genres).