By the banks of the Garavogue before the sun had even thought about setting, the Sligo international jazz festival got going yesterday with a jam session upstairs in the Source Sligo restaurant in the early-evening. Led by tenor saxophonist Jean Toussaint, who is also a tutor at the Sligo Jazz Project’s summer school which operates alongside the live performance programme this week, students from the project had a chance to jam on some old favourites, ‘Autumn Leaves’ and ‘Softly as in a Morning Sunrise’ among them, a relaxed curtain raiser on a warm summer's night to the energetic Stern-Wooten band’s performance later in the Hawk’s Well theatre, the Connacht town’s cultural landmark that President Hillery opened in the early-1980s.
The concert was sold out, and shortly after 9.30 as the heat rose inside and another tutor, trumpeter Linley Hamilton, acting as master of ceremonies, had made the introductions, the Stern/Wooten band took to the stage for their Sligo debut. A four-piece, jazz-rock icon guitarist Stern and bass guitar hero Wooten were joined by saxophonist Bob Franceschini, a bear of a man who appears on Stern’s 2012 return-to-form All Over the Place, and plays remarkably like the much missed Michael Brecker; and the strong Wooten Band drummer Derico Watson whose playing style resembles such titans as Dennis Chambers and Billy Kilson but with his own customised touches.
Stern did not look like a man who turned 60 this year. Tall, perpetually smiling, in skinny jeans and sporting long hair, pouting even sometimes at the audience; at the far side there was Wooten with a hat pulled up over the back of his head and sporting an amused grin as he looked over his bass guitar clearly enjoying himself. The band settled into a groove pretty quickly and the improvising path was found: it was typically fast, often modal and jazz rock-infused but not massively loud. Very much a double act at times Stern and Wooten feed off each other, catching fire every so often with ridiculously infectious grooves, achingly drawn-out effects from Stern, impossible riffing at great speed up and down the frets and some lovely decays and entries.
The glorious rumble from Wooten is full of both subtlety and ideas and he lets his fingers do the talking like no other. Wooten sang on his signature tune ‘My Life’ the funny self-effacing hymn to being in control from his 1997 album What Did He Say?: “Gonna make me a record and fill it all up with bass/ I can add a little keyboard if I want to but I don’t…” and besides this a big highlight of the set was ‘Left, Right and Center’ from his 2008 album Palmystery, where Watson was able to come more to the fore, in effect becoming three drummers as the album version had it, as Wooten mentioned. Franceschini often stepped to the side or back of the stage as some of the numbers didn’t involve him although he really made his presence felt when called upon, but the least effective part of the show was when Wooten featured solo and Stern played in duo with Watson. As a band, however, the four were totally convincing and the improvisational command and rhythmic ingenuity at each of their disposal was jaw-dropping. There was a bit of great showmanship at the end with Wooten and Watson throwing drum sticks at each other across the stage like apprentice jugglers, and the band even signed a bass drum head in marker pen before the music stopped and threw the head Frisbee-fashion into the crowd. The festival is well and truly up and running.