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Berkshire Jazz Festival: First-time Jazz Fest is a Big-time Hit

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A jazz festival with less density than a George Wein-produced event, yet with plenty of fine artists and a relaxed atmosphere, debuted this summer in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts.
Produced by the Jazz Forum Arts organization in downstate New York, the event was an artistic success. It was an esthetic success also, located at Butternut Ski Basin — a beautiful setting of forest-laden hills, the stage nestled at the base of the ski center. It even included two stages, the outdoor main venue where people gathered picnic-style, and an indoor stage set in a ski lodge that gave it more of a nightclub air.
And from those venues smoked the blazing trumpet of Roy Hargrove, the down home cool vocals of Etta Jones, the progressive and dynamic singing of Diane Reeves and Cassandra Wilson, the delightful eccentricity of David Amran, the thunderous piano of Randy Weston, and more. The music quality was consistently high.
The tone was set by Jones and her husband, saxophonist Houston Person. Obviously ailing, the frail Jones had to be assisted to a chair in front of the band after a series of tunes by her smooth-as-silk husband on sax. ("Tenderly," "Meditations," "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," among his choices.) Only a year ago, she was much more physically vibrant at an appearance in Lake George, NY. But like a true artist, and a true entertainer, when it came time to blow, she wailed.

Forget any signs of illness in her sharp tone, hip phrasing and deft workings of her songbook. She cranked out "East of the Sun," "You've changed," "Let's Beat Out Some Love," and "What a Wonderful World" with great style and humor. She's not a singer with great dexterity, but one of depth and sincerity and she was all of that. She's a treasure.

Meanwhile, up the hill in the lodge, Amran played piano and French horn with guitarist Vic Juris and others in a salute to Jack Kerouac. He called rap just an updated version of scat, and proceeded in an improvised modern rap about the Berkshires and Kerouac. That evolved into jazz scatting and a nice, swinging tune. Unlike a lot of "music" today, the words of Kerouac and the music of Bird are known around the world and will live forever, he said.

The Roy Hargrove quintet was among the highlights. The rhythm section of pian9ist Larry Willis, bassist Gerald Cannon and drummer Willie Jones II cooks, and over that Hargrove’s trumpet soars. Sax man Bruce Williams also had a taste for things hot. Hargrove, short and lean, wearing large sunglasses, took on a Milesean look, save for the dreadlocks. He stood and blew and then stepped back, digging the band but not addressing the audience until the end. The band even ended with a take off on what Miles used to call “The Theme,” which usually ended his sets back in the day. It had its own searing twist, however, though one could hear the group playing with the basic theme.

Aside from his hot, ever tasty trumpet, Hargrove’s flugelhorn was heard to good use on “You Go to My Head,” and “Nature Boy.” The band flies, with the superlative Jones driving the beat, constantly supporting and pushing; great chops and good time. Willis, as always, is steady, swinging and driving, and Cannon was rock solid and imaginative.

Hargrove was so hot that Terence Blanchard almost seemed flat in comparison; a bit too deliberate and calculated, though a good trumpet player with a strong band. Hargrove was a Ferrari going balls out; Blanchard a more calculated Cadillac ride. The band was good, but the best moments were when Cassandra Wilson appeared briefly to sing a few songs that she does on Blanchard’s Let’s Get Lost that she is featured on, as well as singers Diana Krall, Diane Reeves and Jane Monheit. Wilson, displaying her ability to reach low tones few women can get to, as well as a distinct sense of harmonic and rhythmic invention that she has stamped as her own, did her songs from that CD – a playful version of “I Can’t give You Anything But Love,” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” which was smoky, sultry and, resourceful.

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