The scene at the gorgeous Caramoor music facility in Katonah, NY, is laid back perfect for an afternoon/evening jazz festival and the quality of music on the first day of the 2005 edition (July 30) was consistently stellar, which is something attendees here have come to expect. It's a laid back atmosphere, but the music on Saturday was just about anything but. Producer Jim Luce and musical director and saxman extraordinaire Joe Lovano put together an adventurous program that featured the Mingus Dynasty, effortlessly performing the works of one of 20th century music's great composers with a careful mixture of reverence and irreverence; the Saxophone Summit, in which three saxophones took wild liberties with colorful improvisation; Ben Riley's Monk Legacy, with delightful renditions of Monk music; bebop reminiscent of Dizzy and Bird ("played by Tom Harrell and Charles McPherson, respectively); and a group of outstanding drummers tapping out tributes to the legendary Max Roach without using any other instrumentation. The venue started 60 years ago with classical music concerts and about a decade ago began presenting its jazz festival. It is a fine one. Uncluttered and classy. It nods to tradition, but is not trapped in it. The Saxophone Summit, with Lovano and Chris Potter on tenor saxophones and Dave Liebman on soprano, played music that was the farthest "out. Liebman started the group a few years ago as an extension of music played by John Coltrane in the latter part of his career. Potter is new, however, filling in for regular member Michael Brecker, who is ill. The group and the set is not intended as a "battle of saxophones and does not come off that way. The saxophones move often in abstract fashion, pushing the outer limits, in a very probing and experimental fashion.
Backed by Phil Markowitz on piano, Cecil McBee on bass and drummer Billy Hart, the group seemed to push the envelope whether the tempo was fast or moderate. Lovano's "Alexander the Great was a wild opener in which each player screamed frantically. Amid the frenzy, one could detect "Bye, Bye Blackbird, on which the song is based, but only fleetingly. Behind each sax exploration, Hart was bombastic; pushing and prodding, while Markowitz provided a bit more contrast, more controlled.
The music covered songs from Gathering of Spirits, including Liebman's "Tricycle and the pianist's "12th Man, the former ethereal, and the latter with an almost "Maiden Voyage feel. Nonetheless, the form was bent and stretched by Potter's robust attack, Lovano's exuberance and explosiveness, and Liebman's serpent- like, lightning fast expressions.
The Mingus Dynasty was a rollicking pleasure ride, highlighted by the alto sax of Craig Handy that is both modern and mature, and the wild, devil-may-care spirit and trombone playing from Ku-Umba Frank Lacy. The music was intense and joyful and unpredictable, like Mingus himself, and this cast of seven was superb in bringing it off.
"Haitian Fight Song featured Lacy's extroverted bone, cajoling the melody and the music's intent. The band cooked! Lacy also showed emotive vocals on "Invisible Lady that had a lyric penned by Elvis Costello. Throughout the night, Lacy was a gas, filled with humor and élan and top-notch blowing.
"Sue's Changes was terrific, shifting gears from soft to hot, and from wild to straight-laced. Fun stuff, but intricate in its composition and played expertly. "Free Cell Block F, Tis. Nazi USA was a tight and dynamic arrangement, and typical of Mingus' desire to call them as he saw them, and protest when he felt it was needed. Wayne Escoffery played "Goodbye Porkpie Hat in trio format. His tenor sax and fat sound was both soulful reverential to the tune, as well as experimental, veering off as his prodigious technique went on display.
Ben Riley's Monk Legacy Septet served the music of the One and Onliest in fine fashion. The group carries no pianist, but the arrangements by Don Sickler serve the music well. The horns (Sickler's trumpet; Bruce Williams, alto sax; Escoffrey, tenor sax; and Jay Branford, baritone sax) punch out the odd meters one is used to hearing from Monk's piano behind a soloist or at the right moments during a melody. At other times, it was distinctive Monk voicings from Freddie Bryant's guitar. The effect was to almost hear Monk, or at least the musings of Monk, in each tune which included the likes of "Bright Mississippi, "Rhythm-A-Ning, Bemshua Swing and "Shuffle Boil.
While each soloist was strong, the heroes of the set were Sickler's arrangements and the sweet swing of Riley. Perhaps Monk's finest drummer during his tenure with the legend, Riley shows great taste, making things look easy, but providing just the right accents and colors. His solos were crisp and imaginative, even melodic at times, but not overdone. Great to see him still doing it.