The first half of this year’s Caramoor Jazz Festival (in beautiful Katonah, NY, July 28) featured afternoon performances by the Herbie Nichols Project, Dave Burrell with Reggie Workman and Charli Persip, the Tom Harrell Quintet, the Eric Alexander Quartet, and Cyrus Chestnut. The evening portion was an Armstrong tribute featuring Jon Faddis and Jimmy Heath. We couldn’t make it, but we were there for the following week’s blowout, on August 4. John Stetch began the afternoon with a brilliant solo piano set. (You may know the Canadian’s latest Justin Time release, Heavens of a Hundred Days, featuring Bill McHenry on tenor sax.) Sounding self-possessed and purposeful on the Steinway concert grand, Stetch filled the big tent with very personal readings of "Pannonica," "Embraceable You," and "All the Things You Are," as well as a number of selections from his "Ukrainian repertoire" (Stetch was raised in the Ukrainian community of Edmonton, Alberta). It’s not always easy to play first at Caramoor — the crowd can be thin until later in the day. But Stetch used the circumstances to create a degree of intimacy, and he definitely got people’s attention with dramatic sonic effects, including a triple-fortissimo, low-register rumble that set up the Monk tune. Next up were Jane Ira Bloom and Rufus Reid, playing duo. The two began with a perpetually modulating shuffle blues penned by Reid, then presented a couple of Bloom’s Jackson Pollock-inspired pieces, and a couple of numbers drawn from the soprano saxophonist’s new Arabesque release, Sometimes the Magic. They wrapped up with Bloom’s up-tempo "Flat Six Bop." The sonic blend of bass and soprano had its alluring aspects, although some of Bloom’s music didn’t translate so well. "Denver Snap," for instance, opens the new album as a quartet piece, and sounds terrific. Here it just sort of floated by. John Hicks was a no-show for the New Art Quartet’s set, so John Stetch was cajoled into sitting in with the group. James Blood Ulmer was the main attraction, with Reggie Workman on bass and Rashied Ali on drums. It was a difficult set — very outside and yet somehow not outside enough. The group rarely departed from standard swing rhythms, and Ulmer’s extremely raw playing failed to flourish in such an environment. The fact that Stetch was sight-reading the music and trying to find a foothold didn’t help, although he did play a couple of insightful solos. The quartet began, however, with a captivating, dirge-like spiritual, featuring Ulmer on vocals. If only the set had continued in that vein.
Randy Weston’s group had no bassist; it boasted Talib Kibwe on alto, Benny Powell on trombone, and Neal Clark on percussion. Unconventional yet with deep roots in the tradition, Weston’s ensemble pushed the afternoon into high gear. After the management presented a little birthday confection in honor of the pianist’s 75th birthday, the group eased into the timeless "Hi-Fly," featuring a buttery Benny Powell solo. As Powell blew and Weston comped, the absence of bass began to make sense; between Powell’s horn and Weston’s left hand, there was plenty of low end. Still, it may not have been what Weston intended: In the program he was billed with a trio, with Alex Blake on bass and no horns at all.
John Hicks did arrive in time to play with the Joe Lovano Nonet, which wrapped up the daytime portion with music from last year’s 52nd Street Themes (Blue Note). The band was killing, particularly on a showstopping "Deal," which featured a full rotation of solos: Steve Slagle, Ralph Lalama, Gary Smulyan, Barry Ries, and more. It felt like we were in Manhattan again.
After dinner, we were treated to a sumptuous set by Tommy Flanagan and his trio, featuring Peter Washington on bass and Joe Farnsworth subbing on drums. The theme for the evening program was the 75th anniversary of the birth of Miles Davis. With Flanagan, the connection seemed a bit contrived — "Who better to honor Miles Davis than a man who actually played with him?" asked the MC, WBGO-FM’s Gary Walker. Yes, Flanagan may have played with Miles, but only on a handful of lesser-known sessions from the early 1950s. Their relationship is little more than a footnote in jazz history. Quite rightly, Flanagan ignored the Miles theme and just played — although he did begin the opening "Sea Changes" with a solo intro that made repeated references to "So What." Other highlights included Strayhorn’s "Raincheck," Thad Jones’s "Bird Song," and an absolutely stunning "Sunset and Mockingbird," from Ellington’s Queen Suite. Flanagan’s self-effacing, understated wit is always a pleasure. A typical example: "I hope you can bear another of my originals. Well, whether you can or not, it’s on my program."