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Live Reviews

Caramoor Jazz Festival Provides Great Music

By Published: August 4, 2004

the highlights were arguably the points where Lovano walked on stage for a scorching saxophone joust with Kenny Garrett, a rousing, bopping version of 'Bye Bye Blackbird' with Kurt Elling, and the inspired jam-like, festival closer 'Lester Leaps In' with Lovano, Elling and veteran tenor saxophonist Frank Wess tearing it up.

One could say that the first day of the 2004 Caramoor Jazz Festival on July 31 in Katonah, NY, belonged to the wonderful Hank Jones, who turned 86 that day and showed his faultless technique on piano in the event's fine closing set. But the day perhaps really belonged to Joe Lovano, the festival's artistic director, who played with such élan and gusto throughout the day, not only in his scheduled set with Jones, but sitting in with other groups.
Maybe it was something in the air, as Lovano himself intoned in his role of emcee after a performance by the Lewis Nash Trio. "We're calling on the spirits today, aren't we?" he said with his infectious smile.
Whatever it was, the festival on the gorgeous Caramoor grounds was filled with great music and buoyed by the spirit injected by Lovano. He was an ebullient and most gracious emcee, extolling the merits of each group, appreciating the music and those who made it as much as anyone in the audience. His enthusiasm was infectious. In fact, when Lovano first took the stage to welcome the audience, it wasn't with words, but with a few solo choruses of "I'm All For You," the title of his latest CD that features Jones.
While the music was outstanding throughout, the highlights were arguably the points where Lovano walked on stage for a scorching saxophone joust with Kenny Garrett, a rousing, bopping version of "Bye Bye Blackbird" with Kurt Elling, and the inspired jam-like, festival closer "Lester Leaps In" with Lovano, Elling and veteran tenor saxophonist Frank Wess tearing it up.

The festival continues on Aug. 7, highlighted by a tribute to the Count Basie band.

But on the last day of July, the tribute was to Jones, whose trio — Dennis McKrell on drums and George Mraz on bass — started off with a superbly executed "On Green Dolphin Street." Upon its completion, the horn of Lovano could be heard from the wings of the stage (he had a portable microphone attached to the bell, which allowed him freedom of movement all day) playing "Happy Birthday" as a group of musicians walked out to present the pianist with a cake as the audience gave Jones a standing ovation.

"He's amazing," Lovano said of Jones in a recent All About Jazz interview . "We can play a tune like 'Stella By Starlight' that he's played thousands of times. He plays it like he's learning it a new way every time. His intro. His voicings. Phrasing. Everything about it is very free and spontaneous and joyous. It's incredible to be around players like that."

Jones demonstrated that ability throughout the evening, as his group played "I Waited for You" and "Consumption" with Lovano, the former a lush ballad made even prettier by Lovano's tender touch; the latter a Jones-penned tune, softly swinging and beautifully rendered. The pianist, who's played with virtually all the jazz greats over the decades, played "Alone Together" solo, showing his great way with lush harmonies. The song, like Jones the man, was elegant. He makes a piano sound full and rich.

Wess is nearly as old as Jones and came up through the same ranks. While there is a lot of Coltrane in Lovano's bag, Wess comes out of the Lester Young bag and his thinner, but sweet tone was a nice change. His renowned flute playing came to the front on "Corcovado" and he stayed with the flute to cut through the bop anthem "Scrapple from the Apple" which Lovano joined in on.

"Lester Leaps In," brought to prominence by Count Basie and Lester Young, but worked out by thousands of musicians since, was a classic blowing session. Wess burned with the Young 'running style" solo that could swing a person into bad health. Lovano was screaming and preaching and probing, and Elling scatted improvisation after improvisation, completing the front line. When it came time for Jones, he switched the gears, but not the groove, with a dead-on, authentic Count Basie solo — the notes so sparse, but so swinging.

Earlier in the day, the Lewis Nash Trio — with vibraphonist Steve Nelson and the superb Peter Washington on bass — was excellent. Nash has been a first-call drummer for many years with good reason. He is a monster on the trap set, and pulled out all the stops in his solos. But he has the innate characteristic of always having good taste. His playing always supports the group. "A Night in Tunisia" was the sparkler of his first set. But he was soon joined by Garret, whose alto sax knows few peers, for more great music. Garret took "What Is This Thing Called Love" to Pluto and back, dizzying in technique as he rocked back and froth blaring out scorching chorus after chorus and bending the sax to its limits. But on Coltrane's "Namia" he played as soft and pretty a ballad as one could ask for.

Out strode Lovano , however, and the group wailed. Both saxmen showed the influence of 'Trane as they took their choruses to the stratosphere. Then they traded eights for a while, jousting back and forth; switched to fours as the conversation continued; then twos, and finally, in unison, raucous and joyous as they closed out the set. A great moment!

Elling's group was its usual stellar self. The singer, pianist Laurence Hobgood, bassist Rob Amster and drummer Frank Parker are always on the same page, tight and crisp. Elling began with "Stardust," and with his strong and supple voice, and subtle musical turns of a phrases, he captured the audience right from the start with the classic ballad. "The Sleepers," which uses the poetry of Walt Whitman, was another dreamy ballad and he pulled out the funky "In the Winelight" the earthy, enchanting "Easy Living" and the intriguing "The Man up in the Air" from his band's bag . "Bye, Bye Blackbird" isn't in the band book per se, but in his inimitable, improvisational style Elling took off, bounding, skipping, swinging. Changing key and twisting the melody. Hip and hipper. Then in stepped Lovano, blowing the blues away. He harmonized with the singer, traded riffs back and forth; Elling scatting and Lovano walkin', talkin', barkin' and burnin'. Excellent musicians melding in the moment. Invigorating stuff.

The Peter Malinverni Trio opened the set fest and set the bar high for the rest. This developing pianist has a beautiful touch and is a creative composer. With Leroy Williams on drums and Dennis Irwin on bass, they presented sumptuous trio music that had style and creativity and taste.

Guitarist John Abercrombie brought along Mark Feldman on violin, Adam Nussbaum on drums and Marc Johnson on bass for a heady set of improvisation. Abercrombie's angular and even ethereal playing led the way. He can get just spacey enough, while still staying tethered to the planet. Feldman showed similar qualities, lyrical at times and soaring at others, while Nussbaum and Johnson found expressive ways to give strong and steady support.

The festival is tailor made for a relatively small audience when compared to most others. But its artistic ranking should be toward the top, and with Lovano as its director, don't look for that to sag any time soon.

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