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Live Reviews

Berskshire Jazz Festival Turns Two

By Published: March 12, 2004
Nature tossed the Berkshire Jazz Festival a nasty curve in its sophomore season, first lightly dousing, then soaking its hardy attendees on the first day of its two-day run, but then smiled graciously with sunshine and welcome warmth for Day Two. And when all was said and done — or when everyone's canvas chairs, clothes and blankets had dried — the Jazz Forum Arts-produced event stood tall.

Who knows what the rain did to gate receipts; it had to have curtailed attendance. But here's hoping the festival will shake it off and survive for many more years to come. Because whether wet or gorgeous, and it was both, the late-August festival, nestled in New England's Berkshire Mountains in Great Barrington, Mass., was a success from a fan's viewpoint: fun, relaxing, well done, and with solid music spanning various styles and tastes.

It featured music as blasting and rollicking as the Bob Minter Big Band, and as soft and elegant as the classy Hank Jones Trio. It stretched from the bluesy jazz of the ageless Mose Allison to the trite pop of Spyro Gyra. Like each act or not, the spirit of the event prevails. Its vibrant and fun, as well as a great place to relax and hang and enjoy life.

Among the musical highlights this year were some of the old men of the music: Jones, Mose and David "Fathead" Newman. Chuck Mangione, who veered off the scene for a while, showed he's back with his trademark sweet medlodicism and a sparkling band.

Disappointments? It seems even the Smooth Jazz people are getting tired of Spyro Gyra and with good reason. And whoever exalted Kevin Mahogany to elite status among jazz singers is hanging out at the wrong Holiday Inns.

Allison fittingly started off the festival with a long and joyous set. He was as solid as ever, seeming to enjoy the mountain air, dressed casually in shades and a baseball cap. His voice and piano playing both in fine fettle as he ran through familiar favorites, but dragged out chestnuts he hasn't performed for a while in other recent club appearances in the region. "Everybody's Cryin' Mercy," "City Home," "Your Molecular Structure," "Your Mind's On Vacation" and "You Are My Sunshine" were among the oldies, with "What's Your Movie" and "Ever Since the World Ended" among his more recent creations. One never tires of his Louisiana drawl telling you it's just as well the world ended, ‘cause it wasn't workin' anyway.

Newman, a soulful sax man — part R&B and part jazz — turned in a good set with an engaging band. They cranked out exotic rhythms over which Newman played tenor, alto and flute — not with astounding technique, but with feeling, somewhere along the lines of Stanley Turrentine, but with his own warm sound. Among the titles was a bouncy version of "Willow Weep for Me" in ¾ time, fun and swinging.

The rain wasn't the problem when Spyro Gyra appeared. It was the music. They have thrived on syrupy pop hooks over which tired solos are played, the players gyrating in front of the audience, perhaps in an effort to camouflage the fact that there's nothing being said. But even the sorry pop flavor is soured. And each solo is more sterile than the next, the rhythms stale and robotic. Maybe a name change might hide their faults, like the Traveling Eunuchs.

The Caribbean Jazz Project, featuring David Valentin on flute and Dave Samuels on vibes, was better than expected. A high-energy group, they played with precision and emotion. Samuels is slick and sly on the vibes and Valentin emotional as well as intricate in his playing. The music was great for the sunshine that covered the second day. At times the music was as hot as the temperature.

Hank Jones, with Peter Washington on bass and Dennis McKrell on drums, was exquisite. Jones is one of the great masters of piano, having played with virtually all the greats, and he covered a variety of classic tunes, like Bird's "Scrapple from the Apple," "Stella By Starlight," Monk's "Rythmn-n-ing" and his brother Thad's "A Child is Born." He's one of the pianists others look up to for good reason.

Mahogany is another issue. He's a singer out of the Billy Eckstine mold, with a bit of Joe Williams, but has a long way to go to grab either one. He's not without talent, but his scatting is forced and his ballads are maudlin and lacking any great sense of emotion or adventure. He's more at home with swinging, fun-type tunes like "Drink Muddy Water." If he were, as some feel, the future of jazz singing, we'd be in trouble. He's not. His mundane set is maybe suited for some kind of cruise ship.

It's good to see Mangione back, and equally good to see his one-time sidekick Gerry Niewood back on woodwinds. Mangione has never gotten great praise from critics, and he may not be the best horn player, but his flugelhorn hasn't lost its sweet tone and he hasn't lost his was with a melody. He also puts togtehr a band that can execute his imagination. From "Land of Make Believe" and "Bellavia" from the older days, to "Peggy Hill" "Fun and Games" and "Dizzy Miles" from the newer, the band cooked when it had to and played his soft ballads serenely.

Drummer Dave Tome was superb (he even sang well — a Jon Hendricks lyric about Diz and Miles, as well as "Children of Sanchez") as was percussion ace Don Alias. Niewood is still wonderful on flute and a solid sax soloist and the veteran adds a lot to the proceedings. A couple tunes, like "Dizzy Miles" and "Amazing Grace" started softly, then would switch gears into hard drive. Mangione has always had a way of building up and releasing a song's emotive qualities like that, and it was pleasing. He's a solid performer.

In addition to the main stage at the base of a ski slope, there are also sets by lesser know, but usually good, musicians in the ski lodge. The highlight this year was Brazilian singer Monika Oliveira, backed by the Richie Hart Trio. She sang a ton of Jobim tunes — "Wave," "Girl Fro Ipanema," "So Danco Amor" — and while she has a smallish voice, she has a great feel for the rhythms and a nice way with phrasing.

A word should be said about Hart and his men. He's a very tasty guitarist with fine chops and a quick read. They lead jams sessions and play with whomever else might be on stage, with little preparation. (Last year it was the fine up-and-coming singer Roberta Gambarini that the trio backed like they'd know her for years). Bassist Rick Petrone is rock solid; great tone and articulation and always an interesting soloist. The same can be said for drummer Joe Corsello: smooth, tasty, always able to fit in and enhance things.

The festival also has a room where workshops are conducted for musicians and singers throughout both days. It's a nice touch; great for aspiring players, and the public is also free to go get a gander.

Cudos should go to Mark Morganelli and his Jazz Forum Arts staff (based downstate in Westchester County, outside the Big Apple). They present various concerts throughout the year, but they've created a festival that's just small enough to be fun without being hectic, and big enough to be a serious event for jazz fans and music lovers, with great bands and important musicians. The mountain setting is great, and there's not much waiting around between acts. Toss in arts and crafts, food, and picnicking. The festival doesn't appear to be experiencing many growing pains, because it's been done so well right from the start. One hopes it continues to age and take its rightful spot as an event you write on your calendar each year with an asterisk.

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