Litchfield Jazz Festival 2007
August 3-5, 2007
Connecticut may not be very high on the list of "jazz states," particularly nestled, as it is, among New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. But it does have its history and players and for the last 12 years an excellent event in the Litchfield Jazz Festival. Held in the northwestern corner of the state in Goshen, over its history this plucky summer gathering has hosted such names as Thomas Chapin, Diana Krall (in her first U.S. appearance), Slide Hampton, Phil Woods, Brad Mehldau, Tito Puente, Dave Brubeck, Sonny Rollins and Wayne Shorter. Not too shabby.
But for all its appeal and world-classiness, this is still a festival held on fairgrounds in the countryside. Driving to the site, your correspondent was struck by how many more signs there were for the Blueberry Festival happening the next week. This part of Connecticut alternates between very rural and very wealthy and probably doesn't really know what to make of jazz thrust in its midst. Many of the attendees come from lower in the state or across the borders of national neighbors (mainly Massachusetts...Go Red Sox! Just kidding...).
This year's lineup was as varied as years past: Slide Hampton (his fourth appearance), Count Basie Orchestra with Nnenna Freelon, Insight, Rachael Price, Mario Pavone (a staple since the beginning of the festival), Sonny Fortune, Matt Wilson (tenth appearance), the Mingus Big Band, Rolando Matias, Dave Stryker, Helio Alves, Don Braden (tenth appearance), Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra and Karrin Allyson. Split into two concerts on the first evening and then six apiece over the next two days, the Festival offers anyone who doesn't make the trip regularly to New York a good sense of what a night or two in the city is like.
Litchfield may not have the ambience of a Monterey or Newport but it is picturesque nonetheless and certainly low-key. Local merchants ply their wares and artists set up shop along a dirt path leading to an intimate tent space. The food available is an appealingly indulgent cross-section of fair fare: pizza, kabobs, kettle corn, blooming onions, chili, ice creams, etc. Ticket prices are reasonable considering the talent $350 for an all-access VIP pass down to $37 for a daily lawn seat and there is little in the way of typical jazz festival attitude, be it snarky or overly sunny. And to top everything off, the proceeds from the festival go to support the activities of Litchfield Performing Arts, including the prestigious Litchfield Jazz Camp, which just concluded its 11th year.
Apart from the opening evening Hampton and Basie dedicated to high-energy accessible big band music, the days were organized along similar themes. Latin jazz opened both weekend days, followed by straight-ahead fare (either vocalist Price or guitarist Stryker). More advanced music in the form of Pavone and Alves followed with jazz history clinics by Fortune and Braden preceding mini-dinner breaks. Before the big headliners was more modern jazz via Wilson and Haden with the Mingus Big Band and Allyson closing out the evenings (the only sets played in darkness).
If there was one complaint about the festival, it would be a smaller crowd than years past. Perhaps it was the heat or saving money for blueberries, but this area rarely gets performers of this caliber coming through so larger audiences would naturally be expected. If there was one especially good thing, it was an singular punctuality quite unlike even the biggest festivals, which quickly spiral out of control in terms of staying on schedule.
Highlights came in both expected and unexpected places. Bassist Mario Pavone's group with Steven Bernstein (trumpet), Charles Burnham (violin), Peter McEachern (trombone), Peter Madsen (piano) and Michael Sarin (drums) put on a deliciously subversive set with lots of snaking twists and turns. Another bassist, the quasi-legendary Charlie Haden, was celebrating his 70th birthday at his first Litchfield Jazz Festival appearance, and his set with the Liberation Music Orchestra featuring Carla Bley (and guest second trombonist Ray Anderson) proved that this may be one of the most beautifully conceived large ensembles in jazz today. Sonny Fortune turned in his usual firebreathing set to the delight of the audience, who probably had little experience with a quartet that could get that loud, and outside at that.
But maybe the best set of the festival came very early on and from a sentimental place. As mentioned above, the Litchfield Jazz Festival works in conjunction with Litchfield Jazz Camp (Don Braden, Sonny Fortune drummer Steve Johns, most of Mario Pavone's group including the leader, Dave Stryker and others from the festival participated in 2007). A pair of brothers, Zaccai (piano) and Luques (bass) Curtis were once students at the camp but opened the first full day with their Latin jazz group Insight. Supporting a new album and fresh off a Grammy win for Luques (he plays in Eddie Palmieri and Brian Lynch's band), the septet impressed the arriving crowd with mature and compelling melodies that expanded upon what is sometimes a constrained stylistic palette.
The rest of the festival was energetic and enthusiastic, just modern enough to attract without alienating. The mixture and pacing fit the laid-back environment and all the performers seemed genuinely to enjoy their experience, translating into heartfelt sets from afternoon to evening. With fine, if a little warm, weather, good music, a bag of kettle corn and some local beer, the blueberries didn't stand a chance.