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Live Reviews

16th Litchfield Jazz Festival: Kent, CT, August 5-7, 2011

By Published: August 16, 2011
Litchfield Jazz Festival
Kent, CT
August 5-7, 2011
"I like to save the best for last," saxophonist Jimmy Heath
Jimmy Heath
Jimmy Heath
b.1926
sax, tenor
told the crowd near the end of his big band's grand finale set at the Litchfield Jazz Festival on Sunday, Aug. 7, 2011.
It was a successful strategy, not only for Heath's great band, but also for the festival itself, which programmed two full days of music that escalated from good to better to best. Another jazz master, drummer Roy Haynes
Roy Haynes
Roy Haynes
b.1926
drums
, wrapped up Saturday's lineup.
The festival takes place at the Kent School in the tony village of Kent in Connecticut's hilly northwest corner, two hours up from New York. It caps the annual four-week Litchfield summer jazz camp, bringing together some 400 aspiring teenage jazz players learning from the pros. The students are key ingredients of the festival, cheering for the main stage performers, playing in small groups in tents off to the side between sets, sitting in at after-hour parties in Kent's night spots, and radiating enthusiasm for the music all weekend long.

Performances take place inside the prep school's 1,500-seat hockey arena, where the sound was surprisingly good. Guests can also opt for less-expensive ($22 a day) seats on a great lawn in the lea of scenic Skiff Mountain, watching the shows beamed onto an LED screen.

Litchfield's 16th annual festival fell on the same weekend as the venerable Newport Jazz Festival, but didn't take a back seat lineup-wise. Pianist Vijay Iyer
Vijay Iyer
Vijay Iyer
b.1971
piano
, the Clayton Brothers, organist Dr. Lonnie Smith
Dr. Lonnie Smith
Dr. Lonnie Smith
b.1942
organ, Hammond B3
and saxophonist Joe Lovano
Joe Lovano
Joe Lovano
b.1952
saxophone
were other biggies and drummer Matt Wilson
Matt Wilson
Matt Wilson
b.1964
drums
, the festival's artist in residence, was ever-present.

Early arrivals at Litchfield were treated to the Clayton Brothers' quintet on Friday night. Brothers John (bass) and Jeff (reeds) assembled a tight-knit band that included adventurous pianist Gerald Clayton, trumpeter Terell Stafford
Terell Stafford
Terell Stafford
b.1966
trumpet
and drummer Obed Calvaire, playing selections from The New Song and Dance (ArtistShare, 2010)—including several originals with melodic appeal, lots of harmonic twists and rhythmic upheavals—and Brother to Brother (ArtistShare, 2008), paying tribute to two other jazz families: pianist Hank Jones
Hank Jones
Hank Jones
1918 - 2010
piano
, trumpeter Thad Jones
Thad Jones
Thad Jones
1923 - 1986
trumpet
and drummer Elvin Jones
Elvin Jones
Elvin Jones
1927 - 2004
drums
; and saxophonist Julian "Cannonball" Adderley
Julian
Julian "Cannonball" Adderley
1928 - 1975
saxophone
and trumpeter Nat Adderley
Nat Adderley
Nat Adderley
b.1931
trumpet
. A highlight was "Emily," a ballad enriched by Jeff 's creamy alto and John's upper-register bowing.

Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews—a.k.a. Troy Andrews, a brass whiz from New Orleans—followed on Friday night with his Orleans Avenue band. Alas, while Andrews is an accomplished player in several genres, this band was all about funk, delivered at eardrum-piercing volume that obliterated the boundary between music and din. The kids loved it, rushing the stage, but I retreated after an hour only to hear Shorty pick up his trumpet and cool things it down on "Sunny Side of the Street," a Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong
1901 - 1971
trumpet
shout-out on Satch's 110th birthday weekend.

The Kent-area Albert Rivera
Albert Rivera
Albert Rivera
b.1983
sax, tenor
Organ Sextet opened Saturday's proceedings, with the tenor-playing leader and band hitting the mark on a slow, sultry "After Hours" and a dramatic original, a brooding reflection on 9/11 called "Remembrance."

Champian Fulton
Champian Fulton
Champian Fulton
b.1985
piano
is a young (24) singer-pianist with a penchant for great old songs—"Stardust" and "Pennies from Heaven," among others—possessed a warm voice and engaging smile, and a keyboard-caressing style that often brought Erroll Garner
Erroll Garner
Erroll Garner
1921 - 1977
piano
and Red Garland
Red Garland
Red Garland
1923 - 1984
piano
to mind.

Up next were The Bronx Horns
The Bronx Horns

band/orchestra
, led by former Tito Puente
Tito Puente
Tito Puente
1923 - 2000
band/orchestra
saxophonist Mitch Frohman, serving up spicy Latin fare, ending with Puente's hit "Ran Kan Kan."

Vijay Iyer's trio is one of the most celebrated groups in jazz, and for good reason. Iyer's playing was mesmerizing—pounding out a wall of sound with his left hand while exploring harmonic possibilities with his right—on imaginative originals that built and built to crashing crescendos. Bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Chris Persad Group, The Dautaj, Marcus Gilmore , Coquito, Fri were fully in sync.

Iyer's influences range across America's musical landscape, from A Tribe Called Quest to Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson
1958 - 2009
vocalist
to Henry Threadgill
Henry Threadgill
Henry Threadgill
b.1944
reeds
. It was comforting to this jazz purist that his last piece was an elegiac composition from Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
1899 - 1974
piano
, "The Village of the Virgins," from "The River" suite originally written for Alvin Ailey's dance company.

The late Ray Charles
Ray Charles
Ray Charles
1930 - 2004
piano
was an electrifying blues and jazz creator, and a tribute by New Orleans singer/keyboardist Davell Crawford, was a thrill. Crawford, too, comes out of the black church tradition, and his melismatic renditions of hits from the early R&B to later country ditties and the classic "Georgia On My Mind" were wild, uninhibited masterpieces with no hint of copycatism. Crawford jumped from piano to B3 organ to electric keyboard during the set, which concluded with the riveting "Drown in My Own Tears" and "America the Beautiful."

The irrepressible Roy Haynes closed out Saturday, conducting a master class in drumming at age 86, with help from his much younger but no more lively Fountain of Youth quartet.

Singer/pianist Dena DeRose
Dena DeRose
Dena DeRose
b.1966
piano
had Matt Wilson on drums and Martin Wind
Martin Wind
Martin Wind
b.1968
bass, acoustic
on bass for Sunday's eye-opening set. DeRose's cool and flexible voice stretched and shaped lyrics on her imaginatively chosen repertoire—"Blue and Green" set words to a Miles Davis
Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
trumpet
classic, "Detour Ahead" brought new life to the Johnny Frigo
Johnny Frigo
Johnny Frigo
b.1916
violin
standard—and her pungent chords on piano were apt. She closed with "Imagine," the John Lennon
John Lennon
John Lennon
1940 - 1980
composer/conductor
call for peace; it had particular resonance as news came of the helicopter disaster in Afghanistan.

Emcee Michael Bourne, of WBGO in Newark, N.J., had telling anecdotes about most of the performers, none more spot-on than his introduction for organist Dr. Lonnie Smith. Bourne described a nightclub date when Smith started a tune "as softly as a baby's breath" and amped up to "earthquake" intensity. Then Smith followed that script to a T, building a slow blues relentlessly as Jonathan Kreisberg
Jonathan Kreisberg
Jonathan Kreisberg
b.1972
guitar
's guitar skittered along.

Matt Wilson's quartet was augmented by a string quartet that included his wife, Lisa, on violin, for an hour of absorbing music—some classical, some avant-garde jazz, some klezmer, some Bollywood, and a final medley of "Afternoon Delight" and "All You Need is Love" that involved a bubble machine, an open jam for other musicians at hand and an audience sing-along. Who says jazz can't be fun ?

Joe Lovano's Nonet was another wonderful group put together by the tenor sax giant, featuring lush orchestrations for the four-saxophone frontline (plus trumpet and trombone), The "Birth of the Cool Suite" comprised three timeless tunes from that landmark Miles Davis
Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
trumpet
recording of six decades ago, arranged by the noted Gunther Schuller
Gunther Schuller
Gunther Schuller
b.1925
composer/conductor
with meaty solos by all concerned.

Jimmy Heath's big band wrapped up the festival in fine fashion, roaring through standards and originals as the 84-year-old leader radiated joy in his conducting and in his several solos on tenor and soprano. The highlight was a robust reading of the jazz waltz "Gemini," written by Heath for his daughter and featuring Antonio Hart
Antonio Hart
Antonio Hart
b.1968
saxophone
's flute solo with punchy trumpet accents egging him on.

Rain fell for much of Saturday and threatened on Sunday, cutting into attendance. Let's hope the nonprofit festival achieved its goal: raising $100,000 for scholarships for deserving students at next year's jazz camp.


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