Berkshire Jazz Fest: Sweet Sounds in the Mountains
“ Among the highlights again was [Roberta] Gambarini the spectacular Italian-born singer who has been on the US scene for a few years, but is still on the fringe. ”
Some things might be too good to be true. Imagine a jazz festival where musicians are amicable and accessible and where the fans can get as close to the performers and performances as possible, without a hint of displeasure or a sign of (unneeded) security hassles. Fans are treated with civility and it’s given back in return. The acts are first rate, displayed on a pair of stages – one outdoors in the open air and the other more intimate indoor and club-like. The latter also hosts jam sessions where cats from the different bands sit in.
Imagine it’s nestled in a beautiful mountain range in the middle of the summer and it’s pretty affordable. In this utopia, with its naturally relaxed style and presentation, it’s impossible for attendees not to unwind. Hell, if you want to camp out on the grounds and catch the music the next day, you’re invited for a nominal fee. You can also attend workshops by some of the artists, and kids can enjoy entertainment tailor-made for them
You’ve just imagined the Berkshire Jazz Festival at the Butternut Ski Basin in Great Barrington, MA. The third annual event took place July 25-27 with its usual array of outstanding performances. But light attendance threatens future editions. Attendance has suffered at various festivals and concerts across the board, not just jazz. Perhaps it’s a sign of the economic times. But it would be more than a pity if this festival, produced wonderfully by Jazz Forum Arts , died as a result. Mark Morganelli, Jazz Forum Arts executive director, is disheartened by the attendance. Without writing the obituary yet, here’s hoping little miracles are possible for this not-so-little gem, and the caring, respectful, congenial and genuine staff that is behind it.
The 2003 version of the fest was fun and cool and hip nonetheless, with singers as diverse as Giacomo Gates, Stephanie Nakasian and Roberta Gambarini, sax stalwarts like Jimmy Heath, Houston Person, Lou Donaldson and Donald Harrison, and trumpeters Claudio Roditi and Leroy Jones. Chico Hamilton’s band roared, sounding bigger than it was, and big band sounds came from Charlie Persip’s Big Band Bash.
It’s fitting this third edition was kicked off by the Richie Hart Trio, dubbed by Morganelli as the “hardest working group at the fest,” which is an understatement. Over the three years the group has capably backed singers and other musicians, doing a seamless job. Hart is a swinging and sweet mainstream guitarist with a bright sound. Bassist Rick Petrone is a hot bassist with a great tone and an fabulous ear for support, who can solo his ass off. Drummer Joe Corsello is a mirthful metronome, always on the money, tossing off interesting rhythms to suit whoever is out front.
The group kicked off the fest with “Days of Wine and Roses,” then stepped back to support bebop vocalist Gates and his bebop-influenced stylings, sort of Bob Dorough meets Jon Hendricks. Gates had never played with the trio, but the fit was right. “Route 66” was done very bluesy at a medium tempo and was very cool and slick. “Fly Right,” a restructuring of Monk’s “Epistrophy” was swinging and he nicely combined “Blue Skies” with “In Walked Bud.” “I Love You, Now Get Out” hit a humorous note. Gates bebop phrasing was savvy and seductive.
Houston Person’s set was typical, which is to say sweet. His syrupy tone and sexy phrasing are a nice change from today’s penchant for playing everything on the horn. Fat and mellow, his sound suited the afternoon. Another sax great, Jimmy Heath, played smooth, soulful bebop and blues. Heath may have lost some speed, but still plays with great style and taste. “I’m Glad There is You” was typical of how a musician has been around can still tell a story, with feeling and conviction. “Autumn Leaves” was reworked to a song called “Winter Sleeves” which Health poetically noted was done “So I can collect the royalties... For my melodies... Please.”