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Live Reviews

Tanglewood Jazz Festival 2003

By Published: October 7, 2003
August 29-31, 2003

Half the fun of the Tanglewood Jazz Festival is getting there. Nestled in the green lush Berkshire Mountains, the 2003 Tanglewood Jazz Festival offered a swingin' getaway on busy Labor Day Weekend.

Driving through the winding Connecticut country roads, we pass small aqueous neighborhoods on wooded shorelines of large lakes. Crossing the border into western Massachusetts, you can almost already feel the crisp September air just around the corner.

The weekend kicked off Friday with a champagne party featuring Flemenco guitarist Jonathan "Juanito" Pascual. Michel Camilo and Gato Barbieri warmed things up with latin-jazz. Percussive pianist Camilo performed with a trio, which included drummer Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez and bassist Charles Flores. Argentinian-born tenor player Gato Barbieri brought his sultry, sexy, smokey saxophone sound.

Perhaps the busiest day for the jazz festival was Saturday as Grammy winner Norah Jones made an appearance. Norah and her album "Come Away With Me", won eight Grammys at the 45th Annual Grammy Awards February 23rd of this year. Norah was there as a guest on Marian McPartland's "Piano Jazz" program. McPartland celebrates her 85th birthday this year.

Also Saturday, another great pianist - Kenny Barron - graced us with his presence. Kenny Barron and Canta Brazil kicked off their set with "A Day In The Life Of A Fool" and "Copacabana."

Closing out Saturday night was one of today's most versatile female vocalists, Cassandra Wilson. I had just seen her a couple of weeks earlier at the JVC Newport Jazz Festival. She is truly an entertainer. She floats out in barefeet and sings like an angel. An angel with a low, sexy, naked voice.

Cassandra Wilson has the ability to take any song - even a hit made popular by the Monkees - and turn it into her own. "Last Train To Clarksville" she surprised the audience with this night, as she did at Newport. She also dabbles in Dylan..."Lay Lady Lay." And she closed things out with the encore, "I Want Some Of That." So, so nice.

My journey began on a sunny Sunday morning, the sky was blue, the gas tank was full and there was lots of open road. I made it up for the Blues celebration. Afterall, the U.S. Senate designated the year beginning February 1, 2003, as the "Year of the Blues." Who knew?

A bright red strawberry hugged by bubbles, floating gently in a long-stem glass of champagne catches my eye as I spread out my blanket on the grassy hill. The crowd begins to gather in front of Seiji Ozawa Hall - an acoustically perfect large wood-beamed hall that opens to the lawn. A sophisticated lot.

In contrast, Louisiana Red broke the afternoon air with the wail of a slide guitar. A man and his guitar, raw blues. He launches into "a song I wrote back in the 60s", a blues history lesson about the Cuban Missle Crisis, complete with references about Ray Charles and Lightnin' Hopkins in the Senate.

Louisiana Red, born Iverson Minter, has a voice that reminds me of the late, great Freddie King. Louisiana Red began recording for Chess Records in 1949, played with John Lee Hooker for a couple of years in Detroit in the late 50s and continues to jam today.

His set conjured up a gospel tune dedicated to Pops Staples. "Get Right Church!" he bellows. Pianist Dave Maxwell joins Red. Telling his story of being born near Birmingham, Alabama - Red rolls into "Freight Train Blues". (Wonder why they call him Louisiana Red. He lives in Europe now.) We all smiled, as if to understand the verse, "Now that I'm down to my end...where is all my friends?"

Next up, the Nicole Nelson Band takes charge. She beams, "Its great to be back home in the Berkshires!" as she waves to her family in the audience. Then they ease into Bessie Smith's classic "Ain't Nobody's Business". Nicole acknowleges Bessie Smith as an inspiration. "This one's an ex-boyfriend song called 'Movin' On'". An elderly woman sitting in a lawn chair next to me wheezed in a raspy smoker's voice, "It's very James Brown."

The real show-stopper came with Nicole's heart-wrenching Etta James' classic, "I Would Rather Go Blind" (than to see you walk out on me.) You know how a singer really reaches deep into the heart for a feeling that gives you goosebumps? Well, that's what happened here. She closed out her set with an ol'-school song, "I Found Love", originally done by Wilson Pickett and The Falcons.

The crowd shuffled about and visited the food vendors and CD sellers as the Duke Robillard Band got set up onstage. Duke Robillard, a founding member of the swing-blues band, Roomful of Blues, has been getting some well-deserved attention as of late. The W.C. Handy Awards named him "Best Blues Guitarist" three years out of four (2000, 2001 and 2003). He even replaced Jimmie Vaughan (Stevie Ray Vaughan's brother) in the Fabulous Thunderbirds for a spell in the early 90's.

Today, Duke was swingin' along with a soulful saxophone and hummin' Hammond B-3. The band consists of: Duke on guitar, Doug James (baritone and tenor sax), "Sax" Gordon (tenor), Matt McCabe (piano), Jesse Williams (bass) and Mark Teixeira (drums). In big letters, "Duke", stretched across his guitar strap as he strummed his semi-acoustic fat-sounding guitar.

After several swingin' tunes, out comes legendary pianist/bandleader Jay McShann. Jay was Charlie Parker's bandleader and the audience responded with reverant applause. I looked down to notice that I was sitting in a seat donated by Dorothy and Stephen Weber. Thanks. Jay "Hootie" McShann may be old as the hills, but he can still swing as he proved here today.

The Robillard/McShann set included: "Don't Leave Me Baby", "Glamour Girl", "Say Forward I'll March", "Confessin' The Blues", "Jumpin' The Blues"...you get the idea. It was a Kansas City Swing/Blues celebration.

Waiting in the wings was a big, powerful band called "Kendrick Oliver & The New Life Jazz Orchestra." These 20 young musicians play big band gospel rockin' music! Their set rumbled in with the Les McCann/Eddie Harris "Swiss Movement" soul jazz tune "Cold Duck Time."

Earlier in the day, across the beautiful Tanglewood grounds at the Tanglewood Theatre, a concert called "Remembering The Modern Jazz Quartet: Donal Fox, Inventions In Blue" echoed through the trees. Players included: leader and incredibly talented pianist, Donal Fox, as well as Stefon Harris (vibraphone), Yoron Israel (drums) and John Lockwood (double bass).

Later in the night, 23-year-old Hiromi made beautiful music on her piano, joined by Mitch Cohen on bass and Dave Dicenso on drums. The Telarc recording artist has a free-wheeling style that is easy to enjoy.

Then it was one of the most influencial jazz players of modern-day, Wynton Marsalis. His septet is nothing less than spectacular. Here's the lineup: Wynton on ol' school trumpet, Herlin Riley (drums), Wess "Warmdaddy" Anderson (alto/soprano), Richard Johnson (piano), Victor Goines (clarinet), Ron Westray (trombone) and Reginald Veal (bass).

Wynton is the Artistic Director for Jazz At Lincoln Center. Be sure to check out their website at: www.jazzatlincolncenter.org.

Closing out this year's event was the sparkling vocalist Natalie Cole. She has a new recording out on Verve Records entitled "Ask A Woman Who Knows." It's her first CD venture in three years. Natalie's set included standards like "Straighten Up And Fly Right" and "Paper Moon" to the title cut from her new release "Ask A Woman" to the classic "Unforgetable."

Hats off to Tanglewood Jazz Festival Director Tony Beadle and Public Relations Superwoman, Sue Auclair. If you're anywhere near the Berkshire Mountains in late August, make it a point to take the scenic drive over to the Tanglewood Jazz Festival. It happens every year and packs a wallop. Guaranteed.


Scott H. Thompson is a member of the Jazz Journalists Association and has contributed to Down Beat, Jazziz, JazzTimes, The Jazz Report and "The All Music Guide To Jazz." He wrote the CD liner notes for Herbie Hancock "Headhunters", Weather Report "8:30" and George Duke "Brazilian Love Affair", to name a few. Thompson co-produced the New Haven Jazz Festival from 1994 to 2000.



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