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


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Litchfield Jazz Festival
Kent, CT
August 5-7, 2011
"I like to save the best for last," saxophonist Jimmy Heath 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, 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, the Clayton Brothers, organist Dr. Lonnie Smith and saxophonist Joe Lovano were other biggies and drummer Matt Wilson, 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 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, trumpeter Thad Jones and drummer Elvin Jones; and saxophonist Cannonball Adderley and trumpeter Nat Adderley. A highlight was "Emily," a ballad enriched by Jeff 's creamy alto and John's upper-register bowing.

Trombone Shorty—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 shout-out on Satch's 110th birthday weekend.

The Kent-area Albert Rivera 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 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 and Red Garland to mind.

Up next were The Bronx Horns, led by former Tito Puente 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 Marcus Gilmore were fully in sync.

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

The late Ray Charles 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 had Matt Wilson on drums and Martin Wind 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 classic, "Detour Ahead" brought new life to the Johnny Frigo standard—and her pungent chords on piano were apt. She closed with "Imagine," the John Lennon 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'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 recording of six decades ago, arranged by the noted Gunther Schuller 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'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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