The Berkshire Hills come alive with the sound of jazz over Labor Day weekend, as the Tanglewood Jazz Festival has become a summer's end arts and culture fixture for western Massachusetts. While it doesn't fit the format of what many of us consider a jazz festival, along the lines of Newport or Saratoga, with hours and hours of music on one day-long program, it has a formula that works: A full weekend of separate admission concerts featuring one or two acts. Producer Fred Taylor fleshed it out a bit this year with an interesting yet under-attended series of Jazz Cafe pre-concerts each afternoon and evening featuring younger emerging acts, including bands led by bassist Esparanza Spalding, pianist Andy Ezrin, vocalist/cuatro player Marta Topferova and trumpeter Dominick Farinacci. Sonny Rollins, three days shy of his 75th birthday, proved to be the weekend highlight. His Sunday matinee performance featured Rollins' customary quintet plus one added member, Chicago guitarist Bobby Broom. Rollins was at his best with a start-to-finish solo, with spare accompaniment on "Falling in Love With Love - including a few brief, sly quotes from other pop love songs that enhanced his 20-minutes-plus journey. He ended his planned show with "Without a Song after urging the audience members to find happiness "in some way every day in their individual lives. But it wasn't the end. A foot-stomping, clapping, demand for an encore brought Rollins and Co. back to the Ozawa Hall stage for "In a Sentimental Mood - an encore that captured everyone's mood.
Tony Bennett was the Saturday night headliner in a program that featured the Count Basie Orchestra as the opener and as Bennett's backing band, above and beyond his normal quartet. Many were expecting musical fireworks with that combined band, but were disappointed when Bennett rarely acknowledged the orchestra and only had it play on a couple of tunes during his set. A golden opportunity missed. However, he did give tremendous solo space to his guitarist Gray Sargent.
Marian McPartland recorded another installment of her award-winning public radio show, "Piano Jazz with singer-guitarist Madeleine Peyroux, trading solo tunes and mixing it up on songs stretching in chronology from the Bessie Smith to Peyroux songbooks.
Particularly interesting were their versions of "Careless Love and Leonard Cohen's "Dance Me To The End of Love . Tragedy made "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans? even more poignant. Tanglewood Jazz reserves its Friday night opener for a Latin program, which provides the perfect energy and a spirit that can carry through the weekend. The Caribbean Jazz Project with singer Diane Schuur opened. Hot Latinized versions of Oliver Nelson's "Stolen Moments and "Poinciana were highlights. It seemed it would be a relatively screech-free evening, but Schuur made up for it on their finale "So In Love .
Many of those who came to hear Schuur missed out on some great music if they left before the quartet that followed: Toots Thielemans, Kenny Werner, Oscar Castro-Neves and Airto Moreira. There was nothing more intimate that weekend than the Werner-Thielemans duo version on Michel LeGrand's "The Windmills of Your Mind . Werner's sparing yet exquisite synthesizer playing was a splendid addition to his acoustic piano, particularly on "All The Way . The set ended with an unusual arrangement of "God Bless America , with Werner doubling on the opening melody and refrain by whistling. "What a Wonderful World capped the evening as the encore.
I was first exposed to jazz while working overseas in Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I would listen to the Voice of America on the radio and they had a nightly jazz program on at 10:00pm. I learned a lot about jazz listening to this program. I also had a friend who listened to real jazz by artists like Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy and Archie Shepp. On my way home from Africa I landed in New York and had the opportunity to see the George Adams/Don Pullen quartet at the Village Vanguard as well as Kenny Barron and Ron Carter at another club, and was in heaven.