Tanglewood Jazz Festival
In recent years the Tanglewood Jazz Festival, the Labor Day Weekend finale at the bucolic Lenox, Mass. summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, has been working to adjust its programming to feel more like a true festival, rather than a series of separate admission concerts that deter early arrivals or thought of lingering afterward. Producer Fred Taylor's efforts paid off this year, based on the offeringsand the lack of empty seatsat the tented Jazz Café performances adjacent to the two principal venues, the Koussevitzky Music Shed and Seiji Ozawa Hall.
Two hours prior to each main stage performance, the nearby tent offered performances to showcase younger talent emerging onto the jazz scene - or talented players who qualify as members of the younger generation in jazz but aren't well known. This year's offerings included the piano-guitar duo of Taylor Eigsti and Julian Lage, pianist John Stetch, vibraphonist Warren Wolf, singer Rachael Price and the vocal group Syncopation. Taylor showcased 14-year-old alto sax prodigy Grace Kelly's quartet at his Friday evening media receptionand it is a sure bet she'll be featured under the Jazz Café tent in 2007.
There were plenty of great musical moments on both principal stages at this 17th annual event, which managed to blend hot Latin, a variety of vocalists, masterful mainstream jazz, a natural bridge to classical music and a salute to the musical legacy of New Orleans, featuring native sons Wynton Marsalis and Dr. John and guests. The forecast of rain from the remnants of Hurricane/Tropical Storm Ernesto, which somehow bypassed western Massachusetts, cut deeply into potential lawn seating. Total weekend attendance was down 4,000 from 2005's event.
The festival's traditional hot Latin opening on Friday night featured the Spanish Harlem Orchestra (SHO), led by pianist Oscar Hernandez and the Big Three Palladium Orchestra co-led by Machito Jr. and Tito Rodriguez Jr. in its excursion through the music of Machito, Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez. The SHO offered more jazz in its mix, while the Big Three band presented more hot Latin dance numbers.
Saturday's matinee was a fresh taping of Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz program for NPR, with eclectic popstar Elvis Costello making his second appearance on the show. It was an engaging two hours of intriguing conversation and interesting music. Costello sang lyrics he wrote to Billy Strayhorn's "Blood Count and McPartland's instrumental "Threnody. The latter was a world premiere vocal version. She repaid the favor with an original composition inspired by Costello's music. Their show featured a surprise ending. Costello called his pregnant wife Diana Krall to sing "If I Had You and "Body and Soul to McPartland's accompaniment.
Saturday night's event at the Shed was a co-feature by the Marsalis quintet (not a septet as advertised) and resplendent Dr. John's tribute to his hometown and gumbo-blues take on the Johnny Mercer songbook with guest appearances by Ann Hampton Callaway, Catherine Russell, John Pizzarelli and Irma Thomas. The latter's "Accentuate the Positive was a poignant post-Katrina moment. A mournful take on "When the Saints Go Marching In segued into a stomping finale featuring both bands in an extended version of "When I Lay My Burden Down. Marsalis even strutted on stage second line-style before adding his horn to the blend.
The Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band, led by trombonist Slide Hampton, provided the weekend's most stirring music with its two Ozawa Hall sets on Sunday afternoon. It drew most of its offerings from its new live album, Dizzy's Business (MCG Jazz). The set featured trumpeter Roy Hargrove, who played with fire and brilliance throughout, singer Roberta Gambarini and tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath. The latter worked with the band's late namesake beginning in the late '40s. Heath and Hampton told fond stories of the man to whom they were paying homage. Hargrove was showcased on an exceptional version of the ballad "I Remember Clifford and later, both scatting and playing his horn, teamed with Gambarini on "Blue 'N Boogie a clear crowd-pleaser. Other top-flight soloists included trumpeter Claudio Roditi, pianist Cyrus Chestnut and saxophonists Antonio Hart and Mark Gross.
Pianist Dave Brubeck wrapped up the festival Sunday evening in a performance with his longtime quartet, which was joined for the closing set by his 22-piece string symphonette. That lush context enhanced a mix of Brubeck-penned classical compositions and rearranged favorites. They included "Blue Rondo a la Turk and "Unsquare Dance as well as "Take Five Brubeck's signature tune penned by longtime collaborator Paul Desmond.