Tanglewood Jazz Festival
August 29-31, 2008
Tanglewood, in Lenox, Massachusetts, is the summer home of the Boston Symphony, and it's also home to events like an annual James Taylor concert, an annual recording of A Prairie Home Companion, and the annual Tanglewood Jazz Festival, which ran this year from August 29-31.
Lenox has a proud history where jazz is concerned. From 1957-1960, it was home to the Lenox School of Jazz, a pioneering gathering of improvising musicians looking to share ideas and carry the music forward. The faculty reads like a who's who of jazz from that era: Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown, Herb Ellis, Milt Jackson, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Jim Hall, Max Roach, Lee Konitz, Booker Little, Bill Evans, Kenny Dorham, J.J. Johnson and that's just scratching the surface. Similarly, many of the students would go on to become acclaimed musicians, including Ran Blake, Don Cherry, Ornette Coleman, and Don Ellis. (There's an excellent book on the subject, Jeremy Yudkin's The Lenox School of Jazz: A Vital Chapter in the History of American Music and Race Relations (Farshaw, 2006).)
The Boston Symphony Orchestra, which runs Tanglewood, honors that history with the annual jazz festival. The setting is idyllicthe whole place is nestled in the Berkshire Mountains between Lenox and Stockbridge. The festival is held in Ozawa Hall (named after famed conductor Seiji Ozawa), with additional performances in the "Jazz Cafe"a tent up the hill from the hall. People also sit on the lawn between the two venues, and the entire back wall of Ozawa Hall opens up for the evening performances to give the lawn folks a view of the show.
There were really only two small problematic issues on the opening daybugs and rain. It was quite humid, and the mosquitoes and gnats were out in full force during the early evening. Then it rained later on. Still, the crowd was happy and into the music, and I'd have to say the opening day was a big success.
I started out by interviewing clarinetist and saxophonist Eddie Daniels, who would play on Sunday at 2 P.M. While we were recording the interviewwhich will be on an upcoming edition of The Jazz SessionDaniels got a call from his pianist, Tom Rainier. Ranier was calling to say that drummer Joe LaBarbera had just fallen off his bicycle and broken his left hand, and thus couldn't play their gig in less than 48 hours. Daniels suggested some names and asked Tom to start calling around. "You can leave this in the show," Eddie said. "This is what it's like to be bandleader." (On a personal note: Here's wishing Joe LaBarbera a speedy recovery!)
Later in the afternoon, I stopped over at the VIP reception site and listened to a rehearsal by Australian vocalist Jo Lawry. It was a knock-out performance. She has an incredibly pure voice with faultless intonation, and the band featured some top-notch players, including guitarist Keith Ganz, whose name will be familiar if you're a fan of his wife, singer Kate McGarry. McGarry was there later for Lawry's set, and she told me that she and Jo Lawry have become good friends and collaborators. In fact, their joint vocal group features a medley of Rush tunes. Lawry's writing skills are also impressive, particularly her lyrics on songs like "Small House."
Pianist and Blue Note recording artist Aaron Parks was a ubiquitous presence at the festival. In addition to his performance on Friday, his tunes were sung and played later in the weekend by both Kate McGarry and Terence Blanchard. Parks was joined on Friday by most of the line-up from his new album, Invisible Cinema: Matt Penman on bass, Mike Moreno on guitar, and Kendrick Scott on drums in place of Eric Harland, who plays on the record. The crowd was appreciative, although perhaps not quite sure what to expect from Parks and his set of original music.
EDMAR CASTENEDA & THE GREAT JOE LOCKE HUNT
After the first few numbers of Parks's set, I checked my cell phone and saw several missed calls from vibraphonist Joe Locke, who was performing later in the evening with harpist Edmar Casteneda. A call to the absent musician confirmed that he was (a) lost, (b) stuck in traffic, (c) unable to reach the band, and (d) needing some help to prepare the vibes. I ran down to Ozawa Hall where Edmar Casteneda was doing his soundcheck while others were wondering where Locke was. "He's right here," I said, holding up my cell phone. We gave him some directions, got the vibes mostly prepared, and Locke himself arrived in time for the end of the soundcheck. As if the stress of making the deadline weren't enough, he along with Casteneda and the band had just flown in from Israel the night beforeand Locke had spent all 11 hours of the flight in the plane toilet with food poisoning. By performance time, however, most in the audience would have been none the wiser. The musicians not only performed like professionals but absolutely rocked the house. Jazz followers owe it to themselves to become acquainted with the music of Edmar Casteneda, whose facility on the harp and soaring compositional style are not at all what you'd expect from a concert prominently featuring the word "harp" in its title. Locke later said that he first caught Casteneda at the Umbria Jazz Festival at the urging of a friend, despite hesitations about attending a "harp recital" (and at 11 A.M.). The music, however, proved overpowering, challenging all assumptions and erasing all doubts.
Pianist and vocalist Eliane Elias played an enjoyable set based on her recent release Something for You (Blue Note 2008), which is a tribute to pianist Bill Evans and includes selections from the world of Brazilian bossa nova. Bill Evans' last bassist (and Elias's husband) Marc Johnson and drummer Adam Nussbaum were perfect bandmates, their communication and interaction clear to anyone in attendance. Although receptive to all of the music, the crowd seemed to respond the most to the bossa nova numbers.
The rain came a few times, but all in all it was a lovely afternoon and evening in the Berkshires for the second day of the Tanglewood Jazz Festival.
I certainly won't pretend to be objective hereI love Kate McGarry's music, and have ever since I first heard her. But it wouldn't require a fan to appreciate her set at the Jazz Cafe as a master class in taste, musicality and sensitivity. She sang several selections from her new album, If Less Is More, Nothing Is Everything (Palmetto, 2008), including a fresh version of Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A Changin.'" She was accompanied throughout by her husband, Keith Ganz, on acoustic guitar, and drummer Clarence Penn, who played a percussion kit rather than a full drum setas tasteful an accompanist and soloist as anyone could want yet an energetic, fun-loving spirit as well.
Marian McPartland is the beloved host of Piano Jazz on NPR, the longest-running performance program on public radio. She's celebrating her 90th birthday this year and still going strong. Yesterday a sold-out crowd gathered in Ozawa Hall and on the hill to watch a taping of her show. She played two 45-minute sets with an intermission in between. The first set featured pianist Mulgrew Miller, who's appeared on more than 400 recordings as a leader or sideman. The end of the set featured a duet version of the Thad Jones composition "A Child Is Born," during which the even the birds must have stopped chirping to listen. After the set, McPartland announced the intermission, saying, "We're going in the back to ... I don't know ... smoke pot or something." The crowd roared. The second set featured pianist and vocalist Spencer Day, who charmed the audience with his compositions, including a love song about New Jersey. He and McPartland performed "Born To Be Blue" together. Then Nnenna Freelon came out to sing with McPartland. A highlight was Stevie Wonder's arresting "All In Love Is Fair," which McPartland requested and Freelon agreed to sing after a "prayer to the gods of lyrics, that they'll download the words in the proper order." Mulgrew Miller came back toward the end for some trio work with Freelon and McPartland, and the crowd ended the show by singing "Happy Birthday" to McPartland.
Trumpeter Jason Palmer accompanied Grace Kelly at the 2007 Tanglewood Jazz Festival, and he was a crowd favorite. This year, he got his own time slot at the Jazz Cafe, performing with a quintet of young players, including his wife, vocalist Colleen Bryant Palmer. Highlights included revamped versions of Duke Ellington's "Come Sunday" and Abbey Lincoln's "When Malindy Sings." Palmer has a deep voice that seems well-suited to gospel or maybe classical lieder, and it worked well in those slow, stately tunes, though it was perhaps less effective in up-tempo numbers like "I Must Have That Man" and "Jump For Joy." Palmer is a technically gifted trumpet player, definitely a player to watch as he develops his own voice.
Sadly, I had to leave early, and thus missed the sets by Donal Fox and Diane Reeves. Nonetheless, Fox's first tune which sounded wonderful. A regular at Tanglewood in a variety of settings, he was welcomed as a hometown favorite.
The Tanglewood Jazz Festival made it through two days of sporadic rain to end with one of the most beautiful days of the summerand some of the most powerful music in recent memory.
Singer/songwriter/pianist Spencer Day opened the afternoon in the Jazz Cafe, following up on his Day 2 performance with Marian McPartland. He quickly won over the crowd with intimate performances of mostly original material, also covering a Depeche Mode tune toward the end of the set.
Despite losing drummer Joe LaBarbera to a broken left hand less than 48 hours before the gig, clarinetist and saxophonist Eddie Daniels still managed to put on a perfect show for a summer afternoon. Last-minute replacement Steve Schaeffer fit right in with the rest of the group, and Daniels proved to be as adept at communicating with the crowd as he is at playing his instruments. An interesting side note about pianist Tom Ranier's day job: he's the assistant musical director on Dancing With The Stars.
Violinist Mark O'Connor has covered a lot of musical ground in his career, from fiddle music to symphonies and everything in between. He performed at Tanglewood with his "Hot Swing" band, including guest vocalist Jane Monheit. For me, the standout musician in the ensemble was guitarist Frank Vignola, who can play more musically at ridiculous tempos than just about anyone I've heard. Vignola had the crowd in the palm of his hand for every solo, and Monheit was a hit, too.
Pianist Alex Brown is currently a member of Paquito D'Rivera's band, and some of his boss's fire can be heard in the interplay between him and the members of his trioparticularly drummer Eric Doob. Brown's trio played the evening set at the Jazz Cafe, much to the satisfaction of the crowd.
Three years ago, nearly to the day, Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. The storm and its aftermath were our country's absolute lowest point during my lifetime. Like many, I'd become resigned to the notion that we were capable of starting wars and bombing people in distant places, but the idea that we'd let a city drown right here at home was almost too much to comprehend. Spike Lee's 2006 documentary When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts proved to be a powerful artistic statement about the storm and the human failures that led to the flooding of New Orleans. No evaluation of the film's emotional impact is complete, however, without attending to its score. The film was made even more gripping by the haunting music of trumpeter Terence Blanchard, who composed the soundtrack.
Blanchard decided that the soundtrack by itself wasn't enough, so he and the members of his band created the album A Tale Of God's Will: Requiem For Katrina (Blue Note, 2007). The final performance of the festival was a rare opportunity to hear this music played live by the Blanchard quintet and the 40-piece Tanglewood Jazz Orchestra. There aren't enough adjectives to describe the majesty and sadness of this music. Suffice it to say that it was a concert few in the audience are likely ever to forget.