27th Annual Sedona Jazz on the Rocks Festival


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[Hutcherson] wields just two mallets now...but his shimmering notes are so carefully chosen that less is indeed more.
Sedona Jazz on the Rocks Festival
Sedona, Arizona
September 23-28, 2008

Sedona, Arizona, is surrounded by spectacular red rock formations looming up 1,000 feet or more, interspersed with evergreen-studded, cream-colored limestone hills. These make for dramatic backdrops for the annual six-day Sedona Jazz on the Rocks Festival.

The focus for much of the 27th annual festival was on homegrown talent, and there was an abundance, from a high school all-star band drawn from all over the state to numerous Sedona-area small groups that played a variety of styles in a variety of settings, outdoors and indoors. And suffice to say, jazz lovers would undoubtedly enjoy a visit to this resort city with its many upscale restaurants and bars even during the other 51 weeks of the year.

The main event took place Saturday, when several nationally known performers took turns on a stage erected on a golf course. Headliners were Bobby Hutcherson, Giacomo Gates and Tony Monaco, with Kenny Werner whetting appetites in two concert sets Friday evening.

Hutcherson, who received a lifetime achievement award inscribed in red rock from the nonprofit festival, delivered a quartet set that wafted like a cool breeze over the 1,500 or so listeners who had baked under a 90-degree sun all day. The onetime hard-bop pioneer, now 67, has mellowed over the years, mixing his high-energy selections with exquisite ballads like "I Thought About You" and "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life." He wields just two mallets now rather than the fashionable (since Gary Burton) four, but his shimmering notes are so carefully chosen that less is indeed more.

Hutcherson saved a surprise for the end: a glittering medium-tempo "Jitterbug Waltz," tipping his hat to the great Fats Waller. Then, "I'll Be Seeing You," with a brief sampling of "Giant Steps" serving as a bow to John Coltrane, one of the vibraphonist's early inspirations.

In the preceding set, baritone bopster Giacomo Gates sang, backed by a quartet freaturing tenor saxophonist Doug Lawrence. Gates, a disciple of scat singer extraordinaire Eddie Jefferson, favors offbeat tunes like the crowd-pleasing "Benny's From Heaven" and "I'm Hungry," a gastronomic tour of the world. He emulated Jefferson's vocalized version of a famous Charlie Parker solo on a "Lady Be Good" recording, and displayed his own compositional skills on "Melodious Funk," a lament over lost love, and "If I Were You I'd Love Me."

Whereas Hutcherson never mentioned song titles, Gates made a point of identifying them, citing composers and relating anecdotes about their histories. (More jazzmen should be so informative.) Earlier in the week, I watched Gates perform at a local middle school, introducing several hundred youngsters to the joys of jazz. He described the structure of the blues, defined improvisation as playing spontaneously while following a familiar road map, and illustrated how new melodies are created using the chord progressions from older ones.

He also assigned homework: When the kids acknowledged unfamiliarity with Bird, Dizzy and Monk, he commanded: "Right after school, go out and buy all their CDs." The students did roar for more when Gates asked if they wanted encores. Then came some terrific and totally unrehearsed three-voice harmony with local sopranos Susannah Martin and Jeanie Carroll (unfortunately not reprised on the big stage Saturday).

B-3 Hammond organist Tony Monaco led a trio in vibrant tributes to his mentors, the recently passed progenitors Jimmy Smith and Jimmy McGriff. Monaco punctuated his electrifying blues licks with shouts of encouragement to sidemen as he piled on riff after righthand riff, his left hand sustaining a note that kept rising to the intensity of a scream. Yet the organist mined subtler veins with "I'll Close My Eyes," a ballad he played at Smith's funeral, and in a closing blues during which he squeezed his big sound down to whisper level before kicking it back up to a rousing finish.

Kenny Werner was, like Gates, an artist in residence. He lectured one afternoon about his well-received book, Effortless Mastery, advice on how musicians and others can tap into their creativity—or "get into the zone."

The next evening, Werner and his trio were in that zone, playing as waning sunlight filtered through blue and lavender stained glass in the ceiling of the Creative Life Center. The pianist was in dazzling form on a diverse set that drew on J.S. Bach and Eric Clapton (the elegiac "Tears in Heaven") among others. Werner's own composing skills were amply displayed on "Jackson Five," a wide-ranging ode to painter Jackson Pollock.

The festival had opened with a special showing of the new documentary Trying to Get Better—The Jazz Odyssey of Jack Sheldon. The Los Angeles-based trumpeter, singer and comedian, now 77, is a talented, funny, versatile, complex man, and the film captures his many facets with interviews from people who know him well, including celebs Merv Griffin, Clint Eastwood and Dom DeLuise. There are also generous scenes of Sheldon playing and singing with great sensitivity, then regaling audiences with hilarious, often off-color, humor.

More than a dozen Sedona-area bands were showcased at a posh arts and crafts "village" and at other locations during the week. Among those that caught my ear:

Bedouin Jazz, a sextet that specialized in Middle Eastern sounds but that roamed far and wide for other world beats. It boasted an array of exotic instruments.

Busker Eaton, a trio whose name accurately conveys an affinity for playfulness. But novelty numbers are offset by deep blue grooves etched by an ultra-funky-sounding electronic keyboard.

The Eric Miller Band, a quartet led by guitar whizzes Eric and Robin Miller. The leader's sensuous tenor vocals led authenticity to the Brazilian- and Mexican-inspired repertoire.

The Duncan-Murnihan band, with aforementioned singer Susannah Martin radiating joy on blues and Latin numbers.

Jazz on the Rocks served up several jazz-accompanied dinners and after-hour jam sessions, a patrons' party and a Sunday brunch. Festival proceeds go toward scholarships and other music education programs.

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