Katonah, New York
July 29 & August 5, 2000
Every year, on two consecutive Saturdays in late July and early August, the Caramoor Jazz Festival offers a change of pace from the Caramoor summer classical music series. The event is staged under a large, comfortable tent on the beautiful acreage of the Caramoor estate in Katonah, one of New York’s northernmost and most placid suburbs. Since its somewhat modest beginning in 1995, the jazz festival has come to boast prestigious and unpredictable lineups, boldly mixing the mainstream and the unconventional. Top-sellers like Diana Krall, legends like Sonny Rollins, great innovators like Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette, emerging talents like Jacky Terrasson, and offbeat figures like Dewey Redman and Steve Lacy — all have been warmly received by attentive Caramoor audiences. Looking back over the festival programs of the last few years, one can survey the parameters of real contemporary jazz, in all its variety. The 2000 season added another inspired chapter to the Caramoor annals.
While the cloudy weather left something to be desired, the lineup did not. Opening the afternoon was the Frank Kimbrough/Joe Locke duo. The pair played music from their Omnitone disc Saturn’s Child, as well as a Locke composition titled "Highland," which will appear on a new album slated for November release. Locke’s thrilling, virtuosic approach and Kimbrough’s understated piano concept blended perfectly, and the crystal clear sound of the duo set a lofty tone for the afternoon.
Following Kimbrough and Locke was the towering and mysterious Yusef Lateef, who played an abstract duo set with percussionist Adam Rudolph. In keeping with his multi-instrumental proclivities, Lateef played concert flute, alto flute, tenor, piano, tape loops, and a variety of African wind instruments, while Rudolph played congas, frame drum, didjeradu, and kalimba. The music, peripherally related to jazz, was a window into Lateef’s soul. It reverberated with wisdom and worldliness, not least when Lateef sat down at the piano and sang dirge-like renditions of "When The Saints Go Marching In" and "Trouble In Mind."
Continuing the vibraphone theme introduced by Joe Locke, the young Stefon Harris took the stage, joined by Aaron Goldberg on piano, Reid Anderson on bass, and Terreon Gully on drums. Harris chased after melodic possibilities on the vibes and marimba much as a World Cup soccer player chases the ball — with physical energy and grace in abundance. During "A Cloud of Red Dust," the groove became a live grenade, tossed around by Anderson, Goldberg, and Gully as though they were strategically deciding when to let it fall and explode. The quartet went on to play inventive reworkings of "Summertime," "There Is No Greater Love," and "Blue Monk," as well as "Epilogue," Harris’s moving tribute to the late Milt Jackson. Self-possessed and jocular on stage, Harris charmed the crowd and was the afternoon’s top dog.
This was a hard act to follow, even for the stellar two-alto team of Jackie McLean and Gary Bartz. Their sluggish and brief set included "Solar," "Star Eyes," "’Round Midnight," and "Confirmation" — a bebop revue that sounded dull compared to the innovative sounds of the other acts. Obviously, hearing Mclean and Bartz is always going to have its rewards, but neither player was in top form. The spotty sound engineering and the audience’s pre-dinner restlessness didn’t help.
Following the dinner break, every seat in the house was filled for Chucho Valdés, the headlining act. The Cuban master pianist has a stunning amount of music at his fingertips — during the couse of two long sets one heard fleeting references to "Birks’ Works," "Twisted," "S’Wonderful," "Birdland," "Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise," the intro to "Bebop," and probably a good deal more. Putting an Afro-Cuban spin on influences ranging from Art Tatum to Ahmad Jamal to Franz Liszt, Valdés spoke to the audience through the piano, saying little or nothing verbally throughout the show. His very youthful backing band worked like oxen for a solid two hours.
Not only was this another great day of jazz, it was also the first day of sunshine in nearly two weeks. Pianist Hilton Ruiz opened the afternoon, joined by Lyle Atkinson on bass, Marlon Simon on drums, and special guest Chris Potter on tenor sax. The group played a respectable bop set, including "Invitation," "Naima" (with an impressive solo piano break), "Unit 7" (without Potter), and the funky boogaloo "Home Cookin’." Potter stretched out nicely on the last one.
But Ruiz’s set was a mild warm-up compared to the tornadoes unleashed by the Sam Rivers Trio. This was a multi-instrumental feast, with Rivers playing tenor, soprano, flute, and piano, Doug Matthews playing electric and acoustic basses and bass clarinet, and Anthony Cole playing drums, tenor, and piano. Most of the music was decidedly "out," but Rivers never lost touch with the audience for a second. The talent and energy on display was monumental, and it filled every square inch of that concert tent. Rivers, nearing 77 years of age, has transcended matters of theory and technique. His mastery allows him to play anything at any moment. He improvises on a cosmic level, at times even without an instrument — he’ll just stand in front of the microphone and start to holler, with Matthews and Cole inciting a sonic riot behind him. Then he’ll break into a funky dance. We’re very lucky that Rivers comes out of his Florida seclusion to grace us with these exquisitely uncompromised expressions of his humanity.
Steve Lacy and Mal Waldron played a quietly revelatory duo set that began with "Monk’s Dream." Lacy’s comfort with the form and harmony of the tune was riveting. His warm soprano sound and Waldron’s elegant, old-school piano style fell on the ears like soft petals. The famed expatriate duo also played Strayhorn’s "Johnny Come Lately," Waldron’s waltz "You," Elmo Hope’s ingenious bop head "Roll On," Monk’s "Epistrophy," and Lacy’s angular, dark "Longing." Waldron’s dramatic "Snakeout" closed the set.
Wrapping up the unconventional afternoon lineup was the great Paul Motian/Bill Frisell/Joe Lovano trio, which is seldom heard these days thanks to the busy schedules of all three players. The trio wound its way through "Misterioso," "Good Morning, Heartache," "Body and Soul," and three thorny originals. (Unfortunately, the ballads were very nearly ruined by the woman seated to my left, who insisted on humming the melodies and even little solos of her own underneath Lovano’s.) Frisell played a Gibson rather than his usual Klein; he fiddled with signal processing during the original tunes and played with his trademark round-toned, soft touch during the ballads. His intro to "Body and Soul" floated out of his two Fender amps and into the cool mid-day air. Lovano sounded huge, and was able to amble around the spacious stage thanks to his clip-on mic. Motian led the proceedings unassumingly, peering out from under his baseball cap.
And topping it all off for the evening was the great James Moody, whose knock-’em-dead gags and jokes could qualify him for his own show on Comedy Central. Joined by his hip and youthful working band (Renee Rosnes on piano, Todd Coolman on bass, and Adam Nussbaum on drums), Moody stuck close to the Charlie Parker 80th birthday theme under which the evening was billed. Playing tenor, alto, and flute, he blew through "Anthropology," "Lover Man," "Cherokee," "St. Thomas," and the ever-hilarious "Moody’s Mood for Love."
Following a brief intermission, a five-horn jam session was assembled with Moody, Phil Woods, Claudio Roditi, Brian Lynch, and Gregory Tardy. During Moody’s solo on "Au Privave," Joe Lovano emerged from the wings, tenor in hand, taking everyone by surprise. Moody finished, never having noticed that Lovano was there. When Lovano approached a mic and began to blow, Moody did a double take and laughed. It was a beautiful moment, one that drove home the familial nature of the jazz scene. Egos played no part in the proceedings; all were there to celebrate the music. And how about a hand for Renee Rosnes? It’s not easy for a rhythm section player, and a woman at that, to command attention during a horn-dominated, boys-club jam session. But Rosnes had the crowd eating out of her hand on every solo.
The session continued with a somewhat scattered "My Little Suede Shoes" and closed with a powerful "Confirmation." At one point during the latter, Rosnes and Coolman dropped out, setting up a tenor/drum duo break between Nussbaum and Lovano. A fitting end to the Caramoor festival: two of our best, most contemporary players making a 50-year-old song sound like it was written yesterday.