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Caramoor Jazz Festival Provides Great Music

R.J. DeLuke By

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the highlights were arguably the points where Lovano walked on stage for a scorching saxophone joust with Kenny Garrett, a rousing, bopping version of 'Bye Bye Blackbird' with Kurt Elling, and the inspired jam-like, festival closer 'Lester Leaps In' with Lovano, Elling and veteran tenor saxophonist Frank Wess tearing it up.
One could say that the first day of the 2004 Caramoor Jazz Festival on July 31 in Katonah, NY, belonged to the wonderful Hank Jones, who turned 86 that day and showed his faultless technique on piano in the event's fine closing set. But the day perhaps really belonged to Joe Lovano, the festival's artistic director, who played with such élan and gusto throughout the day, not only in his scheduled set with Jones, but sitting in with other groups.
Maybe it was something in the air, as Lovano himself intoned in his role of emcee after a performance by the Lewis Nash Trio. "We're calling on the spirits today, aren't we?" he said with his infectious smile.
Whatever it was, the festival on the gorgeous Caramoor grounds was filled with great music and buoyed by the spirit injected by Lovano. He was an ebullient and most gracious emcee, extolling the merits of each group, appreciating the music and those who made it as much as anyone in the audience. His enthusiasm was infectious. In fact, when Lovano first took the stage to welcome the audience, it wasn't with words, but with a few solo choruses of "I'm All For You," the title of his latest CD that features Jones.
While the music was outstanding throughout, the highlights were arguably the points where Lovano walked on stage for a scorching saxophone joust with Kenny Garrett, a rousing, bopping version of "Bye Bye Blackbird" with Kurt Elling, and the inspired jam-like, festival closer "Lester Leaps In" with Lovano, Elling and veteran tenor saxophonist Frank Wess tearing it up.

The festival continues on Aug. 7, highlighted by a tribute to the Count Basie band.

But on the last day of July, the tribute was to Jones, whose trio — Dennis McKrell on drums and George Mraz on bass — started off with a superbly executed "On Green Dolphin Street." Upon its completion, the horn of Lovano could be heard from the wings of the stage (he had a portable microphone attached to the bell, which allowed him freedom of movement all day) playing "Happy Birthday" as a group of musicians walked out to present the pianist with a cake as the audience gave Jones a standing ovation.

"He's amazing," Lovano said of Jones in a recent All About Jazz interview . "We can play a tune like 'Stella By Starlight' that he's played thousands of times. He plays it like he's learning it a new way every time. His intro. His voicings. Phrasing. Everything about it is very free and spontaneous and joyous. It's incredible to be around players like that."

Jones demonstrated that ability throughout the evening, as his group played "I Waited for You" and "Consumption" with Lovano, the former a lush ballad made even prettier by Lovano's tender touch; the latter a Jones-penned tune, softly swinging and beautifully rendered. The pianist, who's played with virtually all the jazz greats over the decades, played "Alone Together" solo, showing his great way with lush harmonies. The song, like Jones the man, was elegant. He makes a piano sound full and rich.

Wess is nearly as old as Jones and came up through the same ranks. While there is a lot of Coltrane in Lovano's bag, Wess comes out of the Lester Young bag and his thinner, but sweet tone was a nice change. His renowned flute playing came to the front on "Corcovado" and he stayed with the flute to cut through the bop anthem "Scrapple from the Apple" which Lovano joined in on.

"Lester Leaps In," brought to prominence by Count Basie and Lester Young, but worked out by thousands of musicians since, was a classic blowing session. Wess burned with the Young 'running style" solo that could swing a person into bad health. Lovano was screaming and preaching and probing, and Elling scatted improvisation after improvisation, completing the front line. When it came time for Jones, he switched the gears, but not the groove, with a dead-on, authentic Count Basie solo — the notes so sparse, but so swinging.

Earlier in the day, the Lewis Nash Trio — with vibraphonist Steve Nelson and the superb Peter Washington on bass — was excellent. Nash has been a first-call drummer for many years with good reason. He is a monster on the trap set, and pulled out all the stops in his solos. But he has the innate characteristic of always having good taste. His playing always supports the group. "A Night in Tunisia" was the sparkler of his first set. But he was soon joined by Garret, whose alto sax knows few peers, for more great music. Garret took "What Is This Thing Called Love" to Pluto and back, dizzying in technique as he rocked back and froth blaring out scorching chorus after chorus and bending the sax to its limits. But on Coltrane's "Namia" he played as soft and pretty a ballad as one could ask for.

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