Litchfield Jazz Festival
August 3-5, 2007
Connecticut may not be very high on the list of "jazz states," particularly nestled, as it is, among New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. But it does have its history and players and for the last 12 years an excellent event in the Litchfield Jazz Festival. Held in the northwestern corner of the state in Goshen, over its history this plucky summer gathering has hosted such names as Thomas Chapin, Diana Krall (in her first U.S. appearance), Slide Hampton, Phil Woods, Brad Mehldau, Tito Puente, Dave Brubeck, Sonny Rollins and Wayne Shorter. Not too shabby.
But for all its appeal and world-classiness, this is still a festival held on fairgrounds in the countryside. Driving to the site, your correspondent was struck by how many more signs there were for the Blueberry Festival happening the next week. This part of Connecticut alternates between very rural and very wealthy and probably doesn't really know what to make of jazz thrust in its midst. Many of the attendees come from lower in the state or across the borders of national neighbors (mainly Massachusetts...Go Red Sox! Just kidding...).
This year's lineup was as varied as years past: Slide Hampton (his fourth appearance), Count Basie Orchestra with Nnenna Freelon, Insight, Rachael Price, Mario Pavone (a staple since the beginning of the festival), Sonny Fortune, Matt Wilson (tenth appearance), the Mingus Big Band, Rolando Matias, Dave Stryker, Helio Alves, Don Braden (tenth appearance), Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra and Karrin Allyson. Split into two concerts on the first evening and then six apiece over the next two days, the Festival offers anyone who doesn't make the trip regularly to New York a good sense of what a night or two in the city is like.
Litchfield may not have the ambience of a Monterey or Newport but it is picturesque nonetheless and certainly low-key. Local merchants ply their wares and artists set up shop along a dirt path leading to an intimate tent space. The food available is an appealingly indulgent cross-section of fair fare: pizza, kabobs, kettle corn, blooming onions, chili, ice creams, etc. Ticket prices are reasonable considering the talent $350 for an all-access VIP pass down to $37 for a daily lawn seat and there is little in the way of typical jazz festival attitude, be it snarky or overly sunny. And to top everything off, the proceeds from the festival go to support the activities of Litchfield Performing Arts, including the prestigious Litchfield Jazz Camp, which just concluded its 11th year.
Apart from the opening evening Hampton and Basie dedicated to high-energy accessible big band music, the days were organized along similar themes. Latin jazz opened both weekend days, followed by straight-ahead fare (either vocalist Price or guitarist Stryker). More advanced music in the form of Pavone and Alves followed with jazz history clinics by Fortune and Braden preceding mini-dinner breaks. Before the big headliners was more modern jazz via Wilson and Haden with the Mingus Big Band and Allyson closing out the evenings (the only sets played in darkness).
If there was one complaint about the festival, it would be a smaller crowd than years past. Perhaps it was the heat or saving money for blueberries, but this area rarely gets performers of this caliber coming through so larger audiences would naturally be expected. If there was one especially good thing, it was an singular punctuality quite unlike even the biggest festivals, which quickly spiral out of control in terms of staying on schedule.