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Litchfield Jazz Festival 2023

Litchfield Jazz Festival 2023

Courtesy Paul Reynolds

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But even amid such fine company, the energy and invention of Bernstein’s guest drummer, the masterful Al Foster, was the highlight of the set – if not the entire day.
Litchfield Jazz Festival
The Frederick Gunn School
Washington CT
July 28 to July 30, 2023

It's fitting that a festival set in a location as venerable-sounding as the Litchfield Hills deeply respects tradition. That commitment starts with the music styles it presents. While the Litchfield Jazz Festival Orchestra Django Reinhardt Project isn't averse to going beyond musically. For example, in past years, it's presented Vijay Iyer and Jane Bunnetts all-Cuban Maqueque—its 28 years of presentations have displayed a special dedication to the mainstream.

The festival also honors its own history in the best ways. As befits an organization that also runs a summer jazz camp, it nurtures talent—they specialize in bringing back sidemen as leaders and in presenting past headliners in new contexts.

The first set on July 29th in the auditorium of the Frederick Gunn School, which opened the LJS's main day of music, showed a commitment to both traditions. Ehud Asherie has played Litchfield several times as sideman to clarinetist Ken Peplowski, including in a Benny Goodman tribute in 2017. But this was his LJS debut as a leader, after a history with the event that includes being brought to the very first festival as a young teen in 1996.

Though Peplowski was billed as Asherie's special guest, he didn't appear. It hardly mattered. The set—which included stellar, sensitive support from bassist Dezron Douglas and drummer Jason Brown—validated Asherie's readiness for the spotlight. His well-conceived program leaned to old songs that weren't necessarily well-worn standards, often in unexpected and appealing arrangements. Hoagy Carmichael's "Heart and Soul," for instance, was taken slower than is customary, which only made it deeper and—yes—more soulful.

He played Cool Struttin,' a Sonny Clark blues that Asherie made true to its title, along with a gorgeous, propulsive Brazilian medley that included Fimdo Soma, in tribute to its composer João Donato, who died last week, and a delightfully playful "Moralito's Dance," dedicated to his young son, who was in attendance.

Less assertive than Asherie, both musically and personally, Steve Nelson contributed a more introspective—though still satisfying—set in which he ceded the spotlight as much to his fine backing trio. They were well equipped for the task. In particular, pianist Rick Germanson offered thoughtful and diverting, though never showy, solos. He and Nelson showed a fine interplay, developed from a regular weekly gig at Small's, often in the company of bassist Kiyoshi Kitagawa. Where the Smalls gigs often heavily features Kitagawa originals, the Litchfield set, with Kitagawa absent in favor of a sub, leaned heavily on standards, from "Caravan" to "Up Jumped Spring" to "Embraceable You."

Where most pianist-singers are typically stronger at one or the other of those musical skills, Champian Fulton stands out as a bona fide double threat. Her playful yet restrained singing is solidly straightforward—more Dinah Washington than Sarah Vaughan, if you will—as is her repertoire, which favors the Great American Songbook.

The piano actually preceded singing as her first musical love, she disclosed between songs, and her piano excursions during the vocal numbers showed sophistication, and even some daring. Fulton's Oklahoma charm was buttressed by the charisma of veteran drummer Fukushi Tainaka, whose constant smile and playful solos only added to the ebullience of the set.

True to a well-programmed event, the LJS left the best to last: a quartet led by guitarist Peter Bernstein. He relaxedly tossed out fluid lines from his Zeidler archtop, whose hollow body helps Bernstein forge his wonderfully warm, round tone. He had fine support from Adam Birnbaum, whose arpeggio-inflected style was the most modern piano-playing of the day, and from the solidity of Doug Weiss's bass.

But even amid such fine company, the energy and invention of Bernstein's guest drummer, the masterful Al Foster, was the highlight of the set—if not the entire day. At 80, Foster's slowed down a little, as he's conceded in some recent interviews, but he remains every bit the rhythmic wonder. (His longtime employer Miles Davis wrote in a memoir: "He [Foster] knocked me out because he had such a groove.")

Foster's ride-cymbal work was as relentless and flawless as ever. He also embellished the pulse with a variety of novel rhythmic elements, like playing a few bars on the rims of the drums. In lesser hands, these punctuations might have distracted, but Foster employed them to add musical color that never derailed the proceedings.

Free from a big-city spotlight, or a big corporate sponsor that might encourage including more commercial genres, the Litchfield festival is a jazz fan's jazzfest. The event's appeal is further enhanced by its setting, in a historic hilltop hamlet that evokes its own traditions.

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