Tanglewood Jazz Fest: Casteneda, Elias, McPartland, and Freelon Headline Labor Day Show

R.J. DeLuke BY

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[Edmar] Castaneda continues to wow audiences with his virtuoso abilities on the harp, executing runs that can sound like two guitarists, with percussive articulations and firmly etched bass lines.
—Yet he plays with gentle sweetness and lightning speed.
Tanglewood Jazz Festival
Lennox, Massachusetts
August 29-31, 2008

Tanglewood, the venerable Lenox, Massachusetts, music facility, is renowned for classical music and has been the home for many of the great composers and conductors over the years. But the annual Tanglewood Jazz Festival has carved out its own reputation for bringing exciting and eclectic music to the stage each year over the Labor Day weekend.

This year, among the highlights was a remarkable double-bill concert by the Edmar Casteneda trio, featuring guest Joe Locke, and by the elegant Eliane Elias, presenting her tribute to Bill Evans. It also celebrated the 90th birthday of one of the grande dames of jazz, Marian McPartland, with a live taping of her long- running, Peabody Award-winning, NPR show Piano Jazz.

Mixing classical and jazz themes was a band led by pianist/composer/arranger Donal Fox, and providing expert clarinet sounds of bebop and swing was Eddie Daniels. Mark O'Connor's Hot Swing Band melded the swing of the Grappelli-Reinhardt era with bluegrass energy. Then there was the Jazz Cafe, which brings notice to up-and-coming musicians every year. It added up to a successful musical weekend.

Elias brought much of the music from her heralded CD, Something For You, the tribute to Evans, one of the pianists she was influenced by as a young girl and aspiring musician in Sao Paulo, Brazil. She was one of the weekend's stars, with an expert and classy performance.

Cole Porter's "Everything I Love" allowed her to show her deft and precise piano skills, as well as the tightness of the group— bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Adam Nussbaum. Constantly touted for her interpretations of Latin music, particularly Jobim—which she does wonderfully—some may forget she's one of the finer pianists in jazz. She's expert at playing in the jazz mainstream, her improvisations fiery and passionate. She played the Monkish "Five," which Evans wrote many years ago, and a solo on his tune "I Love My Wife" was beautifully rendered, with lush harmonic twists.

She sang "Waltz for Debbie," "Sleeping Bee" and "Beware, My Foolish Heart" from the Evans book, and each time added sweet piano to back her soft, yet engaging, vocals. At every step, Johnson and Nussbaum were in synch. Johnson's sense of time and his superior solo improvisations make it easy to understand why Evans was so pleased with his very last trio—comprising Johnson along with Joe LaBarbera on drums. The bass solo on "You and the Night and the Music" was particularly outstanding.

Elias also dropped some nuggets from her latest CD, Bossa Nova Stories (Blue Note), which is out in Europe and Japan but doesn't hit the U.S. until January. Gershwin's "They Can't Take That Away From Me" proved an excellent vehicle for her sensuous vocal. Jobim's "Desafinado" was absolutely reconstructed, with abstract excursions and different rhythms surrounding the basic melody. Far more experimental a reading than one would expect but, because it is performed more traditionally so many times, the change is what made it more interesting and fun.

Castaneda continues to wow audiences with his virtuoso abilities on the harp, executing runs that can sound like two guitarists, with percussive articulations and firmly etched bass lines. Yet he plays with gentle sweetness and lightning speed. And his band was right in step. Marshall Gilkes not only proved to be a strong trombone player but also wrote some of the intricate music. Drummer Dave Stillman did the work of two men, playing the trap set as well as multiple percussion instruments, with an apparent djembe between his legs. Moreover, he managed to play them all on most of the numbers—not separately but melding them all. Joe Locke on vibes used double mallets while playing with fire, beauty, and captivating energy—a great pleasure to hear and, because of the visual element, to witness as well.

At one point, the Latin-tinged music got hot: Stillman was playing an array of percussion, Castaneda was working his magic, and Gilkes, in addition to improvising over the insistent pulse, managed to make his mouthpiece imitate the sounds of the Brazilian cuica, which fit right into the overall sound. (The squeaking sound of the cuica maybe is most familiar to fans from Airto Moiera's playing it behind Miles Davis in the electronic 1970s period). The music of this group was exciting, and its future is bright.

The birthday celebration for McPartland was highlighted by guest Mulgrew Miller, the superb and, as a result, constantly busy, pianist. While age has taken an effect on McPartland's dexterity, she can still fit in and play interesting lines. The songs did not hit break-neck speed and didn't need to. In duet, they played Thad Jones' "A Child Is Born" and Charlie Parker's "Au Private," among others. Miller's solo on Ellington's "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good" was typical, weaved with intriguing twists and a bit of the blues. McPartland's solo on her own "The Days of Our Love" was outstanding. Slow and dreamy, the piece proved that she no longer had to play bebop, the music that first won her musicians' respect when she came over from England in the 1950s. She just played beautiful lines with interesting harmonies and showed she still has some stuff.

Vocalist Nneenna Freelon's guest spot was also marked by slower tempos, but McPartland played nice accompaniment each time, even on "All in Love Is Fair," a Stevie Wonder ballad that Freelon admitted she wasn't too familiar with. It still came off strong. Her rich sound, creativity and flair for the dramatic was a boon to Hoagy Carmichael's "Skylark," Cole Porter's "I Love You" and Alec Wilder's rarely-heard "The Winter of Our Discontent."

Spencer Davis, a cabaret-style youngster, did one song with McPartland, but didn't impress. Overall, however, the set was warm and comfortable, full of the appropriate sentiment for the lady of honor.

Donal Fox, accomplished in jazz and the classics, played pieces from something he calls "The Scarlatti jazz Suite," and his band was strong. Trumpeter Christian Scott and vibraphonist Warren Wolff provided fine improvisations over the shifting themes, and drummer Terri Lynne Carrington was a monster—serving up volcanic polyrhythms and driving swing.

"Firefly" was driving and forceful from the beginning, with Fox demonstrating how fast and flexible his piano playing is. It switched to some 4/4 swing before Wolff—a fast and fleet improviser with single mallets- -played a bluesy solo that built in intensity. Scott was in good form, bold and brassy with occasional burning be-bop runs. The music showed the dexterity and virtuosity of the musicians, as well as Fox's ability to meld musical themes into a powerful overall statement that holds interest throughout.

Clarinetist Eddie Daniels brought his tenor sax, which he says he has been playing more, but clarinet still dominated, and his sound and playing on that—his main axe—was superior. An affable gent with stories to tell in between tunes, Daniels delighted fans with an array of styles, including a tour-de-force "Under the Line," which showed his clarinet virtuosity; an good-humored take on tenor of Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin"; a bluesy and swinging "New Orleans" and a jazz waltz, "Resolution," written by his pianist Tom Ranier.

Mark O'Connor plays as hot a swing violin as can be heard these days. His fiddle sings and soars, and his sound is thick and full for the instrument. His band blazed through Django-style swing, with expert guitar solos—both fast and furious and sweetly swinging—from the ever-splendid Frank Vignola on traditional jazz hollow-body guitar and Julian Lage on acoustic guitar. The group is musically outstanding but also brings a real element of fun. "Swing of the Ville" and "Gypsy Fantastic" brought out the band's virtuosity, while "In the Cluster Blues" took a slower route, allowing for more thoughtful, bluesy solos from all.

The band couldn't even be dragged down by the pedestrian vocals of Jane Monheit (the less said about her "As Time Goes By," the better), because solos from the instrumentalists were always interesting.

At the Jazz Cafe, young pianist Alex Brown showed fire and technique, as well as strong composition skills. Pianist Aaron Parks played great music, propelled by drummer Kendrick Scott, and demonstrated why his name is coming up on a lot of people's lips in the jazz community. Trumpeter Jason Palmer was raw at times, but passionate and a young player who showed potential. The set by Kate McGarry, a fine singer and not exactly an up- and-comer, with successful and artful CDs to her credit already, was strong with a pared-down group of Keith Ganz on guitar and the excellent Clarence Penn on drums and percussion. It was enough to convince a listener her new album, If Less Is More.. Nothing Is Everything (Palmetto, 2008), is worth checking out.

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