Tanglewood Jazz Festival 2007

R.J. DeLuke By

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What [Maria Schneider] finds in her inspiration, filters through her imagination, orchestrates with blood, sweat and tears, and brings to life on the stage is a joy.
Tanglewood Jazz Festival 2007
Tanglewood Music Center
Lennox, Massachusetts
June 28 to September 3, 2007

The 2007 Tanglewood Jazz Festival in the beautiful Berkshire Mountains' city of Lenox, Massachusetts, was multi-flavored, with musicians from various corners of the world and rhythms that ranged from Africa to Brazil to the down-home swing of Kansas City.

The lineup, once again, was laudable highlighted by a great set of music from the quartet of vocalist Kurt Elling, augmented by "special friends," the buoyant Brazilian music from Poncho Sanchez, the intimate and classy duet of singer Roberta Gambarini and pianist Hank Jones, the creative elegance of the Maria Schneider Orchestra, the hip stylings of Ahmad Jamal and much more.

As has been the custom in recent years, the summer-long festival also featured a live taping of Marian McPartland's award-winning Piano Jazz program for National Public Radio—this time with the wonderful pianist Renee Rosnes. And there was a "cafe" tent where young talent was put on display, with an international flavor that also showed off some young vocal up and comers.

Musicians seemed to enjoy Tanglewood's splendid Ozawa Hall, a posh venue that seats about 1,100 people in three tiers, while many more sit on the spacious lawn of the grounds to enjoy the sounds of jazz each Labor Day weekend. The sounds that emanated from the stage were consistently stellar.

Elling has been touring in support of his Nightmoves recording, his first for Concord, and the band continues to show it is one of the excellent aggregations on the scene, with drummer Willie Jones III, bassist Rob Amster and pianist/arranger/collaborator Laurence Hobgood always providing the swing, the drive and the tension behind Elling's flights, whether they be poetic, straight-ahead or careening across space. This time saxophonist Joel Frahm, Gregoire Maret on harmonica and acoustic guitarist Romero Lubambo helped out on some of the tunes.

After the always compelling "My Foolish Heart" from a couple CDs ago, the group stuck to the new repertoire. Betty Carter's "Tight" was the swingingest, befitting its original creator. Maret helped "And We Will Fly" soar, and Lubambo's guitar softly supported the medley "Change Partners/I You Never Come To Me." The most intimate moment came with Elling and Lubambo duet rendition of "Luiza." The singer's duet with Amster—"The Waking"—was also intimate, but superbly dramatic. Elling's voice remains one of the richest and most compelling vocal instruments on the scene and their music was excellent.

Also performing from a high artistic peak was the Maria Schneider Orchestra. The music came from early and newer projects. "Evanesence," an earlier tribute to her mentor, Gil Evans, had shifting passages and moods, with trombonist Marshall Gilkes soloing hot over them. "The Pretty Road" started of with a beautiful melancholy before shifting its story into other delicious statements, with the trumpet of Ingrid Jensen providing the narrative to a journey down a magical road. "Sky Blue," the title cut to Schneider's latest CD, and "Hang Gliding" both showed her majestic way of presenting feelings that come from her creative soul. What she finds in her inspiration, filters through her imagination, orchestrates with blood sweat and tears, and brings to life on the stage is a joy. She uses emotion to convey beauty. Hearing what comes next will always be something to look forward to.

Purveying good, old-fashioned jump blues and swing, with a nod to the late Big Joe Turner, was a group led by singer Kevin Mahogany. It was well put together, with the blues-drenched sax of Red Holloway and the piano of Cyrus Chestnut perfectly suited to songs like "Every Day I have the Blues," "Morning Glories" and "Kansas City Born and Bred." The Chuck Bergeron Trio also helped swing the room. Mahogany's big voice and style are best suited to this type of songbook. He was helped along by Kathy Kosins on vocals at times, and she, too, proved to be a good blues belter. Mahogany also struck a comic chord with a blues he wrote recently, "Tony Bennett Never calls," a delightful parody of how he doesn't get invited to participate in duet projects that so many of the marquee singers do nowadays, including Bennett. It was light-hearted, but beneath it a damn solid blues.

Gambarini and Jones have a duet CD, You Are There, apparently still awaiting distribution in the U.S., but available in Europe. The pair went through a number of jazz numbers like "You Are There," "Lush Life," "My One and Only Love" and "Come Sunday," finishing with her trademark version of "Sunny Side of the Street." As always, Jones was stately and elegant, able to caress a melody or swing in an understated style so as not to infringe on the singer. He's a class act, pure and simple. Gambarini's instrument is one of the finest, and she's finally getting overdue recognition. Her sound is luscious and her timing is dead on, no matter what swirl she might take with phrasing or scatting. Somehow, the set seemed to lack just a bit of sparkle, whether she was holding back too much or he was. Nonetheless, this pairing is a fine one and the music is memorable.

McPartland's live taping was like sitting in the living room listening to two fine musicians dish the dirt and play some. Rosnes (who we learned had recently married the superb pianist Bill Charlap) has excellent technique and a style that always makes her interesting to hear. "Con Alma" and "Green Chimneys" were among her impressive highlights. And McPartland, when called upon, still carries a tune with a great feel and approach. During the interviews, McPartland always displays a dry wit. She told of how her parents didn't want her to lead the infamous lifestyle of jazz musicians, fearing she would marry a musician "and live in an attic (...two, three). Which of course I did." Asked for an anecdote about her 28 years with Piano Jazz, she laid out a somewhat bawdy tale with mild—but hilarious—expletives that will likely not see NPR airwaves. Just Marian being Marian, as they say.

One set was devoted to Brazilian music, not particularly mixed with jazz, but more genuine, right from the source, as played expertly by guitarist Lubambo, along with pianist Cesar Camargo Mariano. They were eventually joined by singer Leny Andrade, a colleague of Antonio Carlos Jobim and a woman known as the "queen of bossa nova" in her native land. The trio had all the feel and finesse one would expect from experts in that idiom.

The opening night of the fest is traditionally Latin flavored, but this year it also featured the African music of Hugh Masekela. His band put together Afro rhythms with bits of funk and jazz and soul to an extraordinary result—fascinating and joyful. "Lady," a Fela Kuti composition, was a half-comical story apparently about women, but poignant songs like "Stimela" dedicated to migrant workers and those in tedious labor jobs that bring hardship and little joy, and "Mandela," celebrating the release of the anti- apatheid leader, depicted Masekela's work in protest of dictators and oppression that has been a hallmark of his life. Along with a good sound on flugelhorn, he demonstrated a strong and vibrant vocal style that was part melodic, perhaps part tribal chant—expressive and even theatrical. In "Stimela" his voice sounded like the train that workers dreaded to take, as it took them to the mines of Johannesburg from which they may not ever return. He could get bass tones, high tones and all manner of feelings in between. Saxophonist Morris Goldberg helped with the vocals and also played a mean horn.

Pancho Sanchez played just about everything, from salsa to jazz to funk to soul and mixed and matched where he saw fit. It all had the Latin percussion beneath it, the conga player's calling card, of course. "Shiny Stockings" was given the Brazilian feel. Other songs were deeper in the Latin groove, with timbales, bongos and congas providing the motion, and the band often singing or chanting phrases in Spanish. He even turned vocalist for "Raise Your hand," a raucous, funky rendition of the title cut to his latest CD.

Jamal can always be counted on to play jazz that's slick, yet sophisticated in an understated way. He even brought saxophonist Jimmy Heath out for good measure. With the wonderful drummer Idris Muhammad steering the rhythm, the band was in sweet form. His fest-closing offerings included "Paris After Midnight," a new composition called "Papilion," and perhaps his biggest hit, "Poinciana," from his huge Live at the Pershing recording many years ago that has continued to bear fruit. Jamal's playing is still an inspiration.

The cafe slot showcased singers like Sachal Vasandani, Mina Agossi from France and Chiara Civello from Italy. Each had a unique style that used jazz as a base and branched out. Vasandani did classics and songs from his popular Eyes Wide Open CD, including his catchy composition "Please, Mr. Oglivy," and a nice arrangement of "A Flower is a Lovesome Thing." Good stuff and a bright future, it appears.

Civello has a supple, sultry voice and is also writing her own songs. She's someone to keep an eye on. Also at the cafe was 15-year-old saxophonist Grace Kelly, who continues to improve and blazed away with a swinging set. An instrumental voice for the future, perhaps. Edmar Castenada, a harpist from Columbia, is an amazing musician who gets incredible sounds out of the instrument most people associate with dinner music... or angels. Forget about it. He's a burner with a great ear for rhythms and harmonies and gets both into his music. Trombonist Gilkes, who must have really had to hustle from his gig with Maria Schneider to get back to play with Edmar, also provided some fireworks. Great stuff.

Tanglewood has long been known for its classical concerts and connections. But eyes and ears should shift here Labor Day for timeless and unusual sounds and some of the best that jazz has to offer.

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