11/16/05

Tranquility Jazz Festival 2005

Trumpeting “tranquility” as a jazz festival theme can be misleading, unless the venue is a pristine, azure-wrapped paradise-in-progress in the British West Indies called Anguilla. The island is 145 miles east of Puerto Rico and 9 miles north of St. Martin, and it boasts endless unspoiled beaches, 36-miles of roads (where they drive on the “wrong side” -- legally, of course), a few Yellow Pages and one brand new traffic light. Tranquility, indeed.

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Mulgrew Miller

So while the name of the third annual Tranquility Jazz Festival may seem semantically ambiguous, there was never any doubt about what the thrust of the festival should be: “Straight-Ahead, No Chaser,” so said the Anguilla Tourist Bureau. But as with most festivals, diversity of styles and genres could be heard.

As soon as Marlena Shaw made her entrance, she simply took over opening night, holding her audience hostage for an extra 40 minutes -- or was it the other way around? Actually, the enthralled crowd held her hostage for virtually another set, screaming for more, showing no intentions of calling it a night. Shaw, inspired by the reaction and goosed by her highly responsive trio, put on an exciting display of intense, straightahead swing, gut-wrenching ballads, vocalese with vocal ease, and the brand of gospel that converted her audience into her congregation. Her showmanship is so fine-tuned now that she can manipulate her fans with street-savvy patter over the infectious vamp of her rhythm section. Shaw’s timing is so unerring that she knows precisely when to break out in song, as she proved on highlights such as “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” “The Nearness of You” and a medley of “’Round Midnight” and “Angel Eyes.” Blessed is she for having David Hazeltine as her musical director and pianist.

Booking Ravi Coltrane for a festival audience is a challenge. Most fans come to celebrate, not cerebrate, but Coltrane’s quartet is uncompromisingly hard-edged and hard-swinging, thriving on odd meters and complex harmonic extensions. John’s son, much less intimidating on stage than his dad, is considerably more personable, too, yet he announced only one tune, “Giant Steps.” His technique on soprano and tenor saxes is impressive and quite personal, apparently making an effort not to copy his father’s tone. Pianist George Colligan stole the set with a display of technique that inspired a standing ovation.

There were plenty of ovations for Poncho Sanchez, who knows how to energize a festival crowd, get them off their butts and make them salsa to his rhythmically infectious music. Seated up front and smack dab in the middle of his nine-piece band, he knows how to communicate -- to his sidemen as well as his fans. Sanchez is one-third ambassador of Latin music, one-third showman and one-third conga crackerjack -- and he has eight taped fingers to prove it. With his trademark cap and flowing gray beard nearly reaching his drums, Sanchez can be an intimidating focal point while directing his percussive powerhouse. But in reality he’s just a big teddy bear that presides over the best damn Latin jazz band in the business. At 1 a.m., when Sanchez had every right to wrap it up, he yelled for beer -- for him and his guys. Two boxes arrived at 1:45, by which time he was deep into James Brown’s “Outta Sight.” The resulting salsa and suds went on till 2 a.m. Kudos to pianist George Ortiz, doubling on VK-7 organ, and Alfred Ortiz for his astonishing timbales work.

Another big guy who knows how to lead, pianist Mulgrew Miller, also knows how to incorporate special guests into his presentation. Miller, who revealed his McCoy Tyner/Horace Silver roots, also showed influences of Tommy Flanagan and Kenny Barron -- in other words, he can be hard-edged, passionate or delicate, as the mood dictates. At times Miller resembled Oscar Peterson draped over a 9-foot Steinway. Whatever, he played beautifully, and dutifully straightahead. Special guests trumpeter Nicholas Payton and altoist Kenny Garrett enhanced his set. They mixed things up with head arrangements for the standard bop quintet, and while the unison lines were occasionally sloppy, who has time to rehearse for festival guest appearances? It didn’t detract from the sound. (What the hell, this is jazz; every hair doesn’t have to be in place.) Each guest had his highlight moment dueting with Miller: Payton on “These Foolish Things” and Garrett on “Body and Soul.” As someone remarked, “Now that’s the real Kenny G.”

The real Romero Lubambo is a Brazilian guitarist who fronts Trio da Paz, but as he revealed when I saw him at the Telluride Jazz Festival in Colorado a few months earlier, he is multifaceted. There, he and his wife, singer Pamela Driggs, covered a spectrum from Jobim to the Great American Songbook. In Anguilla, the spectrum was even wider: the lilting, floating sounds of bossa nova from Trio da Paz demonstrated that the group is capable of holding an audience by itself, or by playing uptempo bop figures in unison with special guest vibist Stefon Harris, or by accompanying young Chilean singer Claudia Acuna, whose high, delicate voice melted the audience. She also converted Lubambo into an avuncular role on stage as he carefully guided her through a few bossa bangles. The whole set was an exquisite tribute to world music.

The only mismatch in the festival was the closing set, featuring Freddie Cole, younger brother of Nat “King” Cole, with special guest tenorist Eric Alexander. Cole’s book is a fairly tight collection of charts for piano, guitar, bass and drums. Every number features Cole singing, and it seemed like an insufficient amount of time was given over to Alexander and the quartet. Alexander’s facial expressions and body language seemed to be saying, “I’d rather be anywhere else but here.” He tried, heroically, to fill gaps, but there was an obvious disconnect. Cole is not your quintessential jazz pianist or singer; he and his rhythm section belong in a cocktail lounge. Making a bad thing worse, when Cole stood up to introduce everyone, he failed to mention, or even acknowledge Alexander, who stood there with his mouth agape. At 74, Freddie’s voice no longer sounds like Nat’s. But he still sings a clever bit of special material, “I’m Not My Brother…I’m Me.” Since Nat died in ’65, it’s time to let go of that song.

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