09/21/09

Tanglewood Jazz Festival

Lenox, Mass., Sept. 4-6, 2009

In recent years, programmers have been exploring ways to add classical twists to the annual Tanglewood Jazz Festival. It’s an idea that can work given the setting, the longtime western Massachusetts summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

It worked well in 2008 when the weekend highlights included Boston pianist Donal Fox’s “Scarlatti Jazz Suite Project” and trumpeter Terence Blanchard’s “A Tale of God’s Will” performance with 35-piece orchestra. This year, the effort to expand and strengthen that bridge between jazz and classical had mixed results during what was a very strong weekend overall, both in the range of programming and the performances themselves.

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Paquito D'Rivera
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John Pizzarelli & Jessica Molaskey record "Radio Deluxe"
By Ken Franckling
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Paquito D'Rivera
By Ken Franckling
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Kat Edmonson performs in the Jazz Café tent
By Ken Franckling
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Mulgrew Miller & Kenny Barron duet at Tanglewood
By Ken Franckling

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Paquito D’Rivera brought a new slant to the traditional Friday night Latin evening, which in the past has often had a dance-party atmosphere. In his weekend highlight performance, D’Rivera offered a great blend of jazz and classical in his three-part concerto, “Conversations With Cachao,” which featured Robert Black on bass. During his solos, which alternated beautifully with D’Rivera on alto sax and clarinet, Black sometimes used his double bass like a percussion instrument for dramatic effect.

Also strong was D’Rivera’s “Panamericana,” a work that he described as his tribute to all of America, “from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego,” with exotic instrumentation that included Cuban bata drums, Colombian harp and bandoneón from Argentina. The band’s take on late Cuban bandleader Orestes López’s danzón arrangement of Astor Piazzolla’s “Oblivion” segued into Piazzolla’s “Libertango.” To make the Tanglewood synthesis complete, D’Rivera’s own “To Brenda With Love” wound down the evening, fittingly, with a Bach coda.

Saturday’s matinee at Seiji Ozawa Hall featured John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey’s syndicated program, “Radio Deluxe,” which they normally tape at their home in New York. It made its Tanglewood recording debut after a seven-year run of Marian McPartland’s “Piano Jazz” in the same time slot.

The stage was set up like a living room/studio space, complete with four large, stuffed chairs. As daughter Madeleine sat reading a Harry Potter book and occasionally joining the conversation, Pizzarelli couldn’t resist telling the band, which included father (and fellow guitarist) Bucky Pizzarelli, “Don’t play loud, she’s reading.”

Anecdotes about the late Les Paul preceded a John and Bucky duet on “It’s Been a Long, Long Time.” Young violinist Aaron Weinstein and tenor saxophonist Harry Allen, a longtime Pizzarelli collaborator, were showcased beautifully on “Joe and Zoot,” a tribute that John wrote for Joe Venuti and Zoot Sims.

Much of the two-hour taping focused on the American Songbook, with Molaskey spotlighting works by Vincent Youmans. Kurt Elling joined the party to perform “Polkadots and Moonbeams” before he and John Pizzarelli tore into an extended, scat-filled version of “Oh, Lady Be Good!” Elling even added to the afternoon’s frequent good humor. After a woman in the back of the hall yelled, “I love you, Kurt,” Elling retorted, “I think it helps that I haven’t sung yet.”

Saturday evening’s show was mixed. Violinist Regina Carter, accompanied by accordion, kora, bass and drums, skillfully performed jazz versions of folk songs, from Cameroon, Madagascar and other African countries, that will be included on her forthcoming CD, Reverse Thread. Given the Tanglewood focus, some were surprised she didn’t include anything from her classical repertoire. Still, her performance stood strong, given the disappointment that followed.

“Dreaming the Duke” is a project that paired jazz singer Nnenna Freelon and operatic soprano Harolyn Blackwell with a jazz band and string quartet, with arrangements and musical direction by Mike Garson. While the singers were perhaps looking for common ground in Ellington’s wide-ranging oeuvre, they rarely found it. With its “Duke’s greatest hits” approach, the set had the feeling of a work in progress, in need of cohesive arrangements and more attention to continuity. There was no focus on Ellington’s thematic suites that had classical tinges. That said, Blackwell was strongest on “Solitude.” While “Come Sunday” fared well as a Freelon-Blackwell collaboration, the full set did not fulfill the weekend’s jazz-classical expectations.

Sunday’s performances were first-rate. Pianists Kenny Barron and Mulgrew Miller shared the stage on matching concert Steinways, blending their talents on an unplanned range of tunes that included “Isfahan” and “Just in Time.” Their set offered a fascinating exercise in deep listening while they traded melodies and support. The 43-year-old Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, originally the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra, followed with more than an hour of robust and swinging big-band jazz.

Jon Faddis’ quartet led off Sunday evening with a celebration titled “The Majesty of the Trumpet,” featuring special guests Sean Jones and Wallace Roney. Together they paid tribute to the Louis Armstrong-Dizzy Gillespie-Miles Davis legacy, though Davis got shortchanged by time constraints with just one tune, “Milestones.” Faddis dominated the Armstrong portion—complete with a raspy vocal emulation on “What a Wonderful World”—and all three trumpeters were featured at great length in the Gillespie segment.

Bassist Dave Holland closed the festival with his relatively new octet performing music from his forthcoming recording project, Pathways. The music was brawny and adventurous, with every member getting substantial solo space. “Shadow Dance” was a tremendous showcase for alto saxophonist Jaleel Shaw and drummer Nate Smith.

The festival’s Jazz Café tent, up the hill from Seiji Ozawa Hall, continued its important role in showcasing new and emerging talent. These performances included five free pre-concert sets for main-event ticketholders.

Kat Edmonson is a sweet-voiced Texan who sings at the intersection of Norah Jones and Blossom Dearie. She shared a number of chestnuts and more recent pop-based standards, winding down with a highly re-arranged version of “Fever,” which started out smoky but built to a feverish conclusion. Her band demonstrated a great sense of dynamics in the spare, painterly support of pianist Kevin Lovejoy and empathetic accompaniment of saxophonist John Ellis. Her set featured creative re-arrangements that made every tune sound fresh and original, such as a slow meditative version of John Lennon’s “(Just Like) Starting Over” and the Cure’s “Just Like Heaven.”

Other tent performers included Russian pianist Evgeny Lebedev, violinist Ben Powell, pianist and singer Michael Kaeshammer and contemporary saxophonist (now there’s a Tanglewood first) Benny Reid.

The weekend’s first half felt like this was also an unadvertised comedy festival. D’Rivera’s set was peppered with a series of immigration jokes, and John Pizzarelli offered many family-based one-liners, most of them concerning the foibles of his father. After mentioning that it was 83-year-old Bucky’s first performance since a recent surgery, the younger Pizzarelli quipped, “The gall bladder couldn’t make the gig.”

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