Caramoor Jazz Festival 2011
Five diverse artists in a low-key, natural setting
You really couldn’t come up with a prettier setting for a jazz festival than the Caramoor Center for the Arts in Katonah, N.Y., about an hour north of Manhattan in Westchester County. Nestled among tall trees and part of an 81-acre former estate that also hosts an art museum, the outdoor Venetian Theater is tented to protect audiences from the elements (a plus on such a blisteringly hot day) and boasts wonderful sound and sightlines. Used for classical concerts as well as the annual jazz fest, Caramoor is a perfect day trip for city slickers who want to hear some of the most prominent jazz artists of the day without going very far to do so.
This year’s three-day festival had already hosted Renee Rosnes, Christian McBride, James Farm and others by the time it wrapped its 18th season on Sunday, August 7. Whether the relatively light attendance (the house was one-third to one-half filled at its peak) owed to the muggy, buggy atmosphere—the cicadas in the surrounding treetops provided plenty of sonic competition for the human musicians—or the fact that Newport, Litchfield and other jazz festivals were also taking place in the Northeast this weekend, Caramoor remained a low-key affair throughout the course of the day, with many ticketholders opting to take picnic breaks or stroll the grounds when the sweat began to drip too heavily.
The program featured five sets, beginning with Colombian harpist Edmar Castaneda and progressing through three currently high-profile pianists—Fred Hersch, Robert Glasper and Jason Moran—and John Scofield, the lone guitarist on the bill. Castaneda is a wonder. Jazz harp is a rarity to begin with, but Castaneda takes the instrument far from its comfort zone and into a seductive, consistently fascinating realm. Coaxing orchestral and percussive, often pianistic sounds from his harp, Castaneda, accompanied by trombonist Marshall Gilkes and drummer Dave Silliman—and, on the last two songs, Castaneda’s vocalist wife Andrea Tierra—leaned toward the Latinesque in his opening number. “Cuarto de Colores,” the title track from his 2006 album. Roaming from meditative, melodic balladry to intense, nearly dissonant improvisational flights, Castaneda and his accompanists played around with time signatures and relished the intricacies they were able to achieve with their particular, unusual combination of instruments.
Hersch was paired for this concert with Italian clarinetist Nico Gori, a simpatico teaming that produced some of the program’s most intimate music. Nearly all of the eight songs he and Gori performed were dedicated to a given jazz peer (and in one instance, Gori’s father), although there wasn’t always an obvious correlation between the music and the dedicatee. “Lee’s Dream,” for Lee Konitz, was typical of the duets: Hersch is a constantly probing pianist and Gori proved his ideal foil, syncing with Hersch’s choppy, rhythmic bursts and sublime melodic improvisations. “Canzona,” dedicated to harmonica maestro Toots Thielemans, used all of the range of the chromatic harmonica, Hersch explained in his song intro. Its conversational tone brought out the inherent beauty and soul in Hersch’s work.
Although Caramoor was not advertised as a showcase for knockout drummers, it became one with the arrival of the Robert Glasper Trio. Marcus Gilmore, Glasper’s stickman, is a powerhouse, and when he took an all-too-brief solo it was almost as if he was deliberately confronting the quietude that had permeated the day to that point. Bassist Alan Hampton too was impressive when he took his solo turn, the highest and lowest notes of his standup chattering as excitedly as two teens on their smartphones. But it was Glasper, of course, who was calling the shots here, and although the festival’s promo materials touted his undeniable connection with hip-hop, that element (more prominent in Glasper’s work with his other band, the Experiment) was kept at arm’s length here—unless his playing clusters of notes, stopping abruptly and turning corners unexpectedly counts as a hip-hop influence. Glasper at one point requested and received audience participation in the form of handclaps, but he quickly confused and left behind those who obliged him by veering from the simple boogie he’d been playing to brief, odd-time licks, interspersed with bits copped from pop hits (“Piano Man”? Really, Robert?) and hammy facial expressions meant to imply he couldn’t believe he was playing that stuff either.
John Scofield is a local boy, a resident of Katonah, and both he and the show’s announcer made mention of the fact that he’d long wanted to play the festival but circumstances had intervened. Whether it was because he barely had to move his car to get to the venue or that he was just in a positive state of mind, the guitarist provided the first true jolts of electricity at Caramoor on this steamy Sunday. He’s an expressive and often explosive player, alternately reeling off fat, at times dissonant chords and stunningly constructed lead runs. His quartet, like their leader, was in the pocket from moment one, with pianist Mike Eckroth, bassist Scott Colley and especially drummer Bill Stewart—whose crackling accents so perfectly complemented Sco’s smart rhythmic changes—each adding an essential voice to the music. Scofield thinks on his feet, and even the ballad “I Want To Talk About You,” from his new album A Moment’s Peace (and which he said he learned from John Coltrane’s version), was a reminder of why Scofield is one of the most respected and influential guitarists in contemporary jazz.
Jason Moran is quite possibly the hottest name in jazz right now, having won just about every honor that can be won for last year’s remarkable TEN album, including the top spot in the most recent JazzTimes critics’ poll. Naturally, anticipation was high for his Caramoor set, where he was accompanied by his usual Bandwagon crew of Tarus Mateen (bass) and Nasheet Waits (another ridiculously agile drummer). Moran wasted no time proving why he’s the guy to watch right now: he’s an innovative pianist whose playing at its most exciting often seems as much mathematical as musical, all crazy angles and geometrical jabs—all the better when aligned with Waits’ syncopated punches and Mateen’s exploratory, often off-the-grid wanderings. From mysterious and funereal to unapologetically discordant and jarring, Moran’s piano requires concentration—easy listening this is not. On tunes such as “Blue Blocks” and “Pas de Deux”—both from TEN—Moran and the Bandwagon flitted seamlessly from semi-disciplined to freeform, a plethora of new ideas arriving at rapid-fire pace.
There is one curious novelty to this band’s approach that tends to wear out its welcome quickly, however: their insistence on playing over original studio recordings by other artists as a lead-in to a tune of their own. Here that would be both Billie Holiday and Morris Day and the Time, whose “Ice Cream Castles” gave way to TEN’s “RFK in the Land of Apartheid,” a song that would, on its surface at least, suggest a more contemplative appreciation than it’s possible to give when it comes on the heels of an ’80s dance hit. Or perhaps that sort of levity is just the ticket for a music that often takes itself way too seriously. You wouldn’t call Jason Moran and the Bandwagon light or fun by any means, but they did send the Caramoor crowd home with something to think about and maybe even a smile.