2011 Tanglewood Jazz Festival
Ken Franckling reports on annual festival held in Lenox, Ma.
After a summer peppered with an earthquake, tornadoes and a powerful hurricane/tropical storm that ravaged many locations in the Northeast, a weekend filled with jazz felt like the perfect antidote. Attendance was down at this year’s 24th edition of the Tanglewood Jazz Festival, due no doubt to the economy, iffy weather forecasts and people dealing with the challenges Irene left in her wake the prior weekend.
Sunday was the powerhouse day at Tanglewood, with the crowd swelling as the day wore on – and the music was strong on the main stage with consistent excellence.
Drummer Jimmy Cobb opened the afternoon at Seija Ozawa Hall with the debut performance of his new Coast to Coast All Stars and special guest Mary Stallings on vocals. The all stars included pianist Llew Matthews, bassist John Webber, guitarist Peter Bernstein, tenor saxophonist Doug Lawrence, trumpeter Freddie Hendrix and alto saxophonist Jaleel Shaw. They performed what could be considered a career highlight reel of music in which NEA Jazz Master Cobb, now 82, was involved.
The second act was the Mingus Orchestra with guest conductor Gunther Schuller (another NEA Jazz Master) exploring the beauty and complexity of Mingus’s jazz and classical compositions, one recently discovered (“Inquisition”), and another written at 17 (“Half-Mast Inhibition”). The 10-piece band had some rather unusual instrumentation for jazz, including bassoon, French horn and bass clarinet, but those colors added to the beauty of the performances, and for half the set, harpist Edmar Castaneda added some richness in the absence of a piano.
Sunday’s finale was “Sing the Truth!” – an all-star project that features singers Angelique Kidjo, Dianne Reeves and Lizz Wright performing genre-jumping music of heart, passion and soul from the songbooks of great female vocalists. On this night, they focused on Tina Turner, Joni Mitchell, Tracy Chapman, Ani DiFranco, Abbey Lincoln and Miriam Makeba.
The energy was palpable and the messages were powerful as the three women sang in unison, solo or combinations. Reeves was mesmerizing in her interpretation of Chapman’s “All That You Have is Your Soul” and DiFranco’s “32 Flavors.” The energetic Kidjo turned the 100-minute set into a dance party at times, even wading 10 rows into the lawn crowd as she took the lead on Makeba’s “Pata Pata.”
Saturday night was a treat for Latin and Afro-Cuban jazz lovers as violinist Federico Britos and percussionist John Santos performed tributes to Cuban bassist Israel Lopez, better known as Cachao. Both sextets primarily performed music written by the creator of the mambo, or music they had recorded with Cachao or wrote in tribute to him. Most members of Santos’s band joined Britos’ unit for two tunes at the end of his set, while Britos and percussionist Edwin Bonilla joined the Santos sextet for the final third of its performance.
The biggest disappointment of the weekend was a Saturday matinee taping of stride pianist Judy Carmichael’s “Jazz Inspired” broadcast with special guest Blythe Danner. It was ho hum at best, with the finest moment featuring neither of the women. Pianist Mike Renzi (Danner’s accompanist), bassist Neal Miner and saxophonist Harry Allen teamed up on an exquisite exploration of Bill Evans’ “Waltz for Debby.” Actress Danner did say that listening to jazz helps her get into the emotion of a role. “There is something about searching, going deeper each time. Jazz does that,” she said. “There’s a liberation.”
Drummer Ulysses Owens, alto saxophonist Sarah Manning and hard-driving keyboard adventurer Cedric Hanriot dominated the Jazz Café, a tented venue created several years ago to showcase rising talent. Singer-guitarist Rebecca Martin labored through a vocal injury but clearly wasn’t close to top form. Cobb also held a master class for young drummers in the tent prior to his Ozawa Hall performance.
Two Jazz Café veterans of past years, singer Robin McKelle and singer-pianist Michael Kaeshammer, performed on the main stage in a low-key opener on Friday night. McKelle mined the bluesy side of R&B, while German-born, Canada-raised Kaeshammer spent most of his set at the intersection of New Orleans greats Professor Longhair and James Booker, his band wowing the crowd with an exuberant version of “Basin Street Blues.”