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Lionel Hampton International Jazz Festival

John Clayton
John Clayton

Celebrating the 100th birthday of Lionel Hampton (born April 20, 1908), this huge educational and artistic event hosted 10,500 student musicians and their band directors, 28,000 concertgoers and 102 professional musicians. The crowds were beyond the capacity of this University of Idaho town of 22,000. Many visitors stayed in neighboring communities and commuted to the festival. Major concerts and most workshops, clinics and master classes were on the UI campus, but some spilled over into theaters and churches in town.

Taking over this year as artistic director of the Hampton festival, bassist-composer-bandleader John Clayton made good on a promise he gave when he succeeded founding director Dr. Lynn “Doc” Skinner: Clayton expanded the massive festival, at least in its concert aspect. The Friday night performance, scheduled to end at 10:30 p.m., was so jammed with musicians that it wrapped up at 12:45 the next morning. As the clock ran on, the crowd of 5,000 dwindled. In their spirited, often hilarious set, Jon and Aria Hendricks and fellow singer Sachal Vasandani ended up saying goodnight to fewer than 300 listeners.

Friday’s concert theme was “Masters and Mentors.” The ranking master of the evening was pianist Hank Jones, playing beautifully at the age of 89. His two-piano duet partners, more than six decades younger, were Gerald Clayton and Taylor Eigsti. Each of the three also played a solo piece. Clayton’s father, John, joined Jones on bass for “Satin Doll,” which brought smiles and vigorous playing from the pianist and a beautifully intoned solo bowed by Clayton. Other highlights of that marathon evening came in sets by Regina Carter, Roy Hargrove, Warren Wolf, Roberta Gambarini and the stalwarts of the festival rhythm section. The house band was Bill Charlap, piano; his triomate Peter Washington, bass; Graham Dechter, guitar; and Jeff Hamilton, drums. They backed singers and instrumental soloists and were consistently impressive in their own solos.

Young vibist Warren Wolf joined the all stars two nights in a row. Thursday, he played pieces closely associated with Hampton. Wolf established a melodic approach to the familiar changes of “How High the Moon” for two lyrical choruses before he introduced harmonic complexity, double-time flourishes and lightning speed with the mallets. He began his long solo on “Indiana” at top speed, incorporated a couple of effective stop-time choruses and couldn’t resist a “Donna Lee” quote near the end. Wolf illuminated his Friday night set with the quartet in a sensitive duet with Charlap on the verse to “Lush Life.”

For most of the audience, and many of the musicians at the festival, violinist Regina Carter’s chamber group came as a surprise despite much of her repertoire’s inclusion in the 2006 CD I’ll Be Seeing You: A Sentimental Journey. The ingenious arrangements for her quintet, the swing and sense of adventurous fun, were infectious. The band turned “Little Brown Jug” and “A Tisket, A Tasket” into chance-taking excursions through timeworn material harmonically updated to a state of freshness and surprise. Pianist Xavier Davis, clarinetist Darryl Harper, bassist Matthew Parrish and drummer Alvester Garnett were in synch with Carter’s skill and enthusiasm. Davis’ chord choices in support of Carter’s heartbreakingly beautiful solo on Ravel’s “Pavane for a Dead Princess” evoked Bill Evans, as did his own solo. The band’s closer was a transcription of Charlie Shavers’ 1939 arrangement for the John Kirby Sextet of Grieg’s “Anitra’s Dance,” uncannily accurate, swinging and delightful. This was 40 minutes of superior chamber music.

Festival favorite Roberta Gambarini sang three songs with the house rhythm section minus Bill Charlap. Her accompanist Tamir Hendelman took over the piano. Impeccable and musician-ly as usual, Gambarini did lively versions of “Nobody Else But Me” and “I Hadn’t Anyone ‘Til You,” and a contemplative “Day Dream” enhanced by her remarkably faithful impression of a trombone solo, produced by clever microphone technique, hand placement and voice projection. Gambarini and Hendelman were all over the festival schedule, not only in concerts but also giving workshops and master classes.

Other impressive singers on the main stage during the week were Sara Gazarek, Dee Daniels and Dr. John. Gazarek, not long ago a student in the festival’s workshops when she was at Seattle’s Roosevelt High School, has launched her career. Daniels, another Seattleite, is a perennial festival favorite for the soul-gospel flavor of her vocals. Dr. John and his band brought New Orleans party time into the concert area of the huge Kibbie Dome, rolling the good times for nearly an hour then combining with cornetist Ed Polcer’s mainstream quintet to jam on “Down by the Riverside.”

Roy Hargrove opened his set with a plaintive flugelhorn introduction belying the excitement that he and his RH Factor were about to unleash. Then, armed with his trumpet, he launched into a set of latter-day rhythm and blues laced with his inventive jazz solos and those by the other members of an inspired funk band. Thin as a whip, dressed in cap, shades, plaid shirt, jeans and red sneakers, Hargrove bopped, hopped and glided around the stage when he wasn’t playing. When he was playing, he was brilliant and when he sang, he was very good. Pianist Gerald Clayton, baritone saxophonist Jason Marshall, alto saxophonist Bruce Williams and guitarist Todd Parsnow all soloed impressively, as did bassist Lenny Stallworth and drummer Jason (JT) Thomas. But it was the unified R&B totality of the group that made Hargrove’s 45 minutes memorable.

Three young alto saxophonists took to the main stage to perform with Charlap, Washington, Dechter and Hamilton. They were Isaiah Morfin, a 17-year-old with astonishing technique and kaleidoscopic ideas yet to find focus; established pro Tia Fuller, fast, modal and immersed in shifting meters; and Grace Kelly, a high school sophomore from Brookline, Mass. At 15, Kelly has somehow arrived at maturity, personal and musical poise and a completely formed conception. She was extraordinary in the concert and playing at after-hours sessions with professionals older than she by a decade or more.

Kelly jammed with Hargrove and most of his band, guitarist John Stowell, members of an all-star Russian group prominent at the Hampton festival, pianist Kuni Mikami, and trombonists Greg Schrader and Ismael Cuevas, to mention a few. At one point, Stowell found himself as, in effect, the eighth member of the Hargrove band. Known for the sensitivity and finesse of his playing, for a few tunes he was as hard a hard-bopper as Hargrove and his colleagues. To be sure, Stowell raised some eyebrows. As he’s done most years at the Hampton Festival, the guitarist also conducted several improvisation workshops for students.

The Hampton festival’s insistence on variety and short sets can be a source of frustration to musicians who often fly thousands of miles and play only briefly. That was definitely not a problem for the house rhythm section, which worked constantly. But Curtis Fuller played “Caravan” with the rhythm section, jammed on a blues with fellow trombonists Ismael Cuevas and Ryan Porter, and was through. For at least one Fuller admirer, that was far too limited an appearance by one of the greatest trombone soloists of the past 50 years.

The musicians of the Open World Russian Jazz Stars have years of intensive classical training but are at the point where-as their translator put it-they are “tending toward jazz.” In a workshop, they did more than tend toward it. They played fully realized renditions of Sonny Rollins’ “Strode Road” and Miles Davis’ “Solar” with a pronounced postbop vocabulary and fine swing. I arrived too late to hear their entire hour, but those pieces were first rate. Seventeen-year-old Darya Chernakova, a pianist from the age of 3, switched to bass two years ago. How she developed so much technique on the instrument in so short a time may remain a Russian secret. She and tenor saxophonist Roman Sokolov were solid and inexhaustible in after-hours sessions.

Hammond B3 organist Atsuko Hashimoto and drummer Jeff Hamilton backed the venerable tenor saxophonist Red Holloway. Holloway’s patented choruses had some members of the audience singing along. Hashimoto and Hamilton developed a tidal wave of swing in their tag ending to “It’s the Good Life,” leading Holloway to ask, “How do you follow that?” He answered with “Shiny Stockings” and the suggestive “Locksmith Blues,” recruiting the audience in a call and response routine.

As a result of the lateness of the main stage concerts, a new facet of the festival, Hamp’s Club, took a hit. The bandstand near the main stage was designed to give student competition winners the opportunity to jam in public following the concerts. At 1:00 a.m., the kids had to decide whether to play or go back to their rooms and rest for the next morning’s competitions. Veteran band director Clarence Acox of Seattle’s Garfield High School was irate about the delays. “It’s outrageous,” he told me. “The winners end up losing.”

For the finale, festival officials reduced the program inflation that bloated previous nights. The final Hampton Festival concert was sleek and full of excitement provided by two big bands. The ad hoc performance hall in a field house the size of a dirigible hangar was outfitted with dance floors on either side. Throughout the evening, members of the hip-hop generation crowded the floors, grooving to music with roots in the swing era. The Lionel Hampton band and the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra performed separately and together. The Hamptonians included members closely associated with Hampton before his death in 2002, among them the impressive young trombonist Clarence Banks, vibraharpist Chuck Redd and the entertaining drummer Wally “Gator” Watson. In addition to its instrumentals, the band backed pianist and singer Dee Daniels in two soul-inflected vocals and Jon Hendricks scatting that most basic of Hampton jump tunes, “Hey Bob a Rebop.”

John Clayton, his alto saxophonist brother Jeff and Jeff Hamilton unleashed their explosive big band in a set alive with deep swing and superb solo work. Charles Owens and Ricky Woodard had a testosteronic tenor battle on “Jazz Party.” 89-year-old Snooky Young riveted the audience-and his fellow band members-with his plunger trumpet solo on “I Be Serious ‘Bout Dem Blues,” which also had exciting choruses by Jeff Clayton, Woodard, veteran trombonist George Bohanon and the 21-year-old guitar discovery Graham Dechter. John Clayton dedicated “Squatty Roo” to the late bassist Ray Brown, who for years was a mainstay of the Hampton festival. Trumpeters Clay Jenkins and Gilbert Castellanos were impressive and distinctively different from one another on that classic Johnny Hodges “I Got Rhythm” variant. The piece incorporated a passage of quiet intensity from the rhythm section of Hamilton, pianist Tamir Hendelman and bassist Christoph Luty, who in their other life are the Jeff Hamilton Trio. Singer Kevin Mahogany was at the top of his bass-baritone game sitting in for “Route 66” and “One for My Baby.” The graceful choreography of John Clayton’s conducting added visual interest.

Following intermission and the introduction of outstanding student soloists from the Hampton Festival’s extensive educational activities, the big bands together played two of the arrangements from First Time!, the 1961 recording by the Count Basie and Duke Elllington bands. Ellington’s and Billy Strayhorn’s “Battle Royal” (those “Rhythm” changes again) was highlighted by a good-natured, often hilarious, drum competition between Watson and Hamilton. In the gorgeous Thad Jones ballad “To You,” George Bohanon soloed movingly in the trombone spot filled by Quentin “Butter” Jackson on the Ellington-Basie recording.

Redd, on Lionel Hampton’s vibes, led the way into “Flyin’ Home,” 32 men swinging hard on Hamp’s theme song. As they eased into “What a Wonderful World” and backed the recorded voice of Hampton singing, the big screens in the hall showed a montage of photos of this year’s festival performers in action. Then the bands segued into “Happy Birthday” in honor of Hampton’s 100th and the crowd of 5,000 joined in. In a spectacular wrap-up, the montage dissolved into video and still photographs of Hampton through the years, as confetti and streamers wafted down onto the crowd, sparkling in the lights that swept the auditorium.

As for the reason Lionel Hampton involved himself with the festival in the first place, after the festival University of Idaho Provost Doug Baker summed up the significance of the educational component. “The clinics and competitions are the major part of the festival for the students,” he said. “It is inspiring to see them grow during the week and to see the joy of the musicians teaching them.”

There was no plainer manifestation of that joy than what I witnessed in a workshop the first day of the festival. It was called “Hands On! Vocal Fun Shop,” populated by twenty or so thirteen-year-olds. What made it fun was vocalist and teacher Madeline Eastman, who in slightly more than an hour had the kids keeping proper time, counting, syncopating, scatting, yodeling and laughing. No one had more fun that Eastman, as she brought out the shy boys and girls while reining in the wise guys, showoffs and hyperactives. After one young man had sung well, then strutted around like a touchdown king in the end zone, she cautioned him, “Hey, no boasting. Be cool.” He became cool-for a minute or two. The workshop kids learned something about singing. More important, they learned about cooperation, listening and mutual support in the act of creating music together.

Originally Published