Another Tanglewood season is in the books, winding down over Labor Day Weekend with a festival that blended jazz with a touch of the classical genre that dominates the bucolic venue all summer.
It makes great senses to bring classical links to a jazz event at the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It has happened several times in recent years here in Lenox, Mass., in the heart of the Berkshires, where the Tanglewood Jazz Festival marked its 23rd year last weekend.
The festival showcased emerging artists, celebrated tradition and presented quality headliners in interesting combinations amid chilly air, spits of drizzle and lots of wind. The only thing missing: the traditional Friday night Latin jazz opener, which was scrapped this year due to the economy. Hopefully it will be back next year.
Here’s a rundown of some highlights:
Two years after presenting his “Scarlatti Jazz Suite Project” blending jazz and the classics, pianist Donal Fox was back with his quartet (with vibes player Warren Wolf, bassist John Lockwood and drummer Dafnis Prieto). This time, Fox closed the festival Sunday night with a “Piazzolla to Bach” program that was as strong as its predecessor. Fox takes memorable segments of works from the classical canon for the band to use as crackling improvisational fuel. The program also included Astor Piazzolla’s “Libertango” and “Milonga del Angel.” Cellist Maya Beiser made her first serious foray into jazz this night as a special guest for five of the set’s 10 pieces.
The pianist premiered his own “Fire Fly,” based on Bach’s “Two Part Invention in G Minor,” and “Partita Romp,” which is based on the Bach “Partita No. 5 in G Major.” His program included a straight take on J.S. Bach’s “Two-Part Invention in F Major” without improvisation and “Air on a G String.” No improv was needed on the former tune, Fox told the crowd. “Man, he (Bach) was a swinging cat,” Fox said. He closed with the hard-driving “Le Cuocuo and the Funky Chicken,” which he based on “Le Cuocuo” (the coo-coo) from Louis-Claude Daquin’s 1735 harpsichord suite.
Eddie Daniels & Bob James Broadway Boogie Project
Earlier in the day, “Air on a G String” made its first appearance as the intimate encore for clarinetist Eddie Daniels and pianist Bob James after their quartet’s Broadway Boogie Project performance with drummer Peter Erskine and bassist James Genus. The quartet’s material included a light, romantic interpretation of Stephen Sondheim’s “Pretty Woman” from Sweeney Todd, Hoagy Carmichael’s “New Orleans,” Daniels’ “Tangonova” and James’s “Broadway Boogie.”
John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey
Guitarist John Pizzarelli and his wife, singer Jessica Molaskey, taped a Tanglewood version of their satellite radio show Radio Deluxe to open the festival Saturday afternoon with singer Jane Monheit as special guest. Last year, daughter Madeleine Pizzarelli spent the hour with her nose in the last Harry Potter book. This year, she was an integral part of the conversation. The musical highlights: Pizzarelli and Molaskey’s alternating lyrics – a line from one song, then the other, of “My Guitar Gently Weeps” (John) and “Killing Me Softly” (Jessica); a mash-up of “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” to the melody of “East St. Louis Toodle-o”; and Bucky Pizzarelli’s spirited interplay with drummer Tony Tedesco on a Benny Goodman medley.
Last year, Kurt Elling was a special guest on Radio Deluxe. This year, he was the Saturday night headliner with a set that included two new pieces from a forthcoming album produced by Don Was (“”Samurai Cowboy” and “Norwegian Wood,” the latter featuring searing guitar work from John McLean). The material also included Elling’s signature opener, “My Foolish Heart,” and “Dedicated to You” from his recent John Coltrane-Johnny Hartman tribute project.
Elling’s uplifting version of “Stairway to the Stars” on this breezy night (compliments of Hurricane Earl’s extended bluster) came as Tanglewood experienced a momentary break in the cloud cover. The highlight was a Mark Murphy tribute on “Pull My Daisy,” with music written by David Amram for lyrics based on collaborative poetry by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassaday. These days, only Elling is adventurous enough to make it work and hold audience attention.
In a most appropriate spotlight, Elling’s opening act was his musical director’s trio. Pianist Laurence Hobgood, who has worked with Elling for 16 years, opened the evening with bassist Ulysses Owens and bassist Harish Raaghavan. Their excellent program that showcased his talents as a writer and player. (Hobgood released a terrific duo album called When The Heart Dances with bassist Charlie Haden last year.) Very strong tunes in Hobgood’s hour-long Tanglewood spotlight included his new piece “Shirakumo No Michi” (White Cloud Way) and an uptempo take on “God Bless the Child.”
Guitarist Julian Lage showed how advanced the 21-year-old is as a player and a conceptualist, offering an hour of a Latin and bluegrass-tinged musical adventure with his group. The band included bassist Jorge Roeder, percussionist Topac Monilla, Aristides Rivas on cello and Dan Blake on tenor saxophone and melodica. Lage, Roeder and Montilla wowed the crowd with “Lil’ Darlin'” on guitar and bass – with Montilla using the latter instrument as a beat box while Roeder played the strings.
Count Basie Orchestra
The Legendary Count Basie Orchestra, directed by Bill Hughes, closed the Sunday matinee with more than an hour of classic material that reinforced the impact this swinging unit has had on the big band tradition. Singer Carmen Bradford, the last vocalist that Count Basie hired before his 1984 passing, joined for three tunes. She’s worked with the band on and off for the past 27 years.
Jazz Café Performances
Tenor saxophonist Brandon Wright’s quintet on Saturday afternoon and pianist Noah Baerman’s trio on Sunday evening were the clear highlights at the festival’s tented Jazz Café (with performances 90 minutes before each of the main stage concerts at Seiji Ozawa Hall.
Most of the Connecticut pianist’s set was devoted to very strong originals, plus James Williams’ gospel-tinged “Yes, Yes, Oh Yes” and the jazz classic “Body and Soul.” During the latter, you could have heard a pin drop, given the crowd’s attention to Baerman’s thoughtful exploration. Wright’s “Odd Man Out” had a classic 1960s Blue Note feel.
Singers Kelley Johnson and Audrey Silver also performed at the tent. The highlight from their sets was Silver’s captivating interpretation of “The Meaning of the Blues.”
This year’s café performers were selected from 200 entries in a video competition.