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Tanglewood Jazz Festival

Terence Blanchard (photo by Nitin Vadukul)
Terence Blanchard (photo by Nitin Vadukul)

At this year’s Tanglewood Jazz Festival in the bucolic Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts, feelings of irony and concern were inescapable. Trumpeter-composer Terence Blanchard was the three-day event’s final act, presenting his Grammy-winning A Tale of God’s Will (Requiem for Katrina) project in its entirety, with his quintet augmented by a 35-piece orchestra. It was three years almost to the day since Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters devastated his city, and Hurricane Gustav was bearing down on the Gulf Coast with then-uncertain impact.

“I come here with a heavy heart,” Blanchard told the audience at the start of his 90-minute Sunday evening concert. “I ask all of you to say a prayer for the folks living along the Gulf Coast.”

Irrespective of his concerns, Blanchard and co. presented the weekend’s highlight, an epic musical tale of uncertainty, mourning, frustration, resilience, hope and healing. As Blanchard introduced each piece, written either by himself or current or former bandmates, he spoke with keen understanding about the circumstances that inspired it. The elements of this requiem-like tone poem included “Levees,” “Wading Through,” “Ashe (Amen),” “In Time of Need,” “The Water,” “Funeral Dirge,” “Dear Mom,” “Over There” and “The Ghost of Congo Square.” The strings and other classical instrumentation added great nuance and depth, strengthening the music with aural imagery of storms, rising water and heartache.

During his quartet performance earlier in the day, clarinetist-tenor saxophonist Eddie Daniels wound down his set with a poignant version of Hoagy Carmichael’s “New Orleans” after telling the audience, “While we’re sitting here in the sun, there’s all this stuff happening elsewhere. Let’s think about New Orleans.”

The prior night, as she introduced her band after an a cappella version of the intense, gospel/blues-tinged “Good Day,” singer Dianne Reeves said drummer Herlin Riley couldn’t go home because his family had been evacuated from the Crescent City.

With five main-stage concerts scheduled in Ozawa Hall over three evenings and two afternoons, each preceded by sets by younger or emerging artists in the tented Jazz Café nearby, the Labor Day weekend festival once again offered something for everyone as it wound down the season at the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer home.

The classical connection was brought to life in the weekend’s finest moments. The Blanchard set was one. The other was Boston-based pianist Donal Fox’s Scarlatti Jazz Suite Project, which opened the Saturday night concert that was headlined by Reeves. It was an opener in name only. Fox’s quintet, featuring Christian Scott on trumpet, included vibes player Warren Wolf, bassist John Lockwood and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington. Fox’s project adds jazz improvisation to segments of Baroque pieces by classical composers Scarlatti, Bach and others. Fox’s piece “Firefly,” which evolved into a blues, is an homage based on Bach’s “Two-Part Invention in G Minor.”

This intriguing blend, in which a brief classical theme triggers spirited invention, swings mightily. The title piece, “The Scarlatti Jazz Suite,” started with and returned to Baroque underpinnings that became reference points for each improviser. It gained in intensity throughout its 20-minute exploration. Fox’s set stretched to about 90 minutes, as the audience clamored for one of the weekend’s few encores. They got it-and it was worth it-as “Italian Concerto Blues” married Bach to a New Orleans bamboola rhythm.

Saturday afternoon was an extended 90th birthday taping of Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz program in the pianist’s seventh consecutive Tanglewood appearance. Her guests were pianist Mulgrew Miller, young West Coast singer-pianist Spencer Day (who joined the host for a version of “[I Was] Born to be Blue” after singing two of his musical-stage-oriented originals [“Poor Marie,” a clever piece about Marie Antoinette] and “Last Train to New Jersey”), and singer Nnenna Freelon. It was an afternoon devoted to balladry for the most part, and humor.

When McPartland played a solo version of “Days of Our Love” (made famous by Peggy Lee), Miller called it “simply one of the most gorgeous things I have heard in a long time-and I hope you fax me a copy.” Freelon’s explorations with McPartland ranged from Stevie Wonder’s “All in Love is Fair” to “Skylark” and “Amazing Grace” to Alec Wilder’s “This Is the Winter of Our Discontent.” At one point, Freelon wondered aloud why more people don’t perform the tune. “Because they’re too busy doing ‘Roll Out the Barrel,'” McPartland quipped. Miller returned at the end of the program to join McPartland and Freelon in a rousing version of “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).”

The Friday night opener featured Colombian harpist Edmar Castaneda’s unusual quartet instrumentation: harp, vibes, trombone and drums for a set filled with energy and great synergy. They ended their set with a samba version of “Autumn Leaves,” with Joe Locke using electronic effects to make his vibes sound like steel pans. Pianist Eliane Elias followed with her Bill Evans tribute, interspersing several tunes from her forthcoming U.S. release Bossa Nova Stories in honor of the Brazilian popular music form’s birth 50 years ago.

Violinist Mark O’Connor’s Hot Swing Ensemble with guest vocalist Jane Monheit followed Daniels’ quartet on Sunday afternoon.

This year’s Jazz Café, just up the hill from Ozawa Hall, featured Spencer Day, pianists Aaron Parks and Alex Brown, trumpeter Jason Palmer and singer Kate McGarry, and their bands in hour-long showcase performances.