Litchfield Jazz Festival
July 31-August 2, 2009
For two and a half days this past weekend, jazz invaded Connecticut with the arrival of the 14th Annual Litchfield Jazz Festival. This year, in a new home on the Kent School grounds in Kent, Connecticut, this major musical event, hosted by WBGO broadcaster and jazz journalist Michael Bourne, presented what seemed to be "a cast of thousands" of jazz artists geared up to play their best for an audience eager to hear them. The event, usually staged outdoors under a big tent and on the grass, wound up being moved indoors due to too much rain and six inches of water under the tent. Fortunately, the school's hockey rink on the grounds was able to be turned into an indoor concert venue. This minor miracle was accomplished in hours by the festival staff and many volunteers. This reviewer covered 11 of the 13 concerts presented and the descriptive moments follow.
Friday, July 31st
The evening's opener was the Lewis Nash Quintet—Nash on drums, Jeremy Pelt on trumpet, saxophonist Jimmy Greene, pianist Renee Rosnes and Peter Washington on bass. The group's first offering was Thad Jones' "Ain't Nothing New" which featured a smoking solo by Pelt. A latin treatment was given Jimmy Heath's "Ellington's Stray Horn," where Greene's soprano sax took the lead. Rosnes and Nash had a connective chorus which drew applause before the end of the solo. Rosnes then supplied a lovely piano intro to Gordon Jenkins' "Goodbye" (a song that is not done enough). Greene added a melodic solo on tenor, followed by Pelt on muted trumpet. Notable also was Washington's bass work on Monk's "Eronel" which was punctuated by drummer Nash. Nash, who is one of today's drummers most in demand for his all-around musicianship, really got a chance to step out on the closing tune, "The Highest Mountain"
Vocalist Jane Monheit, who appeared at the Litchfield Jazz Festival early in her career in 2001, was next on the menu. Joined by Michael Kenan on piano, Neal Miner on bass, Joe Magnarello on trumpet and husband Rick Montalbano on drums, Monheit dished up a set of standard and classic jazz tunes for her enthusiastic fans. Monheit has a good vocal instrument and was in fine voice singing and scatting her way through the well-paced set. One of the highlights was a slow tempo rendition of Leonard Bernstein's "I'm So Lucky To Be Me" with only Kenan's piano behind her. Then there was the up-tempo "Twisted" Wardell Gray bebop favorite and Anton Jobim's "The Waters Of March," which she sang with the English lyrics. The band delivered solid support behind her with Magnarello doing some tasty fills on the trumpet. Monheit closed her set with a nostalgic visit, Harold Arlen's "Over The Rainbow" and another standard from the movies—Irving Berlin's "Cheek to Cheek"—as an encore.
Saturday, August 1st
High noon brought on the Latin beat with Cuban drummer Dafnis Prieto and his Si O Si Quartet. The quartet included Prieto, Peter Apfelbaum on sax, Manuel Valera on piano and Charles Flores on bass. The music was all original since Prieto has a history of creating music for dance, chamber ensembles and, of course, his own bands. The focus of this set was on the leader's drumming, which took on the character of a start/stop rhythm pattern rather than straightahead time-keeping. On one song the piano carried a constant rhythmic pattern and Prieto played the punctuation, his kit sounding almost like timbales. Apfelbaum contributed several interesting solos, and both Valera on piano and Flores on bass did their part to deliver an exciting set.
The Latin beat went further south next when Trio Da Paz came on stage. The trio is composed of Romero Lubambo on acoustic guitar, Nilson Matta on bass and Duduka da Fonseca on drums—all originally from Brazil and now New York-based. These are three individual virtuosos on their instruments who have joined together to make the music of their native country. The first two numbers were original compositions—one by bassist Matta and the other by guitarist Lubambo. Lubambo's classic guitar fingering is impeccable, Matta's bass work is exceedingly melodic and da Fonseca's drumming is like an engine behind everything and inventive on his solos. The legendary Leny Andrade then joined the trio to demonstrate why she is a legend. The lady sings and scats with such ease that the music seems to flow from her like the surf in her native Rio. Starting off with "So Danco Samba," she continued on to a version of "Wave" with tempo changes from slow to fast and back to slow again—the Trio following her all the way as a tightly knit unit. Lubambo and Matta then played a Bach-inspired composition with intricate counter-melodies, ending with the guitar and drummer da Fonseca trading fours. The set ended with Andrade singing Jobim's "One Note Samba" and the audience trying hard not to get up and dance to the contagious joy of this Brazilian treat.
The Wycliffe Gordon and Jay Leonhart Quartet provided some good music and tongue-in-cheek fun during the next set. Both Gordon (trombone) and Leonhart (bass) shared vocal duties as well as played their respective instruments and were joined by Ted Rosenthal on piano and Alvin Atkinson on drums. "Surrey With The Fringe On The Top" featured Leonhart on the vocal and also singing with the bass, followed by Gordon singing with the bass. Leonhart had the audience chuckling during the singing of his original song about sitting next to Leonard Bernstein on a flight to California, accompanied only by his bass. Gordon stepped up to do vocals on his original "This Rhythm On My Mind." Both Gordon and Leonhart worked back and forth and together during the set, ably showing off their respective techniques and their shared sense of humor with Rosenthal lending some fine solos and Atkinson supplying his conversational style of drumming. "Lester Leaps In," the Count Basie-Lester Young vehicle, provided a perfect finale with both Gordon and Leonhart scatting and swinging away.
As a change of pace and configuration, a duo turned up in the persons of Benny Green on piano and the living legend, Bucky Pizzarelli, on guitar. Green is a California-based pianist who has a very respectable resume, including having worked with Betty Carter, Diana Krall, Freddie Hubbard, Russell Malone and Etta Jones. Pizzarelli continues to display his guitar mastery and magic. The music from this duo was a selection of recognizable standards played together and two solo renditions. Green performed a lovely version of "Tenderly," on which he reharmonized the chords. And Pizzarelli delivered Django Reinhardt's "Nuages" from the heart. This pairing is an interesting one and seems to work. The two men make great music together; concluding their set with their own jumping verson of "Lester Leaps In"!
Bill Henderson stepped out on stage and totally captured the audience, while being ably backed up by Dena DeRose on piano, Avery Sharpe on bass and Winard Harper on drums. Henderson knows his instrument and can use his voice to express warmth and intimacy as well as belting with the best of them. He chooses his material to fit his voice and person, and he knows how to tell the story in each lyric with impeccable phrasing. Whether it was his gospel approach to "You Are My Sunshine" or his rousing hand-clapper, "Smack Dab In The Middle," Henderson had the rink in the palm of his hands. The most notable number, however, was his version of Arlen's "That Old Black Magic," which started off slow, changed for an uptempo chorus and then came back to a slow ballad form. By the time it was done, you could hear a pin drop.
This octogenarian (83 years old this year) defies his age when he sings a love song and transmits all the emotions that some people think are only for the young. As he sat on a stool on that stage and just sang, he was any age, totally believable and delicious.
Sunday, August 2nd, 2009
The Lionel Loueke Trio (Loueke on guitar and vocals, Massimo Biolcati on bass and Ferenc Nemeth on drums) were on hand with a program of originals that drew on Loueke's Benin, South African heritage. The trio is a tight unit at this point, having been together for ten years. Loueke's guitar mastery was apparent, but what set this group apart was his vocals (in his native language) that were fed through a synthesizer to produce multiple vocal sounds using the wonderfully pure sounding African harmonies. One of notable compositions, entitled "Seventeen" and based on seventeen beats, featured the bass and guitar playing counterpoint and the guitar and drums playing counterpoint. The set effected an ethnic contrast to the mainstream quality of the rest of the day which was appreciated by the audience.
Pianist Dena DeRose's, joined by Martin Wind on bass and Matt Wilson on drums, started off with several songs featuring DeRose on vocals. DeRose's voice has a light, fluid quality which is easy on the ear and was ably supported by Wind and Wilson with whom she has worked for quite a while. Because of this, there is an almost visible musical connection between the three. Part way into the set, the trio was joined by Henry Johnson on guitar who showed off his fast and furious fingerwork on an uptempo version of "My Shining Hour." Also featured on this was Wind doing a brilliant arco solo on the bass and Wilson's solid and inventive drumming. It was at this point that trumpeter Claudio Roditi appeared on stage to play a bossa nova called "If Nothing Else." Roditi plays with a warm, full tone, knows how to build a solo and just about talks to you with his phrasing. Guitar, piano and bass solos augmented Roditi's lead. Roditi followed this with several other songs including one of his originals ("Blues For Ronnie") and Al Cohn's "No More." Before the set was over, DeRose sat alone at the piano to deliver a sensitive vocal on "Two Different Worlds." Closing out the set was the evergreen "Green Dolphin Street" with everyone with DeRose swinging at the piano along with everyone else.
The Houston Person Quartet (Person on sax, Stan Hope on piano, bassist Jon Burr and drummer Chip White) tendered their first appearance at the Litchfield Jazz Festival. Person, a global performer as a leader and as a sideman, has an extensive history of recordings as well. Starting off with "Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me," Person went on to deliver a most soulful reading of Tadd Dameron's killer song "If You Could See Me Now." Person is a master of many styles including his trademark soulful hard bop. His partnership with the great vocalist Etta Jones gives him the advantage of knowing how to play the lyric, a talent he also displayed when he played "Since I Fell For You" and gave a sensitive reading to "Too Late Now" later in the set. Highlights here also included drummer White's mallet work and bassist Burr's arco solo on the title samba from "Black Orpheus." The set also included everybody wailing on "Lester Leaps In" where White delivered an explosive drum solo. (This was the third time "Lester Leaps In" was played at the festival by different groups which leads one to wonder. The most obvious explanation for its multi-inclusion seems to be the upcoming 100th birthday of "The Prez" later this month.) The set closed with a foot stomping blues on which everyone also wailed.
The Poncho Sanchez Latin Jazz Band closed out the festival on a high note. With Sanchez at the congas, this ensemble continues the tradition of the great Latin jazz bands that used to play the New York City Palladium in the fifties. Incredibly danceable, the music from this organization features a tight horn unit along with the necessary percussion. Playing a selection of jazz standards (i.e. "One Mint Julep" and Horace Silver's "Silver's Serenade") and Latin standards such as Tito Puente's "Oye Como Va," the band's driving rhythms finally got part of the audience up on their feet. With Sanchez exhorting everyone to get up and dance, the evening ended with a lot of empty seats and a lot of salsa dancing feet in front of the bandstand.
Kudos to Vita West Muir (founder and executive artistic director), her staff and the devoted crew of volunteers for organizing and pulling off one of the best straight-ahead jazz festivals on the map. This reviewer looks forward to next year's fifteenth annual Litchfield Jazz Festival when the hills of Connecticut will be alive again with the sound of jazz!
Read on at AllAboutJazz.com.