The 2011 Tanglewood Jazz Festival:

December 1, 2011

by Eugene Marlow, Ph.D.

The program of the 2011 Tanglewood Jazz Festival, held September 2-4, 2011 (its 24th year) on the verdant campus near Lenox, Massachusetts (and the usual summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra), was a veritable smorgasbord of jazz styles. Programmed by Tanglewood Jazz Festival Manager Dawn Singh, the three days of main stage concerts, jazz café showcases, and educationally-tinged interviews deftly handled by veteran jazz journalist Bob Blumenthal, offered audiences a compact impression of the range of styles in jazz’s portfolio. From this perspective, the 2011 Festival was an educational experience.

Whether deliberate or not (and I perceive it was not an accident), the Festival’s programming juxtaposed the traditional with the contemporary, presented a strong Latin-jazz thread, and a made a statement about the importance and contribution of women in the world of jazz.

The Traditional/The Contemporary

For example, the Saturday afternoon offering in the vaulted Ozawa Concert Hall – with its designed rear opening so that fans on the lawn could not only hear, but also see the performers on the stage – was stride pianist virtuoso Judy Carmichael. Her choices of tunes were traditional. The playing by bassist Neal Miner, tenor saxophonist Harry Allen, and guitarist Chris Flory was highly accessible, and Ms. Carmichael was her usual entertaining self during her two-hour set – that included an interview with friend and actress Blythe Danner (as part of Carmichael’s Jazz Inspired radio program), and special guest pianist Mike Renzi who backed up Danner for her two “vocal” presentations.

The Sunday afternoon concert in the same venue featured the Coast-To-Coast Septet with 82-year-old NEA Jazz Master Jimmy Cobb (plus female vocalist Mary Stallings). Earlier, Cobb had been interviewed by journalist Blumenthal at the Highwood, one of the buildings within walking distance of the main stage. Cobb’s group was also out of the traditional mold, as were the structure of the solos: statement of theme, then each performer having a turn at the material.

These two aforementioned more “traditional” groups constrasted sharply with several of the showcase performances in the Jazz Café and the performance of the Mingus Orchestra conducted in part by NEA Jazz Master Gunther Schuller (also interviewed by Blumenthal earlier in the day). Sue Mingus, his widow and champion of his music since his passing in 1979, introduced the orchestra.

The Mingus offering – featuring Peruvian harp virtuoso Edmar Castaneda – was selections from Mingus’s Epitaph, a 2 ½-hour magnum opus for over 30 instruments that Schuller reduced to a nonet (plus Castaneda for the occasion). Although written several decades ago, the selections from this work sounded quite contemporary, not only because of the melodic lines, harmonies, and sharp turns, but also because of the instrumentation, which in this case included bassoon, bass clarinet, and French horn, in addition to the usual instrumental suspects: bass, guitar, drums, saxophones, and trumpet. Clearly, what emerged from the performance was not only the performers’ virtuosity, particularly from bassoonist Michael Rabinowitz, but also Mingus’s voice. He studied jazz and classical music. He wanted to a double bass player in the Los Angeles Symphony but, at the time, no African-American would have been allowed this kind of position. His classical background never left him, of course. In the selections performed at Tanglewood, and in much of his music, you can hear the anger, the aggressiveness, and the “power” of his virtuosic musicianship.

Other “contemporary sounds” were to be found in the Jazz Café, a tent venue where you could purchase a limited selection of food and drink. Regardless, the main attraction was the music. Of note were the Sarah Manning Quartet and the Cedric Hanriot Trio. Manning is an alto saxophonist whose control of her instrument reminded me of trumpeter Dave Douglas. She perused the range of the instrument with ease. There was great clarity in her playing choices. Her compositions, moreover, reflect the world around her. One piece is based on the sounds of an owl she heard one evening; another, the sounds of a gate going up and down at a railroad crossing. She received a standing ovation at the end of her set.

As did another contemporary group: The Cedric Hanriot Trio, featuring Hanriot on keyboards, drummer Terri Lynn Carrington, and bassist James Genus – pushed the contemporary envelope even further. First, each performer is a high-level instrumentalist in his or her own right. Second, the combined energies and drive of these performers lifted the entire audience out of its collective seats. While Hanriot’s arrangement of “Dolphin Dance” sometimes made it teasingly difficult to find the original melodic line, it didn’t matter. There was so much energy and virtuosic attack coming off the stage from these three players, they could have been playing “Three Blind Mice” and it still would have dropped the audience’s collective jaws. All three players toyed with odd meters and polyrhythms. Drummer Carrington especially mixed things up rhythmically, moving from straight-ahead, to funk, to Latin at a moment’s notice. Many contemporary-style (young) drummers (especially) often play as if their presence on the set is cause for a constant solo. Their playing is often loud with flat dynamics. Not so with Carrington. She played with taste that fit the trio and, when required, high and low energy that matched the other two players perfectly.

The Latin-Jazz Thread

The second constant of the 2011 Tanglewood Festival was the presence of Latin-jazz. You could hear it in the Hanriot Trio. Peruvian harpist Edmar Castaneda’s appearance with the Mingus Orchestra was another instance. It was even more blatant with the Saturday evening offering of the Federico Britos Sextet and the John Santos Sextet, an evening dedicated to Cuban bassist Israel Lopez (1918-2008), affectionately known as “Cachao.”

Like Cachao, Uruguayan violinist Britos has excelled in both the classical and popular realms. San Francisco-based percussionist Santos, with roots in Puerto Rico and Cape Verde Islands, has been a bandleader in and scholar of both traditional and more visionary Afro-Cuban styles for many decades. The Britos ensemble performed first (for almost 90 minutes) and then invited the Santos Sextet to perform with them. The highlight of the evening was a samba version of “Over The Rainbow.” Here was a group led by a jazz violinist from Uruguay performing with players from various parts of Central and South America, performing one of the standards of the American Songbook in a style born out of Brazil! A mixing of cultures, indeed. The audience loved it.

The Latin jazz thread throughout the weekend’s proceedings (including Santos’ interview with Bob Blumenthal earlier in the day) is in sharp contrast to the Recording Academy’s decision earlier in the year to eliminate the Latin-jazz category (and 30 other categories) from 2011 Grammy contention. The top executives of the Recording Academy would have done well to have heard the various iterations of Latin-jazz at the 2011 Tanglewood Jazz Festival and the enthusiastic response from the audience.

The Women

The last major theme of this Festival was the women: not just a few “token” women, but several major voices. Apart from the Robin McKelle Quartet, the Sarah Manning Quartet, and the Rebecca Martin Trio at the Jazz Café, and Judy Carmichael at the main stage, the major highlight and fitting climax of the weekend was the appearance of vocalists Angelique Kidjo, Dianne Reeves, and Lizz Wright performing a non-stop, high energy, audience engaging two-hour performance (yes, no intermission) with an all-star ensemble under the direction of drummer Terri Lynn Carrington, with pianist/composer Geri Allen, Brazilian guitar master Romero Lubambo, virtuoso bassist James Genus, and percussionist Munyungo Jackson.

In a way, this final concert of the weekend reflected not only the “voices” of women from many lands, but also the multi-cultural musical values, Latin-jazz, and the blending of the traditional and the contemporary “themes” of the Festival.

Kidjo, Reeves, and Wright’s “Sing The Truth” concert originated at a 2004 Carnegie Hall concert honoring the music of Nina Simone. The trio toured with the concert in the United States, Europe, Asia, and Australia. The vocalists then decided to expand the initial idea to honor the many great women of jazz, folk, R&B, and gospel, with an emphasis on the recently departed AbbyLincoln, Miriam Makeba, and Odetta. The mixture of cultures works. Kidjo originates from Benin and has been blending the music of West Africa with funk and jazz for the past three decades. She has also served as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador campaigning for women’s rights in Africa. Reeves is the dominant female jazz singer of her era and is the only vocalist in any musical style to win a single Grammy category three years in a row. Lizz Wright brings a foundation in gospel music into ever-greater play on her four popular recordings.

It was a powerful evening that transcended many social and political boundaries. The standing ovation was long-standing. It was a fitting close to a weekend of jazz-oriented music of various styles whose whole was greater than the sum of its parts.

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