This review appears in the September 2011 issue of The New York City Jazz Record.
Caramoor Jazz Festival
Katonah, New York
August 5-7, 2011
By David R. Adler
On paper, this year’s Caramoor Jazz Festival stood up nicely against the more extensive offerings the same weekend at Newport. Friday evening belonged to one group only, pianist Renee Rosnes and her stellar quartet (Steve Nelson, Peter Washington, Lewis Nash), appearing in Caramoor’s Spanish Courtyard. Then the action shifted to the tent covering the larger Venetian Theater, where the Christian McBride Big Band threw down on Saturday night, drawing a large and happy crowd despite pouring rain. Dispensing with the idea of a theme, conceptual umbrella or narrative device to link the music together as in some years past, Caramoor chose to let the varied menu speak for itself.
The one exception seemed to be “Sonidos Latinos,” a special billing to distinguish the sets by afternoon openers Edmar Castaneda and Juan-Carlos Formell. Without question these were two of the standouts: Formell’s pared-down quintet, called Johnny’s Dream Club, featured the leader on nylon-string guitar and vocals in a Saturday set full of lilting melodies, framed by Manuel Valera’s gorgeous piano and the impressive doubling of Lewis Kahn on violin and trombone. On Sunday, Castaneda floored early arrivers with his Colombian harp chops and lofty musicality, not to mention his effortless rapport with trombonist Marshall Gilkes, percussionist Dave Silliman and vocalist Andrea Tierra. The solo harp piece “Jesus de Nazareth” and the title tune from 2009’s Entre Cuerdas were expansive and beautifully done.
There was no mistaking the scratchy tone, or the charged approach to straightahead swing, of guitar icon John Scofield, whose quartet featured bassist Scott Colley, drummer Bill Stewart and pianist Michael Eckroth (an underexposed and truly refined player). Hearing a ballad like “I Want to Talk About You” through an overdriven amp was jarring, however, and the loud overall volume obscured the set’s subtleties. In contrast, one could hear every crisp detail of pianist Robert Glasper’s trio with bassist Alan Hampton and drummer Marcus Gilmore. But Glasper undercut himself with jokey tangents and a set that didn’t fully cohere, despite moments of brilliant ensemble work.
The crowd poured in to hear James Farm, probably thanks to star tenor man Joshua Redman, who fronts the dynamic supergroup with Aaron Parks on piano, Matt Penman on bass and Eric Harland on drums. Challenging compositions, sparkling interplay, sheer charisma: there was little not to like here. If the next act, vocalist José James, didn’t grab everyone the same way, it was perhaps because his hip-hop style and inflection left the older folks a little befuddled. But James is a true artist with an inventive take on jazz, as he showed on the slinky “Save Your Love for Me,” the ballad “Dedicated to You” and the vocalese showcases “Equinox” and “Red Clay.” The versatility and empathy of the band, with guitarist Nir Felder, keyboardist Frank LoCrasto, bassist Chris Smith and drummer Nate Smith, was also hard to miss.
But three particular sets brought Caramoor 2011 to another level. Previewing music from the soon-to-be-released The Good Feeling, McBride’s big band was blues-drenched, furiously swinging and impossibly tight, with several features for vocalist Melissa Walker and gleaming solos from the likes of altoist Todd Bashore, tenorists Ron Blake and Loren Schoenberg, trombonist Michael Dease and pianist Xavier Davis. In a tailored black suit with red pocket kerchief, McBride looked like a million bucks and brought an old-school swagger to the stage, positioning his bass way up front (visually and aurally). When he switched to conducting — which was often — he would usher on rising-star bassist Ben Williams, who brought a huge sound of his own to the affair. With the big band project, McBride seems to have come full-circle: he closed the first half with the monumental “Science Fiction,” reworked from his 2000 release Sci Fi, and signed off with “In A Hurry,” a burner that dates back to his 1995 debut Gettin’ to It.
In a different mood entirely, pianist Fred Hersch joined Italian clarinetist Nico Gori for a duo performance of unmatched beauty and skill. Gori’s purity of tone and imaginative phrasing lit up the standards “Old Devil Moon” and “Tea for Two” alongside Hersch originals such as “Mandevilla,” “Canzona” and “Down Home.” And Jason Moran’s Bandwagon, with bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits, closed the festival drawing on music from the superb Ten, with “Blue Blocks,” “RFK in the Land of Apartheid” and Conlon Nancarrow’s “Study No. 6” all part of the equation. Moran’s use of prerecorded sound is well-known but always surprising: this time he used Billie Holiday’s “Big Stuff” as well as The Time’s 1984 hit “Ice Cream Castles.” From Lady Day to Morris Day: here was a bold proposition for a jazz festival, and even if the crowd had thinned by Sunday evening, it went over well.