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Links with Classical in Tanglewood Jazz Festival


Descending from summer’s brilliant white heat reflected in the White Mountains to autumn’s bosky, drizzly glens of the Berkshires was the slap we needed. Like Kurt Elling’s Herculean yawp climaxing “Nature Boy”, the tail of a gale (Earl) buzz-sawed through curved air, transcending time and moods. After a stop in the buffer zone of Mass MOCA — North Adams’ blue-collar, imaginative dream factory – we swept south to Ozawa Hall’s order and light, gorgeous tan, cream, pistachio (depending on the westering sun) with its honey maple seats, balconies, and lattice, punctured with art-deco squares a la Rennie Mackintosh.

You want to listen for jazz/classical links at Tanglewood’s Jazz Festival. Now in its 10th season, TJF presented some performers who rank high in that luminous crossover ionosphere.

Donal Fox and Laurence Hobgood, classically trained pianists and composers, utterly embrace the jazz spectrum. Maya Beiser, guest cellist with Fox, studied with Aldo Parisot, Uzi Weizel, Alexander Schneider, and Isaac Stern and today collaborates with Philip Glass, Mark O’Connor, Tan Dun (Crouching Tiger Concerto), if also Brian Eno and Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails). She studied with Aldo Parisot, Uzi Weizel, Alexander Schneider, and Isaac Stern. Guitarist Julian Lage, at 22 a poster boy for new world-crossover ‘genre’ encompasses flamenco, rock, folk, country, jazz, tango, Latin dance … and on.

The weekend on Sept. 4 and 5 unfolded with John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey’s Radio Deluxe, back from ‘09 for a Saturday matinee, drew the blue-rinse BSO set who sit on their hands or applaud at off-times but guffaw at John’s wink-wink one-liners and shtick. Demographic shifts from summer’s symphony set are minimal inside: you note few blacks and Asians, maybe one-third under 50. Among several good tunes were a light blues, with smoothly coordinated unison scat, a pleasing waltz (“Haven’t We Met?”) and deft medleys (“While My Guitar Gently Weeps” with “Killing Me Softly”, and “The Mooche” with “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”). Their amiable living-room patter, name-dropping, and random dialog on food fads and Red Sox are well-oiled and may be tolerable for an airing on NPR, but overlong onstage.

Jane Monheit’s brief guest cameo (‘09’s was Kurt Elling) was cute if forced. She and John sang “They Can’t Take That Away From Me”; duetted “Tonight You Belong To Me” (Billy Rose ‘20s ditty, dusted off in the ‘60s by Patience & Prudence); and made an anodyne rehash of “Twisted,” Annie Ross’s bop-rap museum piece. The leaders’ sixth-grader Madeline’s lame teen chitchat might help grandfolks bridge the yawning G-gap on NPR radio, but for a live set, gee, give the kid a uke and a harmony chorus!

Show-stealer dad Bucky, guitarist with rich voice at 85, brought out some of the best music and John’s better quips, visual licks, and rich duets voices on their matching d’Aquisto’s hollow-bodied guitars. On “Nuages” Bucky shifted into Django mode: firm, forceful, Euro, vibrant, resonant lines. The obligatory Benny Goodman Medley  (“Savoy,” “Memories of You”, cascading “Sing Sing Sing”) featured more hard-driving Bucky, Tony Tedesco on drums, and brother Mike Pizzarelli on bass.

Breezy remnants of hurricane Earl sunk the thermometer, summoned squalls, brilliant rainbows, and a chill back breeze for the evening lawn stalwarts. Pianist Laurence Hobgood recalled three eminent black pianists: rhapsodizing (Don Shirley), rhythmic surprise (Ahmad Jamal), big vistas (Sir Roland Hanna). He may echo Scriabin or Liszt as well as Bill Evans or Herbie Hancock. After an unsettling “White Cloud Way,” “Sanctuary” pitted deep and challenging piano chorales (of 6-7 bars) opposite Ulysses Owens’s brushes, hollow-sticks, a device the trio again worked to good effect on “God Bless the Child” (morphed as slick backbeat with speedy turnarounds). As a blindfold test, Hobgood teased but lulled the audience with “Que Sera, Sera” as a pensive ballad, featuring bassist Harish Raghavan.

Kurt Elling’s arrival brought the touch of a suave genius. “My Foolish Heart” simmered on a back-beat under a wise, sinewy, adenoidal baritone that might spin a note from a platinum filament to a knotted rope over eight bars. His art-song poetry-slam excursion – part improvised rap? – lifted the line ‘and again’ up two, three octaves on a beauteous moonbeam. “Dedicated To You” showed his mastery of ultra-hip lyrics and heady excursions; even a touch of Ray Charles falsetto was fresh, passionate, richly disorienting. A new look at The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” nodded toward agile ‘new’ producer Don Was with its odd-shaped lines and meanings. Elling led off David Amram’s Beat anthem “Pull My Daisy” with Indian takalak hand-claps (lots of interplay with Owens), skittered the antic lyrics into bop beat, then summoned ‘God’ Mark Murphy in an “On The Road” reading as transcendent sprechgesang. Elling as Über-crooner bent notes, ideas, minds, in his “Stairway To The Stars” and his John-Hancock “Nature Boy” soared off into the ionosphere. Oo-wee!

I had a frisson of giddy teenage discovery one afternoon in 1958 at the Newport Jazz Feestival, when the Newport Youth Orchestra leapt onstage under Marshall Brown’s baton: an eerie déjà vu revisited me as NYO alumnus Eddie Daniels’ clarinet skipped into a Thad Jones chestnut (“Tip Toe”?) with veteran pals Bob James (piano), James Genus (bass) and subdued, silky drummer Peter Erskine. That tipped off a classy, savvy set, my happiest surprise of the weekend. James played ineffably cool piano, far from his slick electric stuff, frequently evoking the understated Jimmy Rowles on originals like “Mood Swings” and the jumping closer “Broadway Boogie.” Covers of a Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” ballad, Hoagy Carmichael’s “New Orleans” and “Makin’ Whoopee” were a cross between genial revisits and smart revelations. Daniels’s self-deprecatory (if hammy) goofing about his “Tango, No” (not a tango dedicated to Jorge Calandrelli!) belied his effortless mastery scooting through clarinet solos that leave him untouched by peers. Bach’s Air on a G String, a piano/clarinet encore, lacked rigor – hell, it sailed off into a Finzian fantasia – but it was way cool, anyhow.

Outgoing Count Basie Orchestra director Bill Hughes and ‘straw-boss’ tenor sax Doug Lawrence strove to convince us that the swing juggernaut, at 75, has not devolved into a mastodon. Carmen Bradford, a force to embrace us in her chartreuse shift, did wonders to dispel any aura of fuddiness in her three numbers, with a behind-the-beat “Shining Hour,” a bluesy “Young And Foolish,” and belting “Love Being Hear With You” over giddy-up brass and buffed-up call-and-response. The just-50 singer was a kid of 23 again, warmly recalling when Count Basie first hired her. Two young hefty trumpeters and some blazing section work on hoary charts did their part, too.

Sunday night went as classical as the weekend got — cellos in both quintets! — in a sea of hybrid jazz/Bach from Donal Fox’s veteran ensemble, preceded by a heady cocktail from Julian Lage’s Panamerican youth brigade. Lage, in his third Tanglewood visit and first as leader, painted lively pastel canvases with cozy colleagues as what might be joshingly billed Le Hot Club de la Nouvelle Hemisphere: Aristides Rivas, cello (Colombia); Dan Blake, tenor sax (US); Jorge Roeder, bass (Peru); Tupac Mantilla, percussion (Venezuela). They wielded a bright palette, blending and twisting fine lines, breezed through “This Man Walk” (furious two-beat swing); “However” (Sun Ra, outside); “Telegram” (bluegrass). “L’il Darlin” was an on-the-spot inspiration from the Basie band’s molasses-sweet Neil Hefti classic.

Donal Fox’s busy, business-like blend of jazz-meets-classix is still ‘confounding the genre police.’ Fox mines deep resources as a classical pianist in crafting an expanding repertoire of original materials smoothly grafted to jazz vernacular. He will groove an ostinato under sophisticated lines and harmonies for a fusion that titillates your toes as it fires your synapses. Famed for collaborative efforts (David Murray, Stefon Harris), Fox brewed his latest potion, “Piazzolla to Bach Project,” to feature dramatic Israeli-Argentine cellist Maya Beiser. Fox’s last appearance at TJF ‘08 (majoring in Scarlatti) was a hit, and the success of this new collaboration – effectively melding his grit and rigor with Beiser’s suave charms — should assure his annual slot in this niche roster: nobody’s doing anything like this in modern music.

With longtime colleague John Lockwood, Boston’s first-call jazz bassist, Warren Wolf on vibes, and Cuban drummer Dafnis Prieto, Fox whipped up a blazing set that mesmerized, edified, and kept everyone on the edge of their seats until well after 11 pm, despite blustery breezes. Fox crosses Monk x Bach (Partita #5) to produce prodigious offspring in interplay with Prieto’s rimshots and Wolf’s rising glissandi. The band tapped into Hispano-Cuban Joaquin Nin and Argentine tanguero Astor Piazzola with equal aplomb, as Beiser’s reedy, melodramatic cello blended in, whether theremin-swooning to the fore or barely audible in the welter. Bach’s Two Part Invention in F went tight, straight, and hot. Fox’s peaceable opening of a John Dowland lute ballade was just as surprising as his stops-out closing jam on — what do you suppose? “Le Coucou and the Funky Chicken,” based in part on Louis-Claude Daquin’s cuckoo emulation in his 1735 harpsichord suite! Get down, squares!

The Jazz Café — a white tent with table seating, buffet and bar — aired small acts at noon and five both days; I caught two singers. Kelly Johnson is a lively sprite from Seattle whose ‘lithe, velvety’ voice brings her Lincoln Center gigs and fresh charm to standards, “Lucky To Be Me” and “The Tender Trap.”  Audrey Silver, a Manhattan regular, shows some warm style, with deep roots in song gurus Bob Dorough and Sheila Jordan.

Fred Bouchard writes about music for Downbeat Magazine and All About Jazz, and about wine for Beverage Business; he lectures on jazz at Boston University, and teaches journalism and literature at Berklee College of Music.

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  1. Charles Rennie Mackintosh is an art nouveau architect.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — September 20, 2010 at 11:12 pm

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