More commerce than jazz at Tanglewood Jazz Festival 2001
by Seth Rogovoy

(LENOX, Mass., September 3, 2001) – If you wanted to know who was up next, you had to buy a scorecard.

That was just one of the superficial innovations of this past weekend’s jazz “festival” at Tanglewood. That’s “festival” as opposed to the annual “jazz weekend” that concertgoers had been enjoying in diminishing numbers over the past few years, prompting the Boston Symphony Orchestra to turn to Boston jazz impresario Fred Taylor to add some spice to the Labor Day weekend event.

There was definitely a new sort of buzz at Tanglewood this past weekend, and I don’t only mean the annoying one that plagued the sound system in the Shed. Nor do I only mean the annoying buzz emanating from the mouths of various DJs and announcers who like pesky mosquitoes popped up before every performance to urge concertgoers to buy CDs and T-shirts and to remind them that for an additional $7 on top of the ticket they already bought they could purchase a program full of paid advertising that also contained some boilerplate prose about the performing artists.

So what if the difference between a jazz weekend and a jazz festival is commerce? The BSO has to make money after all, and if jazz can’t pay it’s own way then maybe it just shouldn’t be on the menu at Tanglewood.

And in exchange for the commercialization of Tanglewood’s jazz weekend we got an expanded lineup of performances and a lot more visibility in the greater region, as for the first time in memory the crowd included out-of-town press and music industry types who are undoubtedly now hatching big plans to drag Tanglewood kicking and screaming out of the 19th and into the 21st century.

The commercialization of Tanglewood jazz extended to the programming, with commercial pop-jazz artists Chuck Mangione and George Benson, those avatars of the “smooth jazz” radio format, bookending the festival.

Not that Tanglewood jazz has ever been cutting edge nor immune to the bottom line. Somewhere in the not-so-distant past Kenny G played the Shed, and Tony Bennett and Dave Brubeck don’t get invited back almost every year for sentimental reasons – they pack the place.

And this past weekend included its share of exciting, improvisational music, even if two-thirds of it came from a couple of vintage beboppers.

The ever-dependable Sonny Rollins grabbed the stage at Ozawa Hall on Sunday afternoon and didn’t let go through his set of ballads and burners. He sang through his tenor saxophone on Duke Ellington’s “In My Solitude,” the sheer beauty of his playing, the lushness of his rich tone, the soft notes that defied their origin in vibrating metal just pouring out of his instrument. The swing-dance bandstand and jump-blues weren’t far away from his version of Jerome Kern’s “Why Was I Born,” and his long, trademark single-note lines became sweeping blurs of sound on his own “Global Warming.”

Despite an insistent buzz in the low-end of the p.a. system in the Shed, Ahmad Jamal and his trio delivered a fiery set of the pianist/composer’s idiosyncratic bebop on Saturday night. Jamal’s dynamic keyboard attack is always apt at Tanglewood, as it draws as much from Rachmaninoff as from Bud Powell. On “Should I,” he ran triplets up the keyboard with his right hand and answered them with left-hand crashes. On “Acorn,” bassist James Cammack and drummer James Johnson laid down a groove atop which Jamal drew lines with notes, chords and pure accents. His “Poinciana” was powered by a jaunty bass strut, and the delicate melody in the right hand contrasted with left-hand thunder.

Sunday night’s set by Nicholas Payton and the Louis Armstrong Centennial Celebration Band also had its choice offerings. The band set Armstrong classics like “Potato Head Blues,” “Tiger Rag” and “Hello, Dolly” in modernist arrangements that wisely did not attempt to recreate Armstrong’s sound but rather his melodic vision. Thus, “Saint James Infirmary” opened with a slow, a capella bass solo, greeted by a double-time blast from the eight-member horn section, followed by a triple-time saxophone solo.

Unfortunately, Payton’s entire set was marred by a terrible house sound mix. Much of the time the soloists could not be heard, and the piano was miked in such a way that it sounded like a listener’s head was inside the piano and listening to the rest of the band from there. Needless to say that wasn’t a pleasant place to be, and even a veteran of many loud rock concerts had to reach for the earplugs for the remainder of this set.

Fortunately, the sound crew fixed whatever ailed the piano in time for Poncho Sanchez’s set of Afro-Cuban jazz. Sanchez and his octet laid down the basic grammar of salsa before exploring works by Thelonious Monk and Wayne Shorter through a Latin tinge. By the end of their set the Shed was transformed into a giant Buena Vista Social Club, the aisles filled with dancers in spite of the best efforts of the ushers to suppress the urge.

Singer-guitarist John Pizzarelli was entertaining as always on Saturday afternoon in Ozawa Hall. He is a charming, talented, witty frontman – the Steve Martin of retro-swing – and his selection of standards by the Gershwins, Irving Berlin, Dave Frishberg and others achieved their intended effect – to reassure the audience that the so-called Great American Songbook is not in danger of being forgotten.

Singer Jane Monheit is blessed with abundant natural talent, but all her set proved is that the music business is run by folks who will rush anyone onto a stage if they think it will make them a few extra bucks. The 23-year-old singer’s two albums have reigned at the top of the jazz charts for the year or so, but Monheit was ill at ease on stage and her overwrought interpretations of songs including “They Can’t Take that Away From Me,” “Never Let Me Go” and “Over the Rainbow” suggested the influence of too much Barbra Streisand by way of Mariah Carey and not enough Sarah Vaughan.

Saturday night’s concert was opened by veteran electric quintet Spyro Gyra, a band of slick, soul-less studio musicians who play catchy, instrumental, r&b-flavored pop music that gets pawned off as a jazz-rock fusion. Enough said.

The all-female big-band Diva, led by drummer Sherrie Maricle, warmed up the audience for Nancy Wilson with three tunes, including Juan Tizol’s “Caravan,” featuring a sharp trumpet solo by Barbara LaRonga. Wilson herself used the occasion of playing with Diva to flaunt her sassiness, and her version of “Satin Doll” was well suited to her big voice, with its elastic pitch shifts and gospel melismas. Her version of Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me” was less successful, as much because it betrayed the song’s lack of melodic content as anything.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on September 4, 2001. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2001. All rights reserved.]

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