Jazz jams at BerkFest
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., August 8, 2002) -- Quiz time. Which Berkshire summer festival of improvisational music – Tanglewood Jazz, Berkshire Jazz, or BerkFest -- has the most acts in common with those playing at this weekend’s Newport (R.I.) Jazz Festival, the granddaddy of them all?

If you answered BerkFest, you’re right. If Newport is the benchmark for what’s happening in the jazz moment, then it is this weekend’s Berkshire Mountain Music Festival, as it is officially known, and not Tanglewood or Berkshire Jazz, where you can hear the cutting-edge of jazz with Newport artists including Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, and Bullfrog featuring Kid Koala.

BerkFest is also the place to be if you want to hear leading artists recording for legendary jazz labels like Blue Note, including Soulive and Medeski, Martin and Wood, and Verve, for which John Scofield records, all of whom will be at BerkFest this weekend.

As it turns out, BerkFest – one of the nation’s top jam-band festivals – contains within it a vast universe of music, especially jazz. In addition to the aforementioned jazz artists, BerkFest features Knitting Factory Works recording artists Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, Gypsy jazz guitarist Stephane Wrembel, former Lester Bowie vocalist Dean Bowman (of Screaming Headless Torsos), and guitar trio The Slip, veterans of Newport and other jazz stages.

BerkFest also includes world-music artists such as Afro-Brazilian pop singer Angelique Kidjo, Latin-rockers Ozomatli, world-jazz group the Motet, world-beat percussionist Tony Vacca and tabla player Karsh Kale. Electronic groups like Particle, Sound Tribe Sector 9, the New Deal, Moonraker and Al.One, featuring Al Schnier of the band Moe. Hip-hop and r&b artists like Robert Randolph, Shockra and Michael Franti and Spearhead. And folk-groove artists such as Reid Genauer, Reed Foehl and Railroad Earth, who were heard on the main stage at the nearby Falcon Ridge Folk Festival just two weeks ago. The Berkshire’s own soul-rock singer-songwriter, Robby Baier, is also on the bill.

In fact, old-fashioned, neo-hippie jam-rock bands in the vein of the Grateful Dead might just be in the minority at this year’s BerkFest, which is shaping up to be the most eclectic in the five-year history of the festival, produced by Boston-based Gamelan Productions in partnership with San Francisco-based High Sierra Music.

It shouldn’t be too surprising that jazz would gain a foothold at BerkFest. Jam-rock, after all, is built on a fusion of rock music and jazz’s improvisational tendencies. Some jam-bands are comprised of musicians with jazz aspirations or actual jazz backgrounds. or at the very least, musicians with the desire to explore improvisational techniques borrowed from jazz.

But ever since Miles Davis first attempted a fusion of jazz with funk-based rock music in the early-1970s, it’s been hard to say just where the jazz ends and the rock begins.

“I think a lot of people don’t want to use the fusion word, but basically it’s jazz-rock, playing with improvised music, with jazz elements and funk and all that stuff,” said guitarist John Scofield, who played guitar for Miles Davis, in a recent interview.

“Fusion was dead for awhile and now there’s a big resurgence,” said Scofield, who in recent years has been championed as one of the “godfathers of groove” for his genre-bending jazz-rock efforts, including his recent “Uberjam” album, which features guest musicians John Medeski and Karl Denson.

Scofield says that if Miles Davis were still around, he’d be part of the new groove scene.

“I think he’d probably be recognized for what he is, the founding father of the whole thing,” he said. “There’s jam bands, the Grateful Dead and all that, but as far as this kind of music -- of taking the jazz concept and applying it to funk -- who did that more than Miles Davis?

“Nobody wanted to play funk and nobody was more of a jazz musician than Miles Davis. The guy did it. I think he would be doing it today.”

Scofield admits that not all jam-bands deserve to be grouped in with jazz bands under the rubric of “fusion.”

“There are some jam bands that maybe aren’t good as jazz musicians,” he said. “When you really know jazz music you get to appreciate the level of improvisation, and that may not be there in some jam bands. I guess they’re not jazz musicians.

“But the cool thing is that some of these jam-band fans will hear Coltrane someday. I’m not an aficionado of the Grateful Dead, but I was listening in a hippie coffee shop recently and they were playing the Grateful Dead, and they came upon this solo section and they were really going for it. Jerry Garcia was really going for some great stuff. I don’t know if he got there, but they were going for it. That spirit of trying to make some special stuff happen was there. That’s what’s exciting to me.

“It’s really a communal thing. It’s about the audience and the band being in this thing together. I love it when people dance and we play and people are grooving like that. It’s just a wonderful thing.”

Gates will open at 8 a.m. tomorrow for the three-day event, which includes music at six different locations around the grounds, on-site camping, late-night raves, workshops, community-awareness forums, and food and crafts vendors. In all, more than 60 artists will perform over 100 hours of live music over the course of the weekend.

Once again, all parking for the festival will be off-site. Patrons will be directed to the two parking lots depending on from which direction they arrive in town. Box offices will be available at both off-site lots, as will shuttle buses to transport campers and their gear to the festival site. Note: patrons must purchase or pick up tickets at the off-site box offices – there is no box office or will-call window at Butternut. For more information and tickets, call 866-266-3378 or visit

A few bands to watch for:

Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra: Formed in 1998 by saxophonist Martin Perna, this 15-member Brooklyn-based ensemble whose name means bulletproof plays a deep-groove fusion of Afrobeat, Latin and jazz. The group’s trademark sound is r&b-style horns over a funk pulse. Think a big band playing a repertoire that’s equal parts Fela Kuti and James Brown.

Particle: This California-based quartet plays self-described “space porn,” a blend of high-octane funk and electronica. Hi-tech computer blips manufactured by keyboardist Steve Molitz explode over a vintage bed of soul-disco laid down by guitarist Charlie Hitchcock, bassist Eric Gould and drummer Darren Pujalet. It’s music with a groove that works equally well on the dance floor or in the chill-out room.

Ozomatli: The Los Angeles-based multicultural nonet plays the sort of Latin-based groove-rock that Los Lobos has been edging into in the past few years. On their great album, “Embrace the Chaos” (Almo) – co-produced by Steve Berlin of Los Lobos and featuring guest musicians including David Hidalgo and De La Soul – the horn-heavy ensemble leavens the mix with Cuban rhythms, rap, and its unique style of punk-salsa.

Angelique Kidjo: On her latest album, “Black Ivory Soul” (Columbia), Kidjo explores the musical kinship between Africa and Brazil, specifically her Benin homeland and the city of Bahia. Her musical range extends to a duet with rocker Dave Matthews, a cover of a Gilberto Gil number and a ballad by renowned French songwriter Serge Gainsbourg. She sings in French, English and her native language, Fon, in an international-pop style that needs no translation.

Garaj Mahal: It’s like fusion never stopped when you hear the jazz-rock jams laid down by the stellar quartet of bassist Kai Eckhardt (John McLaughlin, Al DiMeola, Bill Evans), guitarist Fareed Haque (Sting, Ron Carter, Tony Williams), drummer Alan Hertz (Steve Kimock, Bobby Vega) and keyboardist Eric Levy (Tito Puente, Bob Mintzer). On “Live at the Rainbow,” they rock hard through “Bajo,” and explore Eastern modalities on “Hindi Gumbo.” A surprise awaits around every corner.

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on August 8, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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