Lite jazz for novices and fans alike [an error occurred while processing this directive]
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., August 23, 2002) – The concept behind this weekend’s second annual Berkshire Jazz Festival at Butternut Basin is pretty basic. “The idea is that this is an opportunity for aficionados and novices alike to be exposed to America’s premiere cultural art form in one place at one time, and to avail themselves of established and emerging artists in an unparalleled setting, enhanced by food and arts and crafts,” said festival promoter Mark Morganelli in a recent interview.

“Basically the idea is to offer kind of a wide variety -- not the widest of varieties -- but a wide variety of music under the category of jazz,” said Morganelli, who is himself a horn player and the director of JazzForumArts, the non-profit organization that sponsors Berkshire Jazz and many other jazz concerts and festivals throughout New England and the Northeast.

Indeed, this year’s festival – which runs Saturday and Sunday from noon to 8 -- will offer a variety of performers, from big-name “lite-jazz” artists like Chuck Mangione and Spyro Gyra to the Latin-influenced Caribbean Jazz Project, from the straight-ahead bebop of saxophonist David “Fathead” Newman and pianist Hank Jones to the big-band swing of Bob Mintzer and Maynard Ferguson. Also featured on the main stage are jazz/r&b vocalist Kevin Mahogany and pianist/songwriter Mose Allison.

The festival also includes a showcase stage featuring up-and-coming artists including vibraphonists Matthias Lupri and Damon Grant, pianist Sai Ghose, sitarist Nana Simopoulos and vocalists Kate McGarry and Monika Oliveira. Jam sessions, workshops, demonstrations and master classes complete the musical portion of the festival, which as Morganelli indicated, also includes a variety of food and crafts vendors.

The festival actually kicks off officially tonight, when Morganelli leads his own group, the Jazz Forum All-Stars, at a free concert at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge at 6. On Friday night, area nightclubs throughout South County are featuring jazz performances in tandem with the weekend’s theme.

Among the selling points of this weekend’s festival is price. The top ticket, a weekend pass for adults, goes for $60, entitling the ticketholder to all the music at Butternut on Saturday and Sunday. The same $60 gets one a really good seat at just one of next weekend’s six, separately-ticketed concerts at the Tanglewood Jazz Festival.

For more information and tickets, call 914-631-1000.

Morganelli’s festival provides an “opportunity to turn on lots of people to the music, and people who are already turned on to it will feel it’s a real bargain,” said the promoter, who spent four years working behind the scenes at the famed Newport Jazz Festival, picking up ideas and concepts that he has incorporated into the Berkshire Jazz Festival and other JazzForumArts events.

Last summer’s festival, the first at Butternut, was a bumpy beginning. A few artists didn’t arrive in time for their sets, and the crowd was a lot thinner than Morganelli had hoped or planned for.

“It’s very difficult and challenging to establish a new arts institution or arts offering in the Berkshires, because there’s already such a wealth of culture and arts going on in the summertime,” said Morganelli. “You can only go to so many things. I was very optimistic going in, and then I had a slap of reality. We had three thousand people, but I needed to double that.”

Morganelli has adapted this year’s festival to take into account some of the lessons learned from last year’s debut. “We’ve expanded on the food and craft vendor piece, and the marketing piece. This year we’ve been able to get the word out more across the Northeast. I’ve done a huge amount on the Internet, and more with newspapers and radio and direct mail.”

In addition, Morganelli is allowing more time for changes on stage between performers, giving audiences a break and a chance to check out the showcase stages and the club-house workshops. Also, showcase performers will each perform two sets a day.

As for the performers themselves, Morganelli said, “I’m a straight-ahead guy as far as my taste in jazz. I look for people who are uncompromising about their art.”

Morganelli admits that Chuck Mangione, one of the most commercially successful pop-jazz artists of all time, isn’t the first name people think of when trying to come up with “people who are uncompromising about their art.”

But Morganelli defends Mangione. “I have met so many people who got turned on to jazz through Chuck, and then found out about Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie,” he said. “And he continues to create on a very high level, as well as having some of the ‘Louis Armstrong entertainment quotient.’

“I like musicians who are creative and groups that are listening to each other and communicating with each other and the audience. Jazz is an international language.”

Here is a selected look at some of the artists scheduled to perform at the Berkshire Jazz Festival:

Chuck Mangione (Sunday, 4:30): In an Eagle interview last summer before his appearance at the Tanglewood Jazz Festival, Mangione said, “I think a lot of people, when ‘Feels So Good’ happened, said ‘You sold out’. Yeah, we sold out. We sold out the Hollywood Bowl and venues all over, right.” The upstate New York native actually had an early exposure to jazz greats like Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Gerry Mulligan and Horace Silver, in concert and at his dining room table, where the musicians would hang out with his musician father when they were passing through Rochester, N.Y.

Kevin Mahogany (Sunday, 3): Following up albums of love songs and the music of Charles Mingus, Kevin Mahogany’s latest recording is a bit of a left turn. “Pride and Joy” (Telarc Jazz) finds the Kansas City baritone focusing his jazz technique on 11 classic Motown numbers, including Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” the Temptations’ “Reach Out, I’ll Be There,” Smokey Robinson’s “Tears of a Clown,” Gladys Knight’s “Neither One of Us” and the Jackson Five’s “Never Can Say Goodbye.” Mahogany doesn’t perform them r&b style, however -- instead he approaches them as the pop standards they have become and finds the jazz songs hiding within them.

Nana (Sunday, 1 and 4): On her CD, “Daughters of the Sun” (Na), sitarist/vocalist Nana Simopoulos plays an original fusion of Indian, Greek, Middle Eastern and Australian influences, not by forcing them together until they fit but rather by finding common ground in the modes and sonorities of the different styles. Bouzouki, tampura, flutes, dulcimer, violin, cello, didgeridoo and percussion instruments speak a common language in Nana’s world-beat fusion. The composer/performer, who sings in Greek, Yoruba, Hindi and English, will be accompanied by Dawn Avery on cello and vocals, Chet Soares on tablas and Caryn Heilman, a former Paul Taylor dancer, on vocals and percussion.

Caribbean Jazz Project (Sunday, noon): Spyro Gyra vibraphonist Dave Samuels co-founded the Caribbean Jazz Project about a decade ago to further explore the Latin rhythms and styles he played with his former group (which performs on Saturday at 4:30). On “The Gathering” (Concord Picante), the group’s latest recording, Samuels, along with flutist Dave Valentin, pianist Dario Eskenazi, bassist Ruben Rodriguez and drummer Dafnis Prieto, balance new compositions with Latin-inflected versions of songs by Oliver Nelson and Thelonious Monk, performing the latter’s “Bemsha Swing” as a mambo.

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on August 22, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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