Smooth jazz doesn’t go down so easily at Berkshire Jazz Festival [an error occurred while processing this directive]
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., August 26, 2002) – After getting off to a cool, cloudy and somewhat wet beginning on Saturday, Sunday was a picture-perfect day for the smooth, mellow sounds of the second annual Berkshire Jazz Festival at Butternut Basin. The music was as easy as the weather, and neither challenged listeners much on a lazy, late-summer afternoon.

In a five-hour stretch including four main stage performances, the most sophisticated things got was the stripped-down, straight-ahead sounds of the Hank Jones Trio. With bassist Peter Washington and drummer Dennis McKrell, pianist Jones offered a solid, stately set of standards, ballads and blues, including a light, breezy romp through “Stella By Starlight” and a deft version of Mary Lou Williams’s “Lonely Moments,” the latter built on a playful, noirish figure in the left hand alternating with a sprightly dance in the right hand.

Jones also offered a taste of Charlie Parker’s “Scrapple from the Apple,” featuring each of his players in solos of delicate economy. The ballad “A Child Is Born,” by his brother, Thad Jones, was a colorful picture supported by the delicate lattice-like frame of McKrell’s brushwork, and Thelonious Monk’s “Rhythm-A-Ning” featured an eloquent solo by McKrell that captured the same bouncy, stride feel with which Jones kicked off the piece.

In contrast to Jones’s minimalism, Dave Samuels’s sextet, Caribbean Jazz Project, went for a multi-layered approach. Emphasizing the Latin side of jazz, the group played a mix of classics, including Monk’s “Bemsha Swing” and Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia,” with its own compositions.

The musicians and listeners, however, had to do battle with an inconsistent sound mix. Sometimes Samuels’s vibes and Dave Valentin’s flute were grossly distorted, and drummer Dafnis Prieto sounded like he was playing in another room (as did most of the drummers on the main stage during the afternoon). On one Cuban jazz number, when the band laid out and Samuels played solo, there was a moment of glistening beauty ringing out from his vibes.

Vocalist Kevin Mahogany boasts a rich voice and an enormous range, well suited to bluesier numbers like “Muddy Water” and “Pride and Joy,” less successful on some of the quieter ballads he sang, like “My Romance” and “Everything I Have Is Yours.” In its stripped-down blues arrangement, one could easily not have recognized “Pride and Joy” as a Marvin Gaye song; likewise for “Just My Imagination,” delivered as a slow, delicate ballad for just voice and piano in a style that bore no resemblance to the original version by the Temptations. One had to wonder what the point was in taking these songs, which as written aren’t masterpieces by any stretch, and removing them from their classic Motown settings, thus denuding them of their primary impact.

While the main stage was being changed over for Chuck Mangione, the Music of Nana ensemble performed its world-beat fusion of Greek, Indian and other influences in the upper lodge. Nana Simopoulos brought a singer-songwriter’s sensibility to her original songs, sung in Yoruba, English and Hindi, and her percussion-heavy quartet of musicians also provided harmony vocals.

Chuck Mangione likes his enormous 1978 pop hit “Feels So Good” so much he named his band after it, he recycled a few key notes of it into his TV theme, “Peggy Hill,” and he talked about it repeatedly during his set of “lite” jazz – really just instrumental pop music masquerading as something more. He offered a mannered version of “Land of Make Believe” in which missed notes were meant to suggest that he hears microtones. He offered an utterly uninspired version of “Amazing Grace,” and engaged the audience in a pointless call and response scat-singing exercise that he ended with an off-color remark mocking the audience’s sheep-like behavior.

“Bellavia” – which he let us know won a Grammy Award (he also told us on which album we could find each selection he played) – had even less melodic content than “Feels So Good.” Mangione’s pallid, easy-listening music was the nadir of the day and probably of the entire festival. But it probably accomplished the task for which it was engaged – to boost sales. In that, it served the same function as the TV programs for which his music seems perfectly pitched.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on August 28, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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