Making jazz classic at Tanglewood
by Seth Rogovoy
(LENOX, Mass., August 28, 2003) – There is always something a little forced about jazz at Tanglewood. The regal summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra rightly lives and breathes classical music – it is its very raison d’etre, and no attempt to broaden its base by presenting so-called popular artists, like Jethro Tull and Mary Wilson, or crossover programming, like John Pizzarelli and the Boston Pops, is going to change that. The buildings, the stages, the landscaping, all breathe Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, no matter how many times Bennett and Brubeck perform there.
Still, Tanglewood valiantly presents its Labor Day weekend jazz festival every year, and recently, since the programming was turned over to Boston jazz impresario Fred Taylor and his dynamic crew, the event has been infused with new energy and vitality. While there have been a few missteps along the way, for the most part these have been well-curated affairs offering a broad sweep of instrumentalists and singers in a variety of styles, perhaps none as eclectic and far-ranging as this year’s lineup, which ranges from the Latin jazz of Gato Barbieri, Michel Camilo and Kenny Barron’s Canta Brazil to a star-studded miniature blues festival, a tribute to the innovations of the Modern Jazz Quartet, and appearances by two of the most popular jazz-pop vocalists in the world – Norah Jones and Natalie Cole.
All this plus Cassandra Wilson, perhaps the premiere contemporary jazz vocalist (replacing Shirley Horn, who was originally scheduled to perform on Saturday night but who had to cancel due to illness), and the two people perhaps single-handedly most responsible for the perpetuation and popularity of jazz throughout the world – Marian McPartland and Wynton Marsalis.
It will be a piano lover’s festival in particular, with two of jazz’s hottest young pianists, Michel Camilo and Hiromi, on the bill, as well as McPartland, Jones, and Donal Fox, leading Inventions in Blue, his MJQ tribute.
Fox’s program, which takes place on Sunday at 1 in the Tanglewood Theatre, is in some ways the missing link between what goes on at Tanglewood all summer long and what takes place this weekend. Much as John Lewis and the Modern Jazz Quartet attempted to reconcile the music of Bach and the blues – which they did for many a summer right down the road from Tanglewood at the Music Inn during the 1950s -- so does Donal Fox explore the affinities between classical music and jazz.
Like Lewis, Fox is well-versed in both jazz and classical, epitomized by his dual education at the New England Conservatory and Berklee College. A 1997 recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship in music composition, he has conducted and performed his compositions with many leading contemporary music ensembles.
In a recent interview from his home in Boston, Fox said it’s not a simple thing to mix jazz and classical music.
“The danger is that unless you really do live and breathe and absorb both styles, how can you put them together,” he said. “You just can’t start sticking certain flavors together. You have to mix them. The Cubans are great because they really absorb all the music they hear and spit it out in their own way. They’ve got the Afro-Cuban and the jazz and the strong classical background.”
Fox said combining jazz and classical came naturally for him as an outgrowth of what he heard as a child.
“The two records I heard the most as a kid at home were the Stravinsky ballets and the ‘Birth of the Cool’ by Miles Davis,” he said. “So early on I didn’t see a dividing line. It was all just music I liked. I never thought I had to choose between the two. In a way, I’ve been trying to keep them both going to this day in my playing and in my studies.”
Part of Fox’s studies as a teen-ager were as a Tanglewood fellow with Gunther Schuller, who was instrumental in pioneering a “third stream” of music that would combine jazz and classical, and who also influenced John Lewis. Later on, Fox would return to Tanglewood when a composition of his was featured in the annual Contemporary Music Festival.
With Inventions in Blue, his quartet featuring Stefon Harris on vibraphone, Yoron Israel on drums and John Lockwood on double bass, Fox says he “takes work by Scarlatti, Bach, Handel and jazz it up, Latin it up, blues it up.
“When people come to hear the music, what I’m most excited about is we’re in a global society and people have more access to music than anyone before. In my audience I have classical and jazz fans and people new to it all.”
The 2003 Tanglewood Jazz Festival kicks off on Friday night and runs through Sunday night. Concerts take place throughout the grounds, and covered, reserved seating is available as well as outdoor lawn access. Tickets are available at the Tanglewood box office, online at www.bso.org, and through the Boston Symphony at 888-266-1200 or Ticketmaster.
Gato Barbieri (Friday, Ozawa Hall, 8): After an early flirtation with the avant-garde, Argentine saxophonist Gato Barbieri carved his niche playing Latin-jazz fusion. His soundtrack to Bernardo Bertolucci’s controversial 1972 film, “Last Tango in Paris,” made him an international star. Barbieri’s newest CD, “The Shadow of the Cat,” harkens back to his pop-jazz style of the 1970s, reuniting him with trumpeter Herb Alpert.
Michel Camilo (Friday, Ozawa Hall, 8): A native of the Dominican Republic, Camilo is a classically-trained pianist who became a member of the National Symphony Orchestra at age 16. One of his earliest jazz compositions, “Why Not,” was recorded by Paquito D’Rivera and the Manhattan Transfer, who won a Grammy Award for their vocal version of the tune. With one foot in the classical world – he conducted the National Symphony in 1987 – and the other in jazz – his albums are perennial chart-toppers in reader’s polls of Latin jazz efforts -- Camilo, who was recently appointed the Herb Alpert Visiting Professor at Berklee College in Boston, stays busy. “Live at the Blue Note” (Telarc Jazz), his first live album, a two-CD set with bassist Charles Flores and drummer Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez,” came out earlier this week, and includes an amusing version of the tune “Tequila,” made famous by the Champs.
Marian McPartland and Norah Jones (Saturday, Ozawa Hall, 3): Only someone who has been hibernating for the last half-year needs to be introduced to Norah Jones, the surprise hit of last February’s Grammy Awards and an even bigger surprise as a pop sensation. Jones’s understated debut album, featuring jazzy arrangements of quiet country songs and urban-folk originals, has sold seven million copies, catapulting the shy Texan to superstar status and making her almost as well known as her mostly-absent father, Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar. For the second summer in a row, Tanglewood will host a live recording of Marian McPartland’s public radio program, “Piano Jazz,” and Jones, who is a pretty good jazz pianist, will be her guest.
Cassandra Wilson (Saturday, Ozawa Hall, 8): Long before Norah Jones began singing quiet, jazzy versions of Hank Williams songs, Cassandra Wilson was bending the rules of jazz repertoire by doing precisely the same thing – applying the tools of a Betty Carter to the folk, blues and singer-songwriter world, stretching out songs by Robert Johnson, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, U2 and the like in luscious, folk-jazz arrangements that brought Africa to Brooklyn.
Kendrick Oliver and the New Life Jazz Orchestra (Sunday, Ozawa Hall, 3): Modeled after Count Basie’s band, this youthful, Boston-based group throws itself into a selection of a dozen big-band standards and originals on its recent live album, “Welcome to New Life” (Sphere). The players blast their way through the program with equal parts New Orleans funk and Kansas City swing, dipping into spirituals and gospels like “Wade in the Water,” “God Bless the Child” and “Joshua Fit the Battle” with verve and gusto.
Jay McShann (Sunday, Ozawa Hall, 3): Having witnessed first-hand the birth of both jazz and blues as we know it, singer/pianist Jay McShann – whose age is variously reported as 87 and 94 -- straddles the two styles as few can. He began his professional career as a boogie-woogie stylist in 1931, playing with saxophonist/bandleader Don Byas. He studied at the Tuskegee Institute, one of the leading black educational institutions in the U.S., and performed around Arkansas and Tulsa from 1935 to 1936. Along the way, he gave Charlie Parker one of his earliest gigs – their recording of “Hootie Blues,” named after the bandleader, was the first recording to capture the genius of the young Bird -- and his orchestra boasted vocalist Jimmy Witherspoon in the 1940s. On Sunday, McShann will perform with the Duke Robillard Band.
Louisiana Red (Sunday, Ozawa Hall, 3): Born Iverson Minter in the early 1930s in Vicksburg, Miss., Louisiana Red is a distinctive blues singer, guitar stylist and harmonica player. The W.C. Handy Award-winner played with John Lee Hooker in the 1950s, during which time he recorded for Chess Records, the label of Muddy Waters and other blues figures. He gained some recognition during the folk-blues revival of the 1960s. Since the 1980s, he has lived in Germany, frequently returning to the U.S. to play at blues festivals such as this one.
Natalie Cole (Sunday, Shed, 8): The daughter of the legendary Nat “King” Cole has followed in her father’s footsteps in many ways, forging a career straddling the pop and jazz divide, but pretty much throwing in her lot with her father on her 1991 smash hit album, “Unforgettable: With Love,” on which she duetted with her late father through the miracle of modern recording technology.
Wynton Marsalis (Sunday, Shed, 8): As hard as it is to believe, Wynton Marsalis found himself without a recording contract about a year ago when his deal with Columbia Records lapsed. It didn’t take long, however, for the legendary jazz label Blue Note to snatch up Marsalis, perhaps the most recognized jazz artist in the world, the winner of nine Grammy Awards and the only jazz musician to have won a Pulitzer Prize for music. Marsalis will be appearing at Tanglewood with his septet.
Hiromi (Sunday, Shed, 8): Listeners would do themselves an injustice to overlook the 24-year-old wunderkind Hiromi, whose dazzling debut album, “Another Mind” (Telarc Jazz), spans traditional jazz, fusion, funk, avant-garde and classical. The Japanese native attended Berklee in Boston, during which time she met Ahmad Jamal, who produced her dazzling, energetic album, featuring dizzying, playful trio work with bassist Mitch Cohn and drummer Dave DiCenso, who will be on hand when Hiromi – who should appeal equally to fans of McPartland and Medeski, Schumann and Scofield -- opens the final program of the festival on Sunday night. Don’t arrive late!
[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on August 28, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]
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