A blue afternoon at Tanglewood Jazz
by Seth Rogovoy

(LENOX, Mass., September 1, 2003) – It was a blue afternoon at Tanglewood Jazz Festival on Sunday, with Donal Fox’s “Inventions in Blue” tribute to the Modern Jazz Quartet followed by a full-fledged festival of the blues featuring four different acts.

Like the Modern Jazz Quartet before him, Fox, a pianist and composer like MJQ leader John Lewis, sought ways to connect classical music and jazz. With his able quartet mirroring the instrumentation of the MJQ – with vibraphonist Stefon Harris, bassist John Lockwood and drummer Yoron Israel – Fox succeeded to various effects. “Blues on Handel” was lively, with Fox and Harris seeming to work out equations with mathematical precision, as if to say, this plus this equals this. Israel added delicate but energetic drumming propelled by Lockwood’s running bass, and the piece built to a speedy crescendo just this side of electronic dance beats before the tempo was divided in half to become a bluesy, walking strut.

Other highlights of Fox’s set in the Tanglewood Theatre included “Variations on Bach’s Fugue in B-flat, No. 21.” Bach’s theme was played straight through once before Fox turned the fugue into a bass riff for left hand. Israel added a fast pulse underneath, and Harris played a blues variation of Fox’s bass pattern, which Fox then echoed in his right hand. The piece wound up exploding into a full-fledged blues jam, truly fulfilling the MJQ’s credo, “from Bach to blues.”

Fox called Bach “the original bluesman” by way of introducing his version of “Air on a G String,” to which Lockwood applied popping, syncopated beats atop which Fox swung the melody. Their set also included a version of John Lewis’s “Django,” and another Bach variation called “Italian Concerto Blues.”

The afternoon’s blues festival in Ozawa Hall proved to be a sprawling affair that went on for well over three hours. Nicole Nelson was probably the crowd favorite, and for good reason – it’s hard to find a 20-something singer these days who grooves to the likes of Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner, both of whom Nelson evoked, rather than Mariah Carey and Ashanti. Fronting a six-piece band from Boston, Nelson gave herself, her band and the audience an old-fashioned R&B workout on songs by Bessie Smith, Etta James, Wilson Pickett and several originals.

Nelson boasted a huge, soulful voice and plenty of star quality. She knew how to hold back and slowly build up a head of steam, as she did on the jazzier, Anita Baker-like “Just Like Me Go,” but she also knew how to pull all stops on the intense soul balladry of James’s “I’d Rather Go Blind.” The band, which included guitar, bass, keyboard, saxophone, drums and percussion, favored funky, Southern soul arrangements, and they were competently delivered, if somewhat lacking in the extra pop or drive that separates a journeyman funk outfit from a Booker T. and the MGs or a Funk Brothers. But keep an eye on Nelson (who comes to Club Helsinki in Great Barrington on September 20) – she is definitely going places.

Singer-guitarist Louisiana Red opened the blues festival with a set of his down and dirty, Delta-style blues on solo electric guitar, accompanied on some numbers by pianist David Maxwell. Red’s hard-edged playing matched the poignancy of his material, and the heavy distortion of his electric guitar on “Freight Train Blues” mirrored the shredded cry of his vocals.

The Duke Robillard Band sensitively backed singer/pianist legend Jay McShann, whose age is variously reported upwards of 93 or 94. The living legend still sings and plays with passion and commitment, although his light touch on the piano keyboard was overcompensated for by amplification on the edge of feedback. But the music McShann and Robillard played connected blues to jazz; it was the transitional music with one foot in the Delta and the other on the bandstand, the music that Count Basie and his ilk would take and turn into the dance soundtrack of the swing years.

Kendrick Oliver and the New Life Jazz Orchestra were scheduled to bring the curtain down on the sprawling afternoon-into-evening of blues, but after five hours of music and a prior commitment to hear more music elsewhere, this critic took his leave before they took the stage.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on September 2, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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