Thursday, August 18, 2011

2011 Caramoor Jazz Festival: Powerhouse "James Farm" in Top Form

 Just a stone's throw form the streaming hustle of the North-South corridor known as Interstate 684, off exit 6 in the hamlet of Katonah, New York, lies the beautiful Rosen Estate, home of the Caramoor, a music and performing arts center. Caramoor was so named after a previous owner Caroline Moore Hoyt. But it was  Walter and Lucie Rosen, who because of their love of music, became  patrons of the musical arts and fostered performances in this most conducive of settings. They appointed this gorgeous bucolic 90 acre estate for the expressed purpose of enjoying music. In 1958 the Rosen's opened the Venetian theater, a tented 1600 seat outdoor stage, to the public. Each season the venue presents some of the most  exciting and culturally diverse musical performances offered anywhere. Part of the charm of this magical place is the manicured Italianate gardens, a stroll through which transforms you to another place, with its bursting flora and manicured walkways. The overall atmosphere is sublime.

The Garden's at Caramoor
While Caramoor is known for its International series of music performances, featuring some of the world's greatest artist in the field of classical music, the weekend of August 5th through 7th was dedicated to jazz. Despite competing jazz festivals at both Litchfield and Newport occurring on the same weekend, one couldn't ask for a more exciting and contemporary selection of musical performers to choose from.

Friday night featured the vibrant, Canadian born pianist Renee (pronounced Ree Nee) Rosnes in the Spanish Courtyard with her own seasoned quartet of Steve Nelson on vibes, Victor Lewis on drums and Peter Washington on bass. Rosnes has played with a myriad of veteran players including trombonist J.J. Johnson, vibes master Bobby Hutcherson, Joe Henderson and Wayne Shorter to name a few.

I was fortunate enough to attend the Saturday night show which featured an eclectic group of performers. Producer Jim Luce should be applauded for bringing together a gumbo of musical tastes. This approach serves to open audiences to the myriad of possibilities within the broad jazz  genre. He wisely chose to keep the program diverse without succumbing to the temptation of including artists better known in the areas of pop or rock music. Recently the inclusion of these types of artists on "so-called" jazz venues, has been used by other promoters as a vehicle to sell more tickets at the expense of diluting what one would come to expect from a true jazz festival.

The days activities started out at 3:00pm with the Cuban troubadour and guitar player Juan-Carlos Formell. The group consisted of Formell on guitar and vocals, Lewis Kahn on trombone, Ricky Rodriguez on bass, Manuel Valera on piano and a percussionist whose name I didn't catch. They presented a comfortable Latin inspired set of mostly Formell compositions. The singer/guitarist has an appealing stage presence and his music offers a gentle, authethically Latin/island sway to it that is infectious. Formell and company played with relish  and managed to nicely warm up the late arriving crowd with their musicality and joyous congeniality.
Saxophonist Joshua Redman of James Farm    

The crowd grew in size as the expectation for the next group started to be felt in the air like the electricity that raises the hair on your skin  before a major storm. James Farm is a group of extremely talented musicians whose recent self-titled album is a tour de force. The group is comprised of Joshua Redman on tenor, Aaron Parks on piano, Matt Penman on Bass and the ubiquitous Eric Harland on drums. With such extraordinary musicianship it is little wonder that these guys create compelling music.  While some groups seem to star one particular player, James Farm has taken a collective approach that works wonderfully. Each musician is both virtuoso and  composer in his own right and they have subdued their own egos for the betterment of the musical message to great success.

The set started with the Penman's composition "1981"  A rhythmic piece that features a lyrical Parks on piano and Redman's  silky tenor. Penman's bass lines drive the piece as Harland demonstrates he is as creative a percussionist as you will see anywhere. They moved into Redman's more jagged composition   "If by Air" . Watching Redman on stage you get the felling he absorbs the pulse of the music into his musculature. His lean and elastic body projects a wave of energy that emits from his horn in total mind/body communion. When he solos it is like he is excorcising his thoughts. 

James Farm's Aaron Parks

The group moves into the Aaron Parks introspective composition " Unravel".  The moody piece is demonstrative of this group's effort to play as a cohesive unit with no real showcase of individual talent. Penman takes a thoughtful bass solo, but for the most part piano, bass and sax create a unified sound that is delicately complimented by Harland's gossamer mallet and brush work.

"Polywog" is an Redman composition that has a fast paced beat that allowed the tenor man to provide one of his most explosive solos of the evening.

Matt Penman
Park's "Chronos" features an ostinato bass line that allows Redman to explore vestiges of Middle Eastern music on the melody. Parks utilizes sweeping crescendos of sound with his right hand as his left hand relentlessly plays the repeating bass lines. Harland solos with a fusillade of explosive cracks, bombs and crashes.

On Parks "Bijou" we are treated to the most melodic song of the evening. Redman is particularly beautiful in his playing reaching the high register for poignancy without any anxiety. The crowd was mesmerized throughout the set. The band left the stage and would make their way to Newport for a show the following evening. If a group can be categorized as all stars than James Farm certainly proved they qualify for this moniker in every category.

Eric Harland

The next performer was one who was new to me. The vocalist Jose James. James is  originally from Minneapolis and attended the New School of Jazz and Contemporary Music in NYC. He has played with the pianist Junior Mance as well as the drummer Chico Hamilton. He  possess a smoky baritone that reminds me of a cross between Gil Scot-Heron and Johnny Hartman.  His delivery is an amalgam of traditional jazz vocal stylizing, wording and hip hop rap. For this evening he was joined by the talented guitarist Nir Felder, the keyboard artist Frank Lo Castro, the bassist Chris Smith and the drummer Nate Smith. Despite having to follow the powerhouse James Farm, Mr. James captured his audience's attention with his mellow musings on the ballad "Save Your Love for Me" , made famous by the chanteuse Miss Nancy Wilson, which he performed beautifully. He followed with a song dedication to John Coltrane where he deftly interjected some lines from Gil Scot-Heron's  "The Bottle"  conjuring up images of the late poet/troubadour's soulful baritone. On  "Dedicated to You" James' warm low register voice melted the crowd like a pat of butter over steaming pancakes. A Mark Murphy inspired, rap-influenced version of Freddie Hubbard's  song
"Red Clay"  was a high light and featured an ripping guitar solo by the creative Nir Felder. Mr. James's  lush voice and contemporary sound was fresh and for the most part entertaining. He is a young artist who is to be watched.

Bartitone Jose James with Guitarist Nir Felder

The finale of the evening was the big band of the superlative bassist Christan McBride. McBride is currently one of the premier bassist of his generation having played with some of the most influential musicians of the last two decades. His joyous approach to the instrument has made him the bassist of choice for many notable artists from Sting to Chick Corea.. Having played at Caramoor last year with Roy Haynes, Chick Corea and Kenny Garrett, he chose this year to use the familiar Caramoor stage to debut his Christian McBride 17 piece big band. For this challenging endeavor McBride was aided by  a supporting cast that includes a trumpet section made up of Narate Isles, Frank Greene, Mike Rodriguez and Brandon Lee. His Trombone section includes Mike Dease, Steve Davis, James Burton II and Douglas Purviance. The saxophone section included Ron Blake, Loren Schoenberg, Todd Bashore, Steve Wilson and Carl Maraghi. Xavier Davis is featured on piano, with young Ben Williams seconding on bass and Ulysses Owens Jr. handling drum duties. The band also featured McBride's wife Melissa Walker on vocals.

Melissa Walker w the Christian McBride Big Band

The band played to a now full house as the rain started to pour outside. No one was concerned. The band  started the set with "Shake & Bake" and "Broadway" . McBride told the crowd an anecdote about James Brown's penchant for calling people"Brother Mister" which became the name of the next composition. Young Ben Williams was introduced on bass as McBride jumped from his upright to conducting the band. Saxophonist Steve Wilson played a beautiful soprano solo and trumpeter Brandon Lee soared. McBride''s wife Melisa Walker came out to do " When I Fall in Love" . McBride introduced the next song "A Taste of Honey" , made famous by Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass,  to the acknowledgment of the crowd.

The next song was titled "Science Fiction" and McBride used a nice arrangement of flutes and bass clarinet in the mix. The bassist played an amazing solo on his upright double bass that was technically brilliant.It was easy to see he has few equals on his instrument. McBride creates a wide and imposing presence on stage, but when he pick ups his bass he is as facile as a wood sprite dancing through a forest. Alto saxophonist Todd Bashore tore it up for a full four minute solo that was a highlight of the evening.
Christian McBride leading his Big Band at Caramoor

The second set included "Blues in the Asphalt City" with a fine trombone solo by Steve Davis and a song dedicated to pianist Cedar Walton " Shade of the Cedar Tree". Singer Melissa Walker sang "The More I Want You" and did a slightly corny duet with hubby McBride on his bass on  "Just in Time". The finale was a barn burner titled " In a Hurray" which aptly moved at great neck speed, testing the cohesiveness of the large ensemble.  The McBride big band was a hit with the Caramoor audience and it was good to see that competent big bands still have their appeal to astute audiences.

While I was unable to attend the Sunday show, it featured another thrilling line up with artists including guitarist John Scofield, pianist/producer  Robert Glasper's group and pianist Jason Moran's Bandwagon.

Bravo to impressario Jim Luce for such an incredible line up.The Rosen's would be proud. For those who missed this year's performances may I strongly suggest you plan to attend next year at this wonderful music friendly venue.

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