Piano Virtuosity Abounds at 20th Annual Caramoor Jazz Festival
Posted 7/31/2013

In its two decades of operation, New York state’s Caramoor Jazz Festival has at times struggled to be heard. Its campus is isolated on a former estate in the Westchester County woods and its three days of programming are sandwiched between blocks of classical fare—seven weeks’ worth—at the better-known Caramoor International Music Festival.

But as George Wein’s Newport New York and similar events recede in memory, Caramoor’s programs of undiluted jazz are gaining wider notice in the city and beyond—owing in no small part to their presentation of pianists.

In recent years, Caramoor’s 1,700-seat Venetian Theater and 300-seat Spanish Courtyard have hosted a range of leading keyboard titans, including Chick Corea, McCoy Tyner and Mulgrew Miller. Corea even appeared on the campus twice in 12 months, offering a solo turn at a multi-genre mini-festival in the fall of 2009—classical pianist Emanuel Ax also performed—only to return for the jazz festival in the summer of 2010 with his Freedom Band.

This year—its 20th edition—the jazz festival kept the pianistic faith. From July 26–28, it offered the mix of style, sensibility, tone and temperament that festival-goers have come to rely on. Less expected, perhaps, was the focus it placed on the meaning and value of virtuosity.

The festival’s organizers dubbed the July 27 programming as “The Language of Virtuosity” and that day offered the heaviest concentration of pianists: Adam Makowicz, Vijay Iyer and Benito Gonalez. While performances by non-pianists on that day delivered plenty of punch—the Charles Tolliver Big Band and Delfeayo Marsalis Presents the Uptown Jazz Orchestra rounded out the bill—the connection between virtuosity and the keyboard was evident.

Not that the connection was limited to a single day. Pianist Luis Perdomo’s festival-opening set impressed on July 26, preceding Brazilian singer Luciana Souza and her group. And pianists Elio Villafranca and Helen Sung made their mark as they helped bookend the closing day offerings, with the Lionel Loueke Trio, the Jason Marsalis Vibes Quartet and the James Carter Organ Trio appearing in between.

Makowicz, a native of Poland who made a big splash in New York in the late 1970s and ’80s but has been heard only rarely in the city more recently, set the benchmark for virtuosic display. On flag-wavers like “Just One Of Those Things,” his ability to command the keyboard without resorting to gratuitous gestures was reminiscent of Art Tatum. As the set unfolded, it was clear that an equally apt comparison was to Erroll Garner.

Drawing largely on standards, Makowicz served up the slightly wayward intros, rich tremolos and cascading chords—what George Shearing used to call the “shout”—that Garner favored. Makowicz strengthened the identification by offering two Garner tunes: “Misty” and the lesser-known “Dreamy,” his encore and the only piece on which he moved out of a trio format and into a solo role.

Despite the vintage Garnerisms, Makowicz’s “Dreamy” was not imitative but evocative—no surprise, perhaps, given that his roots are more Chopin than Joplin. But the solo performance also reminded Makowicz-watchers of what had been missing from the set: his Tatumesque stride, one of the most purposeful demonstrations of virtuosity in the business.

Perdomo and Gonzalez both brought to the solo front a touch of Tatumesque sparkle as well, albeit with a regional twist, in remarkably fluid representations of the rhythms of their shared homeland, Venezuela. In a short set, Gonzalez briefly placed those rhythms front and center before relegating them to subtext status in a respectable if attenuated survey of modern jazz piano featuring selections by Tyner (“Passion Dance”), Thelonious Monk (“’Round Midnight”) and Herbie Hancock (“Maiden Voyage”).

Perdomo, given a wider berth and a more intimate setting—he was the only pianist to appear as a leader in the Spanish Courtyard—responded with a wider vocabulary. On Miles Davis’ “Solar,” in particular, he was in an expansive mood, articulating a series of statements in extended unison runs, flashes of Baroque counterpoint and, at one point, a left hand that swung into a freewheeling walk.

But he was most expressive on two ballads: Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” on which he offered a rubato that was, indeed, conspicuously lush, and “Elena,” on which he gamely exposed a vulnerability that less gutsy artists would not have revealed. The tune, by his wife, bassist Mimi Jones, is a fragile tribute to the daughter of a longtime Perdomo employer, saxophonist Miguel Zenón.

Fragility was less in evidence in Villafranca’s set, what with two percussionists and drummer Lewis Nash rumbling along, a juggernaut alternately supporting and rising above the remainder of the septet, the Jass Syncopators. Riding the wave, Villafranca, Cuban by birth and reticent by nature, grabbed his moments of virtuosity largely outside the solo spotlight, negotiating the intricacies of comping within the limits defined in some measure by Steve Turre’s idiosyncratic shells.

Performing solo as part of a presentation with the Mingus Big Band—and with a newly painted, 10-foot-by-12-foot oil portrait of Charles Mingus looming over her—Sung had to establish her bona fides on an improvised pastiche of tunes that reflected Mingus’ famously strong personality, “Old Portrait” and “Roland Kirk’s Message.” Both pieces had the added weight of provenance, being drawn from his only piano album, Mingus Plays Piano. Nonetheless, Sung emerged smartly, having offered a vivid and colorful rendering that Mingus himself probably would have loved.

Like Sung, Iyer has something of the painter in him, but his work frequently is oriented toward abstraction. On “Work” and “Golden Sunset”—songs by composers he described as heroes, Monk and Andrew Hill, respectively—he leaned heavily on thickly slathered chords that dwelled deep in the lower register, a dense mix broken only occasionally by wisps of upper-register tone clusters that vanished or transformed themselves into lines that snaked their way back down the keyboard.

If Iyer was the abstract expressionist on those tunes, he was the pointillist on others. Notable among them was John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” which found him spraying melodic bits and harmonic fragments across his keyboard canvas until a complete sonic picture took shape.

Ultimately the effect was kaleidoscopic, the effort one whose chief virtue may have been in the application of technique to furthering communication at the moment of performance—a goal that Iyer often cited during a phone conversation from Spain, where he was performing with his trio in the week leading up to the Caramoor Jazz Festival.

“It’s nice to see people who have these punishing displays of virtuosity,” he said. “I like that, too. But I find that as a listener and [as] an artist, my priority is that I want something beyond that—something that’s more about what the music is saying to you, where it is coming from.”

—Phillip Lutz


Benito Gonzalez at the Caramoor Jazz Festival (Photo: Gabe Palacio)

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