Whalum, Bunnett & Greene Steal the Show at Litchfield Jazz Fest
If the 19th edition of the Litchfield Jazz Fest was a warm-up for next year’s 20th anniversary celebration, book your tickets now. This intimate festival tucked into the hills of northwest Connecticut offered beautiful vistas and an inspired lineup from Aug. 8–10, and 2015 promises even greater things to come.
It was tough to find a set at this year’s festival that didn’t satisfy. Pianist Cyrus Chestnut’s trio delighted with charm and chops galore. Vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant, whose career is exploding this year, demonstrated nuance, range, sophistication and an emotional depth that is well beyond her youthful exuberance. Guitarist Mike Stern thrilled the crowd with his sheer imagination, joy and mastery. And remember the name of young British singer-pianist Anthony Strong, whose abilities to deliver a song and entertain a crowd could make him a star.
But there were two absolute show-stealers at Litchfield.
First, saxophonist Kirk Whalum—under the billing “The Gospel According To Jazz,” borrowed from his series of contemporary gospel recordings—delivered a virtual saxophone clinic. Whalum’s musical interests and skills are boundless, and his group demonstrated an ability to navigate everything from r&b-infused gospel to old-school New Orleans groove to straight-up burning jazz.
A major surprise was Jane Bunnett’s new sextet, Maqueque. In only its second performance in the United States, Maqueque entranced listeners with a clave-induced set of Afro-Cuban, booty-shaking world jazz that would have made Dizzy smile. Here’s the hook: Bunnett, who has long been inspired by the music of Cuba, traveled to the island nation and recruited this band of young, killer female musicians. Three are still in school, but all play and sing like seasoned veterans. The music is a real treat and so is their new recording, Maqueque (Justin Time), coming out on Sept. 9.
But the heart and soul of Litchfield grows from the collaborations and special performances that take place during five weeks of jazz camp leading up to the festival. Some of the world’s finest artists teach at the camp and use the time as a retreat where new ideas and projects can simmer and develop. It’s also a place where many of the students return to teach and perform as professionals. It’s a true artist colony in that regard.
Take, for example, faculty member and guitarist Doug Munro’s Django Reinhardt Project, a program of the great Gypsy jazz guitarist’s songs reworked as lush big-band arrangements. Munro set the songs on the Litchfield Jazz Festival Orchestra, made up of instructors (and even a few students) from the camp. He took on Reinhardt’s role on guitar, beautifully handling intricate lines as played by the master, while the massively talented young violinist Andrei Matorin (a former camper and instructor) played the role of Reinhardt’s longtime collaborator Stéphane Grappelli. This show should tour. Munro’s arrangements inspired joyous toe-tapping and smiles, ringing true to the spirit of the original music while taking it into another dimension.
Another faculty member, pianist-composer-arranger Carmen Staaf, was also in the mood to offer new takes on old chestnuts with a winning set called “Re-imagining Standards,” where she and her sextet breathed new life into tunes like “In The Wee Small Hours,” “Love For Sale” and “What The World Needs Now.” She’s a terrific pianist with a great arranging vision and viewpoint. It will be fun to watch her art develop.
Bassist and composer Mario Pavone, a resident artist at the camp since 1998, performed music from his new release, Street Songs/The Accordion Project (Playscape). Pavone told the audience the idea for the album came from his time at Litchfield. He was walking down the hallways of the dorms, hearing different conversations, music and sound coming from each room he passed, and it reminded him of walking in the neighborhood where he grew up in Waterbury, Connecticut. So, he set out to do an accordion project because that instrument reminded him of the Italian, Portuguese and Polish front-porch music he often heard as a youngster.
The heady, lush compositions were performed by a number of musicians who also taught at the camp: Dave Ballou on cornet and trumpet, Peter McEachern on trombone, Gary Buttery on tuba, Matt Mitchell on piano, Adam Matlock on accordion, Steve Johns on drums and Carl Testa joining Pavone on bass.
Finally, it was great to see tenor saxophonist Jimmy Greene—who also has long ties to the Litchfield camp—and his quartet perform music dedicated to his 6-year-old daughter, Ana, who was killed during the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newton, Connecticut, in 2012. The local crowd embraced him mightily when he took the stage. Greene stood tall and played beautifully.