With the demise of the various newspaper jazz festivals (both the Globe and the Phoenix sponsored series as late as 2002), the Beantown Jazz Festival has emerged as Boston's sole big jazz event. It has more than held up its end, shifting from one stage and little smooth-jazz outfits to three full stages of music, local and national acts, and for the second year in a row, a blowout opening night full of jazz legends. (Globe review of friday night here) The weather cooperated as well- 70 degrees and sunny- and as a result the MC announced before the last act that the day had seen 70,000 people at the festival. I don't know if I trust that number, but there were a lot of folks, many more than last year. (It was set up almost identically to last year's festival, again to good effect.)
I missed the first set of acts in favor of (sigh) errands, and walked in to the sound of Greg Hopkins' big band. The band is a lot of grizzled Boston vets, playing Greg's straight-ahead, hard-swining Herman-ish charts. The band was strong and tight, but hampered by sound problems, a running theme of the day. Bill Pierce's feature on "Body and Soul" was lost in a haze of unintentional reverb and distortion.
I wandered over to hear Conrad Herwig's "Latin Side of Miles" Project. Their album got some play on jazz radio here, and I wasn't wowwed. "Sketches of Spain" aside, I've never heard much Latin in Miles' playing, and putting "Solar" and "So What" to montunos and other Latin grooves seems to me just a ploy to sell records. So I was skeptical walking in.
(Aside: There's an interesting theory that puts forth in Paul Tingin's good book Miles Beyond that- I'm paraphrasing- while Miles was omnivorous in his listening, and used instruments, grooves and ideas from all over music, he was interested in the sound, not the context. Unlike, say John McLaughlin, there's nothing particularly Indian about his use of the sitar other than the sitar itself. I think this is surely true of Miles' relationship with Latin music; while he used "Spanish modes" and Latin percussionists, he had very little interest in "Latinizing" his music. He wanted those sounds. Which is why I'm very skeptical of these kinds of concept albums)
I was less skeptical walking out- the rhythm section, anchored by drummer Robbie Amin and percussionist Pedro (insert Mets joke here) Martinez- was amazing. Solos would float seemlessly through half-time and double-time, various feels (I'm a dilletante when it comes to the nuts and bolts of Latin music, so I won't even try) and beats. The horn players- Herwig, trumpeter Brian Lynch and the underappreciated Craig Handy- in turns floated over and barreled through the grooves with clear, straightahead playing. Everyone sounded good- how could you not with those kinds of grooves? I still thought the Miles/montuno connections didn't especially work- Lynch wrote an arrangement of "Solar" with a great, grooving intro and interlude which made the actual melody of "Solar" seem superfluous. That said, the music as a whole strong, much better than I expected.
The next act was on paper the highlight of the day- the legendary vibrophonist Bobby Hutcherson and his quartet. Bobby looked sharp and energized, and sounded... I'm not really sure. The sound on this set was especially bad- no mikes were on for the first two tuned, and through the set you could only hear Bobby maybe a third of the time. I know it's outdoors, and I know vibes are notoriously hard instruments to mike, but c'mon guys! This was amateur hour. What I could make out was a set of old standards- "I Love You for Sentimental Reasons", "Old Devil Moon", etc. that swung elegantly.
Across the way you could really, really hear the Berklee Rainbow Band. The band looked the part- tremendously diverse racially, ethnically, and gender-wise. The music, though was something of a throwback to the Buddy Rich/Maynard Fergeson sound of the seventies, complete with Rich's unbelievably overwrought "Mercy Mercy Mercy" chart. The soloists, especially the lead alto and tenor players, were very solid.
A family party kept me from hearing all but a few minutes of the last bands, Charles Tolliver's big band and Mike Stern's quartet. Tolliver's big band suffered from the aforementioned sound problems, and a clear lack of rehearsal. Some of the charts were very notey and intricate, and much of the detail got lost. The band's character, both in it's playing and in the charts, reminded me of McCoy Tyner's big band of the 80's and 90's. A very pentatonic harmonic sensibility (Tolliver's own playing harkened back to Woddy Shaw), good writing at the edges, and a lot of solid blowing in the middle.
A couple of more asides- I've learned that at these free outdoor festivals, if you care at all about hearing what's actually being played, the best places to be are 1) right in front of the stage, where you can hear the real sounds, or 2) next to the sound booth, where you'll hear what the sound person hears. Not the #2 helped that much this weekend.
And Beantown Jazz planners, would it be too much to stagger the start times at the different stages a little bit, as many festivals do? Every band, on three stages, started at the same time, the whole day. Why? One of the nice things about these festivals is sampling different acts, which this program impedes.
By any reasonable measure- crowd size and enthusiasm, vendors, quantity and quality of music- the weekend was an unabashed success. Heck, they had one stage booked with nothing but big bands, a feat in and of itself. Here's hoping next year they keep up the quality of booking, and improve the quality of the sound crew.