THE WILLIAMSTOWN JAZZ FESTIVAL
(feat. Miguel Zenon Quartet, and a stroll around my memory)
62 Center for the Performing Arts Williams College
May 2, 2009
by J Hunter
Driving to the Berkshires on Route 2 is a blast if you have a nimble car and a good stereo, but you have to stay alert. On my way to see Miguel Zenon play the anchor concert of the 2009 Williamstown Jazz Festival, I checked the volume on Joel Harrisons Urban Myths a little longer than I should have. When I looked up, I saw three cows had escaped from a nearby farm, and were now conversing in the middle of a two-lane road with a guardrail on one side and a mountain on the other. I hit the brakes so hard, Im surprised I didnt look like Fred Flintstone with shoes.
Thankfully, everyone came away from the incident unscathed. Too bad Williamstown Jazz wasnt so lucky. This is not to say Zenons show was a car wreck far from it. But three days before my aborted steer-on collision, Id heard that, due to funding issues, this would be the last Williamstown Jazz Festival. An 11-year tradition that incorporated any elements of the Williamstown/North Adams community was going down the Memory Hole. A mid-week show by the Vijay Iyer Trio was still on tap at the Clark Art Institute, but after that, it was a done deal.
Not to get (too) mushy or anything, but Williamstown was the way I knew spring was really here: It was the first festival I ever covered for albanyjazz, and I considered it to be the warm-up lap for the summer festival season. Williamstown Jazz added depth and scope to Williams Colleges intercollegiate jazz-band competition, of which the SCCC Jazz Ensemble was an annual entrant. There were jam sessions at the local clubs, and dance parties at MASS MoCA that celebrated jazz relationship with genres like Latin and Zydeco.
The last anchor show was held at the 62 Center for the Performing Arts, a state-of-the-art performance space that opened four years ago. Before that, Williamstown jazz shows were held in Chapin Hall, a reclaimed church with an interior straight out of the first reel of Chariots of Fire. The setting was very appropriate in 2005, given the truly spiritual music Charles Lloyd served up with help from Geri Allen, Reuben Rogers, and Eric Harland. The friend that accompanied me to that show a burgeoning songwriter who studied briefly with Jack Fragomeni still talks about that show, and how Lloyds ethereal tenor sax had us all in a trance by the fifteen-minute mark.
The 62 Center looks like EMPACs baby brother lots of glass on the outside, and three stories of beautiful blond wood and brilliant acoustics inside. Despite its interior height, theres a wonderful intimacy about the 62s Main Stage that must make dance recitals a joy. It only seats 550 at capacity, but the balcony is practically hidden from festival-goers on the ground floor, where the lions share of the seats is located. For those people, the space was a well-lit, comfortable club where Stefon Harris & Blackout blew the doors off the place that first year; where Ravi Coltrane made the first of his two Capital Region appearances in 2007; and where Joe Lovanos tribute to Ornette Coleman went from Headliner to Opening Act when the Robert Glasper Trio took a wrong turn and found themselves on the other side of the state. ((Later that night, they found themselves eclipsed by Lovanos incendiary performance.)
Given the star power of past headliners, some might say having Miguel Zenon play the last show is an anti-climax. True, the San Juan native has only made a few discs as a leader, and is primarily known for his ensemble work with SFJazz Collective and Charlie Hadens Liberation Jazz Orchestra. But its players like Zenon that the students attending the competition need to see: A young player of the current generation, just hitting his stride, meshing technical prowess with a passion that can be seen with every back bend he used to coax out that one perfect note.
There was also the World Music angle, as Zenon concentrated on sounds from (and inspired by) Brazil and Puerto Rico. When he wasnt mowing down the first five rows with his alto, Zenon hand-drummed along with Luis Perdomo, whose piano mixed the standard Latin percussive attack with a marvelous subtlety that added to the 90-minute sets blazing color palate. Drummer Eric Doob floored everyone with solos and counters that matched Zenons fervor volt for volt, and Hans Glaschwinigs bass kept the floor rock steady so Doob could freestyle.
Admittedly, I dont know the back story behind the demise of the Williamstown Jazz Festival. Maybe it was an either-or thing: Either its these jobs, or your festival. Too many academic institutions are making that kind of choice nowadays. Whatever the reason, its still a stone bummer. Williamstown Jazz wasnt twenty thousand people baking in a field, watching the DiamondVision while Dave Brubeck plays on a corporate-sponsored postage stamp a mile away. Williamstown Jazz was a warm, friendly, intimate night with the music as the star. Those kinds of experiences are getting thin on the ground, and like Joe Bob Briggs used to say every time a Drive-In theatre was bulldozed, Without eternal vigilance, it can happen here.
I tried not to think about that as I made my way back down the mountain, playing Spoke at top volume and keeping my eyes peeled for oncoming livestock.
J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz Programming) and Q104 WQBK/Albany. He is a frequent contributor to the web site All About Jazz and to the monthly music magazine State of Mind. He currently resides in Clifton Park.