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James Emery

Paquito D'Rivera

John Pizarelli

Jimmy Heath

Scott Robinson

John Pizarelli

Paquito D'Rivera

photos by Albert Brooks
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Bethel Woods Center For The Arts
Bethel, NY
July 22, 2006

By J Hunter

Notes from the first day of the inaugural Bethel Woods Jazz Festival:

“BY THE TIME WE GOT TO WOODSTOCK…” This one's a drive (Three hours or better from the Capital Region. Don't be an idiot - like me - and do it in one day…), but when you get there, the site knocks your socks off! Split-rail fences, Victorian-style halogen lamps, brick walkways lined with wooden benches, and a hillside that's been landscaped within an inch of its life. A state-of-the-art pavilion sits at the bottom of the hill. Nearly every artist commented on the facility; George Benson declared, “From up here, the acoustics are perfect!”

“HEY, IF YOU THINK REALLY HARD, MAYBE WE CAN STOP THIS RAIN!” The gully-washer that greeted my arrival was backing off by the time the James Emery Trio opened the festival. Good thing, too: Those aforementioned brick walkways made great channels for rainwater to rush down the hill like the Hudson River on a bender. The pavilion didn't flood, but it was a near thing. Bethel Woods needs to re-think their drainage system.

A WORK IN PROGRESS: They also need to suspend the “No Food” rule, especially if concession fare stays as mediocre as it was. Jazz fans are not rock fans, guys! Check out Newport, Tanglewood and SPAC, among other venues. The lawn people are used to bringing a picnic, if not entire tents, tables and board games. And, unlike rockers, they clean up after themselves.

All this comes down to event development, which includes a smaller second stage, currently under construction. Emery and singer/songwriter Nellie McKay could have sorely used it. Both were great, but a more intimate setting would have been better for Emery's chamber jazz and McKay's wry cabaret act. (“My band'll be here soon,” she assured us at one point. “It'll be like a Phish concert…”)

IT'S HOW YOU DO IT: John Pizzarelli could take notes from McKay. He debuted his tribute piece “Dear Mr. Sinatra” at this show, bringing with him a crackerjack big band and classic charts from legends like John Clayton and Quincy Jones. But while Pizzarelli obviously has great reverence for Sinatra and his music, he doesn't have the interpretive skill to truly carry the material. Of all the talents he had, Sinatra's greatest talent was his ability to inhabit the protagonist of every song he did; McKay brings that same talent from her stage work. Sorry, John. A great effort, but just playing the tunes the same way doesn't cut it.

YOU'RE AS YOUNG AS YOU FEEL (Part 279): Pete Townshend said, “I hope I die before I get old.” He must have known what a grumpy old man he'd become. No sign of that from Jimmy Heath. He played a tenor sax that was older than the musicians backing him, but he more than held his own, treating the audience to trad jazz that included originals like “A Sound For Sore Eyes” and standards like Billy Strayhorn's “Daydream”. It was smooth as twelve-year old scotch, and all the while Heath was smiling the smile of a man doing what he loves.

After a long exchange in Spanish with people in the crowd, Paquito D'Rivera told the rest of us, “They're all Canadians.” D'Rivera, dressed in all white, laughed and joked all the way through (in his words) “a journey through the music of Latin America.” (He also did his best Ed Sullivan, introducing Joe Lovano and Judi Silvano, who were sitting in the second row. D'Rivera's control and expression on clarinet had everyone gasping, particularly on the Mario Bauza-inspired “Memories”. He played alto when Pizzarelli Big Band tenor player Scott Robinson joined him for the closer, “To Brenda With Love”.

IS YOU IS, OR IS YOU AIN'T: I've stopped complaining (well, complaining loudly, anyway) about non-jazz acts being tacked onto jazz festival bills in order to increase ticket sales. It's a fact of life; move on. We all know George Benson's roots as one of the musical descendants of Wes Montgomery, but his bread and butter is paid for by pop hits like “Give Me The Night” and “Turn Your Love Around”. Benson did his best to straddle the musical fence, occasionally wowing us with his still-solid picking skills, but the biggest crowd reaction came when he stopped playing jazz and started playing the hits. His R&B Crooner act leaves me cold, but I was in the minority here.

TIMING IS EVERYTHING: About nine-tenths of the crowd headed for the parking lot after Benson closed his set. So why place the Dave Douglas Quintet after him on the bill? Probably because most of Benson's fans would have shorted out when hit with Douglas' music, which is some of the most groundbreaking in the genre today. His current band is relatively pared down - no deejay scratches, no sampling - but his musical reach remains unlimited. Opening with “A Single Sky” from Strange Liberation (Bluebird), Douglas gave us a powerful, challenging set that swung from an anti-war “invocation” he wrote prior to the Iraq conflict, to a tune he'd written two days before this show that he dedicated to drummer Clarence Penn's newborn son Cherokee.

LAST WORDS: Considering the bill for both days (Wynton, Chris Botti, and festival curator Dianne Reeves led the Sunday bill) Bethel Woods' first jazz festival was pretty much meat-and-potatoes. They have a world-class facility, even if getting there is half the fun. The key is the steepness of the learning curve, and that's what we have to watch for.

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), Q104 WQBK/Albany, and WSSV/Saratoga. He has also written music and theatre reviews for the Glens Falls Chronicle. He currently resides in Clifton Park.