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Concord Jazz Festival 1995

The first two nights (we were unable to attend Sunday's Latin blow-out) of the twenty-seventh annual Fujitsu Concord Jazz Festival stayed true to the spirit of founder Carl Jefferson. Performances were conservative, with an emphasis on vocalists and women this year. Only one big band appeared, and there were no bad rock bands masquerading as blues groups, as has been happening with distressing frequency at recent festivals.

Singer Karrin Allyson led off the first night. She's a good singer with a small voice who takes minor liberties in her presentation of the songs, but she is not an adventurous Jazz singer. I thought her best song was "Robert Frost," in which she wondered how the poet paid the bills. (A rich woman seems to have been her tentative answer.) Bassist Bob Bowman dug into the tasty bass parts on this and on a waltz in which he duetted with Allyson. Bowman was one of the most exciting sideman of the festival.

Scott Hamilton's group deliberately evoked an old-fashioned feel, somewhere between Dixieland and 1930s small combo. A powerful part of that came from the rhythm guitar of Frank Vignola, who more than justified his special guest billing. At various times Vignola had his guitar sounding like a balalaika and a mandolin, and he burned on a Django Reinhardt-Hot Club treatment of "Tenderly." Pianist Gerry Wiggins did some beautiful comping throughout. On "Woody'n'You" his chording evoked Billy Strayhorn's exotic "UMMG."

Ray Brown was the evening's featured attraction. His playing is as gorgeous as ever, but I was disappointed in his sidemen. Benny Green sounded clunky to me, and Ray's new drummer, Greg Hutcherson, just did a lot of aimless crashing and thrashing on his solos. Jeff Hamilton is sorely missed.

After the first couple of numbers, the trio was joined by Howard Alden on guitar. On Duke's "Love You Madly," Ray's bass seemed so relentless that Alden just had no room to breathe. Ray lightened up on "The Song Is You," and Alden got in a good solo there. Thereafter the group was joined by saxists Chris Potter and Rickey Woodard and trumpeter Randy Sandke, and for the grand finale Louie Bellson gave a master class in drumology on Bird's flagwaver, "Donna Lee."

The second day began with Munehiro Okuda's Blue Sky Orchestra from Japan. They were very good, but like a military band they seemed almost too precise. Solos were good but not inspired. The pianist played with a lot of dissonance that didn't fit the Basie style of the band at all. Singer Miyuki Koga joined the band for five or six numbers. She makes no effort to interpret or improvise. Under the watchful eye of her manager, George Otaki, she sings 'em straight, trying to preserve what she says are little-known gems from the Great American Songbook. I thought her best effort was a musical comedy flagwaver treatment of the "Trolley Song," but it's questionable whether her approach has any business in a Jazz festival at all.

As always Dorothy Donegan captured her audience with her informal history of Jazz, in which she perfectly imitates the styles of such pianists as George Shearing and Erroll Garner, and her style of playing what in effect are patchwork quilts of musical quotation.

Current sax sensation Joshua Redman demonstrated considerable chops but a less than sure sense of dramatic progression. His work on his original "Wish" was excellent, but his solos on many other numbers seemed distinguished only by an abundance of pattern. When he used stop time to do growls and such, it seemed like he was saying, "Watch me do this difficult trick." There is no question Redman will develop into a fine saxist as he matures, but at this stage in his career I don't feel he is ready for the leader-young lion role that is being thrust on him.

Rosemary Clooney was not someone most hardcore fans would pick to highlight a Jazz festival, but she was the feature on the second night. Her voice is not what it was forty years ago, but her timing was great and her patter between songs must be the envy of every singer who ever tried to build rapport with an audience. She captivated everyone, although, as with Miyuki Koga earlier, one has to ask whether this is appropriate for a Jazz festival. Scott Hamilton seemed more natural riffing behind Rosemary than he did fronting his own group the previous night. Bassist Bob Bowman again got in some magnificent licks. But it was Rosemary herself who swung the group on "Hey, There" and the rest of the songs in her repertoire.

by Robert Tate

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