WBGO Blog
  • WBGO's Michael Bourne on Litchfield Jazz 2012

    August 23, 2012. Posted by Michael Bourne.

    Rainy when it started. Sunny when it ended. Thirteen concerts over the weekend, August 10-12. Come rain or shine, the Litchfield Jazz Festival is always musically enjoyable, smartly programmed by Vita Muir, efficiently organized by Lindsey Turner, superbly stage-managed by Abram Sirignano, and seriously dedicated to jazz education.

    Young musicians came to the Litchfield Jazz Camp over the month before the jazzfest. Don Braden was the jazz dean, teaching with a jazz who's who, including this year's festival artist-in-residence, baritone saxist Gary Smulyan. Some of the camp's best and brightest played opening night at a gala party for the festival sponsors. After several years playing in a hockey rink of the school in Kent, Connecticut, the jazzfest returned this year to an enormous tent in a field in Goshen, Connecticut.

    Don Braden (left) with WBGO's Cephas Bowles and Ambrose Akinmusire

    The Four Freshmen sang the group's beautifully harmonized songbook for starters. I became a Freshmen fan as a kid in Saint Louis. I was a freshman myself in high school, and I grumbled when my folks took me to a Hawks basketball game. I assumed that the group playing a concert on the basketball court after the game, a group called The Four Freshmen, must be a rock and roll band. I never listened to rock back then. I was a freak for operas and musicals -- several years before I ever heard any of the Singers Unlimited.

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    I was delighted that instead, amazingly and amusingly, the Freshmen sang a variety of pop songs with the vocal arrangements anchored to the high voice of bassist and trombonist Bob Flanigan -- who was also funny. I eventually bought most of the Capitol records they recorded in the 50's and 60's, albums with titles like "Voices in Love," "Four Freshmen and Five Trumpets" or "Five Trombones" or "Five Guitars" and a live double-LP with the Stan Kenton big band.

    Through the years since the group first came together at Butler University in the latter 40's, there have been Twenty-Four Freshmen, and the four singing now have been singing in the group 12-20 years. What's deeply delightful for a Freshmen fan is that they sing the vocal arrangements -- full-throated, with subtle and surprising twists of a phrase or the meter of a song -- perfectly, and yet they're not doing an imitation or impression of the group. They embody the classic sound of the group, and the songs come alive. "Graduation Day." "Day By Day." "It's a Blue World." "Route 66." I miss the trombone and the whimsical presence of Bob Flanigan, but I can hear him in the heart of the sound. The Four Freshmen were, for me, laughing and singing along, worth the trip to Connecticut.

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    Plenty of highlights happened thereafter, including on opening night Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks revisiting 20's and 30's swing classics of Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson. Vince Giordano told stories about the music and anchored the band's bottom on an aluminum string bass, bass saxophone, or a tuba.

    Saturday's marathon kicked off with the Helen Sung Trio. Avery Sharpe presented his Sojourner Truth Project, music inspired by the African-American woman who pioneered the anti-slavery movement in the 19th Century, including a powerful blues composed to one of her own poems, sung by Jeri Brown.

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    I first heard the quintet of trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire live this summer at the Montreal festival, and again in Goshen I felt a rush of originality like I remember when I first heard Woody Shaw. Gary Smulyan gathered an octet, plus tenor saxist Eric Alexander, to "salute" the arrangements of George Coleman, climaxed by a full-tilt rocking (with a Matt Wilson back-beat) "Isn't She Lovely." Benny Green played flabbergastingly as always, and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band blew the roof -- does a tent have a roof? -- off.

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    Sunday opened with, for me, the highlight of all the festival's highlights, the quartet of Gregoire Maret. His sound on the harmonica is the most original since Toots, and he pulls the audience into the sound as he breathes. Sometimes a lovely breeze. Sometimes a roiling riptide. He's energized all the more by the percussive dancing of Clarence Penn at the drums.

    Mark Giuliana is another drummer to be reckoned with, whipping up the quartet of ever-edgy tenor saxist Donny McCaslin. Hubert Laws played his golden flute magisterially, especially "My Ship" and one of his orchestral Afro-Classics: Tchaikovsky's love theme of "Romeo and Juliet."

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    Miguel Zenon played his "Alma Adentro" sounding of the Puerto Rican songbook. And for a finale, the "Kansas City Swing" of singer Kevin Mahogany and guitarist Dave Stryker again blew the roof off. Or blew the tent down? Anyway, this year's 17th annual Litchfield Jazz Festival ended with a great groove.

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    -- Michael Bourne