It’s rare and special when a festival is designed around a single instrument. At this year’s Caramoor Jazz Festival on July 15, the piano took center stage throughout much of the afternoon’s program.
Now in its 24th year, Caramoor’s annual jazz festival has grown both in size and stature, thanks in part to the collaboration with Jazz at Lincoln Center since 2015. Apart from a diverse lineup of emerging and iconic artists, the festival offers a Gatsby-esque backdrop via its location of Katonah, just an hour north of Manhattan. From its lush, winding gardens to the Italianate architecture of each venue, the festival has the power to transport even the most jaded New Yorker.
Much of the daylong festival took place at Friends Field, an open lawn area which most resembled that of an outdoor festival setting. Multireedist Camille Thurman warmed the crowd up with both familiar and more contemporary selections, courtesy of Inside The Moment: Live At Rockwood Music Hall, her inaugural effort on Chesky Records. This afternoon, Thurman’s dual role on vocals and tenor saxophone was amply supported by The Darrell Green Trio, featuring Green on drums, bassist James Cammack and David Bryant on piano.
Kicking off her set with the standard “The Night Has A Thousand Eyes,” Thurman’s warm tone on tenor sax offered just the right amount of invitation and welcome. The native New Yorker possesses a keen understanding of lyrics beyond her years, bringing out their inherent beauty and meaning. Switching over to vocalist on “Forever Is A Long Time,” Thurman evokes an air of firsthand experience, as for much of the nearly hour-long set, on matters of the heart. As she delves deeper, the trio—notably Bryant’s penchant for melodic phrases—warmly backs her every step of the way.
Immediately following, Christian Sands’ talented trio came charging right out the gate. Performing selections from Reach, his debut release on Mack Avenue Records, Sands armed himself with the nimble bassist Barry Stephenson and his longtime collaborator and friend Jerome Jennings on drums. While Stephenson more than asserted himself, he also provided ample room for Sands and Jennings to collectively swing, notably on Eric Reed’s driving number “The Swing And I” and “Song Of The Rainbow People,” an original tune penned by Sands.
As the day went on, the focus shifted from melody into exploring the harmonic possibilities on piano. Thelonious Monk, however, redefined what was possible for both harmony and melody, through his highly idiosyncratic and improvisational approach to both the music and culture. As part of the yearlong celebration of Monk’s centennial, three distinctive young artists—Sullivan Fortner, Christian Sands and Helen Sung—were chosen to perform solo piano concerts that highlighted Monk’s immense body of work, as well as his formative influences.
At the idyllic Spanish Courtyard, pianist Fortner allowed impulse and imagination to drive his 20 minute-plus long solo set. In fact, much of what Fortner performed was entirely unplanned. While tackling Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The Surrey With the Fringe On Top,” Fortner explained how he wasn’t sure that Monk ever recorded the standard during his prolific career. However, he simply chose to forge ahead because “[he] had the song in [his] head all day.” In keeping with the spirit of Monk, Fortner remained steadfast to his own highly individualistic approach, coupled with his sense of humor and play.
Back at Friends Field, The Zaccai Curtis Quartet shifted the program’s attention towards rhythm. The pianist performed selections from Syzygy (Truth Revolution Records), which he released earlier this year alongside his younger brother, bassist Luques Curtis, as a member of The Curtis Brothers. On their take of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” Curtis fully explored the rhythmic possibilities of the classic tune, placing the rhythm section out front—notably Richie Barshay on drums, Reinaldo De Jesus on congas and bassist Carlo DeRosa, who performed live with the group for the first time.
Closing out the day at the Venetian Theater was none other than McCoy Tyner. Billed as “Echoes With A Friend,” each pianist who performed prior to Tyner was inextricably linked to the legend, whose impressive body of work spans more than 50 years. Backed by Tyner’s longtime trio, featuring Gerald Cannon on bass and Francisco Mela on drums, these featured soloists were indeed among friends, as frequent collaborators, during perhaps one of the more emotionally charged sets of the evening.
Just weeks after the sudden loss of pianist Geri Allen to cancer on June 27, it was announced only days before that Helen Sung would serve as Allen’s replacement. Kicking off the evening concert with her original compositions, Sung later explored the melodic side of Tyner’s catalog with “You Taught My Heart to Sing.” While Sung’s touch for melodic lines was apparent, the connection between her, Cannon and Mela felt uneven. The intensity of Cannon and Mela, quite frankly, overshadowed Sung’s far too delicate approach.
Right out of the gate, Minneapolis-native Craig Taborn channeled Tyner’s percussive attacks on his imaginative take of “Passion Dance,” which immediately garnered excitement from Cannon’s prominent upright bass and Mela’s rhythmic snares. After quickly running through the now famous refrain, an intimate dance ensued between Taborn, Cannon and Mela, marking perhaps the first sign of “friendship” during the evening’s set.
Emotions ran high as McCoy Tyner was brought onto the stage. As did much of today’s lineup, Tyner made most of his statements that night on the piano. Growing more intense during his signature build up, midway, he injects inflections of Monk before he transitions into “Fly With The Wind,” proving simply that the spirit and art of improvisation will simply never die. DB