Summer Jazz at Caramoor

KATONAH, NEW YORK—I’d previously been to Caramoor mostly for Americana events, so how would the sylvan glades take to the sounds of Coltrane, Monk and Miles? Just fine, as it turned out. Acoustic jazz is a natural sound, and it not only carried well when unamplified, but sounded right to the setting.

Camille Thurman

Camille Thurman heating it up, Coltrane-style. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The Caramoor jazz festival was produced in cooperation with Jazz at Lincoln Center, and was all the better for it. On the bill were a series of acts I was unfamiliar with, but many were nurtured at JALC, and now the talent is reaching a wider audience. Camille Thurman, Riley Mulherkar, Christian Sands, Zaccai Curtis, Michael Mwenso, these are the stars of tomorrow.

McCoy Tyner

Pianists play with their backs to the audience, so here’s a shot of the back of McCoy Tyner. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The two acts I did know, McCoy Tyner and Mary Halvorson, could not be more different, but are widely varying roots from the same tree. Tyner was John Coltrane’s pianist in the critical years from 1960 to 1965 (as a very informed talk by Seton Hawkins of JALC explained), and Halvorson is today’s most cutting-edge guitarist. The former briefly adorned the open-sided Venetian Theater; the latter appeared in a more intimate setting—the Sunken Garden glade, with bassist Stephan Crump.

Mary Halvorson

Mary Halvorson was heard in duet with bassist Stephan Crump.

The jazz setup is much the same as Americana—concurrent shows in the open air, some on stages, some in forest clearings, leading up to a more formal gala show in the evening. Luckily, the weather cooperated, as it always seems to do when I’m at Caramoor.

Michael Mwenso

The muscular Michael Mwenso came with his own dancer. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Michael Mwenso and the Shakes offered the very muscular leader with an international cast from South Africa, Madagascar, France, Jamaica and London. An in-house dancer provided appeal, and the group boasted strong singers and players. The only thing they lacked was good material; my mind wandered a bit when the songs started to sound the same.


The JALC Youth Orchestra Ensemble serenaded early arrivals. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I wish I’d heard more of Camille Thurman, who was gigging with the Darrell Green Trio. She has a firm, Coltrane-derived tenor saxophone sound and a chocolatey voice somewhat reminiscent of Dee Dee Bridgewater or Jean. She’d sound good, as Dee Dee and Jean did, chanting about the creator on those 1970s spiritual jazz records.

trombone trio

Spontaneous groups like this trombone trio enlivened the Caramoor grounds. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Halvorson and Crump were suitably challenging. The two, who have recorded together, essayed a pair of intense, rapidly shifting duets. If I’m not mistaken, they were called “Emerge” (by Crump) and “In Time You Yell” (by Halvorson). Her guitar was played through some effects pedals that bent the notes in appealing ways.

Riley Mulherkar

The great Riley Mulherkar tears into some Dizzy Gillespie. (Jim Motavalli photo)

My camera was running low on battery power, so I didn’t get video of the Caramoor  performance, but here the pair is at New York’s great Cornelia Street Café playing “In Time You Yell”:

My two big discoveries for the day both featured Riley Multherkar on trumpet. He led a program with a small group called “In the Land of Oa-Bla-Dee.” If you’ve never heard that particular Dizzy Gillespie song, you owe it to yourself, because it’s the strangest thing in his canon. Here’s a video:

The group played “Salt Peanuts,” “Be Bop,” “Tin Tin Deo” and other Dizzy classics, and Multherkar was on fire whatever the period. He plays very fast, but also very cleanly, fully articulating every note. And he was a good guide to Dizzy’s music, too. I’d never heard “Pickin’ the Cabbage” before.

The Westerlies

The Westerlies offered intricate arrangements of their own music and some well-chosen covers. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Multherkar must have had track shoes on, because almost immediately after the Dizzy show he was in one of the glades as a founding member of the Westerlies. I love the idea of two trumpets and two trombones, all played by high school friends who grew up in Seattle and studied with Wayne Horvitz. The arrangements were intricate, and they played them without sheet music—a lot of woodshedding in evidence there.

The music was quite varied, including a group of songs recorded by the Golden Gate Jubilee Singers. “I Was Born 10,000 Years Ago” is similar to a song recorded by folk groups as “The Man Who Rode the Mule Around the World.” Their originals were great, too, with influences ranging from New Orleans parades to European classical music.

Here they are on video, unfortunately cut a bit short by my batteries running out:

Pianist Zaccai Curtis and his quartet played latin jazz. I thought he sounded a bit like Hampton Hawes, and they cooked on a Mongo Santamaria number. Also in a Latin mood was Pedrito Martinez, a Cuban percussionist. The jazz content wasn’t all that high, so I’m not in a position to judge.

Zaccai Curtis

Zaccai Curtis likes it Latin. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Another highlight was a solo piano set by Sullivan Fortner, during a tribute to Thelonious Monk. His work was brilliantly broad in scale, showing how Monk grew out of stride piano, but also quoting from “Surrey With the Fringe on Top” and just about everything else. As pianist Christian Sands, who had to follow him, put it, “Sullivan played all of the piano.”

And then it was time for the headliners. Helen Sung was a last-minute substitute for Geri Allen, whose passing was a major blow. Playing with the house rhythm section of Gerald Cannon on bass and Francisco Mela on bass, she heated up Tyner’s “Inception” (from his Impulse album of that name).

Craig Taborn was next, and he also gave the master’s music a good run. Tyner himself, 79 now, only played a few numbers, and notably flagged after the second one, but since we were hearing living history nobody seemed to mind.

I learned a lot of new names at Caramoor, and had a brilliant day of jazz.

Yo La Tengo Doesn’t Disappoint in Central Park

NEW YORK CITY—Yo La Tengo opened its free Summerstage concert with a song about being back in the “New York groove,” and few bands are more beloved in the city. They’re most famous for playing a club in New Jersey (the now-closed Maxwell’s in Hoboken) but they’re as quintessentially New York as the Velvet Underground (one of their biggest influences).

yo la tengo

Yo La Tengo, assimilating their myriad influences. (Jim Motavalli photo)

But not the only influence. Ira Kaplan, guitarist/singer/songwriter, was a rock critic before he got serious about actually playing music, and the group is omnivorous—taking in cues from across the spectrum, avant-garde jazz to garage rock. In some ways, they’re NRBQ without the rockabilly.

Yo La Tengo played free in Central Park 26 years ago, and it was the very first show with bassist James McNew. But Kaplan said he was coming to shows long before that, namechecking Sha Na Na, Poco and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. That would have been 1971 and 1972, when the series was the Schaefer Music Festival at Wollman Rink. I went to a number of those shows, too, and saw the same Mahavishnu/Taj Mahal double bill at my high school in ’72.

I love the diversity of that lineup. Usually, fans of Sha Na Na (doowop revivalists) hated Poco (country rock) and Mahavishnu (jazz-rock). I could listen to all three, and maybe that’s why Yo La Tengo is, along with Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, my all-time favorite rock group.

yo la tengo

Day becomes night at Summerstage, under a cloudy sky. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Amazingly, I’d never seen them live, and they didn’t disappoint. The band launched right into a VU-influenced “Sister Ray”-type jam with a hypnotic repeated bass line. Georgia Hubley is one of my favorite drummers, and it’s not because she’s flashy. In the pocket, as the jazz guys say.

What followed was the mix apparent on their records from the beginning—intimate songs alternating with rock and avant-noise. Perhaps it’s the same formula as Sonic Youth, but you can like both of them, can’t you?

McNew did something the ramshackle NRBQ would have been proud to call their own: He pointed to the unblinking lighted “Yo La Tengo” sign behind the band and said, “How do you like our light show? Visual presentation is important for a big outdoor show, and I think we nailed that shit.”

The show concluded with another long jam, this one featuring members of opener Ultimate Painting. It went on for 20 to 25 minutes, far past a number of logical stopping points, which is what I love about Yo La Tengo—going too far, turning it up to 11, confounding expectations. The encore, to promote a series of Hannakuh shows at the Bowery Ballroom, featured Kaplan’s mother warbling a charmingly off-key number—played completely straight. How can you not love a band like this?

Ultimate Painting, the English opener, managed to be both chiming and lilting, without also being catchy. Tight but boring. Odd, that. They had a nice sound, but didn’t have the songs to go with it. Zero stage presence, and flubbed one song twice before making it all the way through. “Their tunes weave in and out of each other like the duo’s respective six-strings, spiraling around each other in a laconic dance,” the publicity said. I missed the laconic dance, I guess.

If Ultimate Painting became a Yo La Tengo cover band, though, they’d do great. The problem was that the band’s lyrics didn’t seem to be about anything, or at least they didn’t put them over as if they did. They didn’t feel invested in their own material.

I should mention that the Summerstage sound was fine, the prices for food and drink not outrageous, and the crowd control was handled well. It’s a nice venue, under the trees in Central Park’s Rumsey Playfield. Other concerts worth your time are PJ Harvey July 19, Regina Spektor July 27, and the “Bhangra royalty” show August 6.

Surprising Wedding Music in Washington State

I went to Washington’s Olympic Peninsula to attend a wedding (my lovely cousin’s), not to hear music. But the American musical Diaspora is so vast that I heard some great music anyway, on the street and in front of the barn.

Ditrani Brothers

The DiTrani Brothers live on the streets of Port Townsend, Washington. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The streets of downtown Port Townsend yielded an impromptu gig by the DiTrani Brothers, who describe their influences being “western and eastern-European folk music, Roma swing (gypsy jazz) and early American jazz.” And that’s exactly what they sounded like. There was a guitar (Walker DiTrani) an accordion/banjo (Bobby DiTrani), a drummer (Eddie Gaudet) and a washtub bass player (Dana Anastasia Hubanks). Together, they made music with those influences, plus klezmer, maybe, quite apparent—not your usual street music fare! If Django was a Jewish Italian and resident in Montenegro…I captured this video:

The Brothers have a Facebook page here. Influences include: St. Cinder, Lost Dog Street Band, G-String Orchestra, Resonant Rogues, Ladies on the Rag, Crowquill Night Owls, Carolina Catskins, Folkfaces, Kyle Ollah. I haven’t heard a one of ‘em, but I’m sure they’re all great. They also like Tom Waits, Django (of course), Cab Calloway and Freddy Taylor.

The Delta Rays

The Delta Rays rock Kathy and Tracey’s wedding. Note dramatic sky. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The wedding band was, well, a bit different. The Delta Rays don’t play “Celebrate” or, in fact, any getting-hitched music at all. Their repertoire was Cajun (the vocalist/guitarist doubled on fiddle, and the keyboard player on accordion), jump blues, and early rock-and-roll. I wish I got their names but, you know, it was a wedding.

washington wedding

Around the bonfire at the Washington wedding. (Jim Motavalli photo)

They started playing in the late afternoon, as a spectacular cloud formation gathered over the garage. Check out the video; the Delta Rays got people dancing. Here’s a fine instrumental, answering a request for something with a klezmer feel.

Great music is where you find it. I found it on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. The wedding took place on the couple’s new homestead, with 60 acres of temperate rain forest. Incredible views!

A Swinging Territory Band at John Zorn’s New York Club

The Stone, unfortunately closing in February, is composer John Zorn’s outpost in the East Village. It’s at the corner of 2nd Street and Avenue C, and the only way you know it’s there is some peeling Letraset on the door.

Steven Bernstein

Steven Bernstein, conducting with his trumpet. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The club, which I visited for the first time July 2, reminds me of New York jazz in the 70s, when many artists—Sam Rivers, Joe Lee Wilson, Rashid Ali—had clubs that were about the music first. The Stone doesn’t even serve drinks or food. It’s a shame it’s not lasting, but it was packed 7/2/17 for a first-rate show by the Millennial Territory Orchestra, one of several bands (the Sexmob is maybe better known) that the composer/arranger/trumpeter Steven Bernstein either started or plays with regularly.

The phrase “territory band” has fallen out of favor, but in the old days it means a band—often with horns and vocalists—that traveled around a regional circuit (the Midwest, say). The MTO has a shifting cast of mostly New York-based first-call musicians, so its territory is the Tri-State area, though I believe it’s done some touring internationally.

The Millenial Territory Orchestra

The MTO has a shifting cast, but among the names I caught were Ben Allison, Curtis Fowlkes, Peter Apfelbaum, Ben Perowsky. Erik Lawrence, Doug Wieselman and Will Bernard. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The MTO got together in 1999, Bernstein told me. “I had just finished arranging music for Robert Altman’s film Kansas City, and part of the job was listening to a lot of the territory bands. That music stayed with me. It got left behind in the late 1920s when swing came in, and nobody was playing those songs or that style anymore. The first thing I did was an arrangement of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Signed, Sealed and Delivered.’ I just heard that in my head, and it led to a lot of other music using that kind of instrumentation.”


The night at the Stone included two Ellington tunes, but also some originals, the Grateful Dead’s ‘Ripple,’ some Bessie Smith, and a song or two from a New York territory band. The Dead song is no aberration because the group embraces pop—MTO Plays Sly is the most recent album. Guest vocalists have included Antony Hegarty and Martha Wainwright.

Whatever the material, the sound is a delightful exploration of the possibilities and colors of the kind of little big band that once piled into a pair of Model A Fords and hit the road. Bernstein is a very physical conductor, swooping into the band to indicate the next soloist, to silence a passage or bring on a fanfare. He doesn’t (or didn’t) solo, instead using his signature slide trumpet and muted horn to change the pace.

The music was very visual, somewhat in the way Sun Ra was in front of the Arkestra, though without the costumes (there were a lot of hats, though). “We just want  to give people something to wrap their ears around,” Bernstein said.

On the night, Bernstein quipped that every time he plays a club, it closes. Let’s hope that pattern does not continue. What would be great is a permanent berth for the band, say on Monday nights. As you may recall, that was a tradition for the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis band at the Village Vanguard for decades.