Heaven probably looks a whole lot like Vail, Colorado. Glorious mountains with stunning vistas, charming architecture reminiscent of a Bavarian village, an abundance of scrumptious restaurants and cafés – and when you add jazz on top of all that, Vail is surely a place to spend eternity.
The 17th annual Vail Jazz Festival is a summer-long event that fills this alpine wonderland with the sounds of first-class music. Despite Vail’s reputation as a glamorous ski resort, this is not a festival for just a privileged few: since the end of June, the festival provided free concerts at two locations in town, as well as full scholarships for 12 teenage musicians to participate in a ten-day workshop. The festival culminates with the Vail Jazz Party (Sep.1st-5th), a Labor Day weekend throw-down with over 25 sets, including three late-night jam sessions and several free concerts.
The weekend is nicely organized so that two dozen or so musicians play in different combinations, bringing out different colors in their playing as well as showing the many faces of jazz. A few groups were repeated over the course of the weekend: Clayton Brothers Quintet, Monty Alexander Trio, Terell Stafford Quintet and Dena DeRose Trio. Yet these groups often had other festival musicians sit in and there were other groups composed of musicians from these bands as well as soloists. With so much inspired mixing and matching, the audience really got to know the musicians over the course of the weekend and yet every set was completely fresh and often unpredictable.
A great example of this inventive combination of talents was when bassist Martin Wind presented a group that included the elegant bassist John Clayton and both Jeff Hamilton and the ebullient Matt Wilson on drums. Calling it the “battle of the sections”, the unusual configuration was joined by Australian trumpeter James Morrison (on trombone), trumpeter Terell Stafford and pianist Bill Cunliffe. The set included two memorable duets: Clayton and Wind on “My Foolish Heart” and Hamilton and Wilson on “Blackwell’s House”, written by the former in tribute to legendary drummer Ed Blackwell.
Trumpeter Byron Stripling’s tribute to Louis Armstrong was one of the weekend’s strongest events. He made an impassioned plea to the audience to think of Armstrong not just as an entertainer nor as an intuitive genius who came out of the womb with a trumpet and handkerchief, but as a hard-working artist who completely altered the course of modern music. It was an enormous pleasure to hear Armstrong’s songs come to life, particularly with a band of this magnitude: mega-powerful Wycliffe Gordon (trombone and sousaphone), Jeff Clayton (saxes and clarinet), Shelly Berg (piano), Tom Kennedy (bass) and Ernie Adams (drums).
Another memorable set was the gospel prayer meeting on Sunday morning. Despite a late jam session the night before, a handful of musicians delivered a passionate set designed to revive even the sleepiest jazz fan. The luminous Niki Harris provided vocals, humor and insightful contemplations and Bobby Floyd offered wonderful voicings on the Hammond B-3 organ. Highlights included Jeff Clayton leading the audience in a heartfelt prayer and Wycliffe Gordon bringing down the house with a rousing vocal on “Down By the Riverside”.
The 12 students were also an important part of the weekend, giving several concerts and participating in the late-night jam sessions. Their energy and enthusiasm were wondrous, particularly after the course they had just participated in, which included 10 12-hour days learning songs with no written music. The festival prides itself on a family feeling and this was demonstrated by the participants’ response when they learned that one of the students had a rented trumpet: Terell Stafford had a new instrument flown in express and the horn was then paid for by audience donations. This is an example of the care and commitment that sets the Vail Jazz Festival apart and this feeling of community infused the whole weekend.
Other festival highlights included the reunion of the Monty Alexander Trio (Alexander on piano with John Clayton and Jeff Hamilton); Terell Stafford’s quintet performing the music of Billy Strayhorn; drummer-vocalist Dave Tull singing his lament “I Just Want to Get Paid” and Wycliffe Gordon’s Saturday night set, where he played no less than seven instruments over the course of an hour.