James Taylor and Friends set up shop at Tanglewood for an unprecedented series of concerts and events, August 26 – 30, 2009, attracting some 50,000 fans to both the Koussevitsky Music Shed and Seiji Ozawa Hall. It was his wife Kim’s idea and management project; she was an employee of the Boston Symphony Orchestra when they met at Tanglewood 15 years ago and now is a Trustee. Taylor donated his fee to the BSO.
Ozawa Hall was the venue for a drumming master class Wednesday evening, moderated by retired B.S.O. percussionist Vic Firth and featuring long-time Taylor band members Luis Conte and Steve Gadd, with several students form Berklee School of Music. A very informative and entertaining program, reminding us that education is at the core of the Tanglewood mission.
(Video clips from Ozawa Hall and the Shed.)
The next night’s bill, The Band: Conversations among friends, was, for us, the high point of the whole extravaganza (JTpalooza? JamesStock?). Besides singing several songs of his own (some rarely performed), Taylor played m.c., and bandmate, for extended mini-sets by bandmates Arnold McCuller, Andrea Zonn, David Lasley, and Kate Markowitz, plus singletons by guitarist Mike Landau and keyboardist Larry Goldings.
Whereas there always is plenty of variety in a James Taylor concert, and pleny of attention directed by him to his band, a show such as this, with it’s extended breadth, is even more satisfying. And what a beautiful use of Ozawa Hall, the intimate venue with the 80 foot ceiling!
The Saturday morning panel discussion in Ozawa Hall, with John Williams, Sheryl Crow, and Taylor, was supposed to be moderated by Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, who canceled at the last minute and was replaced by B.S.O. managing director Mark Volpe. Questions were solicited from the audience, but only 3 were selected and they elicited nothing newsworthy.
We were hoping for a fresh discussion about the music business, but little from the 90 minute program was other than you could find in a fanzine. Maestro Williams’ Steven Speilberg joke was the highlight: JW: “Steven, you need a better composer than me for this project (“Schindler’s List”).” SS: “I know, but they’re all dead.”
Kind of annoying, and very un-Green, was that there was a flock of young people thrusting sheets of paper at patrons telling them to turn on their cell phones and send text messages to Taylor’s website. These exhortations went on all week, but here they were working the aisles during the program.
Friday and Saturday in the Shed, with Sheryl Crow and Yo Yo MA, were two more on a long list of great James Taylor concerts. He is the consummate pro, and is totally in tune with his adoring audience. Ma did two duets with Taylor and two more numbers with Taylor and Crow, while she did five additional numbers with Taylor and band.
All the new duets and collaborations were very well-received; the Crow numbers and the arrangement of a Robert Schumann piece, Traumeiei, a welcome blurring of the genre barrier, which Taylor refers to when introducing keyboardist Goldings, whose status as a jazz musician is established.
The grand finale of this mini-festival was a program with the Boston Pops, conducted by John Williams doing a set of his greatest movie score hits followed by a set with Taylor and a reduced version of his band, followed by the longest encore on record, all before one of the largest Tanglewood audiences ever.
(Here’s our review of the July 17, 2002 Boston Pops James Taylor concert that set the Tanglewood attendance record and resulted in the policy to cap ticket sales at 18,500.)
Judging from substantial segments of what was performed at these gigs, we’d say that Taylor is nudging closer to the jazz spot on the continuum, away from pop. Or perhaps we ought to just heed “Pops,” Louis Armstrong, who said, “All music is folk music… .”