Tanglewood Jazz features Jay McShann, Duke Robillard, Modern Jazz Quartet tribute by Donal Fox
August 31, 2003 performances reviewed by Dave Conlin Read
The Sunday portion of the 2003 Tanglewood Jazz Festival had enough variety, both in quality and quantity, to make up a nice little festival by itself. It began at 1 p.m. in the Tanglewood Theatre, the very funky, rusty venue where the B.S.O. stages opera, with a program dubbed, “Remembering the Modern Jazz Quartet: Donal Fox, Inventions in Blue”. The Modern Jazz Quartet was formed in 1952, just a few hundred yards down the road from Tanglewood at the Music Inn, whose beloved co-founder, Stephanie Barber, passed away five days ago.
The Modern Jazz Quartet was originally formed as the Milt Jackson Quartet and consisted of Jackson on vibraphone, John Lewis on piano, Percy Heath on bass, and Kenny Clarke on drums. Lewis would emerge as the leader of the MJQ and also become the dean of the Lenox School of Jazz, the first academy for jazz studies, which operated only from 1957 – 60, but whose pioneering work is carried on now on campuses all around the world.
Pianist and composer Fox was accompanied by Stefon Harris on vibes, Yoron Israel on drums, and John Lockwood on bass for an elegant, energized, and engaging 90 minutes comprised of the works of just three men; himself, John Lewis, and, as Fox called him, “the original blues man, J. S. Bach.”
Now the programmer doffed his mortarboard in favor of a porkpie hat, as next on the schedule was an afternoon “Celebrating the Year of the Blues!” in Ozawa Hall.
Leading off the five-act marathon was Lousiana Red, the 67 year old true blues original from Alabama who has lived in Germany since 1981, and been touring in the U.S. since his first “comeback tour” in 1997. Winner of the 1983 W. C. Handy Award as Traditional Male Artist of the Year, his CD “A Different Shade of Red – The Woodstock Sessions” was recorded last year at the Woodstock studio of drummer Levon Helm and features both Helm, on drums and harp, and his Band-mate Garth Hudson, on organ and sax.
He kicked off his brief but rollicking set with “Red’s Dream,” wherein he’s beckoned by President Kennedy to help out during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Red’s response is, “Mr. Kennedy, you run the country, I’ll run the Senate,” and proceeds with the list of great blusemen he would replace the rascals with!
Next up was rising R&B singer Nicole Nelson with her band, winners of the 17th annual Battle of the Boston Blues Bands in 2001 by the widest margin ever. Her infectious set delighted the audience; she’s got the whole package and seems destined for a long successful career.
Jay McShann and Duke Robillard at 2003 Tanglewood Jazz Festival
Following her were a pair whose careers add up to more than a century: Duke Robillard, who’s been on top since launching Roomful of Blues in 1967, and Jay McShann (January 12, 1916 – December 7, 2006), who turned pro in 1931 and whose Kansas City-based orchestra in 1941 introduced Charlie Parker to the world.
It didn’t take long for the audience to see why Robillard has gotten 3 of the last 4 W. C. Handy Guitarist of the Year Awards; he’s master of all the tools in the axeman’s bag, sings good, and has put together a hellacious band, to boot. After about twenty minutes, Robillard was joined on stage by the legendary McShann, who played and sang the blues with an ardor and skill unbelievable for an 87 year old man.
Regrettably, we had to leave before Kendrick Oliver and the New Life Jazz Orchestra came on around 6, in order to take care of some errands before returning for the Festival’s finale at 8.