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Members of the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra perform at the Hudson Valley Jazz Festival on Aug. 16. (Photo: Hannah Maxwell)
 

DownBeat Magazine

Hudson Valley Jazz in Spotlight for Fifth Annual Festival
Posted 9/3/2014

It was a sprawling, wraparound room full of diners in a rustic setting. Off a busy highway, the 236-year-old Landmark Inn in Warwick, New York, was playing host to the opening-night set of this year’s Hudson Valley Jazz Festival. On tap and playing with a backdrop of wall-to-wall picture windows that revealed seemingly endless fields of flora and fauna, the quartet of saxophonist Joel Frahm, organist Pete Levin, guitarist Jeff Ciampa and drummer Karl Latham somehow managed to make what they cooked up more interesting than the delicacies being dished from the kitchen.

Everything was floating as Levin’s gliding, soulful organ-grinder swing became the glue to flights of fancy from both Frahm and Ciampa, in a room that offered great acoustics and a homey atmosphere. Opening with a blues, Frahm coaxed some bluster and as Ciampa soared, the combination of sax and highly sheened guitar provided a spritely contrast for something that went “Up In Smoke.”

Monk’s “Bemsha Swing” was played as an uptempo, floating funk tune, and the addition of covers “Alone Together” and “Road Song” firmly established the fact that—despite Frahm and Ciampa’s nifty upfront soloing—this was definitely an organ band.

It was a quintessential example of the Hudson Valley festival’s goal of bringing great local talent together with more recognizable jazz names.

By way of surreal contrast, the Steve Frieder Trio at the otherwordly and totally modern Seligmann Center in nearby Chester, New York, suggested to concertgoers that the festival is anything but uniform.

The setting—on spacious park grounds, away from the swirl of traffic and nighttime tumult—was just right. The 23-year-old Frieder, alternating between tenor and alto saxophones, put an emphasis on composition, even though the music itself relied heavily on improvisation.

With keyboardist Neil Alexander and Kostas Galanopoulos on drums, the music was organized yet very fluid, melodic but loose-limbed, at times very swinging. Frieder’s lyrical tenor was the center, but gave full sway to his cohorts time and again.

Among the other memorable shows were a first-ever “Women of Jazz in the Hudson Valley” showcase, with singers Judi Silvano, Gabriele Tranchina and Kaitlyn Fay (with assured, sympathetic support from pianist Joe Vincent Tranchina, bassist John Arbo and Barbara Merjan on drums); saxophonist Eric Person with his Mehta-4 group; and the duo of guitarist Julian Lage and pianist Michael Eldridge.

Saxophonist Ohad Talmor and returning artists drummer Adam Nussbaum and bassist Steve Swallow played new music from their latest release, Singular Curves (Auand). The standards-driven, violin-led quartet Gabe Valle Ensemble, out of William Paterson College, performed at the Love Life Tattoo Parlor. A lovely Sunday-night closing concert on the green in downtown Warwick featured the big band New York Swing Exchange, yet another example of local talent billed alongside more recognizable names.

But the crown jewel of this year’s fifth annual Hudson Valley Jazz Festival emerged the night before, with the first-ever visit from the legendary Vanguard Jazz Orchestra to the Sugar Loaf Performing Arts Center.

Playing to a packed auditorium of 250, this incredibly well-oiled, 16-piece machine roared and soared to a selection of four Thad Jones and two Bob Brookmeyer charts that had you thinking they’d been written yesterday.

The group featured trumpeter Joe Magnarelli and tenor saxophonist Ralph LaLama on the robust swinging opener “Mean What You Say,” while “The Waltz You Swang For Me” highlighted the mesmerizing sounds of Billy Drewes on a very expressive, emotionally appealing soprano saxophone, along with the hearty Rock Ciccarone on trombone.

It was the perfect blend of swing with samba on the closing “My Centennial,” a red-hot Gary Smulyan tearing up the stage on baritone.

You could get away with saying the VJO was playing like it was a Kennedy Center event, the dignitaries in this case being the enraptured patrons gazing at the stage. Heady solos were wrapped inside ensemble passages, played like an extension of the horn that was leading the charge, driven from behind by the estimable, riveting John Riley on drums.

From song to song, and with no drop in intensity or feel for mood, the greatness of the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra this night could be summarized by its never-flagging embrace of the solo voice by a uniquely and time-tested ensemble voice, the whole bunch of them swinging their collective asses off.

John Ephland