Telluride Jazz Celebration, August 5-7, 2005

Article and Photos by Michael Handler

For twenty-nine years, the folks in Telluride, Colorado, have been presenting a top-notch Jazz festival (now called Celebration) in addition to other high-profile events throughout the summer and fall. I drove from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to catch this year's edition as my first experience in this high-mountain music retreat. I wasn't entirely prepared for what I would encounter.

Due to a wrong turn, or missing the right one anyway, I arrived late on Friday night, not minding missing Dave Mason out in the main stage area. (Yes, that Dave Mason, the "Only-You-Know-and-I-Know" Dave Mason.)

I asked a festival person why Dave Mason was a headliner at a Jazz event, he explained that Friday nights are reserved for more mainstream acts to boost show ticket sales. It was more important to me to get my tent up, and it gets dark early in the valley.

Once that was completed, I did catch the last few songs by the seventies and eighties rock legend, and I must admit he had everyone going with his classic songs, great band harmonies, and tight arrangements. As misplaced as he might have been at a Jazz festival, it was good to see he was still working at his craft and taking nothing for granted.

Later that evening I checked out the Jazz scene in the town. The festival has three basic venues: the grassy (soon to be muddy) park during the day and evening, a few clubs in town for more edgy bands, and the historic opera house for more formal shows.

These particular events, mostly reserved for patrons and VIPs, featured all the major headliners in a more intimate setting. Lizz Wright, Dave Holland, and Ron Carter were this year's participants.

The new downtown library and conference center also provided space for some of the acts and panels, as well as a smaller daytime stage right in a small park off the main street in town. You could not avoid Jazz during this weekend! It gave me a good feeling to see how this little town so entirely embraced Jazz music and activities, if only for this long weekend.

 Romero Lambato and Pamela Driggs

The next day I got serious about the music, and I wasn't disappointed. My day started with the wonderful Brazilian duo of Romero Lambato and Pamela Driggs, offering an intriguing mix of Brazilian classics, American Jazz and standards, and as noted below, even a blues or two. Romero's single acoustic guitar took care of the samba rhythm, melody, and bass, while Pamela's clear voice resonated off the canyon walls behind the field.

They even got into "Take Five," somehow keeping the Brazilian feel, and Bonnie Raitt's "Love Me Like a Man." Pamela said later that they always try to get in a blues during their set. I appreciated their diversity. They kept it honest and never pandered to the particular genre they were presenting. I also liked the fact Pamela sung in Portuguese and English, occasionally in the same song, as with Jobim's beautiful "Wave."

A note about the weather: while some rain is not unusual in the mountains during summer, this year was colder and wetter than usual, and the result was mud. Squishy mud everywhere. Most of the crowd had umbrellas or got under some of the large tents set up around the sides. I kept my shorts and sunscreen in the car.

 Bobby Watson and Ed SimonBobby Watson & Ed Simon
 Later in the day Bobby Watson and Horizon held forth with a hot set of tight, ensemble playing. A festival favorite, altoist Watson never disappoints. His group featured the great trumpet player Terell Stafford and a very animated Victor Lewis on drums. The band really tore it up on Jimmy Heath's "Gingerbread Boy."
A highlight of the Celebration on Saturday was Ron Carter and his wonderful band, featuring Steven Scott on piano. (I first saw a young Steven with Betty Carter years ago.) His set was a seamless and flowing series of ballads and midtempo tunes, sparked by Steven Scott's brilliant quoting, which would occasionally shift the entire focus and direction of the band. True group improvisation.
 Ron CarterRon Carter
 Steve Wroon
 For example, at one point, Steven was playing a passage from Bill Evan's "Peace Piece," which quickly morphed into "Seven Steps to Heaven" and ended up as "Black Orpheus." All with no breaks or stage announcements. The other dynamo of Carter's group was percussionist Steve Wroon, who made liberal use of the many hand drums, bells, bongos, and air whistles in his collection. It was a very entertaining set, punctuated by Carter's flawless and powerful playing.

Later in the day, John Scofield came out with the very dynamic Chris Potter on sax. As much as I like John and dig his tunes, the damp and cold forced me to abandon my post and seek shelter elsewhere. Yes, it started raining again. On my way out, I noticed several young players from the All Star youth band watching Sco's band very intently from the side and back of the stage. A bit of rain wasn't going to stop them from learning from one of the best in the business, and I also held it as a good sign for the future of Jazz.

Sunday for me started with a scenic gondola ride to the ski mountain, under mostly sunny skies. I got back to the festival grounds ins time to see a young and dynamic band from Denver led by bassist Kenny Walker. A Telluride perennial for a dozen years or more, Walker's band is a tight, driving quintet that more than held it's own. Bobby Watson came out later to join in on a couple of tunes, one commissioned by the festival. I liked the set so much that it's the only CD from the two days I actually bought.

Lizz Wright 
 Lizz Wright came out and showed us what the next generation of Jazz will sound like: Jazz mixed with gospel, a bit of pop/R & B, and some very personal, quiet songs. She captured the audience with her big voice and downhome attitude. When it started raining (again) she asked the crowd, "Should I keep singing?" You can guess what the answer was. It's been years since I've seen her at the Monterey Jazz Festival when she was in a supportive role; now she's firmly out on her own, doing material from her heart, supported by a kicking band.

Sunday's headliner was Dave Holland and his quintet, featuring Chris Potter on sax and trombonist Robyn Eubanks. At times cerebral or frenetic, the group displayed a dynamic that showed great professionalism and communication. Vibes player Steve Nelson was a real treat, but the interplay between the players was the real star.

Unfortunately, after two days of mud and rain, the late afternoon chill forced me to make an early departure about halfway through Dave's set. Well, I listened for a bit in the car with the heater way up, but I knew it was time to head down the mountain. I was very pleased with the music I had heard, and the fans and musicians I met.

Telluride has attracted a national audience; I met folks from the Midwest, south, east coast and the mountain areas. Although it's a smaller venue than most, there are many returning artists, and a real feel of a musical community. And they have been at it for a while: next year will mark the thirtieth anniversary.

If you go, get ready for the altitude, possible cold and rain, and a little town with a big heart for Jazz.

By Michael Handler

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