Following four days of downtime forced by computer and internet problems, Rifftides offers a brief summary of the first five days of The Seasons eight-day Fall Festival.
In the first of two appearances, the Tom Harrell Quintet opened the festival Friday evening in The Seasons’ acoustically perfect performance hall in Yakima, Washington. With the polish and assurance developed in their years together, Harrell’s band combined an edge of adventurousness that, by the time the first piece ended, had the audience buzzing. Alternating between flugelhorn and trumpet, Harrell locked up with tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery in the lines of the leader’s closely crafted compositions. Harrell, Escoffery and pianist Danny Grissett soloed brilliantly and at length. Some of the pieces were from Harrell’s new CD Roman Nights. The rich harmonies and compelling melody of “Let the Children Play” captivated the audience. Escoffery, bassist Ugonna Okegwo and drummer Rudy Royston left the stage to Harrell and Grissett for an achingly beautiful duet performance of “Roman Nights.” The song seems bound to take its place with “Sail Away” as one of Harrell’s finest writing achievements.
For The Seasons festival, Harrell premiered “Thought Waves” and “Modern Times.” The latter title may be laced with mild irony. Its rhythmic emphasis and melodic simplicity are in the mold of tunes written by Horace Silver, in whose quintet Harrell played for four years in the 1970s. The improvisation by the quintet, however, was strictly of the new century, with expansive soloing by all hands. At the end of the concert, the crowd was on its feet cheering and brought Harrell out for three curtain calls.
Saturday night, the Harrells and pianist Bill Mays played a concert of new and old music for orchestra and soloists. It opened with the Yakima Symphony Chamber orchestra, conducted by its music director Lawrence Golan, playing Gunther Schuller’s piquant arrangements of “The Entertainer” and “The Early Winners,” early 20th century rags by Scott Joplin, Harrell and his quintet joined the orchestra for four sections of Harrell’s “Wise Children.” He recorded the suite in 2003 but this music from it received its first live performance at The Seasons. “Wise Children” draws on inspiration from African, Brazilian, Afro-Cuban and European music. It represents some of Harrell’s most resourceful writing—the mesmerizing vamp played by strings and percussion under his horn on “Kalimba,” the gorgeous melody of “Ballad in D” intoned by Escoffery, the harmonies of the elegiac title piece and the Latin rhythm fiesta called “Paz.”
Following intermission in this ambitious program, Golan and the chamber orchestra played three pieces inspired by jazz in its early years. First was Darius Milhaud’s La création du monde, written in 1923. Full of dissonances, blues references and—fittingly—great creative energy, the Milhaud is often described as ahead of its time in its use of jazz in a classical setting. Then, five years almost to the day after his trio gave the performance that opened The Seasons, Bill Mays went to the Steinway as soloist with the orchestra. First, they played George Antheil’s 1925 A Jazz Symphony, a 12-minute romp whose raucousness, intensity, dense orchestration and humor at once admire the jazz of the twenties and poke fun at it. Integrated into the piece, the piano part places on the performer huge technical demands. Mays met them with gusto.
The concert concluded with George Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue in the version Paul Whiteman commissioned for his Experiment in Modern Music concert at Aeolian Hall in New York. Gershwin was the piano soloist. Mays is the first Rhapsody In Blue pianist to open up the piece for improvisation since the composer that night in 1924. From the famous opening clarinet glissando, memorably executed by Jeffrey Brooks, the orchestra and Mays were fully into the spirit of the piece. But near the end, when Golan rested his baton, Mays took ownership. His more than five minutes of improvisation built on Gershwin’s themes but also had perspective on jazz development over eight decades and incorporated idioms from all of it. The intensity and passion of his spontaneous invention brought a roar from the audience as the orchestra reentered and, when the piece ended, there was sustained applause that resulted in Mays’ repeated returns to the stage for bows. When the entire Saturday night concert was repeated for a new audience on Sunday afternoon, the orchestra lacked the same edge in the Gershwin, but Mays’ improvisation was even more powerful, with harder swing and new elements of whimsy, including several bebop quotes. If this Rhapsody In Blue wasn’t recorded, it should have been.
Sunday evening, recovered from his exertions of the afternoon, Mays returned for a concert reuniting him with bassist Martin Wind and drummer Matt Wilson. They had not played together as the Bill Mays Trio since a concert at The Seasons in 2007. No refamiliarization was necessary. From “With a Song in My Heart” to “You Go to My Head” at the end, they had the energy and empathy that established them as perennial favorites in polls. A few high points in a concert that was a high point:
Wilson’s “Music House” solo, complete with a press roll that he made so quiet it could barely be heard, and use of his left foot as a snare drum damper
In the same piece, the blues feeling the trio developed, reminiscent of a 1940s jump band
Thelonious Monk’s rarely played “Eronel, with all kinds of Monkish business by Mays, and Wind beginning his long, adventurous solo with a chorus of melody
Because of the computer kerfuffle, I missed most of the first half of Monday’s concert by The Finisterra Piano Trio and The Seasons String Quartet, launching the extensive classical portions of the festival. It had music by Gershwin, Samuel Barber, David Rakowski , Wang Jie, Beth Wiemann, Michael Laster and Slavko Krstic. Laster and Krstic are among nine composition fellows studying at the festival with artistic director Daron Hagen. I heard the last song in Rakowski’s Double Fantasy, played by Finisterra and sung with passion in Spanish by soprano Gilda Lyons. Following intermission, Finisterra played Beethoven’s Piano Trio in D Major, Op. 70, the roar and rumble of its powerful middle movement anchored by pianist Tanya Stambuk, with violinist Simon James and cellist Kevin Krentz.
There was more chamber music last night, including two pieces by composer-in-residence Larry Alan Smith. His song cycle on poetry of Emily Dickinson, A Slash of Blue! A Sweep of Gray!, got a stunning performance by Ms. Lyons and pianist Robert Frankenberry, as did the versatile Ms. Lyons’ compositions “Owl Light” and “Between Wolf and Dog” by Krentz playing unaccompanied cello. Krentz played three of Hagen’s Love Songs for Cello and Piano with the composer accompanying.
Tonight, the festival continues with Michael Wimberly’s Africa: The Power of Drum and Dance. This is a return appearance at the festival by the New York percussion expert, who brings with him members of his troupe and incorporates into his concert students from schools throughout the Yakima valley for a carnival of drumming, dancing and singing. It is a vital part of the educational outreach function of The Seasons’ nonprofit contribution to the culture of the region.