The Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival, Thursday through Saturday, Feb. 23-25, at the University of Idaho
Jean Bach showed her Academy Award-nominated film “A Great Day in Harlem” at the Lionel Hampton/ University of Idaho Jazz Festival Saturday.
It was a good news/bad news experience.
As the shaken Bach accepted the crowd’s standing ovation at film’s end, she lamented the quality of the screening. The image was so dark, she said, she walked out of the screening, depressed.
“I’m sorry you had to see it this way.”
The event might not be worth noting if it weren’t so typical of a festival which consistently falls short of its promise.
To be sure, this year saw improvements, especially in the evening concerts which were more focused than in years past.
Thursday’s was the cream of the crop: With a house band of Hank Jones, piano; Hank Ellis, guitar, Bobby Durham, drums, and Brian Bromberg, bass, and a list of guests that included Marian McPartland, George Shearing, Dianne Reeves and Claudio Roditi, good things had to happen.
The ebullient and inventive McPartland improvised constantly, pulling dense, evolving chords out of thin air, while Shearing applied a formalistic approach to the swing tradition. For his part, Jones is the consummate jazz musician, a concise soloist and empathetic accompanist who works the border territory between bop and swing.
But with three great piano players on the same stage, and two grand pianos, the festival passed on the obvious opportunity to team them up. Instead, McPartland and Shearing - who appears in the States only rarely - were dismissed after short sets and the show fell into a jam session. Fortunately, trumpeter Claudio Roditi was on hand with his cool and easy touch.
A resplendent Dianne Reeves wrapped the show with a set that showed off her dynamic, new Afrojazz approach.
Friday, Jon Hendricks proved that old vocalists may lose their pipes but they never lose their timing, and the Gene Harris Quartet turned in a bouncing, blues set. The house quartet backed Bennie Golson and Art Farmer, both of whom played the way you’d expect two all-stars to play, albeit too briefly. Later, Wallace Roney and Ronnie Cuber made an odd appearance - Cuber worked the crowd up with his bleating, virtuosic rantings on baritone, while Roney plays introspective, behind-the-beat solos that work best when he gets to stretch out, a chance this format doesn’t offer.
Saturday’s show offered a fine set from the Ray Brown Trio - the festival needs more self-contained bands like this and fewer jams - and Lou Rawls fronted Hampton’s sharp big band with some excellent rhythm and blues. The show’s best moments occurred with Hampton behind the vibes - he is still the master, and his version of Louis Armstrong’s “Wonderful World” is heartwarming.
Hopefully next year, festival director Lynn Skinner will refrain from screaming “Now rated the world’s number one jazz festival!” at the outset of each show - as if such a thing could be documented. As if this show were in the running.
Let it be good enough that several thousand kids immerse themselves in jazz for four days, hear great music and rub shoulders with the masters - because for all its faults, the Hampton festival does that brilliantly.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with story: Highlight: Thursday’s piano-oriented concert.