The 2023 Litchfield Jazz Festival (LJF) was held at the Frederick Gunn School in Washington, CT, from July 28 to 30.
There are music festivals of all kinds, and every festival has its own flavor and atmosphere. Sometimes they have themes. Sometimes they are dedicated to a great artist. Sometimes they give awards, mentor young musicians, and some include competitions. In the jazz world, there’s a festival for every taste, and thank goodness for them all! The large festivals offer multitude of acts for the audience, and people are spoiled for a choice of what concerts to see. However, as much as the big festivals can be exciting, there is a particular charm about small festivals, where the ambiance and music are just as magnificent but there are no overlapping shows, just one set at a time. The smaller festivals, like LJF, can be wonderfully relaxing, with great music enjoyed at a soothing pace. LJF is a sparkling gem in the summer jazz festival season, so if you can get there in 2024, grab the opportunity!
Friday, July 28
Friday Night Gala
Friday, July 28 was a blistering hot day, but luckily by the time of the opening Friday Night Gala, at the Thomas S. Perakos Arts and Community Center, it had cooled down to a more comfortable temperature. The Gala featured delicious hors d’oeuvres, delectable beverages, and presented music from some talented Litchfield Jazz Camp students. These groups were quite impressive and mentored by professional musicians and Jazz Camp teachers like Avery Sharpe, Dave Ballou, and Jean Caze. One such ensemble, Baffle Gab, was comprised of vocalist ADVIKA, Brandon Rivas on trombone, Ezra Moran on guitar, saxophonists Owen Brady (alto) and Brandon Fu (tenor), Colin Waldron on bass, Titus Daniels on drums, and Alexander Hyams on piano. They performed two original songs, “Panini” by Brandon Fu, and ADVIKA’s “Time to Get Out of Bed.” The band was very tight on the jazz standards “Four” and “The Masquerade is Over,” with lovely vocals by ADVIKA and perfectly nuanced inflections and solos by Moran and Rivas. Daniels’ and Waldron’s accompanying tempo controlled the conversation’s pace perfectly.
Albert Rivera, Director of Operations of the Jazz Camp, introduced the Jazz Campers who opened the evening concert for The Brandon Goldberg Trio. LJF founder Vita West Muir thanked everyone for coming and supporting the young people of the Jazz Camp. She also reminisced about the past years of LJF, and said she was really looking forward to the evening’s music. The student-musicians opening the evening concert really did the Jazz Camp proud, swinging to music by Kurt Rosenwinkel, Wayne Shorter’s “Backstage Sally,” and an outstanding unique rendition of “Summertime.” Like the bands that performed earlier, they amply demonstrated what great work is being done yearly at Litchfield Jazz Camp.
The Brandon Goldberg Trio
Exciting young pianist Brandon Goldberg was joined by bassist Ben Wolfe and drummer Jimmy Macbride. Brandon is an alumnus of the Litchfield Jazz Camp, having started there at 10 years old! Now at only 17, he served as leader of his own group at the evening concert. This prodigy has already progressed quite far in his career and has more than lived up to his early promise. In the LJF program, Goldberg said, “I really grew up around this Festival, and I got to meet so many musicians that I now play with.” He added that the opportunity to headline at LJF is very special to him, and what he calls “the definition of a full-circle moment.”
The trio started with “Unholy Water” then segued into a delightfully jazzy version of Jerome Kern’s “Dearly Beloved.” Brandon then thanked everyone for coming and said what at honor it was to be the opening act for the 28th LJF. He recalled being one of the Jazz Camp students who played on the Jazz Camp Stage between the bands on the Main Stage through the years, and he was thrilled to be back as a professional musician.
In addition to his exceptional piano skills, Brandon is also very humble considering his notable success. Not only is he a shining example of the exemplary work of the Jazz Camp, but also a credit to how well his parents raised him. The trio performed an exquisite rendition of Goldberg’s original song, “Circles,” from his latest CD, In Good Time. Then guest saxophonist/flautist Don Braden joined the group, a musician Goldberg has known and admired since he was 10. Braden added some stellar sax accents to the excellent swinging piece that followed, with Goldberg and Wolfe contributing some great piano and bass solos.
From Don Braden’s recording “Earth Wind and Wonder, Volume 2,” the trio performed a sublime rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “Creepin’” where Don superbly employed his flute to express the beauty and pathos of this classic song. John Coltrane and Tadd Dameron’s “Mating Call” was a percussive sensation where the musicians’ seamless transitions and harmonies cast a hypnotic spell over the audience. Then the group played Cole Porter’s “From This Moment On” with both vibrancy and subtlety.
The gentle ballad, “Look for the Silver Lining,” was played tenderly, with Brandon displaying maturity well beyond his years, and the song’s lilting finish was absolutely joyful. “I Concentrate On You” was beautifully mellow, while still swinging. Goldberg talked about how much Jazz Camp expands the students’ musical horizons in so many directions, and how much he appreciated that aspect of the Camp. “Blackbird” began with an emotive piano section by Goldberg, with Wolfe and Macbride contributing some impressive, collaborative touches. Hank Jones’ “Nothin’ Beats an Evil Woman” had Don Braden return to the stage for this bluesy gem that featured a blistering bass solo from Wolfe.
Brandon said, “Thank you so much to the Litchfield Jazz Festival for having us!” He also stated what an honor it was to play with Ben Wolfe, Jimmy Macbride, and Don Braden. He thanked Vita West Muir and Albert Rivera for their support, and he thanked the audience for coming out to enjoy live jazz. Wayne Shorter’s “Angola” was the final song of the concert, a whirlwind piece that was the cherry on top of this sumptuous serving of music, led by rising star, Brandon Goldberg!
LJF After Party
There was a spectacular after party jam at the G.W. Tavern in Washington Depot, CT, featuring The Albert Rivera Quartet and Guests. Saxophonist Albert Rivera was joined by pianist Alejandra Williams, bassist Luques Curtis, drummer John Iannuzzi. The group started with “Bye Bye Blackbird” and a swinging, red-hot “Green Dolphin Street” where there were scintillating solos, and Albert Rivera’s saxophone was on fire! Trombonists Brandon Rivas and Joe Beaty joined in, contributing some notable brass accents to the melodic dialogue.
Brandon Goldberg was in the audience, and he sat in on the piano, much to the delight of the crowd, and he really went to town on “There Is No Greater Love,” and Don Braden stepped in to add some excellent sax riffs. Just when you thought that the stage was packed, Dave Ballou brought his trumpet into the mix on a sultry performance of “Blue Monk.” Andrew Hadro sat in with his baritone saxophone, and Ian Carroll joined in on drums. Albert Rivera showed his stunning circular breathing skills that blew everyone’s minds, and there was a sweet, sexy nod to “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” in the middle of this song that was simply luscious. Then the band jammed on a bebop paced rendition of “What Is This Thing Called Love?”
The group finished the night with a swinging Middle Eastern-tinged “Caravan,” and they left it all on the stage! One of the best parts of the evening was the intimate atmosphere. The audience was so close to the musicians that they could almost reach out and touch the artists. There was a lot of talent on display at this after party jam session. The music was so sizzling, it practically blew the roof off the charming restaurant. This was a most exciting ending to the first day of the 2023 LJF!
Saturday, July 29
The Ehud Asherie Trio
Saturday’s festivities began at the Thomas S. Perakos Arts and Community Center with pianist Ehud Asherie, who was joined by bassist Dezron Douglas and drummer Jason Brown. Ehud said to the crowd, “It’s so great to be back here!” He added that he felt lucky to be playing with his bandmates, since people all over the world want to perform with these guys. They began their set with a magnetic blues number, Sonny Clark’s “Cool Struttin’” that was followed by the sparkling Latin-flavored “Moralito’s Dance” that Asherie wrote for his son. Excellent solos were provided by each musician on this lovely piece that went back and forth between major and minor keys. Next came a beautiful rendition of Hoagy Carmichael’s ballad “Heart and Soul” that was touchingly romantic with tender input from each player.
Ehud paid tribute to the late, great Tony Bennett by playing one of Tony’s first hits, “Because of You.” This performance was a swinging delight, with the trio effortlessly communicating with each other, and Dezron Douglas provided a whimsical bass solo that elicited chuckles from the audience. Asherie thanked all the people at Litchfield and noted that his father first brought him to LJF in 1996. He also thanked the audience for being there, then dedicated a song by the late Brazilian pianist João Donato to his wife and son, who were in the audience. The song started with an extended piano solo that Ehud executed impeccably. Then the piece segued into a percussive section that had the crowd nodding their heads and swaying in their seats.
About “Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do,” Asherie said that this century-old song was one of the great ones, that still holds up after all this time. The trio played this tune with delicacy, yet still managed to get their musical points across clearly. It ended with a sentimental piano solo by Ehud that was quite lovely. The trio followed with a fetching Latin number that the musicians played with gusto. For an encore, they performed Bud Powell’s “Webb City,” an exhilarating song that the trio performed with skill and aplomb. This was a fine start to the second day of LJF.
The Steve Nelson Quartet
Vibraphonist Steve Nelson was accompanied by pianist Rick Germanson, drummer Charles Goold, and bassist Marcus McLaurine, and they started with a stellar performance of “Embraceable You” where the virtuosity of each player was readily evident. The second song was a laid-back delight that softly washed over the crowd, followed by a splendid up-tempo piece with tinges of Latin flavor thrown in, and Nelson tearing it up on the vibes.
Nelson thanked everyone for coming out, and said, “You can’t come to a Steve Nelson concert without hearing some blues!” In tribute to the late David “Fathead” Newman, it really was a delicious serving of some funky, down-and-dirty blues with the piano and bass front and center. The group followed with a syncopated “Caravan” that featured a stand-out drum solo by Goold, and cohesive and moving interplay between each member of the quartet. “Softly As in a Morning Sunrise” was a mellow pleasure with nary a note or beat missed by the musicians. Each one had their moment to shine individually, as well as performing wonderfully as a unit. Their last song was an island-flavored “I’ll Remember April” that set just the right tone to end this beguiling concert.
The Champian Fulton Trio
MC Mike Gow asked the audience to say thanks to Vita West Muir for all the work she does for LJF. Vita came to the microphone and said a few words about the remaining events in the Festival, and how photographer Steve Sussman had donated the jazz photos on display to be sold to benefit the Litchfield Jazz Camp.
Vocalist/pianist Champian Fulton was joined on stage by drummer Fukushi Tainaka and bassist Hide Tanaka, and the trio started things off with a scorching “It’s All Right With Me” where Champain’s piano and vocal skills were very prominent. Hide showed his virtuoso bow expertise on the bass to striking effect, and Fukushi’s drum input was superb. Fulton said this was the first time since 2011 that she has been back to LJF. She also noted that she is celebrating 20 years of being in New York with her latest recording, Meet Me at Birdland. From that CD, the trio played a charming “Too Marvelous for Words” that highlighted Champian’s clear, lilting vocals.
The beautiful ballad “Every Now & Then” was performed with a lot of emotion by Fulton, making it a truly affecting experience. Then came a whimsical and festive “Baubles, Bangles, and Beads” that was truly an exquisite musical souffle. Phineas Newborn, Jr’s “Theme for Basie” was an instrumental gem. Champian said that although she loves singing, she still likes to play something strictly instrumental from time to time. This fine straight-ahead jazz number had the trio very much in sync.
The shining tune “The Best Things in Life Are Free” was a song that Champian has often played with Lou Donaldson, and Lou would always humorously introduce the song by saying, “The best things in life are free, if you have the money!” Fukushi was featured heavily on this number, showing master drumming skills as he sparkled in the spotlight, even throwing in a few rarely seen tricks that elated the crowd. As with the other sets at LJF, the high level of musicianship was really appreciated by the listeners.
You could say that Champian has been a fan of Charlie Parker all her life, since immediately after her birth, her parents wanted her to hear some beautiful music. So they introduced her to the music of Charlie Parker, and she has remained an admirer. In honor of Parker, the trio played a moving version of his composition “Just Friends.” Next was a sweetly impassioned performance of “The Very Thought of You” that showed Champian to be just as good with her left hand as she is with her right on the piano. Their final song was an interpretive performance of “I Only Have Eyes for You” where the trio really put their own spin on the classic, finishing the set in high style.
Between sets, Jazz Camper Christopher Fedigan talked about his experience at the Camp. Christopher, who is a multi-instrumentalist, said his time at Litchfield Jazz Camp was wild and wonderful. There was always something happening, like jam sessions. He said he was thrilled to work with some of the best musicians he has seen or heard in person, and all in all, it was a remarkable time for him. Christopher was joined at LJF by his twin brother James, who sometimes plays music with him, and their parents, Carolyn and Jay Fedigan.
The Peter Bernstein Quartet
Guitarist Peter Bernstein was joined by pianist Adam Birnbaum, bassist Doug Weiss, and drummer Al Foster. The concert started with Peter’s marvelously easygoing original tune “Simple As That.” Bernstein thanked the audience for attending LJF, and as the last set of the day, he said he realized that it was a lot of jazz to take in, and he appreciated people hanging in there until the end. He began the next song with some marvelous guitar chords, then the group joined in for a cheeky Latin swing piece, “Harbor of Illusions,” that was filled with danceable syncopation.
Next up was “Dragonfly,” an evocative, introspective, minor-key number that was sometimes mysterious, with a touch of longing. “Love For Sale” had bassist Doug Weiss playing a subdued, but excellent solo. Through the changing tempos, the musicians did not miss a beat! The other solos were uniformly first-rate, and although Weiss had some temporary amplification issues, he made some adjustments and carried on like a champ! The group followed with an enchanting rendition of Thelonious Monk’s “Harmonica” that was a calming balm for the spirit. Jazz can certainly touch on a lot of emotions, and this piece was supremely relaxing.
“Jive Coffee,” a reconfigured presentation of “Tea for Two,” was quite a gorgeous collaboration by the quartet. As with all the previous groups during the day, the Peter Bernstein Quartet was delightful! They managed to be very improvisational, while remaining true to each song’s melodic and harmonic structure. They closed the set with Sonny Rollins’ calypso “Newark News,” and the lovely performance swept through the crowd like an island breeze. This quartet really finished the day of music in an excellent way!
Sunday, July 30
Jazz Brunch in the Garden
Jazz Brunch in the Garden was held at the beautiful Bourne Courtyard, and it was the final event of the 2023 LJF. Not only was the music for the brunch Latin-inspired, but so was the delicious brunch, provided by Ciesco Caterer’s Charlene Dudka. The menu included Arpea (crispy cornmeal cakes), gazpacho, Spanish omelets, and Spanish flan.
The weather was perfect, too, sunny and in the 70s, with no humidity. This was a great change from the previous day, that had thunderstorms in the afternoon. Luckily, the Saturday concerts were all indoor, but people were surprised at the end of the day to see the downpours outside. It was serendipity that Sunday’s weather turned so beautiful.
The David DeJesus Latin Jazz Band
Alto saxophonist David DeJesus is currently a member of the Grammy-winning Arturo O’Farrill Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, the Grammy-nominated Bobby Sanabria Big Band, and Ron Carter’s Great Big Band. DeJesus was joined at the Jazz Brunch by Luques Curtis on bass, Damian Curtis on piano, Dave Ballou on trumpet, Joe Beaty on trombone, and Marco Torres on percussion.
This superb set included “Mambo Inn” and Tito Puente’s “Linda Chicana.” Charlie Parker’s “Segment” was played as a bomba, and boy, was it incendiary! In fact, the whole set was a scintillating, exciting concert. Horace Silver’s “Nica’s Dream” was so alluring that the crowd could not stop swaying to the beat.
Before a short break, Vita West Muir thanked caterer Charlene Dudka for the delectable food, then she made some remarks in praise of the band. She noted that the Curtis brothers started at Jazz Camp when they were very young, and they showed such promise, even then. She also talked about other Jazz Campers, like gifted pianist Brandon Goldberg, who is now a shooting jazz star at 17. Vita is justifiably proud of the outstanding work that is done by the Litchfield Jazz Camp.
Albert Rivera introduced the second part of the concert and thanked the audience for supporting LJF and the Jazz Camp. He said, “We couldn’t do this without you!” The exceptional music by the group continued, and it was like a trip to a Latin American Island, full of balmy breezes on the beach. Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation” was the first song of the second set, and once more, it was a spectacular effort put forth by all the musicians. DeJesus’ arrangement of “Yesterdays” presented a driving, insistent piece in minor key, with excellent solos, including accented grooves by David and Damian. DeJesus talked about what a great composer Joe Henderson was, as introduction to Henderson’s “Mamacita.” There was an excellent trumpet solo by Dave Ballou, some fine trombone riffs by Beaty, and DeJesus added a stellar sax section. Luques Curtis’ stirring bass and Marco Torres’ percussive beats impeccably held down the rhythm section. This stimulating piece really kept the party going on this beautiful summer afternoon!
The final melody was by the late, lamented Wayne Shorter, “Black Nile.” It was an exhilarating finish to the 2023 LJF, ending the weekend with the same high caliber of music that characterized the whole Festival!
Sponsors for the 2023 LJF included The Vermont Community Foundation. DownBeat Magazine, Republican-American Newspaper, The Kids of Summer Foundation, The Shea Cohn Memorial Fund, New England Foundation for the Arts, Litchfield Distillery, Purchase College, Union Savings Bank, WDNA Radio, Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, The Billy Strayhorn Foundation, The Jean and Julien Levy Foundation for the Arts, Civic Family Services Inc., Vandoren Paris, George L. & Grace A. Long Foundation, as well as numerous individual donors.
For more information about the Litchfield Jazz Festival, go to www.litchfieldjazzfest.com.