When American vocalist LaToya Smith sang the opening lines of the George Gershwin classic ‘Summertime’ on October 11, the Tata Theatre greeted her with a huge round of applause. It was just the beginning. Over the next three evenings, Mumbai was in for some amazing music at the third edition of the NCPA International Jazz Festival.
Such events invariably provide a great experience for fans. Thou2gh one misses the ambience and legendary names associated with the Jazz Yatra at Rang Bhavan, follow-up festivals like Jazz Utsav and Jus’ Jazz did their bit in satisfying aficionados.
The emphasis of the NCPA International Jazz Festival seemed to be on the classic American repertoire, mostly originating in New York. Four of the six bands consisted of musicians from the US, and though most members of Round Midnight Orchestra were Dutch, It was fronted by American singer Deborah Carter.
The sixth group, the Yuval Cohen Sextet, hailed from Israel and played a completely contrasting form of chamber jazz, getting a phenomenal response. Overall, the mix was a detour from most earlier Mumbai jazz extravaganzas, where there is a good representation of European jazz bands playing their own compositions.
Barring the Yuval Cohen Sextet, none of the groups played originals, focusing on compositions by masters like Hoagy Carmichael Gershwin, Cole Porter, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, and Antonio Carlos Jobim. On Sunday, the Mingus Dynasty Quintet played an entire set of tunes composed by the late Charles Mingus, providing one of the festival’s highlights.
Overall, there was an overdose of standards presented by four female vocalists – Smith, Camille Thurman, Mandy Gaines and Carter. There was too much scatting – the art of singing nonsensical syllables impromptu. Two songs – ‘Summertime’ and Dizzy Gillespie’s ‘Night In Tunisia’ – were repeated, though both singers interpreted them differently. Moreover, the much-hyped jam session at the end had many moments of utter confusion.
Those were, of course, only minor flaws, if one could call them that. Each of the acts was brilliant, and the crowd got its money’s worth. The acoustics were remarkable, except in the case of Round Midnight Orchestra where the horns drowned the vocals. Both the musicians and listeners went back on a high, and that’s what mattered.
Some artistes displayed the right amounts of entertainment and humour. Most important, it was one of the rare occasions when one got to hear grand piano, double bass, and a regular-sized drumkit throughout a festival, instead of the keyboards, electric bass and thousands of drums one normally gets.
The festival began with the Dal Segno Trio, featuring vocalist Smith. It had an interesting title, considering that Dal Segno wasn’t the name of a musician but denoted a navigation marker in musical notation. After a piano-drum-bass trio rendition of Porter’s ‘Everything I Love’, Smith joined in on ‘Summertime’. The other tracks included Porter’s ‘Night And Day’, Ellington’s ‘In A Sentimental Mood’, the French hit ‘La Vie En Rose’, Gershwin’s ‘Everything I Love’ and Gillespie’s ‘Night In Tunisia’. It was a standard set more appropriate for a club ambience, though drummer Darrell Smith lightened the mood with his humour.
New York-based Camille Thurman was an absolute delight. She joined the Darrell Green Trio on her tenor saxophone, playing Porter’s ‘My Heart Belongs To Daddy’ and Wayne Shorter’s ‘Beauty And The Beast’. Then, she rendered flawless vocals on the popular ‘Forever Is A Long Time’ and ‘Detour Ahead’, and Horace Silver’s ‘Love Vibrations’, before winding up with Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘The Nearness Of You’.
The exuberant Mandy Gaines continued the vocal magic on Day Two, playing popular fare with her quartet and yet charming with her own interpretations. Her rendition of the Armstrong-popularised ‘What A Wonderful World’, Jobim’s ‘The Boy From Ipanema’ and Stevie Wonder’s ‘My Cherie Amour’ delighted the crowd, and her interactive rendition of Nat King Cole’s ‘L-O-V-E’ had everyone singing along.
Round Midnight Orchestra, comprising musicians from Holland, was joined by American singer Deborah Carter, who tried to bring out the old-world charm of New York’s 52nd Street. However, two saxophones and a trumpet prevented her well-modulated voice from really breaking through. Her choice included the standards ‘ Blues In The Night’, ‘Ain’t Misbehaving’ and ‘Harlem Nocturne’, Ellington’s ‘It Don’t Mean A Thing’ and Armstrong’s ‘When You’re Smiling’.
To accommodate the jam session, the final day began early. The Yuval Cohen Quartet played the KadishZuger Suite, consisting of 10 movements or episodes written by soprano saxophonist Cohen in memory of his late father. Blending classical music of the Romantic Era with traditional jazz and Israeli folk, it talked of a person’s journey in life, ending with death and the feeling thereafter. Different moods represented different periods, and cellist Maya Belzitsman and trombonist Yonatan Voltzok were outstanding.
The main acts ended with the Mingus Dynasty Quintet, led by tenor saxophonist Abraham Burton, who was joined by a classic line-up of trumpet, piano, double bass, and drums. The musicians played well-known Mingus tunes like ‘Boogie Stop Shuffle’, ‘Peggy’s Blue Skylight’, ‘Sue’s Changes’, ‘Self-Portrait in 3 Colors’ and the immortal ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’, which was dedicated to saxophonist Lester Young. For Mingus fans, it was a treat.
Much was expected from the jam session finale, but what the musicians did was just interchange band members, with no real methodology in mind. There were some good vocal spells by Thurman, Gaines and Carter, and some crisp saxophone, bass, piano and drum solos. But it had been a long evening, and people slowly trickled out, either to grab a bite, or because they were tired, or because the AC went into freeze mode on the final day.
Jam sessions seem good when one is familiar with all musicians. Here, except for the singers, many kept guessing who belonged to which orchestra. Maybe some thinking is needed next time.
All in all, it was a melody-packed affair. Mumbai has a fairly large number of devoted jazz fans, and smaller events keep happening at nightspots and some concert halls. An annual festival is always welcome, and this one did jazz up our evenings with music that mostly made us nostalgic.
Rating: 8/ 10