NEW YORK — As the Kool Jazz Festival nears its end, one fact becomes unmistakably clear: The scope of this venerable event has grown to the point where anything involving a rhythmic pulse and improvisation can now be presented in the name of this umbrella term.
Pop, rock and fusion artists, soul singers, Afro-Brazilian stars and jazz neo-classicists vie for attention. There was even a Spanish ethnic night co-produced by Spain's Ministry of Culture.
Of the 10 concerts I have seen in the last five days, the most effectively conceived and executed have been the tributes--all of them to artists either deceased (Wes Montgomery, Bud Powell, Ethel Waters) or ailing (John Hammond). The final concert Sunday will be a tribute to Louis Armstrong.
The most emotional moment came with the surprise appearance, at the Hammond salute, of Benny Goodman. George Wein's announcement of his name all but tore off the roof of the Avery Fisher Hall. Now 76 and retired, Goodman was in fine spirit as he paid his respects to Hammond, the talent scout who helped organize his 1935 band.
He played impeccably with a superb group of his peers, among them the pianist Dick Hyman, Sweets Edison on trumpet, and guitarist George Benson, whose festival gigs have completely restored his image as a jazz virtuoso. He even sat in briefly with Stevie Ray Vaughan, whose group took up the second half of the Hammond evening.
Benson's finest hour was his Carnegie appearance as one of the guitarists in the Montgomery tribute (the others were Larry Coryell, Jim Hall, Kenny Burrell and Kevin Eubanks). After two numbers in the Montgomery octave-unison style, he loosened up and, backed by a powerful big band, tore into "Caravan" in a breathtaking chorus.
The Bud Powell night at Town Hall, though a few horn players were heard, consisted primarily of bebop pianists: Walter Davis Jr. playing muddied, roughhouse Powell, Tommy Flanagan playing polished Powell, George Wallington in decaffeinated Powell, Walter Bishop bopping convincingly and, best of all, the super-Powell of Barry Harris, who truly is the keeper of the flame. Powell himself was seen in a 1960 Paris film, at first fascinating but at 40 minutes too long. Producer Ira Gitler narrated the show informatively.
Ethel Waters was sentimentally recalled at Carnegie Hall Thursday in "Stormy Weather," produced by and occasionally featuring Bobby Short. Too little was said about the facts of Waters' life and the conditions under which she became the first black superstar.
Theatrically, vocally and instrumentally (Dick Hyman was musical director) the evening was richly evocative of Waters' era. Among the singers who set it all in perspective were the tall, stunning Rhetta Hughes applying her wide range to "Memories of You;" the hip-shaking Carrie Smith, the funny and nasal Nell Carter (but "Stormy Weather" should not have been assigned to her), and the quietly dignified Theresa Merritt, whose a cappella spiritual, "His Eye Is on the Sparrow," closed the show. Topping them all was Waters herself in five rare film clips. The only sour note was a trio of lame, inauthentic numbers by Susan LaMarch, whose inclusion seemed like tokenism in reverse.
Wednesday at Carnegie Hall the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, with its entertaining mixture of tuba-propelled traditionalism and bop themes, almost stole the show from Wynton Marsalis and the other gifted youths in "Young New Orleans."
Marsalis now leads a quartet, brother Branford having gone off on his own; this reduced the tonal variety of the group. The leader's muted horn on "Lazy Afternoon" carried an emotional impact missing in too much of his set.