Ho hum surrounds this year's Kool Jazz Festival
Of all the festivals in the multi-city Kool Jazz Festival series, the New York event is probably the most ambitious. It all began with George Wein's modest little Newport Jazz Festival in 1956, which increased in size and stature over the years and has become a model for other festivals. Earlier this summer concerts were given in Manhattan (including Harlem); New Jersey; and Saratoga, N.Y., with as many as three events each day.
Unfortunately, disappointment surrounded much of the activity here this year. It isn't easy to pinpoint a single cause for this feeling. Aside from some of the obvious problems of poor programming and inadequate handling of the sound, audiences complained of the ''same old stuff'' - too many tributes to famous musicians of the past and a dearth of new, exciting talent.
But the issue seems to go deeper than just the trappings of the festival. Jazz, considered by many to be America's classical music, has generally been heading in two directions: toward the serious and the elitist on one hand, and toward pop and rock on the other. Coexisting with these trends is the tried and true, the staple of jazz festivals.
On the rock side, the New York festival included Spyro Gyra, Chuck Mangione, Miles Davis, Dave Grusin & the NY/LA, Dream Band, the slick pop/rhythm-and-blues of B. B. King, and Gil Evans's large jazz/rock ensemble. And on the tried-and-true side: Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Mercer Ellington, Mel Torme, George Shearing, and others.
With the exception of an avant-garde series that seemed to be separate from the rest of the festival (it was held in a stifling, out-of-the-way loft), there wasn't much room for those rare adventurous voices that stem from the tradition and grow outward. And even many of the avant-garde offerings were the usual self-indulgent meanderings, in need of a lot more than editing.
There were a few exceptions to the generally ho-hum feeling of the festival. One was French pianist Michel Petrucciani, who promises to be a major figure on piano very soon. The youthful Petrucciani, who is known for his association with saxophonist Charles Lloyd's quartet, gave a solo piano recital at Carnegie Recital Hall. He proved himself a musician of extraordinary maturity, solidly grounded in the piano style of the late pianist Bill Evans, but with a strong approach of his own.
He has an acute awareness of the endless harmonic and melodic possibilities of his material - standard tunes, jazz repertoire, and some original works. And he demonstrates this with more than a touch of humor.
Another substantial musical style was that of pianist-composer-arranger Toshiko Akiyoshi. The 16-piece band that she and her husband, Lew Tabackin, a tenor saxophonist, flutist, and composer, formed over 10 years ago in Los Angeles split up last fall when the pair moved to New York. The New York festival marked the debut of their new band.
From the opening number, Miss Akiyoshi's composition ''Elegy,'' this band exhibited the potential to become as polished, skillful, and creative as its West Coast predecessor. Miss Akiyoshi presented several new works, including the ambitious ''Two Faces of a Nation.''
Tabackin soloed outstandingly throughout, and Frank Wess played a lovely flute solo on Akiyoshi's ''Mobile.'' The inclusion of Japanese tzuzumi drum players and Noh voices (of Japanese drama) added a startling and effective touch to the Akiyoshi compositions, ''Kogun'' and ''Relaxing at Zell-Am-See.''
Other fine musicians also performed, but the programming of events tended to work against, rather than for, the artists. The festival's tributes to jazz figures no longer with us, in particular, caused problems. With all due respect to the musicians, such concerts are probably the worst way to show off musical talent.
The usual approach is to put together a bunch of musicians who were associated in some way (however tenuously) with the subject of the tribute. Then they try, usually after a minimum of rehearsal time, to re-create the music of a certain artist or period.
Most of the musicians will have gone on to other musical ventures since their days with the person being saluted. So what you have is a group trying to make the best of a bad situation. Wouldn't it be better to have a well-rehearsed new interpretation of a composer's or arranger's music, or perhaps to showcase an important work?
An example of the right way to do this sort of concert was the performance of Duke Ellington's lengthy suite ''Black, Brown, and Beige,'' played by the Mercer Ellington orchestra at the Ellington tribute. The work had not been performed in its entirety since 1942, and it was a joy to hear. The wrong way was exemplified in the Ellington alumni band, which was a sloppy effort to reunite some of the men who had played with Ellington.
''A Salute to the Swing Era,'' however, with Rosemary Clooney, Count Basie, Mel Torme, George Shearing, and a new vocal trio, Full Swing, was quite fine, although a bit long. I didn't attend the tribute to Coleman Hawkins, but I heard it was the best of the lot.
Still to come in the multi-city extravaganza (some dates overlap): Seattle, July 30-Aug. 5; Atlanta, Aug. 7-14; Newport, R.I., Aug. 20-21; Chicago, Aug. 31 -Sept. 4; Detroit, Aug. 31-Sept. 5; San Diego, Sept. 23-0ct. 2; Louisville, Ky., Oct. 2-8; San Francisco, Oct. 18-29; Houston, Oct.25-30; New Orleans, Oct. 26-30 .