Telluride Jazz Festival 8.1 - 8.3.14

Town Park
Telluride, CO
Words, Photos & Video By Nicholas Stock
(Fat Guerilla Productions)

Friday August 1st:

Few places are as overwhelmingly picturesque and utterly glorious as the sleepy mountain town of Telluride. Sleepy may be a bit of an understatement, considering this burg plays host to some of the most sought-after festivals in the United States. Home to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Blues and Brews, The Ride Festival, Telluride Film Festival MountainFilm, and so much more, Telluride is an oasis of culture in the San Juan Mountains. One of the lesser known, but equally impressive, events is the Telluride Jazz Celebration. 2014 marked the 38th time that jazz musicians from all over the world descended on Town Park for three days of superbly good times.

The lineup this year was a veritable who’s who of modern funk, fusion, and Latin jazz. The featured musician, Poncho Sanchez would join in on three sets over the weekend, but first we had to get there. Telluride is a good 7 1/2 hours from Fort Collins. We drove through the night and managed to miss the majority of severe weather that was drifting though southwest Colorado. We made it to Telluride around 4:00 AM just in time to see an adult black bear scurrying across Colorado Avenue before we pitched our tent in the darkness.

Waking up in Telluride just down stream from a waterfall is something to experience… sooner rather than later. I got up and after a nice breakfast we headed into the concert grounds. Words don’t do justice to the 360° views that encapsulate the town as you enter the Town Park Stage area. The roughly pedicured lawn plays host to running children, some easy up tents, and wall-to-wall camping chairs. Of course the dance floor remains in tact marked by a dirt line edged into the earth from decades of boogying. I was greeted by the soothing sounds of Michael Bellar & The As-Is Ensemble. This band was a great choice to get the weekend started. They were a refreshing breath of unfettered improvisation. The As-Is Ensemble consists of Bellar on keys, Brad Wentworth on drums, and Rob Jost on bass. This trio has that heavy B-3 element that pushes the group toward the funky side of life. Bellar was quite the showman with rowdy tunes like “Biscuit Baby” and “Squashing Pollyanna.” They featured several songs off the new album Oh No Oh Wow, which aptly describes my reaction to Mr. Bellar and company.

Rumor had it that weather would be a factor on Friday afternoon. However the sun continued to shine eventually bathing the entire valley in a warm aspenglow before disappearing for the night. Nigel Hall Band would be the first appearance of Hall, but it would not be his last… we’ll get to that. Nigel oozes with soul; his sound is that of a bygone era. He would be at home in a smoky nightclub in Motown in the 70’s. We are blessed to have him with us in the present day, and we are lucky that he is not stingy with his talents. His band included Derwin “Big D” Perkins who would be another VIP of the weekend playing with the Absolute Monster Gentlemen as well. The balances of heavy Soul riffs with searing guitar grooves made this show a highlight of the weekend. Drummer Alvin Ford Jr. treated us to a huge solo to send them on their way.

The Free Spirits Tasting began and soon after Monty Alexander and The Kingston Express pulled into Town Park. This is what I love about Telluride Jazz Fest, you can see an artist or group that you may have never even heard of and go away totally captivated. Mr. Alexander was a referential blast down the nostalgia highway. Combining his own elevated sense of jazz with his Jamaican heritage and popular music; Mr Alexander treated us to a series of mashups the likes of which I’ve never seen. At one point he had an extended jam going on “The Sound Of Music” while weaving in Harry Belefonte’s “Day-O” and the occasional Pink Panter bass line. His music is as intoxicating as the spirits that were being freely passed at the back of the yard. The entire band would be blasting away on some funky jazz before breaking into a brief rip on “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” and then suddenly blasting off into “Another One Bites The Dust.” It was a show not to be forgotten from a man who as been performing across the planet for half a century. Monty Alexander has played with everyone from Frank Sinatra to Dizzy Gillespie. They wrapped up their set with the jazziest versions of Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry” anyone is likely to ever see live.

Last on the bill for the evening was Grupo Fantasma. My notes simply say ‘A Latin Explosion of Joy.’ That pretty much sums up this nine-piece band hailing from Austin, TX. Again another group that I had never heard of, giving a powerhouse performance in Town Park. Weaving in funk and elements of rock this band primarily stuck to the Latin jams. High swirling notes made the audience dizzy with excitement. Vocalist Kino Esparza alternated between dancing, drumming, and wailing on the vocals. They closed their set with a version of Los Lobos’ “Mas Y Mas.”

Telluride Jazz Fest is not the throw down you might be expecting. No it’s a classier affair, which is over by 10 PM at the latest each night. Now Jazz After Dark is a series of after shows throughout Telluride, for those that want to keep the party train rolling. After regrouping at camp I made my way in town. I caught the end of headliner Poncho Sanchez & His Latin Band at the Sheridan Opera House. He gave us a ridiculous version of Santana’s “Oye Como Va.” I then stopped by the Fly Me To The Moon Saloon for the talented Nigel Hall Band. This would be his second performance of the weekend. Much like their afternoon set these masters of soul ripped it up. Afterwards, I retreated to my tent to get some rest for day two.

Saturday August 2nd:

Saturday was arguably the strongest lineup, with a total of seven bands playing in Town Park. The weather was stunning with a slight breeze drifting up valley. I took the opportunity the head up to the Mountain Village and play some disc golf at the Double Cabins Disc Golf Course. It has eighteen holes and plays up a massive ski run. Then I took the free gondola back down in time for the second group of the day, the Telluride All Stars 20th Reunion Group. Several familiar faces dotted the lineup. Duo saxophonists, Josh Quinlin and Adam Larson, have both played Telluride Jazz in years prior. The band performed arrangements from each of the members including “Crack Pot” and Larson’s “New Thread.” This was definitely a superior style of jazz with a focus on a more traditional approach.

Bela Fleck said, “She is pure music.” Claudia Villela totally embodied that statement on Saturday. Blowing whistles in between lyrics, her show was enchanting. Villela came to Telluride by way of Rio de Janeiro. She did not hesitate to bring the fire of her home with her. Her voice is unbelievable with a range not usually seen live.

Caleb Chapman’s Crescent Super Band is a 23 piece musical explosion. They got our attention by opening with a horn infused version of Beyonce’s “Crazy In Love.” Caleb is a musical director from Utah who teaches over 150 students including the Crescent Super Band. This particular performance had a 15 piece horn section and 23 performers overall. The band was an exhibition of what is possible in music education. Playing a wide range of traditional and pop music, the Crescent Super Band had one of the most pleasant sets of the entire weekend with stellar versions of “Sky Fall” and Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition.” Poncho Sanchez joined the group for “Besa Me Mama” and the set closing “Typo.”

With the free wine tasting in full swing the much-anticipated Snarky Puppy took the stage. Fresh off winning a Grammy for their song with Lalah Hathaway, this band creates multi-layered instrumental jams that are dense with sound. The talent in this group is obvious. This band has nearly 40 members who have recorded and toured with the group. In Telluride we were treated to a stripped down version of the band with only seven players. Nigel Hall again appeared on the Town Park stage to lend his talents to the mix.

Finally, it was time for the esteemed Poncho Sanchez & His Latin Jazz Band. Poncho is known as one of the top American percussionist of the modern era. His roots in Afro-Cuban and traditional Jazz gave him a powerful perspective on music. He initially performed with Cal Tjader until he died in 1982. Afterwards, Poncho began leading his own band and went to produce 19 albums including his Grammy award winning live record Latin Soul. The show in Telluride was a nice sampling of Poncho’s work. Songs like the soulful “Cuidado” made a real impression on the audience. The dirt floor became a huge dance party as Poncho banged away on his congas.

The final show on Saturday at the Town Park Stage was Lettuce. This band has been blowing up the scene in recent years with their brand of funk-filled instrumental music and high-energy vocals. However, this Brooklyn-based musical monolith has been around for over two decades. Led by drummer Adam Deitch, this band became a ‘super group’ long after they met at the Berklee School of Music in Boston for a summer music program. The projects they have embraced beyond Lettuce (Pretty Lights, Soulive, DMB) have pushed most of the members into the national spotlight. Their set was just short of 90 minutes giving fans ample opportunity to find their groove. This show would mark Nigel Hall’s 4th appearance of the festival. Eventually, the percussionists from Snarky Puppy would join Lettuce for a sick drum jam.

“The mandatory dance party starts now.” – Nigel Hall

“Bustin' Loose” was a Hall sung blowout that featured his soulful vocals juxtaposed against the snappy funk of the rest of the band.

Saturday’s ‘After Dark’ offerings were the best of the entire weekend. I headed uptown to start with Mike Dillon and company at the Elks Club. This venue is the furthest off the beaten path, but after a short walk we found ourselves outside. As we entered, the sweet sounds of punk-fueled jazz floated over the relatively small crowd. Johnny Vidokovich had travel issues so he was not present. Therefore the three-piece band consisted of Dillon on percussion, James Singleton on bass, and Brian Haas of Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey fame on keys. Their hard-hitting sound was a great way to start the late night festivities.

I parted ways with my friends and raced over to see the end of Jon Cleary and The Absolute Monster Gentlemen again at the historic Sheridan Opera House. His brand of New Orleans jazz is pure class. Again, Nigel Hall and Derwin “Big D” Perkins were in attendance adding their soul and ripping guitar respectively. My joy was short lived as my arrival coincided with their encore.

I headed down to Fly Me To The Moon Saloon where Red Baraat had just finished, and Adam Deitch Duo featuring DJ Logic was just setting their stage. What followed may have been the musical highlight of the entire weekend. A line of musicians formed outside the humble stone doorway. The show began with Logic spinning his sweet brand of subtle scratch heavy funk and Deitch at the helm of the kit. Jesus from Lettuce appeared and the show was on. Members of Snarky Puppy drifted in during this melting pot of music. At one point, Deitch left and the entire mood of the music shifted into a trance-ier mindset. Musically, this was a chance for some of the best touring jazz musicians in the world to slap some strings and flow freely. As I wondered back to my tent in Town Park the smile was evident.

Sunday August 3rd:

Thematically, Sunday at the Telluride Jazz Celebration has always featured the sounds of New Orleans. The festivities began with a parade down Colorado Avenue featuring Red Baraat. I made it down to the box office in time to catch a rowdy rendition of “It’s All Over Now.” The horns echoed off the building as the fans danced in the streets.

Soon after, the Young Razzcals Jazz Project took the stage this time lead by the dedicated Dave Adams. Throughout its fifteen-year history this group has featured 125 young musicians. Performing a wide range of styles heavily focused on traditional jazz, these young musicians showed their impressive talents. An original entitled “ZK30” gave us some swing-heavy horns that really got the day started on the right foot.

DVS also known as Mike Dillon, Johnny Vidokovich, & James Singleton featuring Brian Haas was up next. Their 90 minutes was the type of jazz that has been known to upset traditionalists. This band is not restrained by tradition, in fact they push the boundaries of jazz, bebop, and punk at the same time. There is so much raw talent and experience in this group. Dillon sang his original “I Ain’t Buying” with his beautiful croak. Mike invited Mr. Vidokovich to play his tune “Dr. Watson.” The band gave us an instrumental version of Jane’s Addiction’s “Summertime Rolls” before they exited stage left.

The high impact East meets Funk band Red Baraat appeared as the rain began to pour. They, along with the audience, diligently pushed on as the storm continued. Yet another band hailing from Brooklyn this eight-piece group is the ultimate North Indian infused dance party. Red Baraat is the brainchild of lead singer, composer, and percussionists Sunny Jain. He danced fervently as the band played on. This show was a wholly unique experience and definitely worth further exploration.

Jon Cleary & The Absolute Monster Gentlemen finally got their chance to play on the main stage. After a strong performance the night before it was time for Cleary to smack that NOLA sound off the canyon walls. Songs like “Gangsta Luv” got the night going strong early. Cleary’s fingers tickled the keys while his band shreded. Jon sang a marvelous rendition of Alan Toussaint’s “What Do You Want The Girl To Do?” Jon Cleary has been called the 8th Wonder of the World, and I’d have to agree. His raspy elegance combined with his impeccable skills at the piano make him a "not to miss" show.

Dragon Smoke is yet another band formed in a late night New Orleans jam session. Consisting of Stanton Moore on drums and Robert Mercurio on bass(both of Galactic), alongside Dumpstaphunk’s Ivan Neville and singer songwriter, Eric Lindell. The lineup is pretty unfathomable not to mention the fact that both Mike Dillon and DJ Logic sat in for large chunks of the set. For the first song Ivan sent Nigel Hall out to the keys.

“I’m gonna nominate myself for MVP… I have to.” –Hall

He was absolutely right. Ivan appeared and our MVP retreated backstage. “Rollin’ to the Country” set the mood for the last show of the festival, and reminded us of our remote locale. Dillon and Logic first appeared for the song “Gravy Cadillac.” They did a version of King Floyd’s “Groove Me” that set the audience on fire. Dragon Smoke was an absolute pleasure and the best way possible to say goodbye to Telluride.

The Telluride Jazz Celebrate has become one of my favorite events in Colorado. Simply put this is the most relaxed festival, with the strongest lineup year after year, in the prettiest place in the state. What’s not to like? There’s so much to do and see beyond the festival that I recommend coming down a day early next year. The locals are incredibly friendly despite having to put up with a festival every single weekend of the summer. The sunsets are simply stunning and I can’t think of a better place to listen to some of the best jazz being played in life today.

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