Review: Diana Krall Brings Mellon Fest To Classy Close

Dave Douglas, Jeff 'Tain' Watts also turn in juicy performances.

PITTSBURGH — With hundreds — if not thousands — of Diana Krall fans jamming Point State Park on Sunday night, one of the most successful editions of the Mellon Jazz Festival came to an end.

The festival began June 13 and offered a cross-pollination of musical styles, from the forward-thinking improvisations of trumpeter Dave Douglas to saxophonist Virginia Mayhew, who referenced everyone from saxophonists Zoot Sims to Sonny Rollins during her James Street Tavern performance.

The Roy Haynes Trio were scheduled to perform Thursday, but the concert was canceled because bad weather in Philadelphia delayed their plane.

Sunday night it was Krall's show. The Canadian pianist/singer blended pop, folk and some of jazz's more standard arrangements, firing up the Symphony Stage crowd. It's clear why Krall is a mainstream sensation. At her best she is enormously charismatic and an estimable word colorist to boot.

Backed by Rodney Greene on drums, Ben Wolfe on bass and Dan Faehnle on guitar, Krall moved between torchy and spirited singing with finesse and assurance, decorating some songs with swooning improvisations. She played standards such as "Take the A Train" and pop tunes from Peggy Lee and Joni Mitchell, delivering all with style and grace.

But she made her greatest appeal in the simple, direct lyricism of Cole Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin."

The Right Timing

Sunday got going with Pittsburgh native Jeff "Tain" Watts and his band Experience, featuring saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, bassist James Genus, guitarist Paul Bollenback and pianist Dave Budway. Anyone who lives vicariously through jazz knows that when Watts is in the house, two things invariably happen. First, the level of musicianship rises exponentially. Then the music swings with graceful repose.

Watts, who helped make his name as a member of "The Tonight Show" band, demonstrated not only that he has the entire drum vocabulary at his fingertips but also that he isn't afraid to expand his language. He opened his one-hour set with "Attainment," shuffling rhythms in a loose, silky continuity. The song is on last year's album Citizen Tain.

There are no jagged edges in Watts' drum patterns. His timing and the way he places each accent — whether it's launched from the rim of the drum or hi-hat cymbal — against the basic pulse are a sight to behold.

On "Pools of Amber," which the drummer dedicated to his parents, Budway and Genus played excellent solos. "Muphkin Man" derived its spirit from the subtle interaction among the players. Coltrane was free to let loose but conformed to the logic of the piece.

Shaking Everything They've Got

On Saturday, the Mellon Festival presented Maceo Parker at Hartwood Acres, and for a moment it looked like the saxophonist would be denied the opportunity to ingratiate himself with the large crowd. Dark clouds menaced the park, but soon they dissipated, and with the clear skies came so much groove-laden music that even the dogs roaming the grounds couldn't resist.

Earlier in the evening, University of Pittsburgh Jazz Studies Director Nathan Davis and Tomorrow got the crowd started with rhythmically charged arrangements by everyone from Miles Davis to Wayne Shorter. But it was Parker, a.k.a. the "Architect of the Groove," that the crowd came to see. And he didn't disappoint.

Parker, who hadn't been to Pittsburgh in what he described as a "long minute," was performing with his funk ensemble.

(Click here for a full report on the Maceo Parker performance.)

"Maceo is one of the funkiest performers I've ever heard," Carlton Holmes, 44, of Detroit said. "Much of his mannerisms and stage presence remind me of James [Brown]."

"Good God!" Maceo shouted to the audience. "It's going to be funky here tonight. Everything we do from this point on will be funky." True to his word, funk filled the air in a joyful cacophony. The band immediately launched into "Pass the Peas," made famous by Parker's most famous former employer, Brown.

Funk is party music. It's music that requires audience participation, and when the group played "Rabbit in the Pea Patch" from its latest recording, Dial: Maceo, the crowd began to dance. But the hard-driving funk that has come to characterize a Parker performance found its fullest expression on "Elephant Step On My Foot" and "Shake Everything You Got" from the group's Planet Groove recording.

Irresistible Sounds

In what was one of the most exciting events of the festival, the Dave Douglas Sextet demonstrated Friday at the outdoor stage at South Park how jazz can be beautiful and unbridled when it is held together by collective creative vision.

Only recently has Douglas started getting the recognition he deserves. After putting out more than a dozen CDs on obscure labels starting in 1993, he finally scored his first major-label release with RCA's Soul on Soul earlier this year. At the 1999 New York Jazz Awards he won Artist of the Year, Composer of the Year and Trumpeter of the Year.

Douglas' sextet, which featured trombonist Joshua Roseman, saxophonist Greg Tardy, bassist James Genus, pianist Ethan Iverson and drummer Joey Baron, was a hit with the Pittsburgh fans — especially Tardy, who conjured the spirits of saxophonists John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy throughout the evening.

Much of the evening focused on music from Soul on Soul, which celebrates the music of the late Pittsburgh pianist-composer Mary Lou Williams. But as good as the recording is, it pales in comparison to the group's live performance.

The sextet played "Mary's Idea" and "Waltz Boogie" with strong conviction and intricate collective interplay. A sense of drama built as the arrangements moved from the more subdued and sinister to explorations in freer territory.

While many trumpeters come across as deadly serious, there's an intimate, even fragile quality to Douglas' playing. He revealed how burnished his tone can be on "Canticle" and "Aires" with subtle playing that eschewed flashiness for conviction.

During Friday night's second-set performance at the James Street Tavern, saxophonist Mayhew, who cut her teeth in the Diva All Women Big Band, captivated the audience with her rich and resonating tones. Despite some cautious moments early on — and that's expected when you bring musicians together for the first time — it was clear that the crowd was in the company of an emerging stylist.

Standing stock-still in the center of the stage, Mayhew made the horn moan, growl and whisper. Mayhew and her quartet, which featured drummer Roger Humphries, bassist Dwayne Dolphin and pianist Craig Davis, made old songs appear fresh and energized. Mayhew created a powerful, fluid tone on "Time Alone" and then swung an unidentified 12-bar blues with gritty passion. But it was the sensuous "Maybe Someday" that got the audience members on their feet.