Labor Day Weekend Jazz Concert
at the Grand Hotel,
Mackinac Island, Mich.
(3-5 September 2004)

Every year the Grand Hotel, one of the country's finest resorts, produces a gem of a jazz weekend. This year's program may have been the best yet.

The Count Basie Orchestra kicked things off Friday night in the hotel ballroom. This ghost band has lost none of its smooth, hip power under Bill Hughes, its most recent director. It's fun to watch the eyes of the unwary widen in shock as full-roar brass follows a quiet piano intro. Amplified rock-guitarists aren't the only ones who can make a wondrous noise.

The band's book is huge, filled with old Basie hits and new arrangements from musicians such as Frank Foster. There are only a handful of veterans who were with the group before the Count's death in 1984 (including its leader, trombonist Hughes), but the sound is much the same and the soloists are top-notch.

The band appeared again Saturday afternoon on an outdoor stage in front of the hotel. After another fine set of instrumentals, vocalist Marlena Shaw joined the party. She got her first big break when Basie asked her to sing with the orchestra at the Sands in Las Vegas and clearly enjoyed this reunion on Mackinac. So did the audience.

Things got more hard-core in the ballroom that evening as singer Kurt Elling and his trio took over the stage. With a terrific voice and an incredible ear, Elling has dominated Down Beat magazine's critics poll for several years. He sang a mix of standards and less familiar tunes, often with words he's added to the jazz solos of Coltrane and others.

Sunday featured Elling again, this time in the outdoor setting. Though I sometimes admire rather than enjoy his work, he kept the set lighter on this sunny afternoon, even including a version of "All the Way" that would have been at home on pop radio -- almost. (This in contrast to Phil Woods, my favorite alto player, who appeared at the festival a few years ago and seemed to go out of his way with a this-is-how-it-is-at-the-Village-Vanguard-and-if-you-don't-like-it-don't-ask-me-back attitude. Which they haven't.)

Elling was followed by the ebullient Latin band of Poncho Sanchez, who is filling much of the void left by the death of Tito Puente, one of his mentors. He too played a mix of standards and newer material, all in an infectious Latin style that had at least a few in the otherwise proper audience up and dancing.

Music is far from restricted to concerts at this annual event. It's everywhere. New York cabaret regular Eric Comstock performed nightly at the piano bar in a style reminiscent of Michael Feinstein, though with a jazzier edge. New Orleans entertainer John Boutte sang far into the night at the hotel's Jockey Club, and the fine, young house band led by altoist Alex Graham showed up to fill any hours and spots not covered by the better known musical guests.

Radio host Paul Anthony emceed the concerts and, for those who still hadn't gotten enough jazz, delightful morning workshops. The first featured Hughes and Shaw reminiscing about their experiences with Count Basie and his band. The second included Elling and Sanchez. With an audience of perhaps 50 in a cozy, intimate setting, the workshops are an unusual opportunity to learn more about the music and hear personal views and anecdotes. Where else would you discover that Poncho Sanchez named a son Mongo thinking he might follow in the footsteps of the great Latin percussionist Mongo Santamaria. (Didn't work out as planned. Mongo became an astrophysicist.)

Wait! I almost forgot Marlena Shaw belting out gospel songs Sunday morning -- and I probably have forgotten at least a few other tasty bits. My wife and I have been going to the Grand on Labor Day with friends ever since the jazz festival started about 15 years ago. We and many others have already booked for next year. Skip Monterey and Newport. Check out Mackinac.

- Rambles
written by Ron Bierman
published 4 December 2004