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 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 and 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.” Afterwards I 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.
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