Telluride is a bucolic little burg nestled in a massive crevasse carved by the San Miguel River over the course of eons. It is one of the most arresting landscapes on the planet. Telluride is a world unto itself and this little mecca has cultivated an unbelievable music scene. While best known for its bluegrass festival, the most unsung event occurring on an annual basis is the Telluride Jazz Festival. While 2017 could have been seen as a rebuilding year given that longtime executive director Paul Machado retired, leaving production responsibilities to Blues & Brews producer SBG, it was a successful weekend, although the weather definitely put a damper on the proceedings.
This year continued the tradition of rain at Telluride Jazz which has almost become expected by those who attend this event on a regular basis. Large popups and rain gear are essential to do this festival correctly. We arrived early to check out The McCarthy Trio. Known as the house band for the Telluride Wine Festival, Kevin McCarthy is a local who hails from Durango. His straightforward style was a great way to roll out the fest. He teaches at the Stillwater Foundation in Durango and The Stillwater All-Stars took the stage next. This group is a collaboration between select students and several members of the faculty. They are a full on touring group and their chops were on point in Telluride. They treated us to a tight set of traditional jazz. It was around the start of their set that the Wine and Whiskey Tasting commenced. Fans were treated to a wide array of libations as part of their ticket purchase. These tastings have been a hallmark of TJF and an excuse to get loosened up before the evening sets. Ranky Tanky took the stage next. Steeped in the “Gullah” tradition of the Sea Island region off the coast of the Carolinas Ranky Tanky is simply put, remarkable. Tight horns accentuate the powerful rhythms and vocals of this five piece. Their style is a throwback to another time and another place and the vocals of Quiana Parler are beautifully haunting.
The bass seemed to be front and center all weekend. The first band that really highlighted the instrument was fatsO. Daniel Restrepo’s bass takes the spotlight, but his Tom Waits-like vocals are definitely backseat driving. The dynamic showman Lee Fields and his Expressions were the highlight of Friday’s lineup. His soulful vocals accompanied by his sparkly red jacket were enough to warm the rain soaked crowd. Fields is a prolific soul man and all of his talents were on display in Telluride. The night ended with a performance by Macy Gray and while her signature vocals stayed fairly on point her multiple calls to the crowd that it was Saturday night left onlookers scratching their heads. Given her Thursday night patron performance at the Sheridan Opera House, I suspect that to her, it was Saturday night. Highlights from Gray’s set included arresting versions of Radiohead’s “Creep” as well as her fan favorite “I Try.”
The skies threatened rain all morning on Saturday and we were doused sporadically during the early sets. Eventually the clouds cleared and we were treated to the best sunset of the weekend. Per tradition, Saturday began with the Telluride Student All-Stars Jazz Ensemble comprised of students from around the country. This group represents TJF’s flagship education scholarship program and they perform original compositions submitted by the individual artists. Their performance was a breath of fresh air. With the arrival of the Cha Wa Mardis Gras Indian Band it began to feel like NOLA day at Telluride Jazz. While Big Chief Honey Banister could not make it, Spyboy J’Wan Boudreaux took his place and filled in brilliantly. Versions of The Meters’ “Fiya On the Bayou” and the zydeco traditional “Liza Jane” left fans eager for more. Late in their set they performed a tight version of Bob Marley’s “Soul Rebel.” The Voodoo Orchestra is another one of Caleb Chapman’s projects. He is a mentor and a bandleader out of Salt Lake City who gives young musicians a chance to perform live in various projects. Those projects could be seen playing special events all around Telluride Jazz Festival. The Voodoo Orchestra is his big band outfit and highlights from their set included a musical medley that began with Lavert’s “Cassanova” and wrapped up with Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing.” They closed the set with the Bruce Channel classic “Hey! Baby.” The Suffers were a throwback to a bygone era of Motown and buttery soul. Their set was a huge hit with the crowd.
The talk of the festival for both their main stage set as well as their Jazz After Dark set at The Sheridan Opera House was Miles Mosley and The West Coast Get Down. This band is a product of absolute collaboration and represents a resurgence of jazz in Los Angeles. Over the course of 30 days the WCGD recorded 130 or so songs which resulted in enough material for six separate albums. These guys are definitely on an upward trajectory. Their versions of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” and Jimi Hendrix’s “If 6 Was 9” were mesmerizing. The headliner for night two was The Funky Meters with Special Guest Dr. John. This was a fill in for Bootsy Collins who is currently receiving medical treatment for a tumor. The set began on shaky ground with Art Neville uncharacteristically tepid on keys. Porter seemed to nudge him along during early numbers “Soul Island” and “Fiya on the Bayou.” While Dr. John stepped out and delivered a rousing rendition of his signature tune “Right Place Wrong Time,” portions of the set fell a bit flat.
The sun was shining brightly as the traditional second line parade marched down main street on Sunday morning, ending in Town Park. However, the festive atmosphere was quickly dampened by a rain that would not stop for the rest of the day. As Hazel Miller treated patrons and attendees to her gospel stylings I commented that we were “being baptized by the rain for Sunday Morning service.” Her set was a mix of gospel and the secular with delicately delivered tunes like Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” and “Oh Happy Day.” The rain continued during the Bubbles and Bloodies hour warming up those who stayed through the weather. Telluride Jazz Festival regulars Bob Montgomery and Josh Quinlan performed with their sextet offering some straightforward jazz. Davina And The Vagabonds kept the party rolling despite the exodus of those who didn’t bring the proper gear. Davina’s mix of NOLA style jazz, gospel, and blues is utterly unique and the talent of the entire group is undeniable. Vaud And The Villains is a massive group that features a bit of Cabaret and a lot of musical talent. Inspired by 1930’s New Orleans, this group has a sound that is hard to put your finger on. In addition to their festival set they closed out Telluride Jazz with an After Dark set at The Sheridan Opera House.
Finally, at 7:30 PM on the dot Mavis Staples and her band appeared to the delight of the audience. Full of energy and vigor, she led the crowd during a sing-along style on her call-to-arms “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me).” Mavis and her band went into an almost spiritual version of the Talking Heads’ “Slippery People” as well as a very timely rendition of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth.” Late in the set we were treated to the Staples Singers classic “Respect Yourself.” Mavis Staples was the cherry on the top of the sundae for the 2017 Telluride Jazz Festival.
While there were a couple low points, particularly with the weather, all told, this is still one of the best events in Colorado. Telluride Jazz has always been marketed as the “premiere destination jazz festival” and it is definitely that. It’s not easy to get to, but always worth the trip. The Jazz fest is the entire experience leaving fans plenty of time to take in the sights, enjoy the local restaurants or just hang out at camp. If you are on the fence about hitting a festival in Telluride, I highly suggest Jazz for its laid back, family friendly atmosphere. You won’t be disappointed.