By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Jena Ardell
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Katherine Turman
The festival began with six concerts at the Kaye Playhouse, a pleasingly petite theater that fosters specialty ideas that can barely make a dent in Carnegie, Avery Fisher, or Symphony Space--unlike the Brazilians and Cubans, who accounted for at least five major events in the halls that used to present Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, and Stan Getz, all now passed. Last year's Kaye series was an imaginative success, mixing mainstream and jazz rep, so they did it again, only without the imagination. The almost exclusive focus on prewar (as in WW II) styles had, inevitably, a valedictory effect, combining memory and desire with the morbid fear that some venerated players might not be around much longer, which is one reason I felt obliged to be there. Still, when a tribute to Fats Waller got underway with Al Grey in a wheelchair and Clark Terry on the arm of an aide, the desire to pay homage was undercut by a dismay at seeing great men working at a fraction of their capacities. And yet whatever was ailing them did not affect their lungs, embouchure, or brains; along with 82-year-old guitarist Al Casey, who recorded with Waller, and 75-year-old pianist Ralph Sutton, who imbibed those records until they were part of his motor memory, they salvaged an inaugural concert that, conceptually, was more requiem than flag-waver.
For the first set, the accent was on Waller the songwriter and singer. That became evident as soon as impresario George Wein sat himself at the piano and warned that he would do the singing. Wein is an amiable Teddy Wilson--inspired pianist who has led some fine all-star ensembles without doing damage, but if he were forced to eat with his left hand he'd soon shrink to the size of Michael Dorf. Waller without a left hand isn't Waller, no matter how many choruses you lay down of ''Honeysuckle Rose'' or how desperately Clark Terry mugs ''Your Feet's Too Big.'' And ''Black and Blue'' is no song for a vocal dilettante, especially following an Al Grey solo that left nothing to add. His tone and pitch steady as you go, Grey used the slide and mute to inflect every note with the befitting mwahhh or grrrr. On ''Crazy 'Bout My Baby,'' Terry, his sound improbably restored and buffed, did a routine he made famous in the '60s, trading phrases and then pitches between flugelhorn and muted trumpet, and it was as funny and handsomely executed as ever. The unassuming Al Casey played sliding chords and swinging fillips with a quietly rocking outlook that made you wonder if he knows it isn't 1939 anymore.
The cast changed for the second half (Kenny Davern, Warren Vache, Howard Alden), but belonged to Ralph Sutton, if not the finest living stride pianist then certainly the most individual. Most of the form's practitioners play with braggadocio, chatting away or puffing on a cigar as though their hands were independent contractors--wind them up and off they go. Sutton's signature is an almost conservatory seriousness as he plots every lateral sweep of the left hand and dancing conceit of the right with meticulous care, his sound luminously solid, his rhythm unshakable. Much of his appeal lies in his infallibility; untouched by modernity, his music is ripe with the faded elegance and flourishes of another world, yet he's a bear for abstracting melody and hallelujah finishes. He played Willie the Lion Smith's ''Echoes of Spring'' with driving lyricism. On Waller's ''Viper's Drag,'' he stressed the contrast between the ominous prowl of the opening and the elated stride that follows, much as he emphasized the contrast between boogie tension and melodic release in Waller's ''Alligator Crawl.''
For the rest of the Kaye series, bright moments were rarer still. Predictability ruled. Herb Ellis deserves his tribute, but did it have to be played--as Barney Kessel's was last year--exclusively by guitarists, with bass and drums for ballast? At least open the gates to some fresh faces, maybe even a couple of mavericks--Ulmer, Ribot, Morris, Malone, Whitfield....Not that it isn't a pleasure to hear Mundell Lowe's moonlit melodies or Ellis's twangy blues. But after a while you feel like you're at temple, expected to don a tallislike guitar strap before entering. The concert that thriftily combined homages to Jimmy McPartland and the team of Mildred Bailey and Red Norvo was too thrifty by half. Warren Vache played the trumpet part in a pro forma set of Chicago-style Dixieland with a few standouts: Marian McPartland's delicate ''Singin' the Blues,'' handsomely harmonized and paced with a chiming finish; trombonist Bobby Pratt making hay on ''Louisiana''; Howard Alden's ''Davenport Blues,'' cleverly arranged for solo guitar with a bass line in the manner of George Van Eps and tricky chords. Alden, who played well all week, resisting the temptation to answer showy technique with showy technique, inadvertently triggered the best line at the Harold Arlen tribute, at the outset of a duet on ''If I Only Had a Brain,'' with Ken Peplowski, who turned to the audience as Alden wrapped himself up in a dense cadenza and said, ''If I only had a brain I'd know what he was playing.'' Carol Sloane was in good voice. People who can play well played well.