Review: The Newport Jazz Festival 2014
At 60, not only still going, but still growing
The 60th anniversary Newport Jazz Festival added an extra full day of music to its usual two, going out of its way to use its three stages to tout the music’s future while remaining mindful of its past. And the wet weather Saturday and Sunday did little to dampen festival-goers’ spirits.
Friday’s daytime sets were added largely to give exposure to newcomers of various types, kicking off with the Berklee Global Jazz Ambassadors (led by David Sanchez) and University of Rhode Island Big Band before moving onto primarily still young but solidly established pros. Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society was next onto the Ertegun Fort Stage (i.e., the main one), up against Mostly Other People Do the Killing on the CB Harbor Stage. The former showed off mostly unrecorded music, including tributes to computer science pioneer Alan Turing (“Code Breaker”) and rocker Levon Helm (“Last Waltz for Levon”) and the premiere of a new work commissioned by the festival, titled “Tensile Curves,” which Argue said was inspired by a famous moment from Newport’s past. He’d normally give the audience three guesses, Argue teased the crowd, “but you’re just so hip, I wouldn’t dare.” (That telltale phrasing suggested Duke Ellington’s famous, career-resurrecting 1956 performance, and sure enough, the new work was based on “Crescendo and Diminuedo in Blue,” but with Paul Gonzalves’ epic tenor sax solo stripped out and the piece refocused on Duke’s piano work.) Festival founder George Wein, indulging the sweet tooth many of his generation share for big bands, caught most of the Argue set from his golf-cart “Weinmobile,” and doubled back later to catch Miguel Zenón’s impressive “Identities” Big Band (Zenón’s longstanding quartet augmented by a top-flight horn section) blaze through material from Zenón’s forthcoming album, due in November.
Zenón’s alto-sax rival Rudresh Mahanthappa had unveiled new music earlier, his Charlie Parker Project getting its world premiere on the Harbor Stage opposite vocal phenomenon Cécile McLorin Salvant on the Fort Stage and John Zorn’s Masada Marathon on the Quad Stage—the latter being two-and-a-half hours of various Zorn-led aggregations, beginning with Zorn joined by Dave Douglas, Greg Cohen and Joey Baron, and wrapping up with Zorn conducting his Electric Masada (Marc Ribot, Kenny Wolleson, et al.) through a “sick,” almost comically rapid-fire encore. Mahanthappa’s Parker Project, meanwhile, paid tribute to Bird through new music inspired by Parker-linked tunes and phrases and instrumentation more aligned with Bird combos than Mahanthappa’s previous groups: Matt Mitchell on piano, Francois Moutin on bass, Rudy Royston on drums and 19-year-old Adam O’Farrill (Arturo’s son) on trumpet. Jon Batiste & Stay Human closed out the Fort Stage for the day with a crowd-pleasing set, with Grace Kelly joining the fun for a bit, and Snarky Puppy finished things up on the Quad. But Mahanthappa and Argue were among those spotted checking out trumpeter Amir ElSaffar’s more cutting-edge, Middle-East-accented quintet at the Harbor Stage as the afternoon ended.
That night’s traditional opening concert at the International Tennis Hall of Fame had veteran Dee Dee Bridgewater scatting through her much-belated Newport debut to open, followed by Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Marsalis took an educational approach to the JLCO set, pointing out historical connections the festival and/or the orchestra had to the music being played. Marsalis’ own best solo came on an arrangement of Herbie Hancock’s “Riot,” which Marsalis linked to the crowd misbehavior in 1971 that caused the festival’s decade-long hiatus from Newport (hence this being the 60th anniversary Newport Jazz Festival, not the 60th annual one). And then the JLCO did its tribute to Ellington’s “Crescendo and Diminuendo in Blue,” with Walter Blanding successfully testing his endurance in Gonzalves’ tenor sax role. Blanding’s solo may not have levitated things the way Gonzalves’ did, but neither did he have a shapely blonde dancing beside the stage to help whip up the crowd.
Saturday’s weather was as miserable as its music was magnificent. The Robert Glasper Experiment played the Fort Stage through the worst of the downpour, though conditions didn’t clear up much for the three acts that followed: vocalist Gregory Porter, Wynton and the JALC Orchestra again, and Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue. The Harbor Stage had a nice mix of old and new for those willing to brave the elements and schlep over: Dick Hyman, Howard Aldren and Jay Leonhart; the Kurt Rosenwinkel New Quartet; Stefano Bollani and Hamilton de Holanda; the Newport Now 60 Band. The smart bet seemed to be to find a sheltered seat at the Quad Stage and stay put for Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band, the SFJAZZ Collective, the raucously good-time Pedrito Martinez Group, Cécile McLorin Salvant (hers and the JALC’s were the only groups booked twice), and Dave Holland Prism. Salvant’s resplendently theatrical singing was far removed in style from the Martinez Group but just as adored by the audience. And Holland seemed delighted to be sharing the stage with his all-star fusion group of Craig Taborn on acoustic piano and Fender Rhodes electric, Eric Harland on drums, and erstwhile Tonight Show bandleader Kevin Eubanks on rawer-than-he’s-known-for electric guitar.
Sunday’s weather was drier, with intermittent sprinkles barely noticeable to those who had braved their way through Saturday. Dr. John, alas, had come down with the flu the day before and canceled. But the rest of the Fort Stage lineup—the Brubeck Brothers, Mingus Big Band, David Sanborn-Joey DeFrancesco pairing, and Bobby McFerrin—had their sets stretched out a bit to make up for it.
The all-star ensemble the Cookers did what their name implies to open the Quad Stage, followed by a very strong set from the Vijay Iyer Sextet, his regular trio joined by Graham Haynes on cornet, Steve Lehman on alto and Mark Shim on tenor. George Wein himself played piano with the Newport All-Stars, with Anat Cohen playing brilliant clarinet on “The Mooche” and then dancing at the side of the stage as Lew Tabackin’s flute was featured on “Caravan” and looking on later as Randy Brecker blew a beautiful, balladic trumpet take on “Lover Man.” Gary Burton’s New Quartet was next, and while newer than ever—with Jorge Roeder and Marcus Gilmore taking over for Scott Colley and Antonio Sanchez on bass and drums, respectively—at least temporarily no longer a quartet, pianist Vadim Neselovskyi having joined guitarist Julian Lage in the lineup. Burton had played his first Newport Jazz Festival 50 years earlier, in 1964, and told the crowd that he had recently tallied it up and realized that he had played Newport four times in the 1960s with Gilmore’s grandfather Roy Haynes. The Burton group dazzled the crowd with its progressive virtuosity, and then the Django Festival All-Stars came out and dazzled them with cutting-edge stuff from an earlier era that, judging by the audience reaction, remained far short of its sell-by date.
On the Harbor Stage, Lee Konitz played a cool set with a quartet featuring Dan Tepfer on piano, with his alto-sax protégé Grace Kelly sitting in partway through. Ravi Coltrane followed with a pianoless quartet that had trumpeter Ralph Alessi with him in the frontline. Ron Carter’s trio followed as elegantly as ever, with Russell Malone on guitar and Donald Vega replacing the late, great Mulgrew Miller on piano—all three gentlemen dressed up uniformly in dark suits, white shirts and yellow neckties. Danilo Pérez then closed out that stage with selections from his Panama 500 album, wrapping up one of the most pleasurable (yet challenging musically) of the festival’s performances by bringing out his wide-eyed 3-year-old son to play Ramón Díaz’s congas on the set-closing “Chocolito.” Hard to find a more apropos ending to a 60-year-old jazz festival looking simultaneously forward and backward than a little boy playing congas to celebrate a five-century-old discovery that helped lead to where the music is today, but there you go.