CareFusion Newport Jazz Festival
A golden weekend for weather – and jazz in every form
Fifty years after a riot outside Freebody Park prematurely ended 1960’s Newport Jazz Festival, a very different setting brought out the best at producer George Wein’s latest edition: the CareFusion Newport Jazz Festival.
The weekend weather was exceptional – particularly on Saturday – and the broad spectrum of musicians matched it with the quality of their performances both Saturday and Sunday at Fort Adams State Park on the shore of picturesque Newport Harbor.
For many attendees, the three stages and staggered start times offer a musical smorgasbord – a chance to sample a bit of this, a bit of that, or full set if a band truly moves you – and another talent around the corner isn’t tugging you away.
Let’s flash back to 1960 for context. Thousands of young people milled around the festival site on Saturday night hoping to get in where some 16,000 people were enjoying jazz inside. An ensuing riot on the streets turned into a headache for Wein, who had to cancel the next day’s program, and he didn’t do a Newport festival in 1961, but came back in 1962 to resume the event. Things went well despite the rock era until a 1971 riot chased Wein’s festivals out of town for a full decade.
The jazz festival returned in 1981 and Wein’s companion Newport Folk Festival returned in 1986. They’ve been trouble-free ever since with the daytime programming at Fort Adams. Indeed, times have changed. They’ve changed so much that the mayor declared Saturday to be George Wein Day in Newport. Mayor Jeanne Napolitano honored Wein on the main stage for bringing “more joy and sunshine to the citizens and visitors of Newport than anyone else.”
Wein and Jason Olaine put together a terrific weekend touching deeply on every part of the jazz spectrum – mainstream swing, bebop, cool vocals, electric jazz, the full range of adventurous big bands, pop-jazz, hard-driving modernists, Afro-Cuban, Brazilian and Latin jazz, and the avant-garde. Attendees (including more young people than I’ve seen in years) got to see and hear jazz artists from four generations – revered elders to some of collegiate jazz’s promising talents.
British singer-pianist Jamie Cullum headlined Saturday’s main stage with his acrobatic version of jazz and pop covers, as well as originals. Yes, he danced on and jumped off the grand piano, as usual, but told folks not to worry because of his size. “I’m like a little hamster,” he quipped. He also said he had enjoyed a full day of hearing many of his musical heroes – and interviewing some of them (as well as a few rising talents) backstage for later broadcast on his BBC radio program.
On two stages during the early Saturday sets, Newport was a celebration of big band jazz’s evolution. The main stage opened with the San Francisco-based 42-piece Jazz Mafia Symphony’s Brass, Bows and Beats creative and fascinating amalgam of jazz, hip-hop, rap, poetry, Latin percussion and strings. Around the corner on the Fort Stage, Darcy James Argue put his Secret Society jazz orchestra through its charts: lush and sweeping arrangements with teasing textures. Valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer was to have been a special guest on a piece Argue wrote for his compositional mentor. They performed “Blowout Prevention” in honor of the ailing Brookmeyer, who also had been expected to sit in with Wein’s Newport All-Stars, who turned in a rousing Quad Stage set later in the day. An hour later, Maria Schneider’s Jazz Orchestra took to the main stage to share a range of her beautiful and adventurous symphonic jazz compositions in the Gil Evans tradition.
Trumpeter Ingrid Jensen had a busy afternoon, performing in both Argue’s orchestra and Schneider’s. She is also a member of her sister Christine’s Montreal-based jazz orchestra. “It’s strange in these economic times that we have all these big bands,” Jensen said backstage. “I think people want to get together and share their love of great music.”
Other Saturday highlights: Chick Corea’s Freedom Band with Christian McBride, Kenny Garrett and Roy Haynes, as well as a fine set by pianist Ahmad Jamal’s quartet. He reinvented his hit “Poinciana” to illuminate new facets of its joyous beauty. Tenor saxophonist JD Allen’s mid-afternoon trio (with bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston) drew a spillover crowd to the new Quad Stage inside Fort Adams’s stone-walled bastion with his ‘Tranish intensity. Tenor player Harry Allen joined Trio Da Paz for a refreshing take on Brazilian classics and originals. Clarinetist Anat Cohen rocked the Fort Stage at day’s end with her high-energy musicality. The leaderless trio Fly, with saxophonist Mark Turner, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard, also turned in a great set, highlighted by a playful exploration of “It’s Alright With Me.”
The weather was substantially hotter and much more humid on Sunday – perhaps signaling a change in the nature of the offerings. Saturday’s supplemental jazz orchestra undercurrent gave way to many more sonic adventurers on the supplemental stages. While their fare was not everyone’s cup of tea – or glass of ice tea – there were many choices. Singer Gretchen Parlato’s whispery vocals felt like a mint julep inside the Quad Stage tent as the sun beat down on the open main stage crowd. One of the finest early sets came from drummer Matt Wilson’s quartet (plus a string section and a singer). He’s a grand experimenter who is a joy to see and hear. Two treats include his original “Raga,” which felt like a Turkish market-Bollywood symphony hybrid, and the band’s reconstruction of Beyonce’s “If I Were a Boy.” Other experimentalists on the bill: Dave Douglas and Brass Fantasy, Chicago’s Ken Vandermark and Powerhouse Sound, and the Marshall Allen-Matthew Shipp-Joe Morris trio.
The main stage ran the gamut Sunday with terrific fare. European pianist Amina Figarova opened the day with her band’s take on her strong compositions. Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra heated up the early afternoon with a blistering set with trumpeter Jon Faddis as special guest. (Faddis was back later in the day on a side stage with his mainstream quartet). Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis’s group was the Sunday centerpiece with a 35-minute guest appearance by pianist Dave Brubeck, who has appeared at Newport more than any other artist (30+ years starting with 1955.) Brubeck’s “Blues for Newport” was first up. Highlights included his Chopin-esque original “Thank You” performed solo and a rousing version of “”Take the A Train” featuring the full sextet.
Herbie Hancock’s primarily electric set funked up his classics for the most part. A few minutes after his set, trombonist Conrad Herwig’s Latin Side of Herbie band was the closing act on the side stage, offering Latin versions of Hancock classics, including “The Sorcerer” and “Watermelon Man.”
Pop-jazz trumpeter Chris Botti closed out the weekend in fine form with his beautiful horn work and a powerful band that includes pianist Billy Childs, guitarist Mark Whitfield and, among the guest artists, violinist Lucia Micarelli, who has become a significant performer/actress in the HBO series, Treme. Botti’s balladry alternated with a few dollops of funk. (Whitfield’s son, drummer Mark Whitfield Jr., helped open Ft. Adams weekend on Saturday as part of the Berklee College of Music’s Global Jazz Institute Septet. That band's members include the up-and-coming alto sax player Hailey Niswanger, a young talent who hails from Portland, Oregon, pianist Christian Li and tenor saxophonist Matthew Halpin.)
At Friday night’s opener at stately International Tennis Hall of Fame at Newport Casino (the festival’s first home back in 1954), Jamie Cullum held the crowd of 2,300’s attention better than any act in recent memory, and 18-year-old alto saxophonist Grace Kelly from Boston had quite a following as well. Her finest moments were a blues-drenched double-time solo with Cullum on “These Are the Days” during his set, and her duo performance with bassist Evan Gregor on “’Round Midnight” during her quintet’s opening set.
Combined attendance was estimated at 15,000 (with 2,300 on Friday, 5,500 on Saturday, 7,200 on Sunday).