Weekend in Newport: Russ Davis Attends His First Newport Jazz Festival

MOJA radio host reports back from the legendary festival in Rhode Island

Why it took me so long to attend the legendary “Grandfather of all Jazz Festivals,” the Newport jazz Festival in Rhode Island, I really can’t say. It’s close to my New York home base. I’ve been told a thousand times by various folks that I MUST attend for any number of reasons. And my predecessor at Voice of America, Willis Conover, who presented jazz on VOA for over 40 years, was a constant visitor and was famous for presenting and introducing a number of the greats of jazz on the stages of the festival over the years. Something spoke to me this year as I looked at the incredible lineup of artists performing and I reached out to the festival authority to ask if I could obtain press credentials. I was told that not only would they give me access to the festival but that they’d love to have VOA back and that they wanted me to take the stage to introduce one of the acts, The Bad Plus with Bill Frisell, and that the spirit of Willis Conover would be there to guide me through the whole process. A little help from JazzTimes Magazine Publisher Lee Mergner, a Newport regular himself, got me set with the lay of the land as well and I was off and running for my first Newport experience on Saturday, August 4th.

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Guitarist Bill Frisell at the 2012 Newport Jazz Festival
By Ken Franckling
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Singer Kurt Elling performed with his quartet and John Hollenbeck’s Claudia Quinter +1 band at the 2012 Newport Jazz Festival
By Ken Franckling
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The 3 Cohens – trumpeter Avishai, clarinetist/tenor saxophonist Anat and soprano saxophonist Yuval -- were a main stage favorite at the 2012 Newport Jazz Festival
By Ken Franckling

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I enlisted the help of my wife Patricia, who is VP Marketing for AARP Media Sales, to lower her pay grade to serve as my staff photographer. She embraced the task with vigor, not only catching pictures of me and the artists I interviewed, but getting right down in the pit with all the professionals to shoot up a storm with the trusty digital camera. There were simply too many artists to see and hear on the three stages of the festival site, the Fort Adams State Park, who mostly play exactly one hour sets apiece with overlapping set times, to catch everything and everyone I wanted to hear and interview. We arrived via water taxi from Newport a bit after the first sets of the day began (they start each day at 11 AM) and rushed right to the Harbor Stage to catch Christian McBride’s latest band Inside Straight as they began to crank out the song that has become a modern standard, “Brother Mister” from his album Kind of Brown, and the rest of his rousing set. If there are bigger stars in jazz today than Christian they can only be older veterans who have built bigger names by putting in more years, but Chris is certainly on top when it comes to popularity and productivity. Plus his great talent and positive spirit have helped make him a crowd favorite and every players first call bassist for any session of any style. After the show I hung out back stage to catch a few comments from young vibes star Warren Wolf, who Christian met a dozen years ago and to whom he attributes the formation of Inside Straight. He saw him as a very young player at a clinic and promised to form a band to showcase his talents. Warren is an effervescent spirit and energetic player who is 31 and looks 21. He did all he could to steal the show. After greeting all the adoring ladies offstage I caught Christian for a few words, finding out that he has everything planned until 2014 with more Inside Straight and Christian McBride Big Band work coming up as well as another solo recording, then he’s open to new projects after that. He always greets me as “Hey…Howard Cosell” in honor of the late, great sports announcer who was the ultimate sideline reporter. I embrace the comparison, as I do indeed like to get right down in the middle of the action to catch the artists in their element to give listeners and readers as close of an idea of what the artist is thinking and experiencing themselves as I can.

After Christian McBride’s set it was off to the festival’s largest stage, The Fort Stage, to catch the first of three performances featuring guitarist Bill Frisell as he presented what may be my favorite set of the season, his celebration of the music of John Lennon from his latest release All We Are Saying…, which I had seen in Montreal earlier in the summer. This time he performed not only with the same quartet of musicians but with the added spice of his old friend and long time collaborator, violinist Jenny Scheinman who transformed the group to a great quintet. Jenny has just recently returned from a time away from performing to give birth to her second child, the beautiful little girl Rosa, who accompanied her to Newport. After an excellent set that did jazzy justice to the music so many in the mostly middle-aged crowd had grown up with, I had a chance to catch up with Jenny off stage to see how well motherhood is treating her the second time around. Judging by her performance and mood she is as happy as ever and hasn’t missed a beat musically. We lingered for the quick set change to hear a goodly portion of the set by Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, the inventive big band led by the brilliant, young Canadian-born and Brooklyn-based composer and bandleader who is helping define the sound and style of big band for the 21st century. I’ve learned that Darcy has secured the funds for his second recording project through Kickstarter and that we’ll be treated to that release before too long. After hearing what he’s been up to recently on the stage at Newport we’re in for a treat for certain.

At Newport It seems one is always on the run and luckily the stages are clustered not far from one another with the barrier of the walls of the old fort to shield each one from bleeding over sonically to the others during performances. We rushed to the medium-sized stage of the three, The Quad Stage, to catch the last of the set by saxophone star James Carter featuring the soulful singer Michel Braden and a band with a blazing Hammond B3 bringing on the heat on this blazing summer day in Newport. After a short conversation on the record with James I prepared to do my duty and introduce the next act on The Quad Stage, Ethan Iverson, Reid Anderson and Dave King of The Bad Plus with special guest guitarist Bill Frisell. It was exciting to take the stage at he same festival that Willis Conover has occupied and to bring on some of the most unique and interesting musicians in what I call MOJA, MOdern JAzz. I’m looking for those who have learned lessons from the past and maintain a healthy respect for their elders, but who want to express themselves personally by reflecting the present rather than replicating the past. Though they chose to play mostly the music of the late Paul Motian, one of Frisell’s longest associates, the music was absolutely the combination of these four men on this very day. The music was sometimes dreamy, oftentimes simply free jazz and sometimes very forceful and energetic. I had mentioned in my introduction that we as an audience might walk away saying that we’d never heard music quite like what we were about to hear. I believe that to be true now. I caught Dave King literally on the run to the tent where artists meet fans and sign autographs and CD’s. He was in high spirits and I caught from him the sense that for an artist to play Newport is truly something very special indeed. It is not just “another gig” but something to be relished. I think it comes from the audience as much as the history of the event, as the attendees are true jazz enthusiasts who pay good money and go to not only expense but more than just a little effort to be here. They are attentive, learned and appreciative of good performances and show it. The players “get it.”

My duties had caused me to already miss the first of two performances at the festival by the great NEA Jazz Master, drummer, pianist and bandleader Jack DeJohnette, who would be celebrating his 70th birthday in a few days on August 9th, and had told me recently at his performance at New York’s Blue Note that his shows in Newport, with his own Jack DeJohnette Group as well as a group of all-stars including Chris McBride, Lionel Loueke and Jason Moran, were a big part of the year long celebration of this momentous event in his life. I’d also unfortunately missed the performance by Joe Lovano and Dave Douglas and their new quintet Soundprints, but luckily ran into Joe on the festival grounds for a great 15-minute talk on the record. Joe is not only possibly THE greatest tenor saxophonist of his generation, but just the ultimate “Jazz Cat!” When I talk to him I feel like I’m getting a lesson in jazz history from one who knows it, lives it and creates it. He mentioned how much fun it was to play with the inventive trumpet master Dave Douglas and to work with him to bring the music of Wayne Shorter to life together. He talked about how gratifying it has been to work and win such acclaim with his own band Us Five, and how playing Newport was simply one of the most special things any jazz musician could do. When Joe Lovano says these things you know you’re getting the truth from one who is one of the ultimate authorities.

To end my first day in Newport we made our way back to the Fort Stage to catch Dianne Reeves with her marvelous band, featuring guitarist Romero Lubambo. As always Dianne is a thrill to see live as she bounds around the stage with her booming and soulful voice filing the air with the sounds of African, Brazilian and classic jazz all in the mix. She’s such a performing pro too who can play in front of thousands in the open air, as she was on this day, and still bring you into her space in a very personal way. Newport is not only a music festival but a food and arts & crafts festival too, as local vendors serve up an interesting mix of food and drink along with arts and crafts of all kinds alongside the festival’s own merchandise. After Dianne’s set everyone seemed to be looking for some of the aforementioned goodies but also shelter from the blazing sun and a spot to take in the last set of the day, the 1 ½ hour performance by the latest offering from Pat Metheny, The Unity Band, featuring Antonio Sanchez on drums, young bassist Ben Williams and the first saxophonist featured in a Pat Metheny solo project in 30 years, Chris Potter. The show was a fitting, explosive end to this red, hot day in Newport, beginning with Pat on solo baritone guitar with a little of the electonic elements of Orchestrion thrown in for extra flavor, and followed by the soaring, uplifting anthems that Metheny so beautifully creates, and that this band so forcefully presented. The hours of the day had seemed to fly by and as we made our way back to the water taxi for the trip back to Newport I felt a sense of being satisfied completely though the music had ended before sundown. This left plenty of time to find a great restaurant on the wharf in Newport once we landed, and there are many to choose from, and a great meal of seafood surrounded by our fellow festival goers. You could tell the talk of who had seen what at day one of The Newport Jazz Festival was filling the air.

Because of previous plans and the fact that we’d driven from New York to Newport to attend the festival, I had a shorter day two at the festival than I would have preferred but it became a much fuller and fulfilling day than I might have imagined. It began with a morning walk through the town and up to the cliffs overlooking the ocean upon which rest some of the most magnificent mansions in America with some of the most dynamic views one is ever to see. It was a perfect start for someone looking for dynamic jazz performances, and after the water taxi ride I was off to sit under the tent at the Harbor Stage to hear the duo performance by Jenny Scheinman and Bill Frisell. It was gentle, sweet, relaxing and melodic music for the most part performed by two old friends who were obviously enjoying one another’s company on stage. Jenny led the way with most of the song choices, including some personal ones related to her recent pregnancy and birth of daughter Rosa, though Bill had some choice tunes of his own to offer and a more pleasant hour I can’t remember in a long time. Afterwards I had the joy of my first conversation with Bill Frisell, in the artist’s trailer out of the sun and blazing heat. Bill is an intelligent and thoughtful man with a childlike sense of wonder in his voice and in his recollections of the things in his past as well as his current place in music history. He seems like your favorite brother and talked of his musical companions as if they were indeed his family members.

After catching some of the dynamic and varied performance by one of the rising stars of alto sax, Rudresh Mahanthappa, which featured everything from blazing tunes flavored with elements as diverse as his Middle Eastern heritage to the blues, I was quickly off to the Quad Stage to hear the premier male vocalist in jazz today, the great Kurt Elling, as he charmed the pants off of all in listening range. This guy has as much charm as is legally allowed and a nearly perfect voice that never misses a note though he’s scatting and sliding from one octave to another constantly, always in total control. He expressed from the stage how special it was to be performing in Newport and that he and the band were having a blast even thought they’d awakened at 4 AM after a show in Pennsylvania to get to Newport to play on this very hot day. The always gracious Mr. Elling posed for pictures, greeted his many fans and spent 10 minutes offstage with me in conversation on the record about the joys of playing maybe the most important festival of them all and what life is like for an artist on top of the world and at the peak of his game.

I had also run into the great drummer John Hollenbeck who, with his brilliant Claudia Quintet, would play the festival later in the day with Kurt Elling joining them on stage. That’s one of the joys of jazz festivals, the intermingling of artists in various combinations to create one-off performances that the performers and listeners will never forget. At Newport the crowd was treated to a duo piano performance featuring Jack DeJohnette and Jason Moran, vocalist Gretchen Parlatto with Africa’s great jazz hero Lionel Loueke on guitar, the aforementioned performances by Bill Frisell in collaboration with Jenny Scheniman and The Bad Plus, and there were some other one-off performances I’m sure I missed. Speaking of missing things, we had to make our way in the middle of the days schedule to the water taxi and missed Maria Schneider’s Jazz Orchestra, clarinetist Anat Cohen leading her family band of fellow Cohens, Jason Moran and his band Bandwagon, up and coming young trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and the grand finale of the event, a two hour performance by the jazzy jambanders The Tedeschi Trucks Band. I’d missed some but taken in so much.

I personally believe that the jazz festival circuit around the world breathes more life into jazz today than any other element. Sometimes it’s like a carnival or a circus, sometimes simply a collection of shows in various venues around a town, sometimes it’s a celebration of the town itself with jazz as a way to put the spotlight on a place for a short space in time. It’s a gathering of the tribe, a family reunion, a celebration of what may be the very best thing our nation has to offer to the world and in no place is all if this more evident and celebrated than at the “Grandfather of all Jazz Festivals,” the great Newport Jazz Festival. I have a feeling I’ll be following the spirit of my old VOA associate Willis Conover down that well-worn path to this place more in years to come.

Russ Davis produces and presents the only jazz program – “Jazz America” - for the U.S. Government Service, Voice of America. He also programs and presents the online modern jazz channel MOJA Radio, a subscription service. You can hear a number of free programs, including the latest Jazz America show by visiting MOJA Radio's website.

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