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JVC Jazz Festival – Newport

Dave Holland

Situated in historic Fort Adams Park, an imposing fortress dating back to the War of 1812 that affords spectacular views of yachts floating on Narragansett Bay, the Newport Jazz Festival is perhaps one of the most scenic venues on the summer festival circuit. The 54th anniversary edition of the renowned musical clambake founded by impresario George Wein back in 1954 included the usual number of marquee names (Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock, Chris Botti, Aretha Franklin) on the sprawling JVC Jazz stage, along with a few surprise scenarios happening in the tents at the 400-seat Pavilion stage and the intimate 100-seat Waterside stages. (Some of the proceedings were recorded by radio station WBGO in Newark, New Jersey for broadcast on National Public Radio and those podcasts have been archived on the NPR website, www.npr.org).

Wayne Shorter’s set on the main stage with his longstanding quartet of bassist John Patitucci, pianist Danilo Perez and drummer Brian Blade was especially triumphant. I’ve seen this group several times and have on at least a couple of occasions been put off by their blatant stabs at abstraction, in which familiar melodies were sidestepped at all costs, nearly every tune was grist for radical reharmonization and Shorter merely noodled in minimalist terms with a Cheshire grin, seemingly toying with the audience. Not so at Newport. The band hit a cohesive, energized accord from jump and maintained that kinetic momentum throughout the set, with compelling drummer Blade fairly jumping off his drum stool at peak moments of energy and Shorter blowing ferocious torrents on both tenor and soprano saxes. I’m not sure that a majority of the crowd-which had settled in hours earlier with requisite supply of lawn chairs and blankets, no doubt staking out territory for the Chris Botti and Aretha shows to come later in the day-really appreciated the level of conviction, heightened intensity or degree of collective exploration that Shorter’s quartet offered on pieces like “Adventures Aboard the Golden Mean,” “Zero Gravity” and “Joy Ryder” (from Beyond the Sound Barrier). But for this longtime Shorter observer, it not only represented a festival highlight but was also one of the most heroic and memorable sets of music that I have witnessed by Shorter since his Weather Report days.

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