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Newport Jazz Festival @ 60: Jazz Reigns Supreme for 3 Glorious Days

MOJA Radio’s Russ Davis reports from the historic festival in Rhode Island

Darcy James Argue leading his Secret Society group at 2014 Newport Jazz Festival
Darcy James Argue leading his Secret Society group at 2014 Newport Jazz Festival
Russ Davis and Dave Holland at 2014 Newport Jazz Festival
Donald Harrison and Russ Davis at 2014 Newport Jazz Festival
Kurt Rosenwinkel at the 2014 Newport Jazz Festival

The forecast for the first three days of August, 2014 called for cloudy skies with a 100% chance of incredible jazz performances in Newport, Rhode Island, the site of the 60th edition of “The Grandfather of All Jazz Festivals.” The cloudy skies proved to be fully capable of delivering sometimes torrential rain that may have kept the crowds down in number. But the incredible lineup of artists were more than capable of delivering what those hearty festival-goers came for…jazz with great variety performed at the highest level. The extra day of music was icing on the cake in celebration of this momentous time in Newport Jazz Fest history with shows from 11 AM to 7 PM each day at the Fort Adams State Park with the added attraction of Friday night’s performances by Wynton Marsalis with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and Dee Dee Bridgewater with her salute to Billie Holiday. No rain was going to put a damper on the spirits of the festival attendees or the performers. There was less talk of weather and more buzz on who to see and how inspired the performances were. Spirits were high for the entire three days and I’d like to share some quick reflections on some of what I saw and heard.

Friday began for me with the great honor of introducing the group that is possibly the most inventive big band making jazz in the genre today. Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society thrilled the crowd in front of the largest stage, the Ertegun Fort Stage, with their modern rhythm and instrumentation that is helping define big band for the 21st century. Darcy is a fountain of new compositions and presented a number of new works along with some of his earlier, award-winning pieces. I caught a bit of another horn-dominated performance by the quartet Mostly Other People Do The Killing with special guest Steven Bernstein and visited with Steven for a quick off-stage interview covering the power of horn bands including his own Sex Mob and their latest project celebrating music inspired by master filmmaker Frederico Fellini. Steven is never lacking in energy and creative ideas and shared plenty with the Newport crowd on this day.

Friday continued with a mad dash to hear the hottest young female vocalist around these days, Cecile McLorin Salvant, whose performance seemed to me to have been as appropriate for the Broadway stage as a jazz club or the Newport stage. Then it was off to hear Rudresh Mahanthapa in celebration of another pretty good alto saxophonist, Charlie Parker. Rudresh presented a spirited performance with his signature Mahanthapa free-jazz style in a set filled with original music inspired by Charlie Parker solos and famous songs instead of a set list of songs played by Parker. I took in a portion of John Zorn’s famed Masada Marathon during which he spent 2 ½ hours performing Zorn music with an ever-changing lineup. Everything from duos to large ensembles and from all acoustic to electro-acoustic played Zorn’s original compositions, all with that uniquely Jewish tinge.

Friday ended with the groove of New Orleans’ spirited bandleader Jon Batiste and his band Stay Human giving the crowd in front of the Fort stage plenty of rhythm to get up and shake their money-makers! The last set of the afternoon featured Snarky Puppy, that outrageous young sextet from all over the USA who got together at the music factory that is North Texas University in Denton, Texas. They look like they might still be taking classes somewhere but instead they’ve been recording like crazy, touring the world and winning Grammy awards in the past few years. I shared some of the shows I saw with my friends Michael Gengras and his son Graeme, who is by the way a great, young pianist who seems to be coming into his own and may share his talents with the Newport audience some day. Graeme was apparently more fired up about seeing Snarky Puppy than he was most any other act at the festival. He’s 19 and as the show began and the groove hit the crowd I could see a number of the younger members of the audience of his generation bobbing heads and shaking as one. Then I noticed the older generation doing the same with their own unique way of bobbing and swaying. I was catching a glimpse of how the generations were being united with one style of music and how a new generation of music lovers might be brought more into the jazz fold. Pretty exciting stuff on many levels!

Saturday began with a steady rain that honestly did little to dampen spirits at Newport 2014, day two. The all-star SF Jazz Collective jammed under the cover of the Quad stage while Robert Glasper brought his Experiment to the outdoor audience in front of the Fort stage. The crowd never missed a bit of Robert’s blend of funk, hip hop, groove and jazz, jamming with umbrellas in hand. Over on the Harbor stage the fans of the more traditional side of things got the legendary Dick Hyman and one of his great drummer-less trios with Howard Alden on guitar and Jay Leonhart on bass. The set was a funny and entertaining as it was swinging and the crowd loved it. I had a quick chat with Mr. Hyman and enjoyed some of his quick wit.

The man of the moment when it comes to male jazz vocalists these days, Gregory Porter, was holding court on the Fort stage but I was commissioned to introduce Kurt Rosenwinkel on the Harbor stage and found his live performance even more impressive than his recordings. To me the unique, human quality of sound created with his many devices through which he plays in his smooth, gliding style sets him apart from any other guitarist at work today. Seeing him perform live lets you know that he is totally locked in as he plays exhibiting a trance-like state. For something completely different I made my way to the Fort stage for some of Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz @ Lincoln Center Orchestra. Wynton is pretty amazing in that a man with so many accolades and achievements just sits in the back of the orchestra and calls out the tunes then communicates every detail of the piece and his fellow orchestra members who are featured. Wynton is the consummate professional and this is a swinging band that is in business to DO business!

Wynton’s performance would be followed on the Fort stage by his fellow New Orleans native Troy Andrews, AKA Trombone Shorty, and his funky Orleans Avenue band to close out the day. But I was on my way to the Quad stage to see a band I had promised myself to hear live since their astounding album was released in 2013. Dave Holland had put together a new band featuring an old friend, Kevin Eubanks, with whom he’d worked in the 20th century to electrify the sound of the new band and release titled Prism. Dave has led small groups, large ensembles and a big band of all-acoustic projects so it was a treat to hear him electrify his sound and to present his own compositions and those of his band mates pianist Craig Taborn, drummer Eric Harland and Mr. Eubanks. I am always looking for new statements in jazz composition and presentation and Dave Holland and Prism did not disappoint. A quick conversation with the always intelligent and open Mr. Holland topped off the day and I look forward to sharing some of that interview with listeners on MOJA Radio and Voice of America as well as this brilliant, forward-thinking music.

Sunday, the last day of the 60th edition of The Newport Jazz Festival, began cloudy and cool but not as threatening as far as rain was concerned and though there were some sprinkles from time to time not a single disparaging word was heard as far as I could hear the entire day. It was simply a celebration of wonderful music and this great event!

The day began with the sons of Dave Brubeck, The Brubeck Brothers Band, conjuring images of their late, great father who’d played as recently as just a few years ago and not long before his passing. You just knew that he was smiling down from on high and justly proud of his talented sons playing Newport. Across the way the all-star band known as The Cookers were swinging the morning into the early afternoon and I caught up with New Orleans saxman Donald Harrison afterwards to check in on his activities as of late including his work with this fine band of swingers.

I caught a bit of another saxophone legend, Lee Konitz, who thrilled the crowd with is historical recollections between songs, his fine playing and ability to swing. He brought on one of the young lionesses of jazz, saxophonist Grace Kelly, who traded licks with the master in a fine way. The unique pianist Vijay Iyer was leading a great sextet at the Quad stage and I caught a lot of his set as he continues to grow his considerable legend as a player and composer of the highest order. If you like your jazz well constructed but with elements of free jazz in the mix then Vijay is your piano player. I hit the Fort stage to hear a bit of The Mingus Big Band and happened to catch up with trombonist, composer, arranger and leader Conrad Herwig, who’d just played with the MBB, and we had a long-overdue conversation about his various activities. He revealed that there will be a new edition of his series “The Latin Side Of…” this one featuring the music of Joe Henderson. After enjoying his “Latinization” of the likes of Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, this should be another fine moment to look forward to in the future.

I was on my way to hear a bit of The Newport All Stars featuring Randy Brecker and a number of luminaries including THE MAN himself, George Wein, who started this whole festival thing back in 1954. He would be playing piano with this hand picked group of stars. But before the set, who should I run into but the lovely Ada Rovatti and her beautiful, little daughter Stella Brecker? Ada is, of course, Randy Brecker’s tremendous saxophone-playing wife and musical partner in The Brecker Brothers Band Reunion project. I sat down with Ada to talk about her wonderful, new release Disguise. I look forward to sharing this with my listeners soon and would have loved to hear her performing this music live at Newport. Maybe next year… Randy represented the family well with his performance and I had a chance to talk to my “MOJA Man of The Year” in 2013 about all of the many projects he’s been called upon to be a part of. He’s just a guy who can’t say no, thank goodness, and is in my opinion the premier trumpeter in jazz today.

Two more of the greats of their instruments for all time, vibes master Gary Burton and saxophonist David Sanborn, were still to come on this final day and I was on my way to the Fort stage to introduce Mr. Sanborn and company when I ran into Gary on the run and got a quick word from him on what we’d hear with the latest edition of his New Quartet, turned into a quintet on this day with the addition of a pianist. The crowd was treated to music from the band’s latest release, Guided Tour, and some earlier work that featured the always masterful Julian Lage on guitar. One sad note on the day was the fact that Dr. John, who was to play the Fort stage with his band The Nite Trippers, had taken ill and had to cancel not only his performance the day before in New York’s Central Park, but also this day in Newport. That meant that the two acts that would have followed him would just get some extra time to play. Again, no worries no matter the situation in Newport. After the crowds who’d seen John Coltrane’s son Ravi and the legendary bassist Ron Carter made their way to the Fort stage it was time for some saxophone-trumpet-hammond B3 organ-vibes groove to fill the air.

I had been asked by the festival folks to pick some shows I wanted to introduce and one of the first I thought of was the David Sanborn-Joey DeFrancesco performance. I spoke to Joey before the show and he was fired up to play with David who had called him some time ago to do some work together. They’d collaborated with the vibes master Bobby Hutcherson on the recent release Enjoy The View and judging by the style of this album I had a good idea that we were in for a mostly swinging good time. Mr. Hutcherson could not appear so Dave and Joey brought in young vibes master Warren Wolf and he never missed a beat. Speaking of the beat, the legendary drummer Billy Hart was on stage as he had been in the studio for this new album.

That might have been enough to top off the day at Newport 2014 but there was one more event to enjoy. The man they call “The Voice,” Bobby McFerrin, took the Fort stage crowd to church on this Sunday afternoon with his latest work, Spirityouall! His one-of-a-kind vocal sound and presentation, a top-notch supporting cast and the mix of classic gospel tunes turned into jazz, funk and blues was just enough to thrill the crowd. When Bobby, refusing to be kept from his original plans, made his way from the stage with wireless microphone in hand to walk among the audience the day was truly complete. He had the Newport congregation screaming “AMEN!” as the last notes of the 60th edition of “The Grandfather of All Jazz Festivals” filled the air.

I may not be around to witness another 60 years of this Newport Jazz Festival but I am not betting against there being a 120th edition in 2074. Neither rain, nor whatever may come, will dampen the strong spirit of this marvelous event. See you next year!

Russ Davis

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.

Originally Published