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The Newport Jazz Festival founded by George Wein, 55 years ago holds a legendary place in the history of Jazz. This years festival was important for bringing such a diverse array of artists from old legends, to modern straight ahead hard-boppers, to bright young artists stretching the boundries of the jazz art form. The show is held at Fort Adams Park right on the New England shoreline. Its fairgrounds have three stages; the main Fort Stage, and two smaller stages, the Water Side and the Harbour Side. For two days, each stage hosts five performances. Do the math and you will see that there are 30 different act being performed over two days. To see as many acts as possible, you find yourself running from stage to stage often catching only part of a performance.
Saturday, Day 1
Got to Fort Adams Park at about 10:15 AM Saturday morning. Picked up our tickets and media passes for both days from the press booth. Scouted out a decent spot to the right of the stage near the jumbotron screen. Put down our blanket, lawn chairs and stuff and walked around the park to the Water Side stage hosted for the day by Marsalis Music.
The North Carolina Central Jazz Combo was there kicking off the first performance of the day at 11AM. This was a trio with Joey Calderazzo on piano with two NCCU students on bass and drums. It was a smokin’ hard bop set, with Joey C pushing the kids to another level. During the standard Speak Low, Branford Marsalis hops on stage and blows a great solo on tenor sax. They break into a New Orleans style rhythm, and we decide jump to the Harbor Stage to catch a bit of Vijay Iyer’s set.
Vijay Iyer is known for his avant-garde compositions, but as we get to the stage I recognize the tune. Can’t exactly put my finger on it, but when it ends Vijay introduces it as Big Brother by Stevie Wonder. He then introduces the next song as Somewhere from West Side Story. He does a very interesting, very edgy rendition, but I really dig the two songs he has played. Gotta run though, cause I want to see the great Cedar Walton on the big stage.
Cedar Walton is one of those legends on piano and a wonderful composer. With him is tenor giant Lou Tabakin, trombonist great Curtis Fuller and one of my favorite drummers, Joe Farnsworth. All are great soloists, but for me the performance is pretty flat and never takes off. So I am off to the Water Side tent to see what is going down there.
Claudia Acuña turns out to be the greatest surprise for me on Saturday. She is great, and her band rocks. Wonderful South American rhythms infuse her sound. Jason Lindner on piano and a tremendous guitarist whose name I don’t know. Branford pops back on stage with his soprano sax for a solo on a beautiful ballad. We stay for almost all of her set, but I want to see at least some of Christian McBride over at the Harbor stage.
Unfortunately just catch one and one half tunes from Christian McBride trio, with great pianist George Colligan and one of the great all time drummers Billy Hart. They finish up with a blues jam. Christian is front and center with a booming bass sound, and Billy is just all over the traps.
We hurry back to the main stage in time to catch a couple of numbers that end Esperanza Spaulding’s set. This girl can play bass. She has a unique vocalizing style as well. Wish we caught more of that.
It’s 2:15 and we decide to just stay put for the next couple of sets. We have a chance to eat lunch (nice Thai food booth). I also have time to go back stage with my media pass and meet some of my jazz heroes. It was a thrill for me, for sure.
Joshua Redman takes the stage at 3:15 and just tears it up. Maybe the best performance of the show in my opinion. He has a group called the Double Trio meaning Joshua on sax with two drummers and two bass players. Standouts for me are Brian Blade on drums and Omer Avital on bass. They play with all five as a quintet, different combinations of single trios, they solo one at a time, and “solo” with two basses or two drums. Those double drum solos are incredible.
We stay put at the main stage, for Branford Marsalis Quartet which means we missed a few acts going on at the other stages, but there is just too much going on simultaneously. Branford starts his set with Return of the Chitney Man and just blows the cover off it. High intensity with virtuosity in Branford and Joey Calderazzo’s playing. The set continued with that incredible energy. He then took it down a couple of notches with his heart melting ballad Eternal. He had the crowd of thousands hanging on every note.
To end Saturday’s lineup, there were three shows that we really wanted to see, all playing at the same time. Miguel Zenón Quartet started at 4:45. Incredible latin fused jazz with some unbelievable playing. We had to tear ourselves away after two songs, because I really wanted to see Hiromi.
Hiromi is a japanese pianist with incredible chops and playing with her fusion band SonicBloom. The band was bangin’. A high energy group with a great guitarist whose name I didn’t get. They started with a version of Softly as a Morning Sunrise done like you’ve never heard it, rockin out, Hiromi displaying incredible chops, jumping from acoustic to electric and both at the same time. She also played solo, I Got Rhythm. Words can’t describe the great chops, great interpretation and super fast runs she played on piano. It drew an emotional five minute ovation from the packed tent that was really touching. She is an incredible player. We stayed almost to the end of that set with a rousing electric version of Caravan, but I wanted to see the final controversial act that ended day one on the main stage.
Mos Def & Watermelon Syndicate is a 12 piece band with 4 strings, brass, reeds, piano, vocals and percussion. For me, it was a disappointment. I just don’t think it was in the same league with the virtuosity and artistic performances that we had heard throughout the day. That is my opinion, I am sure that some would disagree. However, people were leaving in droves (could be to beat the traffic).
That ended Day One.
Sunday, Day 2
We started out at the Harbor Stage with Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Indo-Pak Trio. A mid-eastern influenced band led by extraordinary alto sax player Rudresh, guitarist Rez Abbasi and Tabla player Dan Weiss. It was a great performance with a heavy dose of mid-eastern influences. Rez’s guitar playing, both electric and acoustic is an interesting blend of east and west. The percussion combinations of tablas and western traps also was a unique sound. Rudresh’s playing is off the charts great. His album Apti with this trio is one I have been playing often.
We ran back to the main stage to catch Joe Lovano’s UsFive group. They are a jazz quartet plus a second drummer. These cats just cooked to the max. I had the pleasure of meeting Joe Lovano in the media area and he laid me on to his new CD with this group that I will be playing in the coming weeks on the show. Esperanza Spalding is on bass, and with the two drums, the group plays with a highly rhythmic sound. The modal compositions, and long sax solos are reminders of Trane’s influence on Joe Lovano’s playing. For his last number, he brought out a double soprano sax. From where I was sitting, it appeared to be two instruments fused together with one mouthpiece. Joe played two separate harmonic lines simultaneously as if playing two saxes ala Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
Time to run to the Harbor Side Stage to catch the Brian Blade Fellowship. I think this was my favorite set of Sundays show. Brian’s complex compositions and arrangement with so many changes were backed by Blade’s explosive drumming. Brian is always soloing, though there was not a drum solo in his arrangements. He is so expressive and animated that you can’t keep your eyes off of him. His sense of time is perfect yet he is not afraid to change things up by doing the unexpected. I think this man is the best drummer of our time.
Got back to the main stage in time to see the end of Michel Camilo’s set. This pianist plays blazingly fast lines with a trio that was on fire. For his last number he invited Joe Lovano to join the trio for a jam which continued the heat. The drummer was a standout in this group as well. Man, we have seen a lot of great drum work at the festival and more was to come with the next act.
We had our lunch, spent some time backstage meeting some of the artists and taking pictures, and it was time for the Roy Haynes Fountain of Youth Band. We were happily surprised to learn Roy had a special guest, Ron Carter for his set. Man, Roy Haynes and Ron Carter on stage together. These are two legends in jazz that have played with greatest cats in jazz history (Miles, Trane, Sarah, Ella, Bird and more). With Roy clocking in at 84 years old you’d think he would have slowed down, especially with an instrument as physical as the drums. Roy could play up with any of these cats on the main or small stages. He played like a 30 yr old. Roy IS the fountain of youth. Inspiring! Ron Carter (72) laid it down on bass as well with the full deep sound that he is known for. A great young tenor player was killin’ it too. A very hard driving hard-bop set. Truly a cooking performance by these masters.
Time to run over to the Harbor stage to see multi-reed player James Carter with his organ trio. This had to be the most soulful set of the fest. James had the whole audience toe tappin’ and head bobbing to his R&B infused set. He alternated between tenor, baritone and soprano with his tight Hammond B-3 organ trio in the tradition of Jimmy Smith. James coaxed some very different sounds from his horn with some honking and percussive sounds.
Back to the main stage to catch a few minutes of another legend in Dave Brubeck. He did a high spirited set of his own classics and standards. Another octogenarian that played like someone half his age. Wish I could have seen more, but I wanted to catch The Bad Plus as our final act and beat the traffic out of the park. That means we will miss Tony Bennett, headliner of the evening, but had to make some choices here.
A very young crowd showed up for The Bad Plus, a trio of talented musicians with a unique style of deconstructing progressive rock tunes and changing them into amalgamations of jazz, classical and noise. While best know for their covers of Nirvana, Pink Floyd and others, they also play some very inventive originals. They were also joined by singer Wendy Lewis for most of the set. They did songs from their latest album and surprised us with a strange version of Bobby Vinton’s Blue Velvet. They had me shaking my head in amazement as I left the fairgrounds for the last time this year. A nice way to finish off Newport Jazz Festival 55.