Publication: The Providence Journal
Author: RICK MASSIMO
NEWPORT — The annual jazz festival in Newport is a historic musical event. And this, the 55th anniversary of the first festival, is a historic year. So that probably explains why the music in the early going of the first day of this year’s event — now called George Wein’s CareFusion Jazz Festival 55 — felt so historic.
There was the classic straight-ahead jazz of pianist Cedar Walton opening the main stage and the moody impressions of young pianist Vijay Iyer and his trio opening the second stage. There were sweet-voiced singer Claudia Acuña, the classic Christian McBride Trio.
And the bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding handled the move to the main stage (from her spot at the third stage last year) effortlessly, entrancing the crowd with her mix of jazz and soul, with classic upright bass chops to spare on songs such as “Jazz Ain’t Nothing But Soul,” with its harmonics-laden solo, and her radio-ready, cool-breeze vocals on “City of Roses” (dedicated to her hometown of Portland, Ore.) and “Smile Like That.” You’ve probably run out of chances to say “I saw her back when …,” but if Saturday was any indication she’s doing just fine in the big leagues.
So all was well, all was swinging, all was impeccable on Saturday. But after a while, it started to feel a little — well, nice.
It was mid-afternoon before anyone really brought the noise to the announced crowd of 3,000 at Fort Adams, but once it started it came down hard.
The Vandermark 5, a group of young Chicagoans, started the process with a mix of wailing horns, cello and bowed acoustic bass, completing the demolition on their final song as the second-stage crowd roared. “Some people probably hated it,” said cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, “and some people have told us it was their favorite thing of the festival so far.”
Later on, The Joshua Redman Double Trio slashed and burned their song structures as well, though more tunefully, and The Branford Marsalis Quartet saw the saxophonist and his group soup up their straight-ahead as well.
But the real heavy-metal moment belonged to the North Carolina Central University Big Band, which woke up the third stage by bringing the power and a high-class sense of dynamics to a set of complicated, inventively arranged standards.
You could still find sweet, straight-ahead stuff through the afternoon, particularly on the second stage, where singer Jane Monheit lent an effortless class to classics such as “I Was Doin’ All Right” and “I’m Glad There is You.” Finishing up with “The Rainbow Connection” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” she dropped the obvious period-jazz indicators in her voice and was even more affecting for her straightforward emotion.
But inspired bashing took over from there, particularly the closing acts on the side stages, with saxophonist Miguel Zenón and his band kicking up a ruckus alternately frantic and playful, and the Japanese pianist Hiromi levitating the second stage with her trademark dizzying speed, her inventive mix of piano and electronic keyboards, sometimes in the same song; and her deconstructive arrangements, such as on a blistering “Clair de Lune.”
Mos Def and The Watermelon Syndicate closed the main stage, and the hip-hop star and actor rapped, sang and mixed the two as his band mixed hip-hop beats with horns and (real) strings to produce a variety of jazz and soul effects behind Def’s lyrics — occasionally entrancing, sometimes just drowsy.
Part of the deal at Newport has always been the ability for young and veteran musicians to interact, to learn from each other and to keep the music going from one generation to the next, and there were plenty such moments Saturday.
The young musicians of North Carolina Central University were gassed to be in Newport, shyly introducing themselves to legends such as Walton. “Just to be here — it has so much history, to be here where Coltrane played and everything,” trombonist Brad Maston said, shaking his head, before playing.
After the big-band set (a smaller combo played with Joey Calderazzo in the morning), it was the audience members who were shaking their heads. George Augustine, of Durham, N.C., has been coming to the jazz festival on and off since 1986, and he’s seen the NCCU band in their home state, but said “This is obviously another step up. They rose to the occasion.”
Ira Wiggins, director of jazz studies at NCCU, said that the gig came through Marsalis, who sat in with the big band in the afternoon. The idea of building a top-notch jazz program, Wiggins said, had two strikes against it at Central: Firstly, the arts and music don’t get a lot of academic respect anywhere; and secondly, what attention is paid to music at a historically black college goes to gospel and marching band.
So how did they do it?
“A lot of will and a lot of perseverance,” said Wiggins, who has been at NCCU for 23 years.
For Walton’s part, he pronounced himself “totally blown away” by the number of young jazz players and listeners, and their level of knowledge, thanks to university programs that didn’t exist when the 75-year-old was coming up. “That’s how we maintain,” he said after playing.
Walton performed Friday night in New York and would do so again Saturday night, but he made the trip to Newport anyway out of friendship for festival impresario George Wein. “Anything for George,”
After her performance, Spalding met with a group of children from Providence’s Mount Hope Learning Center, Federal Hill House and Ocean State Learning, as well as Cranston’s Powerhouse Church, who came to the festival as part of the program, Jazz Is a Rainbow.
The 10-day program teaches kids the elements of jazz and traces the history of the African-American contribution to the music through singing. And the kids and Spalding were mutually charmed during their meeting, at which she signed autographs and was presented with a drawing from the class.
Franklin Jette, 13, of Providence, pronounced the show “fun” and the chance to meet Spalding “awesome.” Spalding later called the kids “hyper and adorable.”
Robb Dimmick, of Providence, artistic director of Jazz Is a Rainbow, added that the study of jazz has “an incredible effect” on young people. Just the act of learning a lyric, Dimmick said, calls on problem-solving skills, focus and even math. And meeting a young professional such as Spalding is the icing on the cake, he said: “I can’t tell you how valuable that moment was. … They suddenly see that this is a path you can go on.”
And bassist McBride has seen it from both sides. He first played in Newport as an 18-year-old in 1991, and returned this year as a veteran. “Our eyes aren’t quite so big, but it’s balanced by our bigger smiles.”