Jazz’s Past and Future Present in Newport

August 27, 2019

By Sandy Ingham

The past, present and future of jazz were all represented at the 65th Newport Jazz Festival August 1-4, beginning right at the pre-festival concert by Festival Founder George Wein. He’s run the festival — now presented by corporate sponsor Natixis Investment Managers — since 1954, and at age 93 still has command of the piano as well.

Wein came onstage at Fort Adams’s Quad Stage to the first of several standing ovations, joined by bass giant and the festival’s Artistic Director, Christian McBride, delved reverently into Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady.”

“It’s not easy, at 93 years, not easy,” Wein admitted, saying this would be his final public performance. (A grinning McBride expressed doubt about that). He dedicated it to “the many generations who’ve played at Newport for 65 years … and the generations who will carry the tradition for many  more.”

After a sprightly “What Is This Thing Called Love,” the pianist quipped, “Did you hear all the wrong notes I played?” No one agreed. He persevered: “Day In the Life of a Fool,” then the challenging Monk classic “‘Round Midnight.” When he struck the opening chords to “A Train,” Jon Faddis strode onstage, and Wein marveled: “I’m playing with the best bassist and best trumpeter in the world.”

The concert’s warmup act was the Newport Assembly Band, seven young men who go into schools to play, and teach youngsters about jazz. The Newport Festival Foundation sponsors this outreach, just one of several ways Wein has promoted jazz education at all levels, including at a growing number of colleges and universities. Wein wasn’t the only nonagenarian gracing the Newport stages. Sheila Jordan was a guest vocalist with the Royal Bopsters, and Marshall Allen, 95, was right upfront with the Sun Ra Arkestra.

As for the future: Among performers in 2019 were vibraphonist Joel Ross, guitarist James Francies, the British jam band Sons of Kemet, rapper Common, and hip hop hitmakers Tank and the Bangas, all helping to expand the audience.

Friday, August 2 (daytime)

Michael Mwenso and the Shakes sang and played more soul and pop than jazz, but the dance routines  were fun, the inspirational “believe in yourself” message is worthwhile,  and pianist Matisse Picard’s solo feature paired Erroll Garner lightheartedness with boogie-woogie stomp.

As the U.S. celebrates 50 years since the first moon landing, and NASA gears up for another, the venerable Sun Ra Arkestra set its sights on more distant goals. “We take our trip in space, the next stop Mars,” the resplendently attired band chanted, then played its time-tested blend of far-out sounds with the earthy blues and swing of a not-quite-bygone era.

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society orchestra furnished the morning’s highlight: A lengthy excerpt from his 2015 suite, “The Real Enemies,” which he introduced with a warning about leaders who use paranoia as a weapon, “who stoke fear of refugees and immigrants.” The music ranged from eerie to menacing, rising in volume to eventual chaos, as recorded snippets from political speeches calling for world peace were interspersed. It served, unfortunately, as a prelude to the next day’s massacres in El Paso and Dayton.

Argue’s band opened with two commissioned pieces. “Ebonite” was a lilting ballad celebrating the hard rubber used in horn mouthpieces and  hockey  pucks (Argue hails from Canada) and boasting Dave Pietro’s inspired alto solo. The second, “Winged Beast,” was a remembrance of Bob Brookmeyer, one of the leader’s mentors; trombonist Ryan Keberle and baritone saxophonist Paul Maraghi had standout solos, and Argue’s carefully crafted compositions and the band’s impeccable playing were impressive.

Alto saxophonist Gary Bartz marked the 50th anniversary of his “Another Earth” hit album alongside trumpeter Charles Tolliver and Ravi Coltrane on tenor. After the lovely ballad “Lost in the Stars,” the sextet tackled “Another Earth,” a composition that sprang from initial cacophany to Caribbeanesque melody and New Orleans-style drum variations, to 4/4 swing and finally to a soothing ballad: “Peace Reigned on This Other Earth.

Herbie Hancock was artist-in-residence at Newport, playing one set Friday, a second on Saturday. I caught the former, a celebration of the ways electronics have impacted the music. Not to my taste, though I did marvel at Lionel Loueke’s guitar wizardry and voice-splitting “one-man choir.” And Terrace Martin’s versatility as percussionist, alto player and singer. Hancock did satisfy traditionalists with old favorites “Canteloupe Island” and “Headhunters.”

Friday, August 2 (evening)

Jon Batiste is a talented pianist and singer with charisma to spare, as any Stephen Colbert viewer will attest. He’s also a regular at Newport, and this year got the coveted slot as host at the annual cocktail party/concert at the International Tennis Hall of Fame. He and his band, Stay Human, and a handful of other artists had thousands  of guests in thrall for  more than two hours.

Batiste opened with some familiar crowd-pleasers, “Sweet Georgia Brown” and the dirge from his New Orleans hometown, “St. James Infirmary,” before unveiling original material. First, guest pianist Ethan Iverson played his elegant new ballad, “Showdown,” rumbling bass notes hinting that the serenity of the melody would give way. Then they played a duet on “Creative,” Batiste’s own challenging original from his new Verve album, Anatomy of Angels. That title tune, confirming Batiste’s skills as a composer, was another duet, with the self-described “rock jazz” pianist, ELEW.

Most impressive was the duo’s more than 10-minute improvisation, beginning with a few random chords and proceeding through Beethoven-like chords and some rhapsodic Gershwin, show tunes and jazz classics, all woven together in a one-of-a-kind jazz quilt. R&B singers P.J. Morton and Corinne Bailey Rae rounded out the show.
Saturday, August 3

After being introduced with all the delicacy one would employ unveiling a priceless antique vase, singer and bopster extraordinaire Sheila Jordan, 90, took the microphone: “Yeah, I’m old, but I’m not dead yet,” she declared, then proved how much life she had as the special guest in the Royal Bopsters’ morning set. The Bopsters — singers Holly Ross, Amy London, Dylan Pramuk and Pete McGuinness — are masters of vocalese and exquisite four-part harmonies. Their arrangements of mostly Great American Songbook gems left space for Jordan’s solos and obbligatos. She really shone on her feature,  Bobby Timmons’ “Dat Dere,” and was prompted to reminisce about raising her own inquisitive daughter many decades ago. Basie’s “Rusty Dusty Blues” with Pramuk as lead was a highlight. Others were Ross’s lyrics grafted onto a Tito Puente song, “When I See You,” and McGuinness’s spot-on simulation of a muted trombone solo. Throughout, the quartet’s facial expressions and gestures added shadings to their crystal-clear voices.

Dee Dee Bridgewater has put together an album and tour with an eight-piece band, Memphis Soulphony, to celebrate her hometown of Memphis’s  musical legacy and revive the r&b and soul classics she grew up hearing on the radio. Defying the heat and humidity, Bridgewater strutted and pranced all over the stage, gleefully putting her spin on hits by Al Green, Gladys Knight, Carla Thomas, BB King and Elvis’s “Don’t Be Cruel.”

Her most meaningful work was the Pops Staples anthem for the civil rights era, “Why Am I Treated So Bad,” composed in sorrow, or anger, as the ordeal of nine black teens trying to integrate Little Rock Central High School in 1957 played out on television and aroused the conscience of the nation. 

The Ron Carter Trio scored a trifecta: It took place under a tent, out of the unrelenting sun; there was a rare open seat up front; and best of all, the music was superb. The 82-year-old bass legend had a pair of aces -guitarist Russell Malone and pianist Donald Vega, and their mellow vibe and insistent swing harked back to the heyday of Oscar Peterson’s great small groups for most of the last century’s second half. Tributes were paid to recent losses to jazz: Cedar Walton (“Cedar Tree”), Jobim (“Opus Five”) and Carter’s longtime sidekick, Jim Hall. An unaccompanied “You Are My  Sunshine” showed Carter’s prowess, and a long, languid blues brought the hour to a too-quick end.

Tenor saxophone sensation Kamasi Washington’s band closed out the main Fort stage and was notably more subdued than it had been at Newport two years earlier. The news of the El Paso massacre was presumably a factor, and Washington was among several artists over the weekend to lament the conflict in our country and cite music’s role as a healing force.

Sunday, August 4

Sammy Miller and the Congregation, a three-horn sextet, channeled the jovial spirit of the Louis Armstrong All-Stars, playing gospel-tinged swing and a novelty number before it was time to head for the morning’s main attraction.

The three-piano tribute to Erroll Garner, led by Christian Sands and abetted by Helen Sung and Tadataka Unno, lived up to its hype. Garner’s rich, buoyant music in triplicate was joyous, three left hands striding as right hands flew into trills and arpeggios and the sheer playfulness of the subject’s compositions and embellishments. The set closed with all three sharing a single piano, hands criss-crossing, then bodies switching places, all without missing a beat, a new variation on the old musical chairs game.

The Dafnis Prieto big band won a Latin Jazz Grammy this year for its Dafnison album, Back to the Sunset, and while the excerpts played at Newport were not the explosive charts of an Eddie Palmieri or Poncho Sanchez, they were captivating and made good use of the wonderful sections and soloists. Call it the thinking man’s Latin jazz.

The marvelous Cecile McLorin Salvant was the next-to-last act at Newport, and as usual, the singer was full of surprises. In a girlish voice, she opened with an autobiographical-sounding lament about a child growing up disillusioned that the fairy-tale world of her dreams didn’t match the harsh realities awaiting her. That voice changed as she inhabited the jealous rival on “Why Should a Fella Want a Girl Like Her” (from Oklahoma), her sly wit and twinkling eyes showing as she snapped off the uproarious punch lines. “Come Back To Me,” the cleverly worded appeal to a wayward lover made into a hit by Shirley Horn, could also be heard as a summons to the audience. As if they needed prompting to come back to see Cecile whenever she’s back in town.    


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