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Newport Jazz Festival 50th Anniversary Tour is a Burner

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The Newport Jazz Festival 50th Anniversary Tour celebrating the anniversary and legacy of George Wein's archetypal jazz festival is a sparkler, featuring superb musicians and exciting music; younger stars and one of the great jazz elders. It’s a polished program and a thoroughly enjoyable night for those fortune enough to make one of the tour stops that run through the end of March.

On Feb. 7, the group played the exquisite Proctors’ Theatre in Schenectady, NY. And, with help from James Carter’s burning tenor and baritone sax work, Randy Brecker’s blaring trumpet, James Moody’s splendid tenor sax and terrific rhythm support from Howard Alden on guitar, Cedar Walton on piano, Lewis Nash on drums and Peter Washington on bass, they blew the lid off the joint.

The tour almost has a feel of another famous aggregation – the old Jazz at the Philharmonic under the leadership of Norman Granz. Years ago, Granz started a the jam-like concert at a venue in California, but then toured it around the country and the world over a period of years under the JATP name. It always carried jazz greats in different combinations, like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Young, Flip Phillips, and more. The Newport show has that style, with each player getting solo space. There were different combinations of musicians to give it variety. While it was largely jamming on jazz classics, the playing was excellent and there was a sense of energy and vitality throughout, nothing stale or stodgy.

‘When it started out, [Wein] set the standard for outdoor jazz festivals,” said Brecker prior to the show. “He also set the standard for exporting jazz to Europe. And all over the United States for that matter. He was quite the entrepreneur. The Newport Festival was really one of the first of its kind and, particularly back then, was really important to people’s careers. People’s careers could be made or broken after having played at the festival. And of course that is now under various names.”

“On some tunes we have arrangements and we do some of the tunes pretty much every night. But other portions of the show we each are featured, one by one, throughout the evening,” he said. “Generally on those tunes, where it’s just myself and a rhythm section, or if it’s just James Moody and a bassist, that part of the night we’re free to pick whatever tune we want to do. Sometimes that’s influenced by whoever went before us. If they change up, then we change up. So it keeps it fresh.”

Carter was one of the highlights, playing in his brash and busy style. His energy is amazing. He pulled out all his honking and flashy technique while swinging his ass off on Colman Hawkins’ “Stuffy,” but also exhibited more subtle style and taste in a duet treatment of “Don’t You Know That I Care” with Alden. Brecker was featured on a nod to Miles Davis, providing a rendition of “Someday My Prince Will Come,” that was sweet. The trumpeter has technique to burn, and he made the song a nod to Miles, but not imitative.

Walton’s underrated and excellent piano chops were displayed in a trio version of “Without a song,” while Alden sowed he is a young guitarist to be reckoned with on “66 Bars on Wilshire Boulevard” from the Barney Kessel book, as well as his duet with Carter. Nash and Washington – both stellar players who are very much in-demand and highly regarded among their peers – got their chances to shine on “Caravan.”

It was a particular delight to see Moody in the formation. He is one of the elder statesmen of jazz and still plays hot tenor in the bebop style that he played for so many years, from it’s beginning, with Dizzy. He even took on the role of class clown so often played by his mentor, joking with the audience on frequent occasions. His “Body and Soul” with just Washington’s support was delectable, and he held his own with the bravado of Carter during the sax duel of “C-Jam Blues.”

He’s known for his solo so many years ago that became “Moody’s Mood for Love” which was put to a lyric by Eddie Jefferson, one of the shining stars of “vocalese,” the art of putting words to jazz instrumental solos. On this night, Moody himself gave the vocal rendition in Jefferson style, comical and touching as well.

The 50th Anniversary Tour isn’t just a jam. It’s a group of great musicians having a ball and letting the audience in on the moment. They play the music of the past, but with such élan that it washes away any sense of “old.” As Newport continues, celebrations like these are a good idea.


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