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Live Reviews

JVC Newport Jazz Festival

By Published: March 12, 2004
Submitted on behalf of Rob Mariani

Friday, August 10th: The Newport Casino at The Tennis Hall of Fame.
This year's festival opened in a somewhat more intimate locale than the stadium-size Ft. Adams State Park where its two days of main events happen. The Newport Casino at the Tennis Hall of Fame is a perfect outdoor venue for a lovely evening of great jazz. The summery charm and opulent atmosphere of Newport's bygone era are recalled here in this lovely shingled enclave.
The sight lines to the center stage are all pretty good. Most are excellent. And the sound system this Friday night was as they say, "close enough for jazz."
A NIGHT OF TWO STARS Given the fact that drummer, Roy Haynes, at 75 is one of the legends of jazz and has earned the status of headliner if anyone has, it would seem only right that relative newcomer, singer/pianist, Diana Krall, should open for him.

However, that wasn't the case on Friday's premier performance. Haynes and his edgy young quartet opened for Krall and though he received a warm welcome, it was clear this crowd was here to for the girl singer. Haynes is definitely a drummer's drummer. His phrasing, his time feeling and his overall conception are all totally original. None of that originality has waned after all these years, either. In fact, he is even more energetic and inventive than ever. The trouble seems to be now that Haynes really wants to dazzle you. And so he does. Then he be-dazzles you, and then he re-be-dazzles you. About mid-way into the third tune, I found myself wishing he would just settle into the groove for a few choruses and lay off the statement and re-statement of the tune's chord structure for a while.

Diana Krall came out looking run-me-over-gorgeous in a little low-cut black dress. She proceeded to live up to all the hype about her lately, and then some. Like the great Nat Cole, Krall is as excellent a pianist as she is a singer. After a very up tempo version of "I Love Being Here With You," she told the appreciative crowd that she'd just had her wisdom teeth out two days ago. The operation did not seem to hinder her way with a lyric in the least. Krall gave a relaxed, sexy rendition of "I've Got You Under My Skin" that would have made Cole Porter himself stand up and wave his hanky. Her usual guitarist, Dan Fanly, was absent, stuck on the tarmac at Washington, D.C. and so until he arrived, we got to hear a bit more of Krall's piano-playing than usual. She has great technique, interesting phrasing and the girl can swing.

Fanly showed up mid-way through the set and the trio became a cohesive quartet. The crowd had come to see their favorite new jazz vocalist and they definitely got their money's worth (with the possible exception of a few over-martini-ed women on our side of the bandstand who insisted on standing up and "singing along" while they jiggled their olives to the beat. Thankfully, the crowd soon shushed them up.)

Krall came back for an encore‹a solo rendition of an Elton John tune that satisfied both the pop and the jazz fans in the audience.

Saturday, August 11th: Fort Adams State Park Compared to the relatively intimate setting of last night's Newport Casino, the big stage at Fort Adams seems vast. One of the problems I've always had with jazz festivals per se is that they present what is, to me at least, supposed to be a very intimate form of music in the most un-intimate of settings.

When you could find a clear sight line through all the bobbing heads and umbrellas, the musicians looked like tiny specks‹and sounded like they were in another town. The weather was damp and steamy this Saturday and there were a few sprinkles throughout the day.

There is a second venue at Fort Adams called the Mercedes Benz Pavillion, and it is much more conducive to small group jazz and the sound here wasfine.

But there's a good side and a bad side to having dueling venues: performances often overlap and you may have to miss one group to see another.

The good thing about it is that, if you time it just right, you can avoid waiting for each group to set up their instruments and do their sound checks. It doesn't always work that way though. I found myself wondering what I might be missing at one stage while I was trying to concentrate on what I was seeing on the other.

Singer, Nora York, opened in the Mercedes Benz Pavilion, a tent with open sides that is not much larger than a good size night club. Tall, blond and intense looking, York put together an interesting blend of folk music, cabaret singing and jazz stylings. I'd say she was a perfect example of the Festivals admitted attempt to "blur the lines" between jazz and other popular forms of music. The smaller setting was a definite plus in York's case and the audience connected with her right from the git go.

I left the pavilion and hurried back over to the big stage to catch the Roy Hargove quintet. Hargrove is at the top of his game these days. His trumpet playing is intense and his band really swings with immaculate cohesiveness. After a couple of up-tempo originals, the quintet played a series of beautiful ballads starting with Noel Coward's haunting "Nature Boy," and then Hoagy Carmichael's  lovely "Never let Me Go."

Although Hargrove's sound and phrasing would never be mistaken for the great Miles Davis's, his presence and command of the music is similarly compelling. For me, Hargrove's group was the highlight of the Festival. Unfortunately, the program did not list his co-players and the person who introduced them did it so briefly and with such poor mike technique, that I can not tell you who the other excellent members of this group were. It was a problem that persisted for the entire Festival.

You expect a band that's led by a famous comedian to be kind of a joke, and in the case of "Cos of Good Music," Bill Cosby's aggregation, that's just what it was. "Conducted" by Cosby, the group featured Don Elias, Bootsie Barnes, Dwaye Burno, Jon Faddis, Al Foster, Hilton Ruiz and John Stubblefield. As they came on the Fort Stage, it had begun to rain. Cosby kicked off with a very impromptu version of "Singing in the Rain." The sound was way off balance for most of the tune, which was probably a good thing. Most of the soloists seemed unfamiliar with the chord changes of this hokey old show tune and they floundered. The sound balance improved somewhat but the volume was still too low. And if the Cos and his band were being funny up there, it was too far away and too under-miked to be appreciated by all but the first 5 rows.

Back over at the Pavilion again, young Ravi Coltrane's quintet was just starting his set. (Once again, there was no listing of his band members anywhere and when they were announced, it was impossible to understand their names.)

I can not imagine what it must be like to be the saxophonist-son of a jazz giant like John Coltrane. Young Ravi seems to handle it pretty well though, making no attempt to replicate his father's miraculous sound. He plays fairly straight forward modal material, and among his peers he is, I'm told, respected on his own terms. His group, bass, piano, and drums, were tight and cohesive but a bit repetitive, I felt. They seemed to latch onto a riff underneath the soloist and then just keep playing it until it became too heavy-handed. Interestingly, of the five tunes they played this day, three were in 6/8 time, one had a jazz-flavored funk beat and the other was a slow, almost tempo-less ballad. (What ever happened to classic 4/4 time?)

Several years now after it's namesake's passing, The Sun Ra Arkestra, under the direction of Marshall Allan, continues to baffle, bemuse and break me up. The seventeen-member band, all dressed in some kind of almost theme-like shiny lame' outfits and weird headgear, took the Mercedes Benz Pavilion stage. Their small but devoted group of fans settled in expectantly down front. They kicked off with an ear-splitting cacophony of everybody-plays-what-ever-the-hell-noise-they-want. Then they settled into a conventional, swinging 4/4 big band tempo overlaid with some seriously strange, off kilter, not-quite-unison, out-of-this-world horn figures. Sun Ra's explanation of this unique music's origin on the planet Saturn (where he himself, purports to hail from) seems to make as much sense as any other to me.

After the first tune, I whispered facetiously to one of the Arkestra's enraptured fans, "So, how many of these cats do you think are like actually from Saturn?"

He looked back at me with total sincerity, "Oh, they all are, man." Although Sun Ra's very original piano stylings are sorely missed, his humor and his spirit are very much present in this band of joyful eccentrics. I had to forgo The Dave Bruebeck Quartet (still going strong and exploring artfully at 80, I was told) on the big stage, so I could check out the new, (to me) world beat/jazz/fusion music of Simon Shaheen and Qantara at the Pavilion. If there's to be a blurring of the lines between jazz and other musical styles, this could well be one of the more fruitful directions I can see it going in.

Shaheen is a master of the violin and the lute. He plays them both with a combination of classical prowess and gypsy intensity. His eclectic band consists of various flutes, a soprano saxophonist, a bassist, an ude player, and three percussionists. The rhythms are complex and very fluid and the melody lines are long and interesting. The band plays much like a jazz group, that is, they all state the melody and then each player improvises on it for a few choruses. With their exotic Arabian flare, they drew the audience in like a group of thirsty Bedouins to an oasis.

Big Bill Morganfield, son of the late, great Muddy Waters rounded out Saturday's events at the Festival. He took over the Mercedes Pavilion stage with his band and dove right into a series of kick-ass blues numbers, both original and traditional. The band has a great loose swinging, tightly tuned elasticity that takes you over from the very first chord. Morganfield, in black cowboy hat and dark sunglasses, plays a truly "mean" guitar with a sharp, slashing attack that resonates with anybody or anything with a pulse.

Like all classic blues tunes, his rendition of "I'm Dead-Ass Broke" contains both the cause and the cure of the blues.

Sunday, August 11th: Fort Adams State Park

Sunday's early morning downpours didn't seem to discourage Festival goers one bit. By '':30 am, the sprawling field in front of the main stage was packed again with music fans. There were lots of umbrellas, of course, making the difficult sight lines next to impossible. But there were breaks in the weather. Never any real sun, but put it this way—it was not anywhere near as bad as Woodstock.

Early in the day, on the big stage, vocalist/poet Kurt Elling and his quartet appeared. Elling's haunting voice and his reverence for beautiful lyrics would have been a lot better served in a smaller venue. Still, he managed to capture the crowd's attention with such tender ballads as "Detour Ahead," that smoky old Anitia O'Day favorite from the forties; and the more obscure and personal "Orange Blossoms in Summer Time."

His scat vocals on tunes by Wayne Shorter and by Horace Silver were a little less accessible, and the lame sound system made them even less listen-able. Elling's sincerity and his obvious devotion to quality arrangements made him a welcome guest at this oversized table for thousands.

As soon as I heard "brassman" Chuck Mangione's familiar smooth, mellow sound‹the sound that had become so associated with the taming down of jazz in the late sixties, I figured I wasn't going to hear much new at the big stage. So I headed over to the Mercedes Pavilion again where the Uri Caine Trio was just starting. When I read that Caine had played with the legendary drummer, Philly Joe Jones (the man who introduced John Coltrane to Miles Davis), I was expecting maybe the next Bill Evans.

The trio's first couple of tunes seemed a bit rough-hewn, not just because of the stop-and-start technique Caine was employing; but because they seemed to be having trouble adjusting to each other's groove. Then I realized that this was actually what this group was mostly about: constant give-and-take. Unfortunately, it was achieved at the expense, I felt, of any real lyricism or well-developed melody lines  (a la Bill Evans). I admired the fact that Caine took a lot of chances and always seemed to land on his feet, but when a pianist is this good, you simply want more beauty and a little less cliff-hanging.

The group I was most looking forward to hearing, the Wayne Shorter quartet, was up on the big stage next. I settled into my beach chair amidst the rain-soaked crowd and tried to catch a few glimpses of the band through my binoculars. Again, the sound system was so badly balanced and kept bouncing around so erratically, it was nearly impossible to tell when Shorter was soloing and when he was just lending musical comments to Danilo Perez's or John Pattitucci's solos. It was a real mess and an unfortunate waste of some great musicians. From what I could hear, Shorter and his cohorts were in a searching mode. Rarely did they seem to pursue one musical idea for more than 8 or '2 bars. Time signatures seemed muddy and indecisive‹probably because the drums were so poorly miked; and melody lines seemed to trail off meaninglessly. All that remained was Shorter's plangent tone, like a voice lost in the gray mist that was settling on the old stone fortress's walls. I know these guys can cook better than they did that day.

While they set up for Natalie Cole, I went to catch the David Sanchez Melaza Sextet at the Pavilion. This was a good straight ahead group with two tenors (Sanchez and Miguel Zenn), bass, piano and a Latin percussion section. I'd give you the names of the other musicians had they been provided, but alas, once again, there was no info. Sanchez didn't announce the names of the tunes either, but the first one reminded me of some of the things on "Miles Smiles." He's got a nice tone on tenor, slightly  reminiscent of the great Hank Mobley. The rhythm section had lots of fun mixing Afro-Caribbean and jazz beats and the horn men relaxed comfortably into the busy grooves.

Blues artist, James "Blood" Ulmer says he's been influenced by such sanctified Delta spirits as Howlin' Wolf and Willie Dixon, as well as by Ornette Colman's theory of free-form "harmolodics." Against the hard driving blues back beat of his trio (Jerimiah Landers on bass and Swiss Chriss on drums), Ulmer juxtaposes some pretty intriguing and abstract guitar riffs. Long howls are punctuated by sharp staccato machinegun bursts. The audience beneath the compact Benz Pavilion loved it. They also loved being out of the rain, which had started to fall pretty steadily at this point.

Before heading over to the big stage to see Natalie Cole, I caught enough of the new young group The Slip to recognize that not all jazz-rock bands are the same. This trio of electric guitar, electric bass and drums played some genuinely interesting musical ideas over a funk beat that, though a bit predictable, never got lost in the reverb.

I had to pass up Los Hombres Calientes with Irvin Mayfield and Bill Summers, because Natalie Cole was about to materialize over in front of the big Fort Adams stone fortress. (From conversations I overheard in the crowd, it was clearly Cole and not Wayne Shorter who'd lured most of the people here on this rainy Sunday.)

Which brings us to the question of whether broadening the scope of the Festival and blurring the lines between jazz and pop music is a good thing. Cole is clearly a pop singer just like her dad, Nat, who was originally a very influential jazz pianist/singer. But should she "jazz up" her act a bit for this occasion? And if so, would it win over any pop fans and persuade them to buy, say, a Roy Hargrove CD? Would it at the same time, turn off too many purists in the jazz camp?

On the other hand, should jazz artists like Wayne Shorter be expected to make their music "more accessible" to a pop audience? Would that mean dumming it down?

Lots of "shoulda's" and "woulda's," I'm afraid. I won't pretend to answer them. I'll just report that Natilie Cole's first few numbers were definitely jazzy‹"Get Your Kicks on Route 66" always swings and everybody loved it. And her way with a ballad is definitely learned from jazz, not pop singers Then the pre-recorded strings and the backup singers kicked in and things got a little more soap operatic. Cole has a lovely voice, but let's face it, she's recorded some pretty weak ("Pink Cadillac") crowd-pleasers that she will be required to sing for the rest of her professional life.

But as her set veered more and more away from jazz into her disco phase and so on, the crowd was on its feet for the first time all day. People were clapping their hands and swaying and singing along —off key, of course. True jazz fans — the purists—  were wincing and shaking their heads. But when all was said and sung, it was mostly pretty good music.

And then the ultimate musical genre-bender, Ray Charles, was introduced. Here is a man whose style and phrasing literally covers just about every musical category short of grand opera. Everybody digs "Raymundo." How can you not, even now when his raspy, blues-infused voice is starting to show its age. When Charles slipped lazily into what has to have been his bazillionth rendition of "Georgia on my Mind," he treated it as tenderly and freshly as if he were introducing the song for the very first time. I've heard I don't know how many different recordings of him doing this song, and he never phrases it quite the same way. Yet it is always instantly recognizable as Ray Charles. I guess that's why they call him "The Genius."

And true genius never seems to worry about naming what it does. It just strives to do what it does in a better and newer way than it's ever been done before. Ray Charles doesn't sing "jazz." Or "Blues." Or "country/Western." Or "pop songs." Or "R & B." Or "Rock and Roll."

Ray Charles just sings a song — and everybody listens.

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