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Live Reviews

JVC Newport Jazz Festival

By Published: March 12, 2004
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.

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