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Live Reviews

JVC Newport Jazz Festival

By Published: March 12, 2004
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.

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