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Live Reviews

JVC Newport Jazz Festival

By Published: March 12, 2004
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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