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2003 JVC Newport Jazz Festival

AAJ Staff By

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Just lay back on your blanket and look up at the sky and feel the breeze and smell the salt-air and hear the music. Jazz festivals are therapy.
August 8-10, 2003

The breath-taking view while driving over the long stretching bridge to Newport, Rhode Island is what New England is all about. Everything from little white sailboats to million-dollar luxury yachts dot the dark blue waters. Cruising through the hip downtown stretch to the brick mansions along the way, we approach historic Ft. Adams State Park, home to the Newport Jazz Festival.

The audience is spread out on blankets and in lawn chairs, surrounded by beautiful water and boats and funky people. It's a jam. Salsa legend, the "madman of Latin music," Eddie Palmieri was the right guy to get this party started!

Bringing ten powerful musicians with him, the master conjured up magic as only he can. Infusing fire into his performance, pounding the keyboards standing up...he was there to represent Latin music in all it's glory. Smokin,' kickin' salsa! Having lost Tito Puente and, just this year, Celia Cruz, Latin music is saddened, but alive and proud today.

Latin horns are strong and fiery hot. Eddie Palmieri's choice of such brass soldiers include the incredible Brian Lynch on trumpet, Doug Beavers (trombone)and Ivan Renta (baritone). Lyrical flautist Karen Joseph added spice. Man, this stuff gets your blood boiling. Brian Lynch is one of the best trumpet guys in the business, as his blazing second solo proved that fact.

Born in Spanish Harlem in 1936, Eddie Palmieri has 40 years in the business under his belt (as well as seven Grammys). His sound is inspired by the Cuban players of the 40's. As Palmieri puts it, "In Cuba, there was a development and crystallization of rhythmical patterns that have excited people for years. Cuban music provides the fundamental from which I never move. Whatever has to be built must be built from there. It's that cross-cultural effect that makes magnificent music." Long live Eddie Palmieri.

Pat Metheny was next to take the stage. Nice, huh? He walked out with some strange looking string-driven thing. I mean this has sets of strings criss-crossing all over the place. It gave me a headache just imagining how to play it. Yet, in Metheny's hands, beautiful sounds rolled out in strumming thunder. The 42-string Pikasso guitar looked like a Salvador Dali painting come-to-life. (You can tell Pat practices alot. Ha! Or perhaps it's because he spends most of his time on the road, averaging 120-240 shows a year since 1974.)

Pat and I have a few things in common: we were both born in the summer of 1954 and we were both raised in Kansas City. Heck, I may have even chucked a rock at him in 4th grade at one of the many battling neighborhood rock-fights. Don't think they have rock-fights anymore. Later, Pat and I both wound up in South Florida. My brother, Chris Thompson, (a trumpet player in NYC) attended Berklee College of Music in Boston while Pat was a teacher there. As a matter of fact, as I write this, today is Pat Metheny's birthday -August 12th. Weird.

After Pat finishes his beautiful solo art, he is joined by the inspired busy bassist, Christian McBride and comparably talented Antonio Sanchez on drums. Believe me, this trio sounded alot bigger than just three guys. Things really got rockin' as McBride jumped from upright to electric bass. Metheny was a last-minute blessing to the historic event. It was also his first appearance at the famous festival. Plus it was a real joy to see Christian play. He's been putting out a lot of great music lately.

Next up was the elegant and earthy, sophisticated and sweet, Cassandra Wilson. She's a real crowd pleaser as she embraces the audience, pulling them into her world. She can really breathe life to a song. Her playlist included such diverse compositions as the Monkees' "Last Train To Clarksville" to Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain Is Gonna Fall." And she makes them her own.

The crowd turned and followed her finger as she pointed out to the beautiful blue-water bay...and the particular yacht she wanted. "Somebody better take me out on one of those yachts today," she laughed. Then back to her storytelling and singing. Hypnotic.

Her band includes Brandon Ross on guitar, Lonnie Plaxico on bass, Gregoire Maret on harmonica and the gold-earringed Jeffrey Haynes on percussion. Like a glove.

Born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, Cassandra Wilson is a beautiful woman and performer. "Mississippi is an almost magical place for music. In addition to the legacy that's there, great musicians are everywhere," Cassandra confides. "In the smallest town you can find cats that are amazing players. Not just the blues, there are also funk players, soul singers, of course gospel singers, and like my father, some serious jazz musicians. For the most part of the world outside of Mississippi has never heard of them."

Cassandra has made a name for herself, and today she again gave us a brief escape. Just lay back on your blanket and look up at the sky and feel the breeze and smell the salt-air and hear the music. Jazz festivals are therapy.

You could tell the Royal Guard of Jazz was arriving backstage. Silver-haired gentlemen in sharp suits began to stroll in. You could tell these were class performers. Heck, it was Dave Brubeck and the gang. Here to swing. In his early eighties and right on the money.

Born in 1920 in Concord, California, young Dave wanted to be like his dad; a rancher and cowboy. The music world is glad he took up piano.

People stood and applauded when Mr. Brubeck walked in. People stood and applauded when Mr. Brubeck walked out. People stood and applauded while Mr. Brubeck played. Guess you could say he's earned the respect of the jazz culture. He is jazz culture.

Bopping through the classics, Brubeck smiled along with "On The Sunny Side Of The Street" and sent up a roar with "Take Five." Honored with the "Lifetime Achievement Award" by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences and named a "Jazz Master" by the National Endowment for the Arts, Dave Brubeck takes it all in stride. Swingin' dignity.

Afterwards backstage, the sight of Dave Brubeck and Stanley Clarke hugging, kinda said it all. It's all about the music. Young/old, electric/acoustic, hard bop/be bop. It's good to have big ears.

Stanley Clarke took to the stage with his electric bass, introduced the band and started strummin' and slappin.' The sound of his bass brings me back to the days with Chick Corea. Groundbreaking stuff. He is one of the most lyrical bass players ever. No doubt. Check out his CDs for movie soundtracks. Really, really good.

Today the Stanley Clarke Band rocked and rounded out the day at Newport. Another August weekend of jazz at this historic stomping ground. www.festivalproductions.net.

The "Grandfather of Jazz Festivals," George Wein started it all right here in 1954. It's great to see his smile and shake his hand. And as I stand backstage at the stone archway, I remember meeting Miles Davis here...walking under the archway. I was shaking in my boots and squeeked out something as he walked by, to which he muttered something. Probably something I can't repeat.

Scott H. Thompson contributes to Jazziz and The Jazz Report. He's a member of the Jazz Journalists Association and is a jazz radio broadcast veteran (WPKN-Bridgeport, WJAZ-Stamford & 99-Rock WPLR-New Haven). Thompson wrote the CD liner notes for Herbie Hancock "Headhunters," Weather Report "8:30" and George Duke "Brazilian Love Affair," to name a few. He co-produced the New Haven Jazz Festival from 1994-2000. In 2004, Thompson was hired as Assistant Director -Public Relations for Jazz at Lincoln Center. www.jalc.org.

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