After the triumphant, news-making appearance by the Duke Ellington Orchestra the preceding year, the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival was eagerly awaited by Verve impresario Norman Granz, no doubt hopeful of replicating the success of the best-selling album of Ellington's entire career (Ellington at Newport 1956 Complete
, Columbia/Legacy). Although Verve's releases marking the 50th anniversary of the mother of all jazz festivals don't disappoint, there's much that's unlikely to strike the present-day listener as essential or even historic.
The Coleman Hawkins-Roy Eldridge set was one of those spirited, fiery affairs that no doubt sounded better at the time than when revisited a half century later. Both musicians are in peak form, as is especially apparent on the opening "I Can't Believe That You're in Love With Me" and the closer, "Sweet Georgia Brown." Bean readily slips into the unrelenting gear that made him a virtual one-man rhythm section while Little Jazz displays the formidable high-register chops that led jazz historians to proclaim him the missing link between Armstrong and Gillespie. But there are undeniably some sour notes on the session.
The third member of the frontline, altoist Pete Brown, is either authentically primitive or presciently avant-garde, depending on one's point of view. His fragmented, choppy lines and frequently abrasive and clawing, pitch-approximate tone could be seen as a harbinger of the free-form experimentation of the decade to follow. But listeners of this relatively brief set (40 minutes) are likely to wish for more solo time by Hawkins, Eldridge and pianist Ray Bryant. Unfortunately, as well as Hawkins plays, he's off mic and occasionally muffled in the mix whereas Brown's horn is front and forward.
The rhythm section is a high-profile, formidable threesome with plenty of firepoweryet never quite finding "the groove." On the ballad medley, Hawkins' solo on one of his favorite vehicles, "Moonglow," sounds more plodding than inviting (the tempo is somewhat slow for the tune, and drummer Jo Jones passes up opportunities to provide a lift through some judicious double-timing). Bassist Al McKibbon is, as usual, steady as a rock, but his instrument sounds like it has been electronically boosted at some point during post-production.
Despite the heat generated during the set, pianist Ray Bryant avoids anything like meltdown mode, submitting solos that are light, good-humored and ceaselessly inventive. As recorded, his piano tones are fuller and clearer than Hawkins' tenor saxophone. Still, one can't help but wonder how much of a difference the usual Norman Granz pairing of pianist Oscar Peterson and bassist Ray Brown would have made on this occasion.
All in all, this is one recorded highlight from yesteryear perhaps just as well forgotten, except perhaps by Hawkins and Eldridge completistsor those who were in attendance (though reliving a golden memory has a way of making it forgettable). For a contemporaneous but far more scintillating Hawkins-led jam session, with a cast including Charlie Shavers, Billy Butterfield and Urbie Green, look for Session at the Riverside (Capitol, 1957).