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George Wein's CareFusion Jazz Festival 55 a Triumph


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There seemed to be a distinct feeling in the air at this year's jazz festival in Newport, R.I. It would be easy to imagine that there was something in the air, because the festival that was started by impresario George Wein way back in 1954 and became the model for all to follow had suffered an unexpected heart attack. As 2009 rolled around it "wasn't quite dead," like the resolute characters in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. But it was walking toward the light.

The group that Wein—then 81—sold his festival company to had faltered. In financial trouble and not able to pay its bills, Newport severed its ties. Wein, now 83, did not want to see his legacy expire in that way. Though it was late in the game, he swooped in and performed CPR on the event. There was going to be jazz in Newport in August after all. Then in came the new chief sponsor, CareFusion—"out of nowhere," quips Wein—and the event had even more life breathed into it.

The result was not only a triumph for the music and the legacy of an important festival, it was a triumph musically, with a fine mix of young artists that are the future of the music; giants who helped forge the music; and great talents who lie somewhere in between. The music across the board was outstanding. There were younger musicians like Esperanza Spalding, Hiromi Uehara and Rudresh Mahanthappa and Vijay Iyer, established stars like Joe Lovano, Joshua Redman, Michel Camilo and Branford Marsalis and iconic figures like Roy Haynes, Dave Brubeck and Tony Bennett. The music on the festival's three stages swung, darted, danced, explored, revisited, revamped and rejuvenated. Sometimes a few of those things took place simultaneously.

One might question something special in the air was imagined, given the circumstances. But it was palpable. The musicians knew the score and were grateful, often mentioning it. The fans were aware, and happy. The sun came out on the Fort Adams point where the festival is situated, surrounded by the glistening water of the Narragansett Bay.

As for Wein, he beamed with pride all weekend. "I've never felt the love I've felt here this weekend," he remarked. He addressed the crowd at various times at all three stages, introducing some of the acts. At times he appeared a bit tired, but always had enough energy to forge ahead, and also visit with old friends. There have been many triumphs at Newport—a young Miles Davis jarring the critics in 1955; Duke Ellington's band electrifying the crowd in 1956, when Paul Gonsalves played 27 choruses on tenor sax during "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue"; Sinatra flying in via helicopter in 1965, wowing a then-record crowd as he sang in front of the Count Basie band, then dramatically being whisked by the chopper—but this weekend has to register as a triumph as well.

After his set, Lovano called Newport "the greatest festival of all time. [It] sets the pace for all of the festivals on the international jazz scene, and it has for years thanks to George Wein." Camilo later commented, "It's so wonderful to be back at Newport, especially for a person that I love so much. I have shared so many joys and great moments with him: Mr. George Wein. He has been to me almost like a father since I got to New York."

Of course, the continuation of the festival wouldn't have meant much without great music. And there was that. The music was also diverse.

Lovano has played in many contexts over the years, big and small ensembles, and duets. His UsFive group—drummers Brian Blade and Otis Brown III, James Weidman on piano and Spalding on bass—played music from their Folk Art (Blue Note, 2009) release. Lovano started hurling lightning bolts by himself, his big sound permeating the festival grounds until his band mates slowly joined in on the song, "UsFive." It veered into an up-tempo excursion where the sax man showed his debt to people like Sonny Rollins and Charlie Parker. But Lovano has his own sound and creative drive that is exhilarating to hear. There's always a searching quality. The two drummers provided multi-layered rhythms that were put to good use in statements by piano and sax. Spalding held down a rhythm center. "Powerhouse" had a circular melody that had Lovano improvising over the melody and rhythm. The band was tight and the interchanges among them—the communication—was enjoyable.

On "Song for Judi," Lovano played what looked like two soprano saxophones melded together somehow, with two mouthpieces, allowing him to sound like two players. Lovano said later that's exactly what it was, called an Aulochrome, developed a few years ago by Francois Louis, but not widely used yet. The keyboard runs down the center, and each key splits in two parts to match each soprano side. Lovano played unison lines with himself, and then harmonized with his own lines in captivating fashion.

"You can play any interval and harmonize," he said. "It's a real trip."

Redman's group also had two drummers. For him, it's somewhat an extension of the pianoless trio he recorded—an brought to Newport—in 2007. But now there were two drummers (Gregory Hutchinson and Blade) and two bassists (Matt Penman and Omer Avital). Because of the interplay between those four, it gave Redman more colors and rhythms to work with on the various saxophones he played—all of theme extremely well. The music was loose at times, but always pushing. Again, there was great communication and the music, edgy and funky, was superb. The interplay between the two drummers was particularly appealing. And fun.

In a more mainstream vein, the Christian McBride trio was blistering. If an acoustic trio could be called a power trio, this would be it. It featured the driving rhythms of veteran Billy Hart and kick-ass piano of George Colligan, who was all over the 88s, matching the fire of his mates. McBride, for his part, is a beast on the contrabass. His rhythmic support makes him a first-call bassist for anyone recording, it seems, and his soloing in this mainstream setting was colossal. He has come through the lineage of great players, but is doing more and more lately to take his place at the pinnacle. This trio smoked. And ended with a cool funky blues. McBride has his fingers in many projects, his interests varied. But he sure did bring it home in front of a huge crowd that came to hear him at one of the two side stages.

Michel Camilo also displayed fire in his trademark fashion: blistering jazz injected with subtle Latin rhythms. He's an energetic, virtuoso player, and dug right in with his composition "See You Later." Drummer Cliff Almond stoked the fire throughout; a great fit for the pianist. Camilo showed his way with a ballad on "My Secret Place," and was sweet on the standard "Poinciana," which he let breathe and pour over the afternoon crowd. He closed the set with "A Night in Tunisia," joined by Lovano on tenor sax. The two of them killed it. Hot!

Speaking of high energy, Roy Haynes Fountain of Youth band was that, led by the legendary drummer's superb musicianship. At 83 (same as Bennett and Wein), Haynes is something else. He looks like he could be a bounced at a biker bar, so fit is he, and it shows in his playing. A special treat was his bassist for the day, another master of the music, Ron Carter. The two paired well together, Carter's rich, signature tone gliding across Haynes' percussive drive. The group slowed it down for Jaleel Shaw to play "Chelsea Bridge" on alto sax. The music was alive and grooving.

The other octogenarians fared well, but not as energetic as Haynes.

Brubeck's set was typical of what he does these days. Nothing is at super speed, which the pianist can't negotiate at age 88. But he remains a crowd pleaser. He played a medley of Duke Ellington tunes, including "A Train" and "Don't Get Around Much Anymore." "Yesterdays" and "Stormy Weather" were given nice treatments. Though not as agile, Brubeck still investigates different passages within the music and is certainly an icon worthy of his billing. "Take Five" got the typical rousing reaction and closed a nice set, except for a brief, classical-inspired solo by Brubeck that George Wein coaxed out of him before he left the stage.

Wein himself did some piano playing of his own, as well as being on the scene to oversee events. He sat in on Friday night with Anat Cohen's group. And on Sunday, he took part in McBride's "Conversations with Christian" set, which involved brief interviews with musicians, then some duet playing with each. With Wein, the duo played a mid-tempo stroll where the pianist got to play in the swing style of his comfort zone, playing adroitly over McBride's rock solid time.

Bennett was the headliner on Sunday and bought forth his usual class and charisma. "Watch what Happens" kicked off a solid collection that he has mined for years from the Great American Songbook. His voice is still strong, though it may crack a bit at times on long-held notes. That's cool. He relies on phrasing, which is still excellent. He makes the music seem easier than it is and makes the audience feel warm and welcome. He's always had a great way with a song. "Maybe This Time," "The Way You Look Tonight," "But Beautiful," "I Got Rhythm," "Just In Time," "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" and of course "I Left my Heart in San Francisco" were among the choices. The crowd was wowed when Brubeck made an appearance and the two kicked off "That Old Black Magic." They hadn't played together in 47 years, so it was a nice addition to Wein's 55th anniversary event.

Anther voice in jazz, Spalding, led her band through a solid set on Saturday. She sings quite a bit with her own band. She doesn't have that big strong voice, but the slight-of-frame bassist puts it to good use, twisting her phrases, winding though and over the melody at times. She has pop elements to her style, but definitely improvises. She scats, seduces and swings. "Jazz Ain't Nothing But Soul" started things off and she also sang her very hip "I Know You Know," with its jumpy rhythmic pattern. She's also an excellent bassist and her band reflects the energy she brings to the stage.

Brian Blade's Fellowship Band turned in a fine set. "The Hymn" started soft and serene, the intensity building and time went on, cushioned and pushed, as need be, by the drummer's always thoughtful and creative moves. He can play as if he were cradling an egg or get volcanic. "Migration" moved and rumbled steady like the waters of the surrounding bay. Melvin Butler's tenor sax solo was melodic and majestic, followed by Myron Walden whose tenor sax injected soul and funk into the proceedings. The crowd seemed like it didn't want to stop clapping.

Rudresh Mahanthappa's Indo-Pak Coalition played music from 2008's Apti (Innova). With Rez Abbasi on guitar and Dan Weiss on percussion, which included tablas as well as drums and cymbals from a traditional trap set, the group got into the title cut of the album. Indian-influenced rhythms and motifs were present, but Mahanthappa himself plays out of the neo-bop bag, influenced by the jazz greats. Abbasi's angular guitar work, both on electric and acoustic, give just the right feel and shades to the music. And he's an expressive soloist. The Indian-inflected meters and rhythm are interesting, and not all that far removed from those used in the development of jazz. It's easy to see why people like John Coltrane and George Harrison—among others—were interested in investigating them years ago.

The songs shift and vary with a slightly different lilt, but are challenging for the musicians. Weiss handled the music with aplomb. The ballad "Vandanna Trayee" was a pleasing exploration.

Branford Marsalis' group was also on fire, the leader showing that he doesn't really take a back seat to anyone as one of his generation's tenor sax giants. The group played a lot from Metamorphosen (Marsalis Music, 2009), including a couple of Thelonious Monk gems, "Think of One" and "Rhythm-A-Ning." They are also a fiery group who have been together for a while. Marsalis is blazing hot and pianist Joey Calderazzo matches him. Underrated somehow, he has great taste and ideas. And he sings like mad. The latter monk song had some idiosyncratic rhythmic feel, but not aping Monk's. Marsalis played in and around the shifting beats. Like Lovano and Redman, this band is an example of what great creative jazz bands are doing today.

Playing the mainstream music from which it all springs was pianist Cedar Walton, assisted wonderfully by the tenor sax and flute of Lew Tabakin and trombone of Curtis Fuller. Tabakin is a particular delight, with his gorgeous sound and delectable swinging style that comes out of Coleman Hawkins and right up through the early lineage. Walton is in the pocket like Hank Jones and Tommy Flanagan and doesn't fail to delight. Fuller displayed his robust tone and sense of swing on "I Didn't Know What Time It Was," and Tabakin dominated "Old Folk," growling at times as he caressed that melody.

When it came to fire, there was no taking a back seat to James Carter's organ trio. Carter, who always flexes his considerable chops on any saxophone or instrument he can pick up, charged out of the gate on soprano with "Goin' Home." His longtime colleague Leonard King was funky and fleet behind the drums and gave Carter the right diving board off which to spring. Gerard Gibbs is a smoking organist, and the three—very familiar and comfortable together—really charged ahead. "Walkin' the Dog" gave the group a chance to sing the blues. Carter did it on baritone. He gets a gorgeous sound, made for the blues. Slurpy and sultry at first, he got more aggressive before handing things over to Gibbs, who did himself proud. It ended with one of Carter's tour de force solo explosions where he seems to play the whole horn, screeching in the highest end, belching in the lowest. Maybe he can't help himself on those. But it's still fun. "Sussa Night" gave Carter a chance to show his underrated ballad work, using great tone and phrasing and leaving space for the music to breathe.

A pair of relative youngsters also turned in fine sets, Hiromi and Vijay Iyer.

Hiromi displayed fabulous chops on acoustic piano and also augmented her selections with electronics. "Softly As In A Morning Sunrise" started as solo acoustic stride piano, but quickly changed as she started playing more modern and guitarist John Sherman played first counter melody, then melody over Hiromi's two-fisted stomping. When Sherman started into a solo (a good one), Hiromi backed him with string-like electronics. Jeff Beck's "Led Boots" had Hiromi playing a funky electric groove, backed nicely by the band. The fleet-fingered Sherman laid down the melody and band was off on a nice modern, jazzy romp. Hiromi can get funky and freaky on electric keyboards. The entire band is very tight, with great energy. Very good stuff.

Iyer was more introspective in his trio set, but no less creative, taking interesting trips though a variety of different compositions, including his own "Historicity," which is the title cut of a CD he said will be released in a couple months. The cut featured choppy rhythms from Marcus Gilmore's drums (grandson of Roy Haynes), and thoughtful progressions by Iyer on piano. He can display bop chops, but is also more engaging, slowing down finding different paths to pursue when the time is right.

Claudia Acuna is a strong-voiced singer with obvious influences from her native land of Chile. On "Grasias a la Vida," her voice soared over the band—that featured Jason Lindner on piano and Carlos Henderson on bass—like the gulls over the bay, seeming to halt at times and continue on the glide. She switched to English lyrics for "That's What They Say," a ballad. The standard "Every Time We Say Goodbye" had voice floating over a funky Latin percussive beat and a winding piano line that erupted with a hot guitar solo before its end.

Miguel Zenon was scorching at the waterside stage, from what could be gleaned. The Vandermark 5 played music that veered to the free jazz/avant-garde arenas, and received good audience response. Steve Bernstein's Millennial Territory Orchestra swung tunes and stretched tunes into far-reaching areas with interesting arrangements of jazz, pop and rock tunes.

The weekend on the gorgeous bay had more than enough great music for everyone, and once again set a high standard for other festivals. George Wein has a right to be proud. A memorable one, for sure. As Gov. Donald Carcieri, who showed up to make a presentation to Bennett, remarked to Wein, "You've put Rhode Island on the map."

Photo Credit

R.J. DeLuke

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