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George Wein's CareFusion Jazz Festival 55 a Triumph

R.J. DeLuke By

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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.


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