Submitted on behalf of Rob Mariani
The Newport Jazz Festival, Sunday, August 12th
Call me a purist, but this year’s Newport Jazz Festival seemed to contain even less jazz than last year’s event. Pop, funk, soul, Afro, World, fusion were all quite conspicuously there—and, oh yeah, a little jazz, too Isac Hayes? At a jazz festival? Excuse me?
After reading this year’s roster of people, the only one I had any interest in hearing was the band dedicated to "The Music of Miles Davis and John Coltrane," the Herbie Hancock group that’s been playing around under this banner recently. Let me say right up front that I’m extremely glad I did. More about that in a minute
The weather at this year’s festival was sunny and friendly—just the opposite of last year’s three-days of rain and fog. And the Fort Adams Park venue on the beautiful Newport Harbor is breathtaking with its breeze-blown waves and scudding sailboats.
As usual, the sight lines to the large stage were not very good, but the sound system seemed a little better this year, though still far from adequate. Balance is a constant problem. The view and the sound are much better at the smaller Mercedes Benz tent proving once again that jazz does not translate well into gigantic venues. It’s an intimate, personal kind of self-expression that just doesn’t survive well in big festival spaces.
That being said, Herbie Hancock’s musical aggregation was well worth the price of admission. The group, consisting of Herbie on acoustic piano, Roy Hargove on trumpet, Michael Brecker on tenor, Georg Mraz on bass and Willie Jones III on drums, was introduced by Eric Jackson, Boston’s jazz DJ from WGBH-FM. Eric, who is usually quite articulate, gave a very perfunctory introduction, almost rushed— one in which oddly, the names "Miles Davis" and "John Coltrane" were never even mentioned. I had to ask myself, is this a tribute band or not?
But once these guys started to play, you pretty much forgot about everything else. They kicked the set off at a very brisk tempo with "Madness" from Miles’s Neferatti album. The unison work was so tight that Brecker and Hargrove seemed to be breathing with the same set of lungs. Drummer, Willie Jones, was absolutely extraordinary, laying down a deep, solid groove while feeding the other players all kinds of interesting ideas. He and Herbie and Mraz created a fascinating, ever-changing network for the soloists to swing from. (I guess there must be some law of Nature that says men named "Jones" are pre-destined to eternally expand the possibilities of musical rhythms.)
Nobody spoke to the audience. Heerbie just counted off the next tune, which was a medium-slow tempo piece, very linear with lots of rhythmic space. Hargove’s sweet but too-short solo evoked memories of Miles’s penetrating lyricism. Brecker took a few more chorus’s which evolved as the rhythm section grew more complex underneath him. Herbie’s solo was just brilliant, full of shimmering chords and jagged right hand runs that bounced off Jones’s percussive, driving time feeling.
The third tune continued in the languid tempo mood with Herbie laying down all kinds of interesting gambits and ideas for the two horn men. His interaction with Jones was amazingly empathetic. George Mraz took a lovely lower register solo that showed why he is such a sought-after bassist.
And then everybody left the stage except for Michael Brecker, who proceeded to play a long, lyrical tenor solo full of sensuous musical ideas that just flowed effortlessly from one to the other. After about 6 or 7 minutes, he did begin to repeat himself but had the good sense to end his explorations before it became boring. He got a deserved standing ovation.
The band closed the set with a blindingly fast tempo tune that started with an explosive solo by Willie Jones. This was jazz drumming at its most inventive. Hargrove’s solo emerged from Jones’s pyrotechnics like a clear, bright gem suddenly exposed to moonlight. His phasing was spare and lyrical and loaded with nuance. Herbie followed and took the tune some place completely different with a lot of big, almost Gershwin-esque chords and glassy crescendos. This was definitely one set that could have gone on for a lot longer. The group just opens up so many possibilities. But festival pacing being what it is, they left the stage with just the barest nods of acknowledgement to the audience. Still, they’d given us everything we needed in the music.
I left the Newport Jazz Festival this year without hearing any of the other groups but with a very positive, upbeat feeling that the essential exploratory nature of jazz was in fact continuing to evolve in a very promising direction thanks to the prodigious talents of people like Mr. Hancock, Mr, Mraz,. Mr. Hargove, Mr. Brecker and the miraculous Mr. Jones.