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Newport 2009: One for the Ages

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Newport Jazz Festival 2009
George Wein's CareFusion Jazz Festival 55
International Tennis Hall of Fame and Fort Adams State Park
Newport, Rhode Island

August 7-9, 2009

"We have three stages now, and I wish we could have more to give all these young musicians a chance to be heard," Newport jazz festival founder (and savior for 2009) George Wein told thousands of listeners at the August 7-9 gala, re-dubbed George Wein's CareFusion Jazz Fest 55."



And indeed there was plenty of youthful talent at this most venerable of jazz fests, including luminaries like Esperanza Spalding, Jane Monheit, rapper Mos Def, Hiromi, Miguel Zenon, Brian Blade, Joshua Redman, Claudia Acuna and James Carter. All are 40 or under, which qualifies them as mere kids to this 70-year-old reviewer.



But when it came to booking talent for prime time on the big stage for the finale on Sunday, the nod went to a trio of octogenarians—Roy Haynes, 83, Dave Brubeck, 88, and Tony Bennett, 83—along with the supporting ensemble of each.



Neither Brubeck nor Bennett played or sang anything new, but who really cared? The audience roared at "Take Five" and "I Left My Heart...," and dozens of other well-done chestnuts.



Brubeck was in particularly fine form. He opened with an Ellington medley, full of his trademark stutter-step chords and between-the-beat accents, building the tension so integral to all good jazz. He teased the crowd, playing Harold Arlen's "Stormy Weather" as clouds threatened to burst over historic Fort Adams State Park and the yacht-filled Narragansett Bay. But the rain never came, and the pianist took a stroll on Jimmy McHughes' "Sunny Side of the Street."

Alto player Bobby Militello switched to flute on Brubeck's ethereal "Elegy," and injected some of the pianist's "Blue Rondo a la Turk" into "Take Five," a double rhythmic adventure.

Rock-steady backing from Michael Moore on bass and drummer Randy Jones allowed Brubeck to meander at will piano without ever losing his way.

Festival-closer Bennett brought Brubeck back to sit in on keys as they revisited Arlen's "That Old Black Magic," a duet they last played together at JFK's White House in 1962.

Bennett clearly relishes his continued reign as surviving king of the Great American Songbook, raising his arms like a prizefighter after conquering a high-note climax, grinning ear to ear, sometimes doing a Gene Kelly impersonation as his rather sedate quartet took a turn in the spotlight. His voice remains a wonder of the world.

I missed most of the Roy Haynes Fountain of Youth set as checking out Steve Bernstein's Millennium Territorial Orchestra on a side stage proved captivating. The nine-piece band employs a violinist and guitarist, both equipped with wah-wah pedals, and the leader plays a slide trumpet at times. The repertoire ranges from 1920s jazz to pop to Sun Ra-like chaos to country (guitarist Matt Munisteri sings in a laid-back way echoing Willie Nelson). The mix is rearranged for maximum novelty, and joy. Case in point: One number began with a free jazz free-for-all, then morphed into "Le Marseilleise," then into a super-swinging Beatles hit, "All You Need Is Love."

Bernstein conducts with show-biz flair, summoning imaginative, often zany, solos from all hands, and coaching the crowd, shushing us when a tune seems to be ending, only to calm down for a violin solo.

The MTO is based in New York. Alas, no upcoming dates are listed on Bernstein's Web site. No doubt many in attendance would love to hear this band again.



Earlier on the same day, altoist Rudresh Mahanthappa's Indo-Pak Coalition created jazz out of Indian-based melodies, including a hypnotic Ravi Shankar ballad. Dan Weiss's hammering and tapping on finely tuned and re-tuned tablas was music to both ear and eye.

The end of Joe Lovano's UsFive set was a show-stopper, with the robust saxophonist wailing the blues on two sopranos simultaneously while two drummers pounded away behind him. Lovano later joined Dominican piano great Michel Camilo for a rousing "Night in Tunisia."

Saturday's lineup proved less compelling, making it easier to roam from stage to stage in quest of music that would encourage a listener to plant him or herself in one place. Fortunately, there were sufficient highlights to capture everyone's attention at some point:

Pianist Cedar Walton led a group with tenor saxophonist Lew Tabackin and trombonist Curtis Fuller, a combination that had a brawny appeal. Tabackin's feature ballad, "Old Folks," was at once gruff and tender.

Jane Monheit's honeyed voice on a bevy of standards, notably "Waters of March" and "Rainbow Connection."

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