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Newport Jazz Festival 55: A Weekend to Savor

Ken Franckling By

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I've never hugged so many musicians in my life. They've made this the most beautiful weekend in my life. —George Wein
George Wein's CareFusion Jazz Festival 55
Newport, Rhode Island
August 7-9, 2009
In this 40th anniversary summer of Woodstock, the musical love-in took place in Newport, not upstate New York.

And it wasn't a matter of nostalgia. It was all about the Phoenix-like return of the jazz festival after a winter of uncertainty. Once something goes away—or is threatened with going away—you find out how much it is appreciated.

George Wein

That was the case this past weekend for George Wein. Many will recall that the company that bought his Festival Productions Inc. operation 2 1/2 years ago and ran it into the ground financially under the aegis of Festival Network LLC, yet retained naming rights to the Newport Jazz Festival and the companion Newport Folk Festival.

Wein came out of semi-retirement to ensure his 55-year Newport legacy survives. He had help from longtime staff, an army of fellow musicians, some of whom have worked for him and/or with him for five decades or more, and a new sponsor, the San Diego-based health-care products and services company CareFusion. "The warmth I've received this weekend is unbelievable," Wein said. "I've never hugged so many musicians in my life. They've made this the most beautiful weekend in my life."

Musically, there was something for everyone at George Wein's CareFusion Jazz Festival 55 on a weekend with an announced total attendance of 12,800, the largest crowds—6,000 showing up on August 8, a postcard-perfect Saturday. (Not as many as were present for the 50th anniversary of the start of the Newport Folk Festival the prior week, when Saturday attendance alone topped 9,000, but a good turnout given the health of the economy and the many choices for today's music consumer.)

There was hard bop, mainstream jazz, Latin, avant-garde, rock-influenced jazz from younger groups like The Bad Plus, and bands that transcended stylistic boxes. Steven Bernstein's Millennial Territory Orchestra updated the feel of the old Jimmie Lunceford band at times. The avant-garde was represented well by the boiling intensity of the Chicago-based Vandermark 5, as well as By Any Means(alto saxophonist Charles Gayle, bassist William Parker, and drummer Muhammad Ali subbing for brother Rashied Ali, whom we just lost). Rapper-actor Mos Def was Saturday's headliner with his Watermelon Syndicate. The set may have felt inappropriate to some, yet the band's musical underpinnings were strong and creative, particularly on his update of John Colrane's "A Love Supreme."

Marsalis Music owned the intimate Waterside Stage on Saturday, presenting pianist Joey Calderazzo with the jazz combo from North Carolina Central University (where he teaches), Claudia Acuna, the Branford Marsalis, Joey Calderazzo duo, the North Carolina Central Big Band, and the Miguel Zenon quartet. And Marsalis sat in with virtually all of his labelmates—and the two student bands, which turned more than a few heads.

As Newport attendees soon learn, you have to pick your spots as a listener—given the musical swirl of three stages.

Highlights included:

Wein sitting in on the finale, "All of Me," with the Anat Cohen-Howard Alden quartet, which opened the music Friday night at historic Newport Casino, the very first home of the Newport Jazz Festival back in 1954.

Bassist-singer Esperanza Spalding (pictured right), who had made a confident move from a small stage last year to her own Saturday set on the main stage, and a return on Sunday as an integral member of Joe Lovano's quintet UsFive.

Singer Acuna's breezy bilingual set on the Waterside Stage. Even if you don't know the words when she sings in her native Spanish, the Chilean beauty's way with a song touches you with her heart-felt emotion.

Joshua Redman's Double Trio energized the main stage at mid-afternoon Saturday with the presence of two bassists Omer Avital and Matt Penman and two drummers (Brian Blade and Gregory Hutchinson, adding to the textural possibilities as they played in varied combinations that are propelling Redman's new concepts.

Brian Blade and his Fellowship Band were back for the second straight year, lifting the stage off its moorings musically on Sunday. So did James Carter's organ trio a few hours later—and Hiromi's trio, SonicBloom, had much the same impact a day earlier as she opened with an inside-turns-outside version of "Softly As In a Morning Sunrise" and closed with an arrangement of Ellington-Tizol's "Caravan" that started with bombast and melodic hints before resolving to its old self.

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