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Newport Jazz Festival All Stars in Michigan

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That the players... young, old and in between... were able to find so much inspiration from that rich past is a testament to the versatility and resilience of jazz and the universal appeal of swing.
History Lesson at the Frauenthal: Newport Jazz Festival All Stars salute first 50 years of America’s first jazz festival.

Monday night at Muskegon’s historic Frauenthal Center for the Performing Arts, the Newport Jazz Festival All Stars completed a swing through Michigan with a two and half hour concert that brought to life the repertoire of jazz greats Miles Davis, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Don Byas and Duke Ellington.

This performance was unique in that it was free as a gift to the people of Muskegon County from the Collins Fund of the Muskegon Community Foundation, so all 1,700 plus seats were taken.

It wasn’t repertoire alone that evoked jazz played on those long July 4th weekends in Newport, Rhode Island, but the way the melodic vocabulary of an era salted Monday night’s improvisations. And, of course, the band member's introductions – this group used everything in its power to connect with the audience: information, humor, a variety of instrumental settings and most of all music.

The band featured a trumpet/two saxophone front-line with a full, i.e. four-man, rhythm section of guitar, piano, bass and drums. Trumpeter Randy Brecker; saxophonists James Moody and James Carter; guitarist Howard Alden; bassist Peter Washington, and drummer Lewis Nash made for the all-star band.

Chief instigator of the spontaneous review of jazz vocabulary and popular song favorites was pianist Cedar Walton, who was introduced as the band’s composer as well as pianist (near the end of the concert, the full band played Walton’s "Firm Roots").

When joined by bassist Peter Washington and drummer Lewis Nash for the feature "Over The Rainbow" Walton improvised a clear, continuous flow of ideas, which lingered on that famous rhythmic figure in the bridge to "Over the Rainbow." Walton lightened the mood and seemed to be talking over the fence to his band mates with melodic allusions to "There’s No Business Like Show Business," "Mona Lisa" and a handful of other familiar themes. His other feature on the night was "Without A Song."

At one point in James Carter’s tenor sax feature for Coleman Hawkins, "Stuffy," guitarist Howard Alden ended his solo with a famous riff from the Count Basie band, the figure leading to Jimmy Rushing singing, "Don’t the moon look lonesome shining through the trees?" on “Sent For You Yesterday.”

During the full ensemble opener, "Dig," Miles Davis variation on "Sweet Georgia Brown," James Carter soloing on soprano sax laid in one of Charlie Parker’s recognizable variations on those familiar chords.

That sort of stuff went on all-night and there was so much of it woven into the fabric of the music that it became more than just quipping or joking or coasting: it was deep, though playful, homage.

The historical terrain of the Newport Festival is the landscape of brilliance and creativity made last century. That the players Monday evening — young, old and in between — were able to find so much inspiration from that rich past is a testament to the versatility and resilience of jazz and the universal appeal of swing.

And that seemed to provide a more entertaining history lesson than musician s aping styles by the masters of jazz: if individuality was a hallmark of a musician’s greatness in the tradition, then James Moody was there to remind us of it.

Sounding like no one else but himself, Moody played an imaginatively taught, melodically sustained improvised performance on "Body and Soul" with just the swinging bass of Peter Washington to set him off. Since 1939 “Body and Soul” belongs to Coleman Hawkins, and Moody’s brilliantly arppeggiated and extended harmonic lines were in the spirit of Hawk. Yet unlike Hawkins famous recording Moody played the whole tune, and in method was as much informed by the mid to late-1950’s music of John Coltrane as he was by the first great tenor saxophonist of jazz. In any case, it was beautiful and a highlight of the concert.

Moody did comedy, too. "Women are like pianos: when they're not upright, they're grand." "I've been in love with the same woman for 50 years" (sighs from the crowd)"hope my wife never finds out." "Last night we played some music that left a beautiful taste in your mouth, oh it was delicious. Hey, Peter Washington, let's play "Poppa Take Your Dentures Out, Mama Wants to Check Your Gums." Moody said, "Ladies and gentleman, I'd like to attract your attention to the center seats" (house lights come up, spot light pans across the crowd) "as the former heavy weight champion Joe Frazier is here tonight, the great Jo— oh, sorry ma'am."

"Moody's Mood" is required of him, but it is still a stitch, especially as the scat sung coda included yodel-like leaps between the high and low register. His lead-in to "Moody's Mood" started when he asked the crowd, “Do you know who Billy Eckstine is? There was this man, and he walks into a hotel, approaches the receptionist who smiles and says, "Hello Mr. Eckstine, it is so good to see you again." The man says, "Oh, no: I'm not Billy Eckstine. I’m sorry." He makes his arrangements, walks to the elevator and the operator greets him, "Hello Mr. Eckstine. So glad you could stay with us again." The man starts to feel a little funny, says, “Oh no, I'm not Billy Eckstine.” When he gets to the room, he opens the door and there's a lovely woman in lingerie draped across the bed, who says, "Hello Mr. Eckstine," at which point Moody sings, "Jelly, Jelly, Jelly" in his most convincing Eckstine imitation.

Though trumpeter Randy Brecker had a chance to pull a Miles Davis imitation on his feature, "All Blues," he didn’t compromise the brilliance of his sound or the almost lead trumpet register he danced in during his sped up interpretation of the classic from Davis’ album Kind of Blue. Brecker put some Mile-isms into his first half chorus, and then went for himself. Later while he and Moody played a simmering version of Dizzy Gillespie’s "Con Alma," Brecker kept the Gillespie-isms to a gesture, as well, and created a moving original performance.

Moody had him introduce the piece by asking Brecker what did “Con Alma” mean?

Brecker: “With...’alma.’”

Moody was a feature soloist in the Dizzy Gillespie orchestra of the 1940's, maintained a regular touring schedule with Gillespie’s 1960’s era quintet, made a notable showing at the 1968 Berlin Jazz Festival in Gillespie’s re-union big band, and today refers to Diz as “my musical father.” His turn on "Con Alma" Monday showed how he’s still finding plenty of ideas in that well traveled terrain. Moody’s new recording Homage, on Savoy Jazz, shows he’s not standing still, especially on music from the movie Glenn Garry Glenn Ross.

Howard Alden spoke eloquently about Ellington’s roaring 1956-concert appearance with Paul Gonsalves’ tenor saxophone “wailing interval” on the blues. That set up Moody and James Carter’s tenor battle on "C Jam Blues," replete with telescoping chase choruses and a free-for-all collective improvisation. Moody started off the solo rounds, and it seemed he played some of Carter’s ideas and moves in that opening solo, just not with the forceful textures of Carter’s style. Moody remained tastefully centered – both he and Walton had an even sound, in terms of dynamic range, that stood apart — while Carter bedazzled.

James Carter spent a few formative summers at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp in Muskegon County, or touring Europe with the Blue Lake International Program, and had a return engagement at the camp last July. So it was no surprise he was the crowd favorite: Carter had them by turns hollering questions and retorts at the bandstand, whooping, snickering, laughing, exploding in applause, gasping in appreciation, and abiding the most outrageous sounds of the night.

With only guitarist Howard Alden to accompany him, Carter on baritone sax created his only unaccompanied cadenza of the night in introducing "Gloria," the Don Byas number found on the new CD Gardenias For Lady Day. While Alden waited patiently, Carter pulled out every trick in his bag, from his signature staccato accelerando, to high harmonic yaps, to swaths of exciting circular breathing, to blowing whispers of air through the horn without triggering the reed. It was brief and almost an afterthought as he and Alden flowed together into the tune and played simpatico. After hearing Carter Monday, one might say he’s gaining control, meaningful musical use, in deploying his fearsome saxophone chops. He summed up the post-Coltrane era of expressionism in jazz saxophone for Monday night’s crowd, and for this tour in general, and made it work within the traditional settings.

The rhythm section was unflagging. Alden took for his feature Barney Kessel's "64 Bars on Wiltshire." Drummer Lewis Nash took a few Max Roach style solo phrases on "Dig," but really let loose in his own manner on "Caravan," a perennial showcase for jazz drummers, and was otherwise an inventive, constantly interesting presence during Monday’s music. Walton and bassist Peter Washington found common ground everywhere they went together.

Newport thrived on the ‘all-star’ band concept – that is a hand-picked group of sometimes very different musicians who don’t work together regularly put together for a concert set. That the band which came to Muskegon Monday night had played Friday at Michigan State University in East Lansing and Valentine’s Day night at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo helped make it more than a one-off. However short-lived, this is a touring ensemble with an exciting program they’re working out night after night on the bandstand, and recommended to any seeking to hear jazz with a strong connection to the iconic past.

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