Sonny Rollins was there, in fine, blustery form. Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, too. So were Aretha Franklin and heartthrob Chris Botti.
Yes, the superstars were shining at the 2008 Newport Jazz Festival Aug. 8-10. But for me, the best moments were furnished by George Wein, the founder of this granddaddy of all jazz fests, and his current edition of the Newport All-Stars. Back in the '50s, when my teenage ears were tuning into jazz after an early crush on rock 'n' roll, the bop vs. swing era wars were still raging. There was a term"mainstream"that defined jazz of that period, music that assimilated some of the modernists' innovations, while remaining rooted in the blues-based, toe-tapping melodic tradition of Basie, Ellington, Goodman et al.
The mainstream term isn't used much anymore, but it's what pianist Wein's quintet played for a delightful hour at Newport. "What we try to do is show the whole scope of the music," Wein explained in introducing Jelly Roll Morton's "Shreveport Stomp," a flying-fingers duet for guitarist Howard Alden and clarinetist Anat Cohen. So there were Ellington tunes, three of them, and an Acela-paced version of the ballad "I Thought About You."
Vocalist and bass-plucking phenom Esperanza Spalding did a solo rendition of "Midnight Sun," singing the luxuriant lyrics while simultaneously charting a whole different path through the Johnny Mercer classic on bass. Alden was unaccompanied on Django Reinhardt's tender "Tears," and "Limehouse Blues" was given a boppish treatment. Drummer Jimmy Cobb's feature was a bossa nova sans boss Wein. Lastly, the 83-year-old leader half sang, half spoke wistfully on "Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams," which seemed to summarize Wein's legendary career as music promoter and player.
Later that Sunday, Herbie Hancock assembled an all-star castDave Holland on bass, Chris Potter on tenor and Lionel Loueke on guitarfor a diverse set that reached back to his big hits"Rockit" and "Cantaloupe Island"and ahead to the title tune from the 2008 "record of the year," River: The Joni Letters
(Verve 2007). Hancock played with intensity throughout, whether on grand piano, electronic keyboard or while striding around the stage with his portable gizmo.
Sunday's closing act was Rollins, making his first Newport appearance in more than 40 years. He remains a colossus, a brute force on tenor whose solos of 10 minutes or more never flagged; products of his indefatigable imagination. Rollins poured out his soul on "Sonny Now" as bassist Bob Cranshaw and mates repeated a four-note phrase that resembled a Native American war chant. Then came a Monk tune, "Ask Me Now," and the joyful romp "St. Thomas," bringing dancers to their feet. Rollins slowed the pace for Ellington's "Sentimental Mood" and a closing blues.
Sunday's opening act on the main stagethere are three venues, posing a challenge to listeners who want to hear it allwas Guillermo Klein y Los Guachos. The 11-piece band offered a half dozen richly-textured compositions, redolent of his native Argentina and his adopted homeland, Spain.
I spent most of Saturday at the smaller Pavilion Stage, the better to see and hear three small groups led by drummer Brian Blade and bassists Charlie Haden and Holland.
Blade's sextet played several hymnlike melodies that rose and fell in tempo and volume as though taking cues from the shifting tide lapping the shore of Fort Adams State Park. The music was deceptively easy on the ear; careful listening revealed the depth of ideas as soloists explored the changes while Blade prodded and pushed.
Haden's trio included guitar master Bill Frisell and pianist Ethan Iverson, who was a revelation. Liberated from his bombastic trio, The Bad Plus, he played with restraint all through a serene set that Haden dedicated to "peace on Earth."
Holland's quartet played originals only, written by the leader, Potter, pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba and drummer Eric Harland. Much of the set was too far-out for my tastes, but Rubalcaba laid down a boogaloo beat on his "Fifty," punctuating it with a two-finger solo that suddenly exploded, igniting Potter's subsequent solo.
In between sets I caught a glimpse of torch singer Melody Gardot, whose low-key delivery has traces of Peggy Lee and Billie Holiday. Later, a funk band, Lettuce, led by Fred Wesley, picked up the baton passed on by the late James Brown.
Friday night's opening concert at the International Tennis Hall of Fame was a showcase for trumpeter Chris Botti, a darling of the smooth-jazz-loving crowd. He was impressive, with a gorgeous tone and an appreciation for great music, demonstrated on his new Italia
CD (Sony, 2007). A tribute to Enrico Caruso was folllowed by a mesmerizing muted take on the Miles Davis-Gil Evans classic "Flamenco Sketches." Themes from two romantic films drew oohs and ahhs.
Botti has added heft to his music, bringing guitarist Mark Whitfield, pianist Billy Childs and drummer Billy Kilson on board as accompanists.
An added bonus was having comedian Chevy Chase as the main stage emcee. His off-the-wall humor livened up intermissions, and he once sat at the piano and noodled some Bill Evans lines. And you thought he only played Gerald Ford.
Narrow roads between downtown and the park made for a New York-style traffic jam Saturday evening. I learned my lesson: Water taxi is the best way to go. Photo CreditMichael Weintrob