Saturday, August 18, 2007

Newport Jazz dizzy with tributes in satisfying Sunday program

By kindofblue

How much longer can the jazz festival business stay viable if
festival bills remain dominated by tributes to dead musicians, and
by blues and R&B acts whose connection to jazz is tenuous at best?

That was the big-picture question that kept floating in and out of
my mind on Sunday, the second and last day of this year’s Newport
Jazz Festival. (Technically it was the third day, but I’ve always
thought of the two full days at Fort Adams State Park as the actual
festival, and the Friday-night concert that begins the festivities
as a kind of extra added attraction.) Happily, the music was for the
most part so good that I was not tempted to waste a lot of time
contemplating the answer.

Re-imagining Dizzy
So while there may or may not have been any deep significance to the
fact that Sunday’s program opened with tribute concerts on all three
stages at the same time — to Dizzy Gillespie on the main stage,
Rahsaan Roland Kirk on the Pavilion Stage, and Stan Getz and Antonio
Carlos Jobim on the Waterside Stage — ultimately what mattered most to me was the music, period. And while I’m pretty sure I would have enjoyed any of the other two sets, I know my Significant Other and I were wise to head straight for the main stage (we arrived early this time) and settle in to dig the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band, conducted by Slide Hampton, for a full hour.

It isn’t entirely accurate to call the Gillespie ensemble a tribute
band. Most of the arrangements they played were not the original
ones from the Gillespie big-band book but entirely new ones, most of
them written by their excellent drummer, Dennis Mackrel. In other
words, they were not re-creating Gillespie’s music; they were
re-imagining it, and brilliantly.

[Photo: Roy Hargrove. ©2007 Irene Trudel]

The band was stocked with great soloists — so many that it was
almost an embarrassment of riches. Pianist Cyrus Chestnut had only
one solo, the great tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath only two; the
immortal James Moody had one tenor solo and one scat-singing
feature. Appropriately, the only soloist who was given a substantial
amount of space was a trumpet player, Roy Hargrove, and he did
Gillespie’s memory proud without in any way aping his style. Has
anyone else noticed that Hargrove has slowly emerged as perhaps the
most inventive and exciting trumpeter in jazz today?

A special guest on one number (his own “I Remember Dizzy”) was the
Cuban-born saxophonist and clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera, who
displayed his customary impeccable chops and irrepressible humor —
speaking of Gillespie’s love for Latin American music, he praised
him for championing of “the music of illegal immigrants.”

D’Rivera’s own ensemble followed the Gillespie band on
the main stage, although I caught only a brief snatch of his set
before rushing over to the Pavilion Stage to hear the superb bassist
Ron Carter, with Russell Malone on guitar and Mulgrew Miller on
piano. D’Rivera’s set, which ended just before 2 P.M., was the last
bona fide jazz to be heard on the main stage all day (more on that
in a minute).

The Carter trio, which I had also heard at Carnegie Hall in June,
was, as expected, polished, lyrical, and maybe just a shade too
quiet for my taste. It’s not coincidental that the centerpiece of
their set was “The Golden Striker,” a John Lewis composition that
was also a mainstay of the Modern Jazz Quartet’s repertoire:
Carter’s trio (one of at least two working groups he leads at the
moment) is very much in the genteel, understated tradition of the
MJQ. That’s a mixed blessing as far as I’m concerned — a little bit
of genteel and understated goes a long way — but there’s no denying
that Carter, Malone, and Miller are remarkable musicians, that they
work remarkably well together, and that they cast a most pleasant
spell on this sunny Rhode Island afternoon.

After that, I shuttled back and forth between the Pavilion Stage,
where Luciana Souza, backed by a first-rate band, sang a somewhat
bizarre blend of Brazilian tunes and Brazilianized versions of James
Taylor and Joni Mitchell compositions; the Waterside Stage, where
bassist Ben Allison led a somewhat frantic quartet through a program
of mostly original music; and the press tent, where I grabbed some
much-needed shade and watched Ron Carter hold court and for some
reason field as many questions about politics as about music. (Why,
he wondered, is John Conyers of Michigan the only member of the
Congressional Black Caucus who has ever been seen at a jazz
nightclub or concert?) In the process I missed Susan Tedeschi’s set
on the main stage, which didn’t break my heart — I’m not a fan — but
my S.O. and I were sure to get back to our lawn chairs in time to
see Al Green.

R&B closers
Are we hard-core jazz fans? Absolutely. Are we bothered by the fact
that, of the five acts on the main stage on Sunday, the last three —
Tedeschi (a last-minute replacement for Etta James, who was ill),
Green, and B.B. King — were not jazz artists? Not really. I mean,
who doesn’t love Al Green? And if booking him is what it takes to
sell enough tickets to keep the Newport festival profitable — well,
why not? He may not be jazz, but he’s awesome.

[Photo: Al Green. ©2007 Irene Trudel]

Of course, he’s also well past his prime, and he can’t quite hit all
those gorgeous high notes anymore. But he’s still charming, still
sexy, his band was tight, and his old hits sounded as exquisite as
ever. A notoriously erratic performer, Green bitched a little bit
about the stage being too far away from the audience, with no
stairway or ramp to allow him to walk down and mingle with the fans. But for the most part he stayed focused and gave the ecstatic crowd— announced at 7,600, one of the highest Newport jazz turnouts in some time — exactly what they came for.

The same can be said for B.B. King, the festival headliner, as long
as you allow for the fact that he’s 81 years old (as he reminded the
audience, over and over) and just not physically capable of
delivering the kind of show he once did. He stayed seated; his
guitar solos, while characteristically stinging, were never longer
than a chorus or two; and he spent more time telling jokes and
stories (all of them delightful) than singing. But so what? He’s
B.B. King, for God’s sake; if he hasn’t earned the right to take it
easy, no one has. His set wasn’t a particularly explosive way to end
a very satisfying Newport Jazz Festival, but it left the two of us
(and, as far as I could tell, everyone else) with big smiles on our

[Photo: BB King. ©2007 Irene Trudel]

Oh, and one more thing: As you may have heard, Chevy Chase, former
funnyman and alleged amateur jazz pianist, was the master of
ceremonies on the main stage all day Saturday and Sunday. I have no
idea why.

No comments: