Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Monk is the theme on Saturday at Newport Jazz

By kindofblue

My Significant Other and I have been going to the Newport Jazz
Festival for almost a decade now, and while some years have been
better than others, we have never been disappointed — especially
when the weather cooperates, which it did this year, magnificently.
The sun shone brightly throughout the weekend, with the temperatures hovering around the mid-eighties. And for the most part, the music shone brightly, too.

Actually, our Newport experience this year did begin with a small
dose of disappointment: caught in traffic, we arrived on Saturday
afternoon too late to catch even the tail end of Joshua Redman’s
set, which we had been looking forward to. (I don’t understand why
an artist of Redman’s stature was stuck in the 11:30 A.M. slot — but
hey, I guess SOMEBODY’S gotta do it.)

On Friday night we had congratulated ourselves for having had the
good sense not to drive up for the opening concert, by Dianne Reeves
and the Count Basie Orchestra with Nnenna Frelon — not that we were
happy about missing the music, but the entire concert, outdoors at
the International Tennis Hall of Fame, took place in a drenching
rainstorm. By Saturday morning the rain was gone, which may help
explain the traffic on the way to Newport and the surprisingly large
crowd once we got there.

By my unofficial estimate, this was the best Newport Jazz Festival
turnout since the star-studded 50th anniversary three years ago, and
the 2004 crowd was the biggest since we started going at the turn of
the millennium. Is jazz making yet another comeback? We anticipated
a big crowd for Sunday, with B.B. King and Al Green on the bill, but
Sunday’s lineup was pretty much all “pure” jazz, and the people
turned out in droves. Were they drawn by the music, the weather, or

Maybe a substantial portion of the crowd was there to see Bruce
Hornsby — yes, Bruce Hornsby — who, while he hasn’t been on the
charts in two decades or so, is no doubt fondly remembered by some
(though not by me) for his string of middle-of-the-road pop hits. He
wasn’t at Newport to sing his hits, though, but to demonstrate his
chops as a jazz pianist. And while anyone with a modicum of
knowledge and skill could probably sound good with the rhythm
section Hornsby recruited — Christian McBride on bass and Jack
DeJohnette on drums — it turns out that he isn’t half bad as a jazz
pianist. He played some interesting harmonies, he displayed a
playful sense of rhythm, and his technique is solid. The only
trouble is that he’s nothing special.

[Photo: De Johnette, McBride and Hornsby in the press tent. ©2007 Irene Trudel]

At a press conference after the set, Hornsby explained somewhat
defensively that he had been a jazz major in college (whatever that
means), and DeJohnette claimed that when he played tracks by the
trio for other musicians and asked them to guess who the pianist
was, they tossed out first-tier names like Cedar Walton and Kenny
Barron. If that’s true, I don’t know what those people were
thinking; Hornsby is pretty good, but he’s not THAT good.

After listening to a few numbers by Hornsby and company, we hurried
over to the Waterside Stage to see a true original, the great South
African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim. His hour-long solo set, with nary
a pause between numbers — in effect an impromptu suite — was
absolutely mesmerizing, easily the highlight of the festival for me.
The chance to hear a master like Ibrahim up close, weaving his spell
in the open air, on the water, surrounded by rapt listeners, is what
jazz festivals are all about.

[Photo: Abdullah Ibrahim. ©2007 Irene Trudel]

Only after the fact did something funny occur to me. Ibrahim, as he
always does, included a few snatches of Thelonious Monk’s music in
his set. (And in a sense anything Ibrahim plays, given his
percussive approach and his borderline-dissonant harmonies, is in
part a tribute to Monk, as well as to Duke Ellington.) Hornsby had
played a Monk tune as well: “Straight, No Chaser,” rendered with a nice New Orleans R&B groove. And directly competing with Hornsby and Ibrahim, over on the Pavilion Stage, was a septet led by Monk’s former drummer Ben Riley playing an entire set of Monk’s music (which, unfortunately, we missed). In other words, Monk was present in one form or another on all three Newport stages simultaneously.

In fact, as the weekend wore on, I began to notice that a lot of the
performers were playing Monk’s music. Monk may be displacing
Ellington as the jazz composer whose stuff everyone feels obligated
to play, whether as a tribute or a badge of hipness or just because
they’re great tunes.

Chico Hamilton, though, was old-school enough to include an
Ellington medley in his set (although, oddly, he prefaced it by
saying something like “Now we’re going to play a little Ellington —
DUKE Ellington,” as though he was afraid we weren’t going to know
which Ellington he meant). At 85, Hamilton has lost a step or two
behind the drums, but he knows how to pace himself, he can still
swing, and as always he surrounded himself with talented young
musicians who kept things lively.

[Photo: Chico Hamilton. ©2007 Irene Trudel]

Interestingly, Hamilton was on the Pavilion Stage at the same time
that Dave Brubeck, who is 86, was on the main stage. And Hamilton’s
group was directly followed by an ensemble conducted by Gunther
Schuller, who is 81, playing the music of Charles Mingus, who is

It was a little unsettling to realize how much of the music
presented at Newport this year was played either in tribute to a
dead master (in addition to Monk and Mingus on Saturday there was
Dizzy Gillespie, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Stan Getz, Antonio Carlos
Jobim, and Bill Evans on Sunday) or by musicians who, realistically
speaking, we can’t expect to hang around all that much longer. I’d
rather not think about what that might mean for the future of the

On a more cheerful note — and I say this even though their
repertoire included a piece called “The Chill of Death” — the
so-called Mingus Orchestra (not really an orchestra at all but a
10-piece jazz band with some unusual instrumentation, including
French horn and bassoon) was extraordinary, performing a program of
some of Mingus’s most difficult music and making it sound easy.
Schuller’s introductions tended to be a bit long-winded, but he did
help put the music in historical perspective. Mingus’s music is of
course perfectly capable of standing on its own. But it is worth
knowing, for example, that he wrote the damnably complex “Half-Mast Inhibition” when he was all of 17 years old.

On this glorious Saturday we also managed to catch a most impressive
set by the pianist and composer Kenny Werner, finally coming into
his own after three decades in the business, with a magnificent
quintet including Chris Potter on tenor saxophone and Randy Brecker
on trumpet. And we finished the day with a somewhat less impressive
set by Branford Marsalis on the main stage. Workmanlike but noisy,
Marsalis’s performance was notable mostly for one very beautiful
ballad on which he played soprano sax — and for the fact that he,
too, played a Monk tune, in this case “Rhythm-a-ning.”

We missed a few people we would have loved to see, chief among them the great trombonist Roswell Rudd. But when there’s good music on three stages all day long, you have to make choices. We ended up pretty happy with the ones we made, and eager to come back for more on Sunday.

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