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.

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.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Scenes From The San Jose Jazz Festival

FP took a trip down to downtown San Jose to catch the 18th edition of the San Jose Jazz Festival. Much like the previous years, the festival was sponsored by moneybags galore (one stage being brought to you by Adobe), and an orgy of kettle corn stands, bead shops, and kabob booths littered the 13 square downtown blocks dedicated to the festival.

This all helped pay for a bill of more than 50 acts over the festival's 3 days for only $15. And there weren't any slouches performing either. Whether it was the rhythmic agility of Conjunto Karabali, the visceral lead lines of bluesman J.C. Smith, or the chromatic freakouts of trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos under the cool grooves of Larry Vukovich and Chuck McPherson, what you got was tight, good grooves that either made you dance, or think. Even the Folsom High School Big Band was in top form.

Here are some shots taken from FP's time at the festival:
Two dancers enjoying the beat of Karabali.

J.C. Smith searches for the perfrect note.

Headhunters percussionist Bill Summers gets into the groove.

Trumpeter Gilbert Castellano, in the middle of a marathon solo.

The Realistic Orchestra kicks off their set.