The Newport version of the JVC Jazz Festival has grown in popularity and in the shear volume of entertainment. One has the opportunity to hear a vast lineup of artists during the three day event. While the Friday evening concert is always a great kickoff, the Saturday and Sunday events are non-stop performances. The three stages and rolling acts means there is no time during the entire two days from 11:30 AM until 6:30 PM that you cannot see a great jazz act.
There is the Main Stage, the Pavillion, and the Waterside Stage. The Main Stage hosts the bigger acts, and the large format bands. The Pavillion Stage hosts smaller groups and is especially suited to the trios and quartets, while the Waterside Stage has been the host of piano soloists, and small ensembles. But no matter where you are, and what time it is, you can expect great music. Highlights of this year’s festival were constant, and to do it justice one needs to dissect it day by day. One cannot see every act. That is impossible, so you must pick and choose. That is what I did. Others may have a different take on the event, but none will dispute the quality of the artists and the music being presented.
On Saturday, the weather had taken a massive turn for the better with a crystal clear sky and temperatures in the high eighties. When Joshua Redmantook the stage at 11:30 AM with his trio, including Christian McBride on bass and Eric Harland on drums, the crowd was already building to the day’s total of 6500. Those who arrived early were treated to a killer set featuring songs from Redman’s latest work Back East. The opening tune, The Surrey with the Fringe on Top, a Rogers and Hammerstein composition was a chance for the trio to get the kinks out. That is just what they did. By the time they hit the Redman originals they were wowing the veteran audience and by the end of the set, many were exclaiming that Redman, McBride and Harland had set a high standard for the following acts. Soul Dance, Two Track Mind and Odd Man In, all Redman originals, were enormous tunes and woke everyone up who had thought they were going to relax and read the newspaper until the festival got going! Zarafah, Redman’s composition for soprano sax was a beautiful piece that he dedicated to his mother. The composition allowed the artist to stretch out. Joshua Redman first appeared as part of a group called the Young Lions, and had just returned from a long stint in Japan; today he roared back into Newport and put his mark on this legendary event.
The jazz debut of Bruce Hornsby was next, and the pressure of following an act like Redman’s trio was palpable. Hornsby is not known for his jazz playing and being a headline act at the Newport Jazz festival in his third public appearance with the trio was a daunting task for Bruce. But when the rhythm section is made up of the likes of Christian McBride on bass, and Jack Dejohnette on drums, you are two thirds of the way home. All Hornsby had to do was show up and deliver. No pressure here! He did show up, and some would say he delivered. He clearly did not embarrass himself. His set consisted of some well-known jazz standards and a few original compositions from Hornsby’s jazz debut CD, Camp Meeting. Charlie, Woody and You, a Hornsby original, was a warm-up song and set the tone for the piano player and his trio. Hornsby then took on a previously unknown Ornette Coleman piece, Questions and Answers which had Coleman’s signature changes which Hornsby cautiously moved through while not getting too ambitious. He continued his cautious theme with the Monk classic, Straight No Chaser. Other tunes included Hornsby’s Camp Meeting, the title track on his new CD, and some humorous pieces that even featured a vocal by Dejohnette. Overall, it was a good showing.
Later during an interview with the trio, Hornsby said that "the only excuse was fear" for not having recorded a jazz CD in the past. He has obviously overcome his fear, the next question is "What’s next?".
Saturday at Newport featured many great players. Some veterans of the Newport stage, including Marcus Miller, Branford Marsalis, Chico Hamilton, and others, but none more veteran than the legendary Dave Brubeck, who has performed at the Newport Jazz festival more than any other living performer. His Quartet featuring flute and alto sax player Bobby Militello, bassist Michael Moore, and his son, Danny Brubeck on drums delivered a rollickingly entertaining set which included anecdotal stories from Dave highlighting song origins, and jazz festival memories. The set consisted of classics like St. Louis Blues, Cassandra, Elegy, and of course the crowd favorite Take Five. This rendition was a showcase of the drumming talent of Danny Brubeck.
The line up Saturday was filled with great players in a variety of formats. What made this difficult was to be able to be in three places at once to hear some of what each was offering, and yet try to be present for those Newport moments when acts that you had never heard of, or combinations of musicians not usually seen together have one of those moments in music that make history, even if only for those in attendance. Bands like The Monk Legacy Septet led by Ben Riley were getting rave revues by those who had seen the whole set. Fans were raving all day about how that band had hooked-up and delivered a killer set. Kenny Werner and his quintet consisting of some first-call players and leaders in their own right were also a big hit. How can they not be with the likes of Chris Potter on tenor, Randy Brecker on Trumpet, Scott Colley on bass and Antonio Sanchez on drums. This set was pure Werner, and his compositions were well expressed by the band.
Sunday proved to be another stellar day in Newport with a star-studded line up featuring some of the great names in jazz while offering some variety that the festival is known for. The crowd which built to 7800 fans were treated to The Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band led by the legendary Slide Hampton. This band included some of the greatest names in jazz still playing today and some new names still making their mark on jazz history. The line up included Hampton on trombone, James Moody on tenor sax, the amazing Jimmy Heath on tenor sax. Heath is one of the few jazzmen still around from the very first Newport Jazz Festival in which he and his brothers played. They came back for the 50th Anniversary recently.
Another notable member was the trumpet player Roy Hargrove, who looked like a child among the rest of the band, and for all intents and purposes was the child in this lot. The band gave a strong performance and delivered a fine sampling of the Gillespie favorites, and featured amazing solos by Hampton, Moody, Heath and Hargrove as well as others.
The day was full of great performances on all three stages again. It was a challenge getting to them all. The acts I did catch did not disappoint me. But there were clearly some Newport moments to be commented on. A former Rhode Islander, now living in New York City, saxophonist Harry Allen brought his tenor magic to Newport with the renowned Brazilian trio, Trio da Paz. They offered up a tribute to the music of Getz and Jobim. I cannot think of a better combination of musicians to deliver this set. Allen has a uniquely smooth and swinging style reminiscent of Getz and Trio da Paz includes the beautiful guitar work of Romero Lubambo backed by the rhythm section of Nilson Matta on bass, and Duduka da Fonseca on drums. Fonseca has played with Jobim and brings that connection to the ensemble. While there is no use trying to imitate Getz, Allen’s efforts merely paid tribute to the legend while stirring emotions with familiar tunes, but then delivering them in Allen’s unique style, subtle but solid. Lubambo’s guitar work was brilliant, and harkened all within earshot back to the day when you would hear the legendary combination of Getz and Jobim on the popular radio here and in Brazil. Their set featured some cuts from their new CD Harry Allen meets Trio da Paz.
Speaking of legends, one of the living legends of jazz was the next act I was able to catch. Ron Carter, the legendary bass player had assembled a trio featuring Russell Malone on guitar and the remarkable Mulgrew Miller on piano. Their set consisted of some well known pieces and that were delivered impeccably. Opening with Laverne Walk, followed by Cedar Tree, Eddie’s Theme, My Funny Valentine, The Golden Striker, and finishing with Bag’s Groove, the trio gave a riveting performance and those who had moved away from the main stage got all they bargained for. Carter was his usual composed self and delivered the bass solos, eyes closed and smiling. It was classic Newport. Russell Malone had a number of remarkable solos, and overall the trio was another of the many highlights of the weekend.
Among the various stages the Newport Jazz Festival also offers a multitude of vendors hawking their wares from handmade drums, to colorful Dead-Head tie-dyed clothing, to the perennial jazz art in all forms. There was jewelry, hats, leather, woodwork, iron work, pottery and music vendors from all over the world. All looking to be part of this ongoing historical event.
One part momentous, ninety-nine parts historic, Newport and the Newport Jazz Festival never fails to deliver significant jazz moments, ones to be treasured by those fortunate enough to partake in them. One such moment was the set by Bucky Pizzarelli and Howard Alden. Two names synonymous with great jazz guitar and two colleagues committed to continuing the experiment of George von Epps in the use of the seven-string guitar. This set featured two guitarists in a duet format that held everyone’s attention to the extent that you could hear a paper wrapper in the back of the audience during the playing. Their set was a play list from jazz guitar heaven. Opening with In a Mellow Tone and continuing with Snowfall, Three Little Words, Stars in Your Eyes, and many more. A highlight of this set was a pair of songs featuring compositions for the seven string guitar delivered by Alden. This was a master-class in guitar by these two great artists. During the entire set, Pizzarelli sat with a smile from ear to ear and only lost it when he went through his third pick and Alden appealed to the audience for a guitar player who might have one handy. A guy from the audience obliged and the set continued! The set continued and the entertainment was first rate. It was a rare occasion to see Bucky Pizzarelli, great player and teacher in that format. The entire audience appreciated it and showed it with a roaring ovation at the end.
The festival was in full swing now and all three stages were humming with great jazz sounds. Pizzarelli and Alden on the Pavillion stage, Eliane Elis Trio with Marc Johnson and Billy Hart on the Waterside stage, and the Reverend Al Green and his band on the Main Stage. The audience was fully wound up now! There was still John Faddis’ Teranga to appear on the Pavillion stage again, and of course the man himself, the legendary B.B. King was going to close this year’s Newport JVC Jazz Festival. B.B. King made a humble statement that is applicable to all those present, he said he was grateful to be alive, and glad to have been allowed by the great jazz musicians present here this weekend to be part of this grand jazz festival in this beautiful location. I think that is a message we all could echo, grateful to be alive and in Newport for the JVC Jazz Festival 2007 and looking forward to being back next August!