For all the hand-wringing in the media about the death rattle of jazz, what with record stores closing and radio stations losing listeners, Newport reminds you that the art form is alive and well, with a growing audience of people of all ages and races.
By Charles McEnerney, Host + Producer, Well-Rounded Radio
Both the Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals take place at Fort Adams State Park, a few miles outside downtown Newport on a peninsula with a view of Narragansett Sound and the Newport Bridge. With boaters (okay, maybe yachtsmen) drifting by, ocean breezes, and seagulls floating above, it has to be the most relaxing and beautiful festival venue these days.
The 2010 Newport Jazz Festival opened with Brookline’s Grace Kelly, an 18-year-old sax player, singer, composer, and arranger who also boasts a mastery of stage presence well beyond her years. Her set was a great warm up for Jamie Cullum, the headliner at the International Tennis Hall of Fame where both Newport music festivals kick off the annual festivities (and formerly the Newport Casino, where the Newport Jazz Festival was born in 1954).
Cullum is a British pianist and singer who reminded me of a hybrid of Harry Connick Jr., Michael Buble, and Rufus Wainwright, but, to be fair, he is more charming than any of them. I was prepared to not like Cullum, thinking him to be just the latest in a recent line of pretty boys trotted out to save jazz, but he is a fresh of breath air, bringing modern, savvy music chops to jazz while giving jazz aficionados a taste of what’s going on in the pop realm. His own compositions bridge these various worlds. Since the festival I’ve gone back and listened to his recorded work, and there is no denying his talent as a singer or songwriter.
The following two days took place at Fort Adams State Park. In 2009 I found myself roaming the stages and throwing myself into every scenario to hear jazz of every sort. I will not pretend to be an expert about jazz, though I probably know more about it than I realize. For me, the Newport Jazz Festival is like a free buffet where you get to sample a little of everything and see what your gut likes. Last year I was surprised to find myself drawn to free jazz and more experimental sounds.
This year the line-up was impressive and, with three stages running from 11 a.m. until 7 p.m. for two days, you find it hard to leave one stage to hear an artist at the next. It was not quite as well attended as the Newport Folk Festival (which was fine with me), but I heard again and again that the 2010 jazz festival felt more crowded than it had been for years, so that’s a good sign, especially given such a season of dismal concert sales.
Highlights this year for me included J. D. Allen Trio, whose latest, Shine!, has become a favorite of late. With Allen on tenor sax, Gregg August on bass, and Rudy Royston on drums, their set was angular and demanded attention in ways few other sets did for me.
Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society’s showcased their 18-piece band with a sound that mixed a few different eras in traditional jazz with ideas from ambient music and film scores. With their acclaimed 2009 release Infernal Machines, the outfit attracted a large crowd at Newport and delivered a set that probably plays better at an indoor venue but still kept the audience enthralled.
Without a doubt, another festival highlight was watching George Wein at the piano with the Newport All-Stars, also featuring Howard Alden, Randy Brecker, Bob Brookmeyer, Anat Cohen, and Randy Sandke. Swarmed by photographers, the 84-year-old Wein happily played piano; it was one of those satisfying moments in live music that you knew couldn’t be replaced by a CD, a DVD, or any sort of online experience. It was a joy watching Wein and company perform for the crowd at the Quad Stage and watching how humble Wein still is about his role in this prestigious festival.
Jazz legend Ahmad Jamal’s performance on the main Fort Stage was a text-book example of a pianist and his band using the beautiful Newport waterfront setting to create a mood and experience that casts a spell on your heart and mind that is hard to replicate. I’ve just started to dig into Jamal’s catalog, but I’m beginning to understand why so many feel his work is under-appreciated.
Cullum also performed on the Fort Stage to 10 times the number of the previous night’s audience, showing off his flexibility and ability to play to a stadiumesque crowd. Saturday ended with the Chick Corea Freedom Band, featuring the impressive line-up of Kenny Garrett, Christian McBride, and Roy Haynes, expertly presenting Corea’s take on jazz fusion.
Gretchen Parlato’s voice started off Sunday for me and set the bar very high for the rest of the day. Parlato’s delivery floats amid a sound that weaves jazz with Brazilian influences to create something dreamlike much of the time.
That mood was jolted by Dave Douglas & Brass Ecstasy, a lively performance that brought trumpet, French horn, trombone, tuba, and drums to the Harbor Stage. Arturo O’Farrill & The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra were running on the Fort Stage with 15 players and guest Jon Faddis, who played later on the Harbor Stage. Faddis, a trumpet player, composer, and educator, leads master classes and clinics worldwide. A funny and engaging performer, Faddis teaches as a full-time faculty member at the Conservatory of Music at Purchase College-SUNY (where he is Artist-in-Residence, Professor & Director of Jazz Performance) and as a guest lecturer at Columbia College Chicago.
Frequent Newport performer Wynton Marsalis performed with his quintet on the Fort Stage, and also brought out special guest Dave Brubeck for one of those magical moments that festival attendees will remember for some time to come.
As the festival wound down, I enjoyed Ken Vandermark’s Powerhouse Sound, which incorporated Vandermark’s driving sax with Nate McBride on electric bass, Lasse Marhaug on electronics, and Paal Nilssen-Love on drums in ways that push jazz in rock, metal, noise, and funk directions. Jason Moran’s Bandwagon features the ambitious pianist’s mix of avant-garde jazz, classical music, and ragtime. Demanding as it was, Moran’s music provided a terrific way to wind down a pair of ears that had been expanded over the course of three days.
Chris Botti closed out the day and the festival on the Fort Stage with some humorous between-song stories and some smooth jazz with him on trumpet and a versatile support ensemble.
For those missed hearing the Newport Jazz Festival in person, it’s not too late to listen to most of the concerts online, courtesy of NPR’s recordings.
Sign up for the e-newsletter from Newport Jazz Festival to find out about the 2011 festival. Hear my interview with its founder, George Wein on Well-Rounded Radio and learn how they put it all together.