I haven’t been to the Newport Jazz Festival in more than fifeen years. I have lots of warm fuzzy memories from that weekend- it was the summer that the living members of Miles’ 60s band reunited to tour, Jack Dejohnette played a set with unannounced guest Bobby McFerrin, and so on. I also remember a small crowd- rain scared a lot of people away. So I was in no way prepared for my trip back today. I hope I don’t sound nostalgic or old fogey, but everything seemed much… bigger. More parking, longer walks from parking, a ginormous main stage, with big lights and video screens, and two side stages to boot, both just off the main entrance.
I got in just in time to see Brian Blade and Fellowship on the larger side stage. Blade was the second busiest man at the festival, leaving his band and immediately moving to the big stage to play with Wayne. (the busiest easily was Chris Potter, playing six sets with four bands this weekend, including a turn with Herbie on Sunday.) Fellowship (Blade, reedmen Myron Waldron and Melvin Butler, pianist Jon Cowherd, bassist Chris Thomas on bass, and budding jazz god Kurt Rosenwinkle on guitar) is promoting its new album, seemingly forever after Perceptual, their second. I’ve never heard the band live, and liked but didn’t love that record, and have real reservations about both Waldon and Rosenwinkle, so I was very curious about what I’d hear.
I was floored. Blade writes big, open sweeping tunes for this band. The heads generally have very slow melodic rhythms, and the rhythm section always emphasizes big beats, so that even at very fast tempos it doesn’t feel fast. This gives most of the tunes a big, open, almost epic feeling, suggesting wide open spaces; comparisons to the Pat Metheny Group seem inevitable, and not at all bad, but Blades tunes feel somehow earthier, with more soulful (stylistically, that is). In most of the tunes, the blowing is very contained- one solo, usually less then 100 bars- and for the most part the soloists took the role of actors fleshing out roles in the music rather than showstoppers chewing up the scenery turns. Blade, true to form, set up a beautiful, light cushion for the tunes to glide on, dropping his occasional patented bomb for good measure. Blade’s feel was remarkable for how triplety it was. In a time where to my ears many drummers are playing a straighter, more even “swing” it really stood out, sounding very fresh and not at all anachronistic. (I could spend a week talking about what Blade was doing with the time, and maybe after I absorb the new album I will.) The feel gave the soloists huge room to play with, against, around the time, which all did in different ways.
One major complaint about the festival- while the three stages were a great chance to serve more people's tastes, could we be a little more careful about how you put things together? Is it absolutely necessary to have Wayne's band and the Iverson/Haden/Frisell trio running opposite each other? Likewise, Aretha and Lettuce at once? Why not program for contrast instead of stylistic redundancy? (Okay, that's not fair, but why not spread like acts out instead of concentrating them? Wouldn't that make more people happy? I for was was very pissed at having to choose between the two above, especially since Ethan is a friend and Wayne is, well, my hero. Not fair) Anyhow, I did hear a tune plus of the Iverson/Haden/Frisell trio. They opened with Charlie's gorgeous "First Song", and continued with "Sub-Conscious-Lee", which has been a mainstay of recent Frisell sets. I wasn't there enough to say much, except that I think I get completely why Charlie loves playing with Ethan. Haden is a natural romantic, as evidenced on the gorgeous "Nocturne" and the Quartet West music notably, and Ethan often approaches playing from the big-R Romantic point of view. He wears his deep study of European classical music on his sleeve in every solo, even in the wackiest Bad Plus moments, and that sensibility worked beautifully as a contrast to Charlie's spacious approach.
The Wayne Shorter Quartet (Wayne, Danielo Perez, John Patattuchi, Blade) is perhaps the most heralded band of the 21st century, and the most inscrutable. The play a mix of Wayne’s great old and new compositions, sort of; good luck finding more than four bars of a time of “Footprints” or “Mascalero”, or anything. (And new tunes, you're guess is as good as mine.) I saw this band six years ago in Boston, and was left frustrated- you could hear the potential, and obviously the talent, but it never seemed to quite gel. So several years and hundreds of gigs later, I was very curious to hear what was happening.
The answer was, a lot. I hit the set a little late, and it felt just like the '03 gig did- bursts of tremendous energy individually, but no coherence. As the set went on, though, the band connected in a series of patters, melodic, harmonic, rhythmic or all of the above, and the results were magical. Everything connected on a level that I've honestly never heard before. There was a spot where the band would play 4 bars, then lay out as Wayne carried forward whatever they just did, then they did it again. The compositions themselves were vintage Wayne- beautiful and singable and angular and thorny all at the same time.
I can safely say that that set was the first time in my life I've heard something that felt unbelievably new, and five years ahead of what anyone else is doing. Even when I could tell you exactly what was happening- Danielo was playing this, Wayne was here, Blade's beat was like so, etc., I still don't feel like I got what I was hearing. (And I can only imagine the bulk of the crowd, coming of a singer's smooth jazz set) I was talking to my dad, a jazz fan from the mid-fifties on today, about how jealous in a way I was of him- he heard Miles in the 60s and Ornette and Brookmeyer and Getz and whoever when they were still new and fresh and sometimes outlaw, being confused and amazed and threatened all at once. That set was the first time in my adult life that I've felt like that. I almost feel like no critical judgement of this band is fair, since we need five years to catch up with them. I'm excited to try. (I'm friendly with Danilo from my NEC days, and hope one of these days to pin him for ten minutes to talk about Wayne's music and band. If I do, I'll post it here.)
After Wayne's set I felt full, like I'd just eaten a huge gourmet meal. But in the interests of you dear readers (and justifying the $90 I'd paid to come) I popped across the lawn to see the quartet of Dave Holland, Chris Potter, Eric Harland, and Gonzalo Rubalcaba. The set was all band originals, some of which I recognized from albums, some I didn't. This set was jazz-nerd heaven; the tunes were generally twisty, clever and complicated, the playing fierce and athletic. I wrote about Dave and Chris in a duo awhile back, and there's little I can add except they both still play at that level. Harland, who I loved in the SFJazz Collective earlier this year, is a fantastic, ferocious drummer (and a good writer), and everything he played seemed to crackle.
Rubalcaba, however, was the highlight of the show for me. When he hit the scene as a Cuban wonderkind fifteen-plus years ago, he was a firestorm of virtuosity, and no one knew quite what else. (If you can find it, see Marcus Roberts' skewering of GR in a blindfold test at that time. I thought the critique was as usual over the top, but not entirely unfounded) Hearing him this weekend, the virtuosity is still obvious, but there was a warmth and grace to everything he played that softened and humanized even the most obtuse blowing. One hopes we see more of him in these parts in the near future.
Other notes from bits I caught:
- I heard a little of Chris Botti on my way to get food. The less I say about it, the better. But... Chris gave an effusive intro to his drummer Billy Kilson, comparing his musical personality to- Yo-Yo Ma! Chris, I like Billy a lot, and am glad he has that gig, but back off the hyperbole a little, please?
- Trumpeter Christian Scott, who closed the smallest stage, was recording his set for a CD/DVD connecting his Newport set to the great Miles set at Newport which happened 50 years ago. Gotta love record labels. Maybe for that reason I was ready to hate it. But I didn't- his sextet channeled Miles not sonically, but in their attempts to explore and stretch the music. The two tunes I heard were dense and crunchy and even noisy- the guitar player played with a tone that I think of as indie-rock, and the second tune would've been at home on a Tortoise album. (At least until the blowing started) I thought initially that Scott was overblowing, but he found a full clean sound by the second tune, and everyone in the band played well. Definitely the pleasant surprise of the day.
- Aretha Franklin put on a Vegas-y set with a union big band backing her. Her rhythm section and singers were tight, the band was not; there were a couple of moments that struck me as near train wrecks due to miscommunication. I stayed for the first four tunes- a Sly Stone medley (?!), "Natural Woman", an old school version of "Cherokee", and something I didn't know. The highlight was Cherokee- she used the long melody against the fast changes to swoop and float and sing her ass off. She still sounds as good as she ever has, but only in spurts; I fear her health is catching up with her. But 75% of Aretha is so much better than 200% of all her progeny.
The Globe's overview, which touches all the stuff I couldn't see, is here.
UPDATE: NPR recorded all of Sunday's concerts, and is streaming them online. Listen here. I haven't checked any of it yet, but soon...