Sunday, August 02, 2015

Thoughts from Newport Jazz Fest 2015

A few musings from a couple of days in Newport for the jazz festival.  I hesitate to say review because I didn't see enough, and for the most part I want to follow a "if you can't say something nice" policy.  I know how hard everyone works, and how big a deal Newport is for careers, so anyone who made the bill deserves to enjoy it.  That said, what stood out:

- If you are someone who cares about "jazz", Friday at Newport is manna.  The bulk of the acts are fiercely personal explorers, mostly under 40.  (I don't say "up and comers" because most have several records out, a lot of buzz, etc.  But they don't have the visibility of a lot of the weekend acts.)  There were several times I was hopscotching between acts because they scheduled multiple great things simultaneously.  (The best/worst was Steve Lehman with Mark Shim and Tyshawn Sorey vs. Jonathan Blake with Mark Turner and Chris Potter.  Yikes)  And it's $40 tops, $20 for students!  It was great to see so many high school and college kids down there, including a few I've worked with in my job.

- Perhaps the coolest moment of the day Friday was seeing a student I know from various jazz ed events (including a wonderful star turn as a soloist at the Ellington competition in NYC) staring wide-eyed at Matana Robert's Coin Coin, a thorny, absorbing band combining improvisation, operatic singing, spoken word, church forms and a dozen other things.  I understood the band years ago as an outgrowth of her digging into her family tree, but in the meantime the scope of it seems to have gotten quite a bit bigger.  The student- a white girl from the deep burbs- just says "this is SO COOL!"  The performance was so cool, indeed, theatrical but not cloying, with great playing from the entire band, especially Roberts and trumpeter Jason Palmer.  It's heartening when something different is immediately received as something cool in places I'd never expect it.  

- I've run hot and cold on trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, but he was fantastic on Friday, both with his own band and as a sideman with pianist Gerald Clayton.  Playing in his own quartet, some of what he does reminded me of my old teacher Ralph Alessi- his wide leaps and scrambles all over the horn, the punchiness of the compositions, the band weaving around then hitting an unexpected spot together.  (Now that I have a five disc CD player again, it'd be interesting to hear his the imagined savior... and Alessi's Bahia back to back)  I liked the last CD, and I'm excited to hear what he does next.

- As there always are at festivals, there were bands that looked to be ad hoc, "all star" units.  (Appropriate when the Festival itself is celebrating Miles Davis' turns there, his first being in... an all star band with Monk in 1956)  Unlike that unit though, the two I saw- Jonathan Blake's Quartet with Mark Turner, Chris Potter and Ben Street, and the aforementioned Clayton quintet- they played hard, twisty tunes, really well.  The Potter/Turner pairing was a full on saxgasm, and both were fantastic- virtuosic without really being showy, clearly enjoying playing off each other without trying to one-up.  I was especially taken with Potter, not something I usually say- there was a wonderful internal logic to his playing, taking, developing and redeveloping ideas over a longer period of time, the way I equate with the best of Joshua Redman.

- Hearing Robert's Coin Coin made a couple of the other acts on that stage, who were playing in a more (choose your term) Young Lions/neotrad/uptown style, feel really, really, really anachronistic.

- Steve Lehman's music was tremendously dense, intense and well played.  The "other" saxophonist Mark Shim, someone I've rarely warmed to, sounded fantastic, as did drummer Tyshawn Sorey.  Shout out also to old friend trombonist (and soon to be new dad, again) Tim Albright.

- I had to choose between John Hollenbeck's Big Band and Kneebody, and today Kneebody won.  I love and admire Hollenbeck- Joys and Desires and Eternal Interlude are, in my mind, as important to the new big band canon as Maria Schnieder's or Darcy Argue's or (insert current writer here) music.  But I wasn't feeling it, and Kneebody are old friends.  They didn't disappoint either.  They mixed recorded and new music, short compositions with blowing vehicles, and everything sounded great.  Shane Endsley (trumpet) told me the last time we chatted that they will (hopefully) be in Boston more working with Berklee, and I hope so, because it would be a huge win for me and my students as well.

- The play back and forth between the pianist and the electronics player in Peter Evans' band was the most interesting, intuitive back and forth I've ever heard between a pitched acoustic player and a non-pitched "noise" electric player.  (I missed the band introduction, I'm sorry I don't know names)  There was the same kind of clear rapport and careful listening that you'd get from a great piano/drum pairing.  (The drummer was Jim Black, that didn't hurt the ensemble either...)  I totally went for it.

- My one darker review:  Snarky Puppy... boring.  Amongst the reams of stuff being hocked at the festival were free copies of Downbeat and Jazz Times.  (And Jazziz, which I ignored)  Downbeat had a review of the new Puppy record that nailed it in three paragraphs.  They represent the best and worst of jazz education (they have a strong North Texas connection): they are tighter than tight, and the ensemble is spectacular.  But it's pretty predictable, the soloists are uninteresting and the tunes don't go very far.  I think Jazziz had a headline saying "Is Snarky Puppy the next Weather Report?"  Weather Report had at any given time three or four of the most innovative players of its day (Shorter, Zawinal, Vitous, Pastorious, Erskine, etc.)  Puppy, I fear that not one of their soloists would've hung in any other band there on Friday.  The crowd dug it, I was bored.

- For the first time, I stayed over in Newport so I could catch two days of the festival, courtesy of a lovely and reasonable AirBnB host.  Newport is so lovely, and so not my scene...

- Moving to Saturday, I was never bored with Jack Dejohnette's "Made in Chicago" band, featuring AACM stalwarts Roscoe Mitchell, Henry Threadgill and Muhal Richard Abrams.  They played tunes that listening seemed pretty loose.  Mitchell and Threadgill are a fascinating counterpoint, Mitchell leaning on long discursive runs extended by his circular breathing, Threadgill favoring tart, terse, bluesy jabs in his playing.  Most of it worked- there was a duo at one point between Mitchell and Dejohnette that was just breathtaking.  And I fear I'm giving Abrams short shrift- his playing is so intelligent and interesting and fresh every time you hear it, grounded and in air all at once.  It was the first act on the enormous main stage, and I'm not sure a lot of the people sitting in their lawn chairs quite got it, but I'm so grateful to have heard it.

- Maria Schneider's big band, mixing tunes from her very first and her most recent record, played the best set I've heard them do in years.  (and I try to hear them at least once a year)  Everyone sounded great, but guitarist Ben Monder stood out.  As did low reed virtuoso Scott Robinson, both for his elegant solo on "Arbiters of Evolution", and for bringing and playing a contrabass saxophone, the first time I've ever seen one in person.

- Kenny Garrett played basically the same set I heard him play at the Beantown Festival three years ago, and in New York fifteen years ago, and at Scullers twenty-five years ago.  (Though he had Brian Blade for that one, so that may have been a little different)  He was such an inspiration to me in high school, and such a cautionary tale now.

- Thoroughly by mistake I caught a couple of tunes by Joey Alexander, the 11 year-old Indonesian wunderkind who has taken what's left of the mainstream jazz world by storm.  I won't talk about his set, except to say that he can certainly play, and then some.  But I find myself very uncomfortable with the whole child prodigy thing- I've had students who were featured on From the Top, an NPR show taped in Boston featuring young classical virtuosos, and it makes me equally uncomfortable.  To what extent is this good music vs. a sideshow act?  (His poorly pronounced tune introductions can only be described as adorable, for instance)  What is this doing to his growth as an artist, and as a human long term?  Should someone that young be but on stages that big, no matter how good they are?  I don't know.  Elsewhere at the festival, Grace Kelly, the saxophonist who ten years ago was the prodigy at the Newport festival, was playing as a side person with new Colbert bandleader Jon Batiste.  From what little I hear, she's turned out pretty well- I hope he has her on speed dial.

- Work and life brought be home tonight (Sat.)  I'm bummed to miss the back to back Bill Frisell and Fred Hersh sets, and to miss the music Arturo O'Farrill wrote for Rudresh Mahanthappa, but on the other hand I won't miss being pissed off by Hiromi and Jamie Cullum.

- Thank God Tom Harrell still does what he does (great set of what creative straight ahead playing sounds like today).  And thanks to George Wien for making sure he gets heard at Newport.  Actually, Wein deserves a huge amount of credit for the quality and diversity of the artists he books.  Every year the festival gets bigger, both in numbers (this year he added a fourth space, filled with a few shows, but also panel discussions with Ashley Kahn and the likes of Jack Dejohnette talking about Miles) and in scope.  There may be something else like it in the US, but I'm damned if I know what it is.  It's a pleasure to get to go, and I'm already looking forward to next year.