- One thing that is always striking at Newport is that you can walk a couple of hundred feet and feel like you've hit a time warp- a young band playing in the "neoconservative" mold separated by a stone wall from a band free improvisations with electronics. For me it's always jarring, and rarely serves the more conservative band. I teach a lot of older styles, and I believe there's certainly a lot of value in it, but that's not what I want to hear at one of the top venues in the US- I want musicians playing music from their experience, that speaks to today. It can and should reflect where the music comes from, but not with the goal of recreating it.
This was driven home to me today with the first set of the day, a collection of elite high school age players from all over the world brought to Newport by Berklee, and led by young proteges of Danielo Perez and John Patitucci. (full disclosure- two of my former students performed) I make it a policy not to critique student musicians, so I won't give specifics, except that I heard some tremendous, tremendous players. Some of the bands, clearly modeled what they did off of some of Danielo's recordings, and the "Children of the Light" (Perez/Patitucci/Blade)- one in particular played a very ambitious piece with metric modulations, etc. Some of it worked, some of it didn't, but you rooted for them in going for it. On the other hand, a couple played very Blakey-ish hard bop numbers. Everything was well played, but there was no crackle. The difference in both energy and execution was noticeable to me. I'm not saying don't play swing tunes, but it has to be relevant.
- Peter Apfelbaum, someone I still think of as a young turk based on his work with Don Cherry in the 90s, came to Newport with his Sparkler project. The frontline were Peter on keyboards and tenor sax, with two women playing reeds and trombone; the whole front line also spoke/sang. The band defies easy description; the music (as in rhythm/pitch/harmony) definitely continues the language Peter was working with in his old Hieroglyphs ensemble- melodies and beats that reflect a serious study of some African musics, and a desire to make people dance. With that there are lyrics, usually spoken, often more than a little nonsensical. I heard it as one part late Don Cherry, one part Screaming Headless Torsos. It was really weird, and I loved it.
The band was also operating with an increased degree of difficulty- it was raining cats and dogs, and the crowd was small. I hope Newport gives this band at least some word of mouth, and hopefully some more gigs, because it's really worth hearing.
- The two "finds" of the festival for me were coincidentally both women: Maria Grand, tenor player with Steve Coleman, and Kris Davis, pianist with Eric Revis' group. Grand navigated the always tricky Coleman music with a big, broad sound and tremendous melodic acuity. Davis was remarkable, playing with almost Ellingtonian impressionism one moment, and Cecil Taylor-like ferocity the next.
- I was excited to see Kamasi Washington after all the hype and press. I was not especially taken by The Epic, but I've had plenty of bands (notably the Bad Plus) change my mind live. Kamasi's band is a visual spectacle- Washington wore a regal robe with an elegant design, the singer had a gold dress with a geometric pattern, and the bassist had a black shirt with shiny gold squares on the sleeves, almost ala "RockJazz", and two drummers. Jazz musicians are often (fairly, I think) criticized for not putting enough thought into the whole presentation of the music. That's not a problem here.
What was a problem was the sound- the balance was all over the place, and it was ridiculously loud. The volume started to affect the quality of the music too- the singer's pitch was inconsistent, as if she couldn't here herself, and when there was flute it went painfully sharp. Two other bands with electronics had played before Washington's and this hadn't been an issue, so maybe they want to blow us away; to me it hurt the music and my ears.
As for the music itself, an old friend summed it up perfectly- "Boneroo music". It was a jam band, with a lot of good players, a much more explicit and authentic connection to traditional jazz (and to African-American identity) than Phish or Soul Live, but sonically and musically it fit better in the jam realm than with most of the other music I heard. And that's just not my thing, so I didn't enjoy it very much.
- Other quick takes on Friday: Steve Coleman and Five Elements- had an off day. The set lacked focus or direction. Kneebody- fantastic, but they are old friends and I'm very biased. Tierney Sutton's "After Blue", a Joni Mitchell tribute- tremendously well performed, but for me a little too cute for its own good. She did an out of time medley of "April in Paris" and "Free Man in Paris", which didn't make sense to me except that they both named the capital of France. That said, her cellist was spectacular, and Sutton's control, pitch and interpretation was brilliant. Eric Revis' Parallax was very good, music that combined smart composition with open improvisation. As I mentioned, Kris Davis was spectacular. My one quibble- Ken Vandermark, now a legend in his own circle, held the band back. In places he was spectacular- bringing a ferocious energy and his trademark huge, shrieks to the music. But when the band played a lovely, almost Ellingtonian ballad, he didn't seem to grasp the phrasing, and what could have been a lovely change of pace plodded.
- Donny McCaslin was on fire. I heard his quartet, still mourning the death of their recent boss David Bowie in Boston this spring, and it was great. It was even better today. In the part of the set I heard Donnie was improvising at a tremendous level, and the rest of the band was really as focused on sound and groove, rather than on the typical "jazz" interaction. Which, oddly enough, created a beautifully interactive template. Keyboardist Jason Lindner was making sounds I'd never heard before, almost like convention balloons for Donnie to toss around the room.
- Saturday's main stage opened with Darcy James Argue, presenting some of the music from his upcoming record Real Enemies, a set of pieces on the theme of conspiracy theories. (Which, he pointed out, is ominously timely, as one of the major parties is running a conspiracy theorist for president...) I saw the full presentation (with an amazing video installation) at BAM on the opening weekend, so it was cool to be able to just focus on the music. The number 5 was everywhere- several pieces were partly or wholly in 5/4, and in one piece the groove revolved around a five over two pattern. If you don't pick up on these things, there were some heavy rock grooves, and a spectacular Latin number that I think Darcy intended to represent the American "banana republics" of the Cold War". All of the solos, particularly Ingrid Jensen on trumpet and Ryan Keberly on trombone, were excellent. Argue closed with a piece from his first album, "Obsidian Flow", because, he said, "Obsidian" (a rock that forms from cooling volcanic lava) is just cool". This may or may not be so, but the featured soloist on this tune, alto saxophonist Dave Pietro, was tremendously cool, and virtuosic, and breathtaking in his technique and spirit. (Full disclosure- Darcy and I were at NEC at the same time, and are old friends. That said, I stand by what I write here)
- Festival organizers have this terrible habit of putting some of the coolest music at the same time on different stages- in years past I've had to decide on John Hollenbeck versus Kneebody, or Bill Frisell and Ethan Iverson versus (I think it was) Charles Lloyd. This year the killer was the John Scofield/Joe Lovano reunion tour versus The Bad Plus (plus Ron Miles, Tim Berne and Sam Newsome) playing Ornette's Science Fiction. I tried to split the difference and caught pieces of both sets, and both were brilliant. I don't have the new Sco/Lo Past Present album, but I'll go get it now. The band was even looser than I remember them in the 90s, in a good way- the interaction was free and easy, the blowing was brilliant, it swung hard, and everyone seemed like they were having a great time. The Science Fiction project is clearly a labor of love, and you can hear the intensity and intent all of the players bring to it- even several hundred yards from the main stage several hundred yards I felt how intensely everyone was listening, and the playing was so good. If you care about the soprano saxophone and how to play it, please, please check out Sam Newsome- every solo is a clinic.
- The last two years Newport has added a fourth stage, featuring niche or up and coming acts. I caught most of two solo sets from guitarist Mary Halvorson and pianist Kris Davis. Both were very rewarding. Halvorson (who I run hot and cold on) played a set of covers of new and less new jazz legends- Anette Peacock, Chris Nightcap, Oliver Nelson. Some tunes were played respectfully straight, some were respectfully skewered. Everything was interesting at worst, compelling at best. Davis was brilliant- she said the pieces were etudes she wrote for a classical pianist, and they had pianistic brilliance, but they also had flair and touch and life that was wonderful to behold.
- For the first time in 25 years (according to the festival staff) Saturday at Newport sold out. This is fantastic on so many levels, but it made moving around a tremendous challenge, and every venue except Storyville felt almost oppressive there were so many people. I'd rather that than so many empty seats on a rainy Friday, but it was jarring.
- Young wunderkind Joey Alexander's trio played to a big crowd at the #2 stage. I heard some of his set last year, saw him on the White House TV special, and saw him again at Newport. Each time I hear him, he's clearly better- his phrasing and the logic of his improvisations was much better this year than last. I don't know what his ceiling is, which is scary because he can already do so much. Today, while it was better than last year, it's still clear that the musicality hasn't caught up with the virtuosity yet. That said, anyone who can hang with Wayne Shorter on national TV is not to be written off.
- One of the midday main stage acts was a super trio of Chick Corea, Christian McBride (the new festival Artistic Director, as George Wein retires this week), and Brian Blade. The rep - "All Blues", Recorda Me"- and playing suggested it was a set played by amazing players with one (or half a) rehearsal- it wasn't as loose as a jam session, but it wasn't far off. I've never been a huge Chick fan, and he didn't win me over today. Both McBride and Blade are so good- Christian gets such a pure, huge tone from the bass, combining the meat of a Jimmy Blanton with the precision of a Scott Lafaro, it's always a sight to behold. I've seen Brian Blade play since 1995 (on tour with Kenny Garrett) and I've begun to think he's incapable of a bad musical choice. So there's all of that, but the set still left me lukewarm.
- Other notes from Saturday: Marc Ribot played a set with strings that I'd describe as disco beats with string ensemble and shred guitar. I don't know what I made of it, but it was very loud. I'd never heard Norah Jones live before; she's very endearing. (Brian Blade was her drummer; that didn't hurt). Both saxophonist Dave Liebman and vibraphonist Stefon Harris appeared with bands that seemed to be filled out mainly by proteges, and neither was terribly successful. Liebman's "Expressions" ensemble was playing in what has come to be called the "post-Coltrane" language, only with an electric piano and bass. Liebman continues to be an astounding saxophonist and improviser, and the other saxophonist in the band was clearly facile, smart and full of energy, but I found the music rather monochromatic. My impressions of Stephon, both personally and musically, is that he is tremendously slick, for good and for ill, and that was my impression of the music. It was smart, it was tight, but I didn't feel anything. I wanted to hear Gregory Porter, especially because I like what I've heard of the new record, but by 4pm I was turning an unhealthy shade of red under the Newport sun, so I packed it in.
(Oh, if anyone wants likes this enough to petition the festival to give me press credentials next year, I won't say no...)