Monday, August 07, 2023

Newport Jazz Festival 2023

 Newport ‘23 notes

I was fortunate to be back at the Newport Jazz Festival for, I think, the eleventh time.  (I may be off by one or two.)  And, as I’ve been doing for the last few years, I took notes.  

The festival opened this year with the Lauren Sevian Quartet, featuring Jonathan Blake on drums.  I consider Lauren a friend, and she has worked with my students on multiple occasions, so I’ll say only that it was a fun, high energy post-bop set.  And that Jonathan Blake is a national treasure, and we should treat him as such.

The next act up on the Quad (second largest) stage was alto phenomenon Immanuel Wilkins and his quartet.  I only saw half the set, and now (see below) I wish I had stayed for the whole thing.  One of the pleasures of the festival this year was seeing a few bands that are really bands, the kind that play 100+ dates a year, the kind that are much harder to sustain than they were in the days when Miles, Trane, Bill Evans, etc were constantly on tour.  This band was to my ears the best of that excellent bunch- the music took these organic twists and turns through themes and metric modulations and shifts in mood.  And Wilkens is just a monster saxophonist (see this recent video where he talks about practicing).  He has ferocious, wailing energy, but it is never out of control.  

I missed some of Immanuel’s set to see the other alto phenom of the day (unfortunately, as is too often the case, scheduled at the same time) Lakecia Benjamin, and her Phoenix quartet, featuring the great drummer E.J. Strickland and old friend (and badass) pianist Zachai Curtis.  Her music combines a strong post-Coltrane energy (she did recently do a tribute album) with an instinct to play to the crowd- “on a whim”, she spun off a medley of “My Favorite Things”, Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints” and “Wade in the Water”. Benjamin has formidable chops, and projects a ferocious energy that reminds me of a strong Kenny Garrett set. But she also projects a kind of narcissism in her crowd banter that I found really off-putting- she talked at length about how she likes to see herself on the socials when she could’ve been playing.  For me, it was a bad look.

Based on some streaming listening in preparation for the festival, I was very interested to hear clarinetist, composer and conceptual artist Angel Bat Dawid’s group.  The recorded music was very interesting, and the critical plaudits are as long as my arm.  After a very long sound check, the music I heard was hugely disappointing.  A makeshift altar in the middle of the stage had two clarinets on it, but in the 20 minutes of the set I saw they sat unplayed. The music alternated between shrieking free chaos and two chord vamps.  On a pause Dawid name checked Sun Ra, which made a lot of sense, but didn’t make it any better.  She clearly has done some interesting and exciting work, but this set was a mess- very little shape or contour, and a whole lot of noise.  There just wasn’t enough there there.  

I took a walk across the way to Butcher Brown, which I’d describe as a soul-jam band with a really tight rhythm section.  Again, clearly a band that plays a ton together, and knows the music inside out.  The crowd seemed to really dig it. I thought it was fine.  

After Dawid cleared, bassist Derick Hodge, best known for his work with Robert Glaspar, took over the Harbor stage.  He unleashed a set of anthemic fusion- big grand accessible themes, with enough twists and turns to impress peers, and enough grooves and hooks to keep a big audience.  The set ranged from the over the top- a cover of Wayne Shorter’s “Fall” where the last four bars of each chorus was a hurricane of sound, to the sublime- a tremendously sympathetic, lovely duet between Hodge and his guitarist. Overall, an interesting and satisfying set.  

Again, across the way on the quad stage was Big Freedia, whose press described them as a queer performer doing new and interesting things at the line between New Orleans music and hip-hop.  I hadn’t read this yet, so I walked in with no expectations whatsoever.  And in the first minute, behind grungy guitars and a hard-edged backbeat, Big Freedia was telling me to, er, consume a delicate piece of human anatomy.  The stage presentation felt like a Lizzo stage show with a more explicit LGBTQ slant*.   I’m told there was also a crowd participation ass-shaking contest on stage later in the set after I bounced.

Look, I’m no prude- there were a couple of other F-bombs thrown at other sets that didn’t bother me- and I do think there needs to be more and better LGBTQ representation in spaces like Newport (see my end notes on programming).  But I also think it’s a family show, and if I’d wandered into that set with my four year old kid, I’d be pissed, and I think rightfully so.  This was vulgar, and I don’t think it was appropriate to the event.  And moreover, to my ears it wasn’t very good- the music combined elements of the harder edges of P-Funk with the rock sensibility of Living Colour with some of the basest vernacular of current hip-hop.  Maybe I didn’t listen carefully enough, but I missed the New Orleans part, and the innovative part.  There wasn’t one memorable solo.  Every year for the past four festivals or so there are one or two acts where I find myself saying “why the hell did they get booked” over ten bands I think are more deserving, and this year Big Freedia was at the top of that list, number one with a bullet.  Moving on…

Soullive is a very good jam band, who jam very well.  And were blown out of the water by some of the jam bands that followed them later Friday and then on Saturday.   Branford Marsalis sat in, and played a memorable solo, which is more than I can say for everyone else.

Durand Jones is a sort of retro roots/rock singer in the vein of the late Amy Weinhouse or Eli “Paperboy” Reid.  He combined that with a stage presence that was part Al Green, part Morris Day.  It was very well done, just not my thing.  

This was the second time I saw the young phenom duo of Domi and JD Beck.  And they were better than the last time I saw them- the music was a technical whirlwind,, but also a little more mature, a little less bratty.  Their talent reminds me of Jacob Collier, but without his deep respect for the music he is mining. The music still feels slick and empty, and the presentation is still pretty juvenile, complete with poop jokes.  That said, they are still very young, they are incredibly talented, and I hope we see more interesting music from them- they are capable.  

Branford Marsalis and his quartet were last minute replacements for Kamasi Washington, and I for one was delighted for the change- in addition to the fact that Branford is remarkable, I didn’t need one more ear-splitting set.  Branford is also notoriously… ornery, and it felt to me like he had been listening to what was going on before he took the stage, and thought “enough BS, let’s go.”  His quartet (with a sub bass player) came out firing with Joey Calderazzo’s “The Mighty Sword” and Keith Jarrett’s “Long as You Know You’re Living Yours”.  The music was listener friendly enough to keep the crowd engaged, but virtuosic and interactive enough to delight all the jazz nerds and let Branford make his point.  Calderazzo was particularly brilliant, and the ferocity and brilliance of drummer Justin Faulkner was reminiscent (in the best possible way) of Branford’s first force of nature drummer, Jeff “Tain” Watts.  

Marsalis  then presented, pretty much in the style of that day, the 30’s Tin Pan Alley number “There Ain’t No Man Worth the Salt of My Tears”.  It was brilliantly executed, but brought up what I think is the most persistent fair criticism of Marsalis- he behaves as a musical chameleon, taking on the colors of whatever tune he’s playing.  When he played with Soullive, he sounds like he was on the horn line of Chicago in the 70s.  When he plays this tune, he sounds like a fusion of Coleman Hawkins and Illinois Jacquet.  When he plays with Sting, he channels Wayne Shorter with Joni.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but here Wayne is the especially useful foil. No matter what context he was in, you knew it was Wayne.  Forty years in, can we say that about Branford?  

I left to hear what was hands down the best set of the day, Dave Holland’s “New Quartet” with pianist Kris Davis, saxophonist Jaleel Shaw and drummer Nasheet Waits.  If you know Holland’s discography, you know how many amazing bands he’s had, how many great tunes those bands recorded, and the sympathy and ferocity with which they played.  Even only a few months into their tenure together- this was their first American appearance after a lengthy European tour- this group holds up against any of Dave’s best bands.  Davis was particuloarly exciting, playing with equal fluency “inside” and “outside”, often in the same tune.  It’s clearly a new stimulus for Shaw and Holland, and prods Waits, no stranger to exploration with the likes of Jason Moran and Ralph Alessi, to drive the band around new corners.  I hope this band records a double album tomorrow- we’ll all be better for hearing it.  

The closer on the big stage was Almost Dead, a Grateful Dead tribute band with Branford sitting in.  I’ve honestly never gotten the Deadhead phenomenon, but I also never looked that hard.  Listening to a couple of tunes, I think I get it- the tunes I heard were accessible but a little bit twisty, the lyrics were wide-open enough that if I were stoned, I’d think “deep, man.”  And the playing was top notch.  It wasn't enough to make me go seek out Dead bootlegs, but I enjoyed it.  

Saturday opened with two women known both for their playing and their singing, saxophonist Camille Thurman (best known for her work with Jazz at Lincoln Center) on one stage and trumpeter Jennifer Hartwick (best known for her work with Trey Anistasio) on another.  Thurman performed a very straightahead set with her quintet (featuring longtime NY anchor Lonnie Plaxico and trumpeter Wallace Roney II), burning through the material on both her axes.  Hartwick played in a more pop vein with guitarist Nick Cassarino, with the peak of her set being a cover of Radiohead’s “Creep”.  Each has big broad sounds as both singers and instrumentalists, and both brought their house down. 

Next up was saxophonist James Brandon Lewis, who came out of nowhere to dominate last year’s Downbeat’s Critics Poll.  This band was not the one that won him the plaudits, but a trio with electric bass and drums, playing tunes that alternated between rubato rumination and indie-rock style grooves.  Lewis has an amazing well-deep sound, and a couple of the rubato moments were really compelling, but overall I didn’t find a sense of direction that kept me engaged.  

I moved on to trumpeter Keyon Harrold’s set. He brought a quintet featuring guitarists Nils Felder, who shined throughout.  I’d describe the music as sort of anthemic fusion (that theme will return)- there was a hard hitting tune with a strong backbeat that melted into a lovely free piano solo, then a funk ballad with interesting harmonies and a less interesting melody, and it melted into Monk’s “Round Midnight”.  Harrold is a brilliant, brash player, and I liked but didn’t love the set.

The surprise of the day that I did love was Superblue, a collaboration between guitarist Charlie Hunter, drummer Nate Smith and vocalist Kurt Elling.  I expected one more meandering jam, but got instead a lot of inspired improvising.  I missed them covering an 80s pop tune that I’d dismiss as cheese, but was apparently great.  I arrived for a 70s soul groove (and good Lord did Smith and Hunter make it groove) that Elling was seemingly freestyling vocals over, with bebop-scat level melodies and cipher worthy lyrics.  It was a sight to behold.  Elling is remarkable- a brilliant technician who is universally appreciated as a pro’s pro.  (His voice has a shrill edge to it, otherwise I think he’d be this generation’s Mel Torme.  But if it means he does work like this, maybe it’s better that it is what it is)  As I moved to the next stage, they were closing with a rousing rendition of The Roots’ “The Seed 2.0”.  Is that a standard now?

Bobby Watson was next, playing some serious hard bop, as he’s been doing for as long as I can remember.  (Eric Jackson, the late legendary Boston jazz DJ loved Watson, so he has an outsized space in my development as a player and listener.)  The first tune, a slow blues, felt a little pro forma, but Watson came alive on the second tune, reaching beyond rote bop language into something exciting. 

I caught fifteen minutes of the “Louis Armstrong at 125” set, with three of the featured trumpeters at the festival playing Armstrong material interspersed with audio clips of Louis himself, probably from the new center opened as part of the Armstrong House in Queens.  I’m more excited to visit Queens than I was about the music- it was fine, but not compelling.  

I walked by The War and the Treaty, a husband and wife singing duo.  The gentleman was doing a really lowball Armstrong imitation, and then broke into a rubato “Autumn Leaves”.  I kept walking.  


I walked to Charles Lloyd, with his longstanding quartet featuring Jason Moran and Eric Harland.  I will admit that Lloyd is one of those musicians who I’ve never liked as much as I think I’m supposed to- I often find him sort of Coltrane light.  But the cast of characters who have and do play with him is a Hall of Fame cast, and they seem to think otherwise, so I keep listening.  Today I was rewarded- everyone, including Lloyd, sounded fantastic, the ensemble interplay was beautiful, and the music was really moving.  That Lloyd can still do this at age 85 makes it that much more special.  And Jason Moran is a national treasure, and we should treat him as such.  

I caught a bit of Colbert bandleader Louis Cato next.  It was catchy sort of soul singer/songwriter stuff.  Very good, but not my thing.  So I wandered back to the main stage for Christian McBride’s “Jam Jawn”, his semi-organized jam session, this year featuring Ravi Coltrane and Nate Smith.  Last year’s jawn was one of the surprise gems of the festival, this year, it was just a jam session.  Not bad, but not memorable.  Except, the guest of honor was pianist Bob James, who I think of as a “smooth jazz” guy, but in actuality has done just about everything in the business- McBride pointed out that his first appearance at NJF was forty years ago with Sarah Vaughn.  He sounded incredible.  Vocalist Cenise (sp?) joined them for “Hound Dog”, featuring the Big Ma Thorton lyrics.  That made me think, Nate Smith could play anything and it would be amazing…

Next up was the Julian Lage trio, featuring old friend Jorge Rodear and drummer Dave King.  For many of my jazz nerd friends this was the highlight of the festival- the band is smart and virtuosic and listen to each other with intense sympathy. The tunes varied in moods and grooves, and everyone played great.  

I pulled myself away to hear “Love in Exile”, the collaboration between pianist Vijay Iyer, vocalist Arook Aftab and bassist Shazad Ismaily.  Described clinically, the music was a series of vamps and drones, which Iyer and Ismaily augmenting their axes with various electronic sounds, which Aftab sang over with a handful of Urdu lyrics whose context I admit I don’t know (I only know it’s Urdu because I googled it).  This has been a polarizing album among critics- in Downbeat’s four critic “Hotbox” one praised it for its patience and layered atmosphere, another panned it as boring and redundant.  Listening to it I see both sides of the argument.  I found it occasionally hypnotic, but more often not that compelling.  (Full disclosure- I played a gig a long time ago with Shazad that bore uncanny resemblances to this music, only it was a wedding band.  That was quite a Saturday…) 

As I walked back to the mainstage, I passed a few dozen campers from the Newport Jazz Camp taking a group photo at the designated selfie spot.  After the photo, most of them then sprinted- and I mean sprinted- back to the main stage to hear bassist Thundercat.  I sauntered behind them to a set that I’d describe as power fusion- tons of notes from all members of his trio, most of them very loud.  The second tune started fast and then rushed.  Maybe 16 year old me would have liked it, but 40-something year old me got bored quickly and moved on.  

I moved to my last set of the day, with pianist Orrin Evans and his quintet, featuring Ingrid Jensen on trumpet, Gary Thomas on saxophone and flute, Luques Curtis on bass and Mark Whitfield II on drums.  From the opening note the band was on fire- there was a lot of collective improvisation and intense band interaction that would melt into a star turn by Jensen, Thomas or Evans (though 30 years in, I still haven’t warmed to Gary’s playing).  Whitfield was playing with so much groove and fire that until Orrin introduced him, I thought it might be Nate Smith.  On the fourth tune, a slow blues, Ingrid gave a clinic on how to play with a plunger, and Evans seemed to be playing with the insides of the beat like he had it in the lab under a microscope.  (for more context, Ethan Iverson talked about this as “micro-swing”, and attributes it to Kenny Kirkland.)  It was a fantastic set.  

Due to some other stuff I had going I didn’t see the closing set by Jon Batiste, but I did hear chunks of it on my bike ride home, closing with his song “Freedom” as I locked my bike.  It sounded like the crowd was really digging it.  

I missed most of Sunday’s opening acts, but caught the tail end of Matthew Whitaker’s set.  He is the blind pianist/organist who was featured on a series of Apple ads last year.  I actually saw him at a high school competition when he was 15 or so- he was blowing the roof off then, and has since gained broader attention, even more chops and better stage presence.  The closer had serious Stevie Wonder vibes, ending with a medley that included “What’s Going On”.  (see coda)

Next was Melvis Santa, a Cuban-American pianist, percussionist and vocalist who I’d seen here before with Jane Bunnett’s Macaca.  This set was all her music, a combination of chants, songs and tunes touching on all sorts of modern improvisational styles, but very grounded in Cuban music.  The guitarist (whose name I missed) was brilliant, with serious Pat Metheny vibes, and trumpeter Josh Evans also shined.  A highlight was Santa reciting a poem dedicated to Abbey Lincoln called “My Music is Mine”, starting over a wild freebop texture, evolving into something much more controlled.  It was very compelling music.  

Equally compelling, somewhat to my surprise, was saxophonist Charles McPherson.  McPherson is one of the last working saxophonists whose work ties directly back to Charlie Parker, and the music, mostly his originals along with the gauntlet piece “Cherokee”, was unapologetically bebop.  Bebop is now the backbone of playing and teaching jazz, and if you’re not careful, like so much else in music education it can feel more like an exercise than a work of art.  And while his sidemen, all great players, sounded good, but an inside baseball, “I love jazz” kind of good.  McPherson sounded completely free.  The language was Charlie Parker, but also so much more (he has a crazy altissimo range), and more than a little bit wild.  It was a work of art.  

I caught the tail end of bassist/singer/songwriter Adi Oasis’ set.  The first thing I noticed when I looked at the stage was that she is very pregnant- she said this was her last gig of the year, and I wish her all good things with her expanding family.  As for the music- pretty generic “Quiet Storm” R&B.  One of the choruses revolved around the line “I want to see you naked.”  No comment.  The last tune had a processed bassline a la Rufus, and alternated between 10 and 11 beat phrases.  That was kind of cool.  But the set left me with another “why are they booked over fifteen other artists?” vibe.  

The Bill Charlap trio, with Peter and Kenny Washington, played a strong straightahead set, with “Caravan” at the center.  It’s not my thing, but they sounded great doing it, and many of my peers who I admire came away raving.  So too did a pretty large audience.  (See coda)

I bounced briefly to Cuban star Cimefunk, who was playing a set of what I’d call Cuban funk party music.  I didn’t stay, but friends who did said they grooved like crazy, and everyone had a great time.  

Maybe I should have stayed, but instead I went to see Scary Goldings, a collaboration between organist Larry Goldings and LA funk band Scary Pockets, featuring Ted Poor on drums and the  John Scofield.  They played loose but well organized tunes, with space for everyone to blow.  Now look, Goldings is amazing, Ted Poor is fantastic, and Sco is a living legend.  But this was the sixth or seventh jam set of the festival, and it would have to be a Herculean level of compelling to hold my interest.  And it wasn’t all that compelling.  This is as much a consequence of the programming as it is of the band. (again, skip to the coda)

I bounced to the set of Cuban-American percussionist Pedrito Martinez and his band, which was pretty straightforward Afro-Latin music.  It grooved like crazy, and I loved it.  My only quibble- about halfway through the set the pianist started to play accents on a synth with a terrible 80s patch.  I thought it got in the way of the groove.  Everything else about it was fantastic.  

Marcus Miller and his band, featuring trumpeter Russell Gunn, played a set of funky smooth jazz that would’ve felt right at home at the festival in 1993.  Miller is an amazing virtuoso, but this set was boring.  

Festival producer Christian McBride typically plays two sets on the festival, his “Jam Jawn” (see above) and one of his bands.  This year he instead played with the now legendary Joshua Redman quartet, featuring Redman, McBride, Brad Mehldau and Brian Blade.  Redman said this was their only gig as a unit this calendar year, and they certainly played like it, savoring every minute- everyone sounded great, and the band interplay was beautiful.  Brian Blade is a national treasure, and we should treat him as such.  

Last year Samara Joy was an up and comer who took the festival by storm.  This year she is a two-time Grammy winner, so the expectations were perhaps a little higher. She came out with an ambitious set- after her first tune she talked about her recent trip to Brazil before launching into “No More Blues”, using both the Portugese and (far inferior) English lyrics.  The rest of the set included “Stardust”, a new lyric to the insanely twisty Mingus tune “Reincarnation of a Lovebird”, and what is fast becoming her staple “Guess Who I Saw Today”.  Her band is another “band”- they’ve probably played 100+ gigs together this year, and it sounds like it.  

One of the pleasures of Joy’s first two records was her understatement- she has a rich low and middle range, and can project whole worlds without getting very loud.  But in this set, she favored a showier approach, living much more at the top of her pitch and dynamic range, which set the crowd afire.  It was still an enjoyable set, but lacked some of the nuance that attracted me to her initiallhy.  (again, see coda)

I popped in on the band Cautious Clay, a recent Blue Note signing.  It was a conventional rock band formation, only the lead singer also played saxophone and flute.  After a false start, they opened with a tune with the lead singer playing a sax solo… that the mic didn’t pick up.  They shifted to a second tune that felt pretty generic indie rock, so I left.  A friend arrived later in their set, and enjoyed it.  Apparently there was some flute salad…

I popped across to the Quad stage to hear the Soul Rebels, a brass band from New Orleans, return customers from last year, and this year featuring hip-hop legends Rakim and Talib Kweli.   From minute one they brought the funk, and it was so much fun.  They set up a party vibe, then several members of the band rapped (well). Then they brought  Rakim, who performed some of his seminal hits- “I Ain’t No Joke”, “Don’t Sweat the Technique” to a brass band accompaniment.  It was tremendous fun, and the crowd ate it up. I was bummed to miss Kweli, but I didn’t want to miss a moment of the festival closer.  

Herbie Hancock, at age 83, did not disappoint.  He led an all-star band, featuring bassist James Genus, guitarist Lionel Louke, drummer Justin Tyson, and trumpeter Terrence Blanchard.  The set was what I think is now a stock Herbie set- long pieces that mash up hits from his catalog- “Rock It”, “Butterfly”- with discursive and virtuosic improvisations from the band.  At one point Herbie played a long vocorder improvisation pleading for peace, so we can tell AI the right way to do things.  (Yikes).  At another, James Genus created a looped solo bass piece that landed eventually in “Actual Proof”.  The set closed with Herbie playing keytar on his warhorse “Chameleon”, which should have been hoary, but wasn’t.  It was a clinic on how to create grooves together, and while Herbie occasionally drifted into showy licks, more often he mined the seemingly fallow ground for exciting ideas, and the band brought the same level of creativity to this old mare.  It was a fantastic close to the festival. 

CODA- big picture notes on the festival.  

Small but important quibble- especially on the Harbor and Quad stages the sound mixes were rough for way too long into various sets on multiple days.  Several lead horn players (Sevian, Wilkens, Thurman) were inaudible for their first one or two tunes, backup singers were louder than lead singers, etc.  In the two years I was helping with high school performers at the festival I found the sound people to be absolutely top notch, so I don’t know what happened this year, but it was pretty awful.  

Every working musician, hell every human in the first world, knows that social media has become a critically important piece of a musical career.  Certain artists have been booked at Newport based on how they built a following on social, and then parlayed it into real world success.  (Last year it was Emmet Cohen, who I respect enormously; this year I’m sure at least one of the acts I reviewed above was there because of Instagram, I just don’t know which)  But as I watched especially some of the younger acts- Samara Joy, Lekecia Benjamin, Matthew Whiaker, Domi and Beck- I worried that the intense pressure that social media creates may be stunting their growth as artists.  I feel like each of them spent time in their set either trying to manufacture a viral moment or begging for followers, at the expense of the music.   As one of my teaching colleagues said about something else awhile back, it’s not their fault, but it is their (and our) problem.  

Last year I wrote that if Newport signified anything about the state of jazz (which honestly, I don’t think it does), it was that the backbeat ruled.  This year, the programming heavily favored the jam and the jamband.  (to that end, I’ve never smelled that much weed at the festival before. Rhode Island did just legalize recreational pot, but still.)  Soullive, Almost Dead, Superblue, Jawn Jam, Big Gigantic (who I didn’t see), Cimafunk, the Soul Rebels… it was a lot.  And judging by audience reaction (which I know is entirely subjective), it wasn’t like all the jam sets were ravenously received and all the more traditionally jazz stuff was meeting polite applause.  People were absolutely going nuts for Bill Charlap, Samara Joy and Charles McPherson, for instance, and Soullive got polite but not overwhelming applause.  My takeaway- people want to hear great jazz at a jazz festival.  Please program accordingly.   

To be clear,I liked some of the jammier stuff, but it was a lot, and a lot of one thing means something else gets left out.  For instance, there wasn’t a single big band this year, or a single trad (20s/30s jazz) act, staples of a Wein booked festival.  There was less from what roughly gets called the “avant garde”- no Mary Halverson, no William Parker or the like. And my distaste for Big Freedia was amplified by the absence of Meshell N’Degeocello, who not only was an out queer woman when it was a career impediment to be so, but who also just put a killing new record out!  I love Newport, but if this is what the festival is going to look like moving forward, this might be the last time I write this- it won’t be worth my time and money.  

*I use this comparison cognizant of the recent allegations against Lizzo and her company.  I say that only about look and feel- colors of the set, costumes, the variety of size and shape of the performers- and not to make any insinuations about Big Freedia.  I thought the visual presentation looked like it took inspiration from Lizzo’s SNL setup, that’s it.

Monday, August 01, 2022

Newport Jazz Festival 2022

I'm back from this year's Newport Jazz Festival, as usualy a hugely fun hang. Initially, I was only going to post a mini review on Facebook, but then I realized I had a blog post (or 3). So here goes- lightly edited from the FB version. If an act that performed isn't reviewed, it's because I couldn't be in three places at once.

Newport Day 1- this was the hottest (in terms of the thermometer) of the three days, which may have affected my ears. It was well attended, but not mobbed. To the acts:

Michela Marino Lerman- a tap-based set of music built around social justice. Fantastic concept, execution was a mixed bag. Wanted the tap more at the center of it.
Dan Wilson- Pittsburgh for the win!
Mingus Big Band- This band can be a little hit or miss, but they really brought it today. Alex Pope Norris and Helen Sung especially shined, and the band was really tight. I was surprised how slow they took "Fables of Faubus"
Theon Cross- tuba plus drum machine plus loops, with a kind of New Orleans vibe. Again, I wanted more, especially more melody.
Nate Smith and Kinfolk- the highlight of the day. A tight band playing nerd jazz (back to back tunes in 17 and 15) with enough groove and ear worms to hook the crowd. Everyone in the band sounded great, as did guests Joel Ross and Vernon Reid.
Carlos Henriquez Nonet: The Bronx Story- great charts, really well played, traversing the many styles at play in Carlos' home neighborhood, the Boogie Down Bronx. The rhythm section was phenomenal, and the second trumpeter, really, really likes Wynton.
Nick Payton trio- Everyone played their asses off, especially Billy Stewart, who may now be underrated. But for someone who likes to talk big in terms of concepts ("Black American Music"), I wanted, well, a little more from the concept and the writing.
Paladino/Mills/Gendel/???- really interesting, really well executed set on the more organized side of the jam band world. Pino is a treasure.
BadBadNotGood- I didn't get it when they went viral. I still don't get it. And the horns were out of tune.
The Baylor Project- gospel tunes done from a modern jazz perspective. Really well executed, and the crowd ate it up.
McBride's Newport Jawn- Christian's annual jam session, this one featuring Chris Potter, Vijay Iyer, Mike Stern, Brandee Younger and Makaya McCraven. Best one of these I've heard- everyone shined, the choice of material was great, and no one stepped on anyone.
Shabaka Hutchings- a solo woodwind set, first wood flute, then clarinet. At first I wasn't into it, but the clarinet stuff was bad-assed, and the choice to make his Newport debut this way was pretty bold.
Bummed to miss Terence Blanchard re-interpreting some of his opera stuff. Very excited for tomorrow!

Day 2. Too much great music happening at the same time, so I can't report on some things I really wanted to see, but what I did see:
Jazzmeia Horn- much more better set than when I saw her five years ago- still a great instrument, but a much better performer. She did a lot of banter with the audience that probably would've worked in a club, but got lost outdoors with thousands of people.
Giveton Gelin- solid post-post bop, as if someone asked "how to we take the Wynton/Branford band of the 80s further?" I especially liked the alto player, whose name I didn't catch. Look forward to seeing how this band evolves.
Eric Wurzelbacher- incredibly tight sax/bass/drums trio. These guys have been playing together almost exclusively for six years, and it shows. That said, the material felt really Brecker-ish to me.
Makaya McCraven- brilliant set, combining his tunes with his Blue Note deconstructions. Top- notch band featuring Greg Ward, Marquis Hill, and guest Joel Ross. He is the real deal. (see closer tomorrow)
Antonio Sanchez and Bad Hombre, and Thana Alexa's "Ona" (Friday)- I put these together because of overlapping personnel and themes. Dense, complicated really well performed music (Bad Hombre kind of felt like Pat Metheny Group 2.0, and I say that as a compliment) with heavy political themes- with Ona women's rights, with Bad Hombre issues of immigration. For me, the lyrics got really clunky and heavy-handed, and made the music less effective. (and I'm on their side on these issues, I just think it's so hard to get "issue music" right)
Sons of Kemet- an Afro/British quartet of tenor sax and woodwinds, tuba, and two drummers, playing music that has its roots in Afropop, Carribean music, English dancehall, and Archie Shepp. Sound weird? It was. Sound amazing and cool? It was.
Sullivan Fortnier trio- saving for tomorrow.
Cory Wong- Wong might be the best living rhythm guitarist I've seen not named Wah-Wah Watson. He's that good. BUT, the music felt like North Texas formulated fusion, better than Snarky Puppy, but with some of the same defects (for me at least). That was less good. I didn't care for it, a bunch of my friends at the festival did.
Samara Joy- this girl (she's 21, 22?) is the real deal in terms of her voice, technique, styling, choice of material, etc. She's best known as the winner of the 2019 Sarah Vaughn competition, and she's leaning really heavily on the Sarah vibes in what she's doing right now. I hope, like Jazzminea above and Cecile below, she can start to move towards something that is in her own voice, because as good as this was, this wasn't it.
Maria Schneider Orchestra- a triumphant return, including old favorites, multiple pieces for her amazing last album "Data Lords", and a premiere based on a really weird bird. Great ensemble, great solos, Jonathan Blake drumming his ass off.... aaah.
Joe Lovano Trio Tapestry- I only got to see five minutes! Damn you Newport bookers for putting all of my favorite stuff on at the same time! (this will also be a huge issue tomorrow)
Cecile McLorin Salvant- this is the "Ghost Song" band from her recent album. I saw them in February in Boston, they were great. Today, they were better. Like Makaya and Maria and Nate Smith yesterday, Cecile is the profile of a mature artist, combining disparate influences and a connection to the history of the music to something that sounds completely personal and in the now. Go buy "Ghost Song", and see her if she comes within 200 miles of you...

Laufey- every year there is at least one act that leaves veterans of the festival, critics and fans alike, saying "wait, whey did they get booked?" She wins this year- a lovely young Scandanavian woman with a sort of ingenue vibe and a deep alto voice. She seems like the kind of singer who Burt Bacharach would've written for in the early 60s, if Bacharach was into Bjork (I know that's cheap, but the influence was clear). The songs had that vibe, of young love and innocence, with either bossa or ballad feels. Not bad, but not memorable either. In the last five years of my career I've come across at least three singer/songwriters who are probably on her level, which makes me think there are many many more out there, and probably more than a few better. And, she had background SIMPTE tracks cued with canned backing voices- the first instance of karaoke at Newport ever? Again, how did she get the gig?
Tuba Skinny- I think it's to Christian McBride's credit that he's kept George Wein's tradition (or insistence, I'm not sure) that every year Newport books a trad New Orleans or 20s swing band for the festival. This was this year's, a young group who plays on the streets of New Orleans. Great washboard.
The Ron Carter Quartet- celebrating his 85th birthday this year, Carter has lost a step, but makes up for it in elegance, musicianship, and a great band featuring pianist Renee Rosnes. It was fun to watch them play a full step without stopping, slipping from one tune to the next the way his old boss Miles did in the 60s.
Emmet Cohen and Sullivan Fortnier (Saturday)- these are two studies of what it is to be a piano trio in the 21st century. Both pianists are clearly adept students of the music, able to summon stride or clusters at will. Fortnier's band took a more impressionistic approach, in the Bill Evans/Fred Hersch vein, Cohen summoned the hard bop trios of the late 50s, with arrangements inside the tune and lots of gestures that have clearly been honed in the zillion livestreams they did. (plus, a healthy dose of stride) Both sets were very successful. Cohen also had the largest crowd of the weekend at his stage, a clear sign of his breakout internet stardom, and was available to the public than anyone else I saw around this weekend.
The Nth Power- a secular praise band. And if they were playing at a megachurch within fifty miles of me, I'd go. Made up of high level session players who met in New Orleans, they play really polished "good vibes" music. I'm hoping they can cut into some of Michael Franti's audience- similar vibe, less obvious pot culture, better music.
The Soul Rebels- a modern New Orleans brass band. High energy, very tight, a party on the stage.
Takuya Kuroda- if GRP were still making records, this would have fit right in. A mix of lite fusion and post-bop with melodies that seemed to reflect Kuroda's Japanese heratige. It wasn't bad, but I wasn't interested.
Jazz is Dead Presents- this started late, so I only saw about the first ten minutes, and I'm not sure what to make of it. I'm told Gary Bartz came on later in the set and was fantastic.
Jason Moran and the Bandwagon- were on fire. If the other piano trios honored the tradition by playing tunes, the Bandwagon put all of the tasty tradition fruits in a Vitamix and made the best smoothie imaginable- the first set blended Geri Allen, Fats Waller, Monk and something I'm missing into this wash of brilliance. The last third of the set was dedicated to the music of James Reece Europe, Moran's continuing passion project and next recording. It feels like the band is still wrapping itself around this music, but if today is and early sip I think the album will be amazing. (Moran brings it to Boston this winter)
Melissa Aldana- her set featured the music from her Blue Note debut "12 Stars." This was the most "modern jazz" set of the weekend- twisty tunes, virtuosic improvisation, great band interaction. She sounds great.
Digable Planets- nostalgia act- three rappers plus live band doing mostly stuff from 1993's "Reachin'" (If you don't remember them, they were one of the the rap groups that sampled a lot of Blue Note tracks, with their biggest hit being "Cool Like Dat". Cool.
(1993 is now nostalgia. I feel old...)
Sampa the Great- dancehall hip-hop from Zambia. It may have been cool, but I wasn't feeling it.
Mononeon- the singer/bassist wins the wildest outfit award (see my instagram, and my friend Bryan @boneydiego for the pro shots). He's a fantastic bass player, but the music felt Thundercat lite.
Waiting for the next act I bumped into Anat Cohen, who was playing later on the George Wein tribute. I had seen her at UMass in April, and we had a lovely chat. This is one of the reasons Newport is so cool...
Nubya Garcia- one of the acts I was most curious about- another of the London sensations. Rather than describe her music, I'd encourage you to listen to it. It was a (mostly) acoustic jazz quartet, mixing swing and backbeat feels, and a lot of grooves and repeated melodies. Garcia is a commanding player, but not because she is playing virtuosically the way Melissa Aldana or
Chris Potter is. It's a very different approach than what this jazz nerd is used to, but very effective.
Vijay Iyer Trio- with Linda May Han Oh and Jeremy Dunston filling in for the covid-ailing Tyshawn Sorey (get better! We need you!). Iyer's current trio music has a rolling, sweeping quality, like you're riding their wave for longer than you thought a wave could go. Halfway through the set they punctuated these grooves with an angular take on Monk's "Work". Everyone was good, Linda was exceptional.
Two final notes:
In years' past there has been at least one band, and usually more than one, that represents what used to be called "the avant garde", or the noisier, less accessible side of the music. In the iconic film "Jazz on a Summer's Day", the filmmakers hone in on Chico Hamilton's group, which was pretty weird for the time. In my festival going career I've heard Mary Halverson solo, Peter Evans, Eric Revis' "out" project, Kris Davis solo, a Vernon Reid solo set, a John Zorn day(!). The closest to that was Shabaka Hutchings' set, but he took the main stage with Sons of Kmet the next day, which had the people grooving. Christian, if you read this, please make it a little weirder next year- bring in Jamie Branch's Ride or Die, or Jon Iragabon, or Taylor Ho Bynum, or, or. Keep jazz weird!

As the reviews of Newport trickle out over the next few days, I think (fear?) we'll see a tendency for critics to write a "what does this say about jazz?" piece. I'm tempted to, but then I remember every think piece I've read after a big festival, and how, well, not wrong the piece was, but how ultimately irrelevant the piece looks five years out. This was the festival that Christian McBride and his team booked, based on their tastes, what they thought would fill the park, and all kinds of reasons that I don't have a lot of insight into. If another major booker had booked the festival, it would've looked different- maybe better, likely worse, but different. And no doubt, there is music percolating in little venues in Brooklyn and Chicago and LA and London and God knows where that will have more impact on the future of music than half the acts I saw this weekend. And that's as it should be.

That said, most of the acts I heard that are at least a generation younger than me- Nubya Garcia, Sons of Kemet, Nate Smith, Mononeon, Takuya Kuroda, etc.- the ones I loved, the ones I didn't, have put the backbeat front and center, whether it's the backbeat from the club, the backbeat from a Dilla record, the backbeat suggested by African music, or the backbeat you think the crowd wants to hear, it's there. Even Ron Carter's set had hints of beats light years from his days with Miles. Not everyone dealt with it (Cecile, E Cohen, Melissa), but most did. And I think that will be a theme in the music moving forward.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Night Before

Tomorrow the new president gets sworn in, a man no one thought would win and now, according to the polls, few think can do the job well.  A man whose early actions, in who he's surrounded himself with and what he says he'll do, are nothing short of terrifying.

I don't want to regurgitate what so many have said.  I'm terrified for the future, but also trying to be the best American I can in response; I'm giving more money to civic causes, I'm calling Senator Ed Markey's enough that I think I'll be on a first name basis with his staff soon, I'm trying to avoid the noise and follow the money.  But there's two things that have been at the front of my brain that I want to share:

- It's clear to me that the election of Trump is, among other things, an indictment of the American education system, or lack thereof.  That so many people were willing to elect someone who is clearly an ignoramus says to me that we are not, and haven't been, teaching the kind of critical thinking (among other things) that the 21st century requires.  (Which makes his know-little choice to head the Department of Education so much scarier)

I know that one of the battle cries coming out of this election is "get involved".  I think that absolutely includes in education.  Go to school committee meetings and town meetings where the school budget is on the table.  Demand funding for the arts, and media studies and robust civics education.  Demand that schools run well, and that citizens and businesses pay their fair share to fund them.  One of the reasons the right is disproportionately strong in this country is because they own so many local school boards, and from there dictate what our kids learn about science and history and civics.  (see here for an especially terrifying example) We have to change that.

- As an artist, perhaps the most maddening thing to me about President Trump (and believe me, there are many) is he a man of atrociously bad taste.  His suits are pedestrian and fit badly.  His buildings are outstanding only in how garish they are.  Several commentators have made the point that Trump's whole persona- his image, his buildings, his style- is a poor, illiterate person's idea of what they'd be if they were rich.  What little we know about his tastes in the arts is that they are pedestrian at best, and more likely he simply doesn't think much about art because it is too hard.  (The word today that his budget wants to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and the NEH is maddening and outrageous, but not surprising)

Why does this matter?  For two reasons: first, the presidency is the ultimate bully pulpit, one that has been used to encourage people to revere and appreciate beauty.  Look at the concerts Kennedy and Obama put on, and Carter's Great Day in Washington.  Ronald Reagan had Miles Davis as a distinguished guest at a State dinner.  I shudder at what, if any, art the new president will place front and center.

Second, I turn to one of my heroes Charlie Haden for a more eloquent explanation than I can muster (thanks to Jay McCool for finding this quote, which is burned in my brain from 20 years ago):

"If the leaders of the governments of the world were able to hear – I know this is very idealistic – if they were able to hear the beauty of the slow movement of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, or Ravel, or Strauss’ “Four Last Songs,” or Billie Holiday, Django, Charlie Parker, Bill Evans, Ornette Coleman…if they could really hear the beauty… Sometimes I think about hearing music through someone else’s ears and it frightens me – if someone wanted to torture me they could me to hear music through Ronald Reagan’s ears. He must be tone deaf! If the people who run the governments of the world could touch that brilliance inside themselves, and know that it’s in everyone else and everywhere else, the world just couldn’t go on the same way, the way it’s going now.”

I'm trying to imagine if a music critic sat down with Trump to talk about music, and played him a Bartok String Quartet, or a Miles/Gil Evans record, or Joni Mitchell or Kendrick Lamar.  He'd probably blast them on Twitter...  I'm not saying that good artistic taste will equal great policy decisions, but it demonstrates a capacity for empathy, and a participation in our shared humanity that any great leader needs.  

Tonight I was part of our annual All-Town Band concert at the high school that employs me.  Most towns with robust band programs do something like this- everyone in the program plays, starting with the fifth graders who have had instruments for all of three months, up the the top band (who killed on Leonard Bernstein's "Slava")  The quality of music ranges from gruesome to spectacular, but the energy, the life that so many of these kids bring to what they are doing, can't help but inspire you.  And that's every music, and art, and theater teacher's' job- to help kids appreciate the beauty of great music, and tap into that place in themselves.    

So I think one of the things we can, and must do, is create, and support, and encourage art at all levels in the days and years to come.  It won't effect tax policy or climate change legislation immediately (and believe me, I'm really concerned about that stuff too) but it creates the possibility of empathy, and joy, and transcendence.  And we're going to need those every place we can get them...  

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Thoughts from Newport 2016

- 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...)

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.