NEWPORT, R.I. - The people who program the annual jazz festival at the water's edge here always manage to assemble a balanced mix of the music's most respected practitioners, its most promising upstarts, and crowd pleasers who can sell tickets. This year the JVC Jazz Festival outdid itself with a perfect blend of the old and the new, of the highly regarded and the highly entertaining.
Over the course of two days in Newport's historic Fort Adams State Park, 28 acts spread out across three stages, without a dud in the bunch. The range of styles touched nearly every corner of what could be considered jazz or its outliers.
There was the tasteful, sympathetic interaction of bassist Charlie Haden, guitarist Bill Frisell, and pianist Ethan Iverson, who gathered just for the occasion. There was the infectious Latin jazz of Guillermo Klein y Los Guachos, the pulsating funk of Soulive, and the rock-band attitude of the Marco Benevento Trio, which covered songs by Led Zeppelin, My Morning Jacket, and Deerhoof. Then there were the superstars: jazz icons Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock, and Wayne Shorter, and the marquee pop names of Aretha Franklin and trumpeter Chris Botti.
With music playing concurrently on the three stages, it was impossible to catch more than a fraction of the action. Yet we sampled just about everything, and - it being the season for such things - we feel moved to hand out some medals.
Event: The Newport debut
Gold medal: Ledisi. If there had been a roof at the park, the singer would have torn it off the sucker, with her hot-and-steamy blend of R&B, funk, soul, jazz, and hip-hop. Drawing largely from her Grammy-nominated album "Lost & Found," she jokingly threatened to stop her set and go home if the people in the audience didn't stand up and shake their booties. They obliged.
Silver medal: Melody Gardot. The 23-year-old chanteuse, disabled at 19 when a car struck the bike she was riding, more than lived up to the hype surrounding her. She hypnotized us by opening with a bluesy tune called "No More My Love" that was accompanied only by her own snapping fingers.
Bronze medal: Lettuce. The seven-piece funk outfit, whose members met as teenagers at the Berklee College of Music, played a tight set of greasy funk that recalled James Brown, Parliament-Funkadelic, and Earth Wind & Fire. Joined by JB's trombonist Fred Wesley, the band generated so much excitement that hundreds of people skipped Aretha's set on the main stage so they could hear the whole head of Lettuce.
Event: The veteran performance
Gold medal: Sonny Rollins. The titan of the tenor sax hadn't played Newport in more than 40 years, but last night he owned it, with a hard-blowing set that closed the festival. He improvised endlessly on the repeating two-bar figure that serves as the framework of "Sonny Please." He played ahead of time and against time, punctuating phrases with quick jabs, shrieks, and honks. Be it burner or ballad, he blew and blew, and he never ran out of ideas.
Silver medal: Wayne Shorter. The legendary saxophonist's quartet - including pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci, and drummer Brian Blade - constitutes one of today's finest working groups. It brewed up a fiery marriage of postbop ideas and free improvisation that dispensed with conventional notions of structure. Each song bled into the next, with no regard for boundaries. The music was at once coarse and gorgeous.
Bronze medal: Chris Potter. It was hard to keep track of how many times he took the stage - with Dave Holland, with Herbie Hancock, with Marco Benevento - but his star turn came with his own group, Underground. The quartet - which includes Adam Rogers on guitar, Craig Taborn on Fender Rhodes electric piano, and Nate Smith on drums - played modern postbop laced with fusion and funk. Leading off with the tune that gave the group its name, the band put on a veritable clinic in extended improvisation, each musician feeding off the other three to build momentum.
Event: The crowd rouser
Gold medal: Esperanza Spalding. The Berklee grad (class of '05) and Berklee instructor (hired in '05) drew four or five times as many people as the small stage was intended to hold. Most of those who showed up couldn't even see her. It mattered not. The joy created by the effusive bassist and singer flowed through her audience. When she scatted and sang wordless vocals through a celebratory tune called "I Adore You," the feeling became mutual.
Silver medal: Aretha Franklin. She's still got it, and she delivered it, with a set that included her biggest hits - "Respect," "Chain of Fools," "Natural Woman," "Freeway of Love" - and some nice twists, including a version of "My Funny Valentine" that began as a soulful ballad and evolved into a tour de force of R&B. One complaint about the sound: Her big band and gospel choir sometimes drowned her out, and the speakers crackled at several points.
Bronze medal: Chris Botti. I am not yet a convert to Botti's buttoned-down instrumental pop, but there is no denying the power of his opening and closing numbers. He blew a furious flurry of notes during a funky take of "When I Fall in Love" and then allowed his terrific backing musicians to stretch out. He afforded them the same luxury during the closer, "Indian Summer," which featured a riotous drum solo by Billy Kilson. Too bad most of what came between was milquetoast.
Event: The audience irritant
Gold medal: The airplane dragging a banner advertising auto glass that flew over the main stage during Ledisi's beautiful rendition of the Beatles' "Yesterday," right when she sang the line, "There's a shadow hanging over me." There sure was, and it ruined half your song.
Silver medal: The cigarette and cigar smokers who puffed throughout the festival, with no regard for their neighbors at a lung's length away on every side. Would it kill you to step away from the masses when you need to light up?
Bronze medal: All the boors who think it's OK to yak incessantly during the music. True, the lawn at Fort Adams is not a jazz club, but there were half-hour breaks between sets. Save your lengthy conversations for then.
Steve Greenlee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.