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Newport Jazz Festival: A study in contrasts

Posted by Steve Greenlee  August 8, 2010 10:21 PM

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anat.JPG(Photo of Anat Cohen by Alan Mittelstaedt)

NEWPORT, R.I. – The eclectic mix of styles that is the hallmark of the Newport Jazz Festival couldn’t have been displayed any better than it was mid-afternoon yesterday. As trumpeter Wynton Marsalis took his quintet through an hour of buttoned-down, straight-ahead jazz on the main stage, saxophonist Ken Vandermark’s thrash-jazz outfit Powerhouse Sound unfurled its fury on one of the two side stages.

Talk about stark differences: Legendary class act Dave Brubeck even sat in with Marsalis for a few tunes, his swiftly ascending chords defying his 89-year-old hands on a romp through “Take the ‘A’ Train.” When the song ended, festival founder George Wein led the audience (backed by Marsalis’s band) in singing “Happy Birthday” to Brubeck (who won’t turn 90 until December).

Meanwhile, Vandermark’s quartet – with electric guitar, electric bass, and drums – shredded a set of angry, noisy anti-songs that contained elements of heavy metal, punk rock, funk, and free improv. “That guy is sick,” one woman said as she walked out. Vandermark would probably take that as a compliment.

Under postcard-perfect skies all weekend, 30 sets of wildly varied jazz unfolded on three stages in Fort Adams State Park, headlined by crowd-pleasing jazz-pop heartthrobs Jamie Cullum (Saturday) and Chris Botti (Sunday). Even if you there for the full 16 hours, you couldn’t have taken in a fraction of what was offered. Yet you would have left plenty satisfied.

Highlights? We’ve got your highlights right here.

Ahmad Jamal’s “Poinciana.” The pianist just turned 80, but he brought new life to his signature song. Jamal’s style hasn’t changed in the least over the years – sparse playing and empty spaces remain his calling cards. On “Poinciana,” he went silent for four and six bars at a time, then played single-note right-hand runs for six or hand bars, then threw in some block chords, and – hey, why not – tossed in a quote from “Take the ‘A’ Train."

Fly on Cole Porter.
Fly is the leaderless trio of saxophonist Mark Turner, bassist Larry Grenadier, and drummer Jeff Ballard. Two songs into their set, Turner and Grenadier repeated a four-note phrase four times, after which Ballard joined in. Once everyone was grounded, Turner let go of the handle and played a series of sustained notes. Suddenly the melody of “It’s All Right With Me” emerged, but the song was entirely rearranged.

Chick Corea goes free.
Almost. The pianist’s new quartet of all-stars, the Freedom Band, includes alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett, bassist Christian McBride, and drummer Roy Haynes. While they didn’t go completely free-improvisation on us, they did perform with great elasticity. “OK, we’re just gonna play,” Corea said at the top, and they did – a speedy hard bop number, hard-driving postbop tune, and a more-off-kilter-than-usual Thelonious Monk composition.

Anat Cohen has a blast. Cohen, who is fast becoming the most interesting clarinetist of her generation, played with great physicality – lurching, thrusting, blowing at length with eyes closed and head down – but at the heart of her performance was a commitment to enjoy herself. During her quartet’s take of “After You’re Gone” – one that began as a lightly bouncing ballad but turned into a riot – Cohen was having so much fun that she missed her own entrance because she was laughing. Did it harm the piece? Hardly. She had the audience in her palm.

Matt Wilson’s attention-deficit jazz. Drummer Wilson brought a quartet that included cornet, saxophone, and bass, as well as a string quartet, and they constantly found new (and humorous) ways to interact. Wilson shifted gears restlessly, often employing counter-rhythms while the horns cackled and howled. “Some Assembly Required” concluded with the jazz musicians shaking little colored bells while the string players plucked pizzicato-style. The playfulness evolved into a piece of maniacally upbeat raga in which the strings figured prominently. Then – of course – the band covered Beyonce’s “If I Were a Boy.”

Gretchen Parlato gives goosebumps. Working in a style that drew from bop, boss nova, and strains of world jazz, Parlato delivered her vocals in a breathy manner, nearly whispering her lyrics. On songs like Herbie Hancock’s “Butterfly,” her gorgeous voice behaved more like an instrument – a soprano sax here, a cello there – than something belonging to a singer. The evidence is piling up that young Ms. Parlato is the most original jazz singer in a generation.

Dave Douglas’s brass fantasy. The trumpeter’s new quintet, Brass Ecstasy, features trombone, French horn, tuba, and drums in homage to Lester Bowie. The group sounded like a bebop combo, a funk-blues outfit, and a marching band on mushrooms – sometimes in the same piece. The set’s craziest moment arrived when Marcus Rojas sang distortedly through the mouthpiece of his tuba during a cover of Hank Williams’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”

Moran deconstructs Monk. Pianist Jason Moran, whose trio Bandwagon has become a regular at Newport, patiently explored every nook and cranny of Thelonious Monk’s “Crepuscule With Nellie,” unearthing new harmonic and rhythmic delights in the beautiful ballad. With his exceptional sidemen, bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits, Moran accomplished an impossible feat: making a Monk tune sound like his own.

Shipp’s uncharted waters. Pianist Matthew Shipp, alto saxophonist Marshall Allen, and bassist Joe Morris performed a set of atonal free jazz with few preconceived notions of where it should go. Shipp rummaged around in the lower register, Morris plucked quickly and nimbly, and Allen engaged in cyclonic squawking through a half-hour opening number. Each part might have sounded like so much rumbling, but if anything the individualism of each player wound up complementing the others. Together it all coalesced and made perfect sense. You might say it was a microcosm of the Newport Jazz Festival ethos.
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