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Music Review

At 86, Brubeck keeps the Newport jazz festival jumping with surprises

NEWPORT, R.I. -- News bulletin: Major theft this weekend at Fort Adams State Park during the JVC Jazz Festival. Description of subject: Elderly gentleman, white hair, thick glasses, walks and speaks slowly, but plays piano like a madman. Date of birth: 12-6-20. Item stolen: the show.

Yep, it happened again. Dave Brubeck, 86, plays the Newport jazz festival virtually every year, and every year he defies age and expectations, showing up nearly everyone around him. This is not intentional -- you couldn't ask for a nicer guy. It is merely the result of persistence of quality, the product of Brubeck's classy style, unchanged by time, unaffected by trends.

Had there been a roof at the festival, Brubeck would have torn it off. And the explosion came via an unexpected choice: "Unsquare Dance," a song from his 1961 album "Time Further Out." Brubeck's quartet -- which included saxophonist-flutist Bobby Militello, bassist Michael Moore, and drummer Dan Brubeck, his son, who sat in for Randy Jones, who is recuperating from stent surgery -- beefed up the odd-metered cool-bop tune and gave it a rough edge, thanks to the driving, rock-infused work of the substitute drummer. The mood-varying set included classical touches, the blues, ballads, and bop, and concluded with a version of "Take Five" (of course) that was almost entirely a drum solo.

With 29 bands performing over two days -- plus two on Friday night -- the festival offered plenty of variety, though the annual event is beginning to take on something of a museum quality, with its growing number of performances that pay tribute to this or that jazz legend -- Ben Riley's Septet playing the music of Thelonious Monk, Eliane Elias's trio paying tribute to Bill Evans, Harry Allen and Trio da Paz doing Getz & Jobim tunes. Most of this material, though, was kept to the side stages.

Curious -- though we're not complaining -- that most of the music on the main stage yesterday was not jazz at all but blues and R&B, with the final sets done by Susan Tedeschi (a late replacement for the ailing Etta James), Al Green, and B.B. King.

Green, wearing a tuxedo, led his tight band through an uplifting set of Memphis-based rhythm-and-blues that at times was tinged with gospel. The reverend's voice retains most of its extraordinary range and pliability, and he gave it a workout on some of his hits from the '70s, including "Let's Stay Together," "Let's Get Married," and an extremely funky, extended version of "Love and Happiness."

B.B. King was -- let's face it -- the reason many of the 7,600 people paid their $70 yesterday, and he rewarded them handsomely. "Thank you for waiting around till the old guy got out here," King, 81, said as he and his band launched into a festival-closing set of electric blues drenched in his searing guitar and gruff vocals. One highlight: a seriously revved-up rendition of "When Love Comes to Town."

Saturday's main stage performances illustrated why Newport ranks among the finest jazz festivals anywhere, with powerful sets from Brubeck, Joshua Redman, Branford Marsalis, and -- of all people -- Bruce Hornsby.

Hornsby has released a piano trio album, and his cohorts -- bassist Christian McBride and drummer Jack DeJohnette -- joined him for only their third gig together. Hornsby rummaged around in sparse, minor-key phrasings and unexpected contrapuntal chords on "Charlie, Woody and You," and he purposefully left out many of the notes during Monk's "Straight, No Chaser," to great effect. He even sang a couple of times, including on the comedic "What the Hell Happened," which featured stride piano and mildly off-color lyrics; it was an amusing ditty, but unfortunately it broke the spell.

Redman -- his saxophone backed by just McBride on bass and Eric Harland on drums -- put on a smoking set inspired by Sonny Rollins's piano-less trios. The Redman trio's "The Surrey With the Fringe on Top" was light and airy, and its "East of the Sun, West of the Moon" bubbled with energy. Redman switched from tenor to soprano for "Zarafah," opening with a beautiful, several-minutes-long unaccompanied solo that led into a trancelike, Trane-like meditation built on Middle Eastern scales.

Marsalis's group -- maybe the finest working quartet in jazz today -- whipped up a cyclone of modern jazz generated by pianist Joey Calderazzo's thick, dynamic chords, bassist Eric Revis's deep, thumping tones, drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts's swirling, chaotic drumming, and the torrential outpour of notes cascading from Marsalis's saxophone. He didn't announce song titles, and the group never stopped playing during its hourlong set. Each song segued into the next; even the hyperactivity of "Jack Baker," which climaxed with a volcano eruption of a drum solo, transitioned naturally to the melancholy ballad "Hope." Too bad most of the crowd left during it -- presumably to beat the traffic and not because the music was too raucous for their ears.

Contributing mightily to the festival's success was the weather -- it was sunny, in the 80s, with a mild breeze. This was not the case Friday night during the opening concert at the Newport Casino, where it rained and the temperature plunged into the low 60s. It made it almost impossible to enjoy the lovely voice of Dianne Reeves -- who improvised not only her melodic lines but many of her lyrics as well -- and the swinging work of the Count Basie Orchestra, which was joined by singer Nnenna Freelon halfway through its set.

Steve Greenlee can be reached at


JVC Jazz Festival

At: Newport, R.I., Friday through yesterday