the 58th Newport Jazz Festival (August 5th-7th) was among the best in recent years.  one veteran –perhaps jaded?– jazz journalist whom i caught up to running from on-site venue to venue –there are three on the grounds of Fort Adams– shouted as he flew by that he couldn’t remember the last time he was unable to get to all he wanted to hear.  he went on to say later that he caught snippets of this band and a tune from that group, but to sit and casually enjoy, no way.

as usual there was something for every jazz and blues taste at this Natixis Global Asset Management-sponsored event.  2012 was under the aegis of the new not-for-profit Newport Festival Foundation which includes the virtually sold-out Folk Festival held the week before.  Associate Producer Dan Melnick said the combined figures for the three days of the Jazz Festival, especially Sunday, “could have been better.”  he went on to say that he was satisfied.  10,000  for the Fort Stage is capacity.  the peak day this year was Saturday with 6,800 attendees.  ”we were real happy about how we did with the contemporary line-up we featured,” Melnick concluded.

in reverse order of days here’s what i got to enjoy.

the blues portion of the closing Sunday programs was by the Tedeschi-Trucks Band.  the two-hour show tore the place apart with its high energy-laden electricity.  this is not your father’s blues band of Count Basie with Jimmy Rushing, or Joe Williams.  no subtly here; just  in-your-face powerhouse pounding blues from Memphis, Kansas City, New Orleans. Chicago, or wherever you like it hot.

Susan Tedeschi (r) Derek Trucks (l) & Band  (photo Ayano Hisa, courtesy Newport Festival Foundation)

in direct contrast and on that same main Fort Stage were some other bands you may have heard about.  i reported on Ryan Truesdell’s Gil Evans Centennial Project for three of their four nights at Jazz Standard in a past post.  their set at Newport was a summary of all of that, only more so.  it was quite a contrast first hearing this band in an intimate club setting and then here in front of a large enthusiastic audience.  Truesdell personally promised more of Evans’ early period with the Claude Thornhill Band which i came to hear.  they were there, all right, but not in the profusion i craved.  i miss the juxtaposed re-harmonized charts on Anthropology and King Porter Stomp.  Trusedell later told me that Evans destroyd the latter’s orignal manuscript and that as an Evans purist he doesn’t do transcriptions so he does not have one of King Porter.  that’s too bad for i heard one such by Chuck Israels’ National Jazz Ensemble with the late Arnie Lawrence in the Cannonball Adderley (later David Sanborn) alto chair and it was as breathtaking as i remember the original.  i’d love to hear it as a vehicle for this band’s alto saxist Steve Wilson.  Anthropology is still among the misising.


Ryan Truesdell cond. Gil Evans Centennial Orch. w/l-r:  Donny McCaslin,Steve Wilson,  Charles Pillow, Scott Robinson  (photo Ayano Hisa, courtesy Newport Festival Foundation)

but what was there was “cherse.” (Spencer Tracy on Katherine Hepburn)  excerpts from the innovative “Out of the Cool” and succeeding Evans collections and a vocal originally penned for Astrud Gilberto in a small group setting, this time by the entire ensemble with Gretchen Parlato on Look To The Rainbow.  (Parlato did her own set later at the Harbor Stage with guitarist Lionel Lueke.)

Maria Schneider led her Orchestra in her usual enthusiastic manner, utilizing every fiber of her lithe figure.  a great many of the members on her band were also members of the Truesdell so one could see their multifarious talent rise for each occasion.  there was a marked difference.  Evans’ band, for whom Schneider assisted, was looser but  as complicated in their charts department.  Schneider’s are more European and gauzily impressionist.  some of the musicians, all her stalwarts, still have to read their parts.  ”not that there’s anything wrong with that.” (Jerry Seinfeld)

in addition to Wilson other band members doing double duty included the reeds of Charles Pillow, Donny McCaslin and Scott Robinson, Greg Gisbert, trumpet, Ryan Kaberle, trombone, Frank Kimbrough, piano, and Jay Anderson, bass.

Maria Schneider cond. Orchestra, w/l-r Steve Wilson, Charles Pillow (photo Ayano Hisa, courtesy Newport Festival Foundation)


Schneider premiered Home a new commision with special solos by Gary Versace, accordion, and Robinson, baritone sax.

sandwiched between Truesdell and Schneider was a nice Jewish family, from Israel already.  the 3 Cohens: Anat, tenor sax and clarinet, Avishai, trumpet, and Yuval, soprano sax.   ”we practiced in our own rooms,” Yuval said. “and drove the neighbors nuts,”


3-Cohens:  l-r  Yuval, Avishai, Anat  (photo Ayano Hisa, courtesy Newport Festival Foundation)

their part of the day was swingingly mainstream.  Anat is the cheerleader.  with her encouraging shouts and body language she’s obviously enjoying herself.  perhaps she should pay them.  Yuval called Newport  ”Jazzrusalem” alluding to a town nearby his home.   standouts of their standard offerings were How High The Moon/Ornithology played sans rhythm, and the Ellington fav The Mooch.  the latter was made for critical comparison as Anat had played it with two other clarinetist the day before at the Harbor Stage (below).  here at the Fort there were originals such as Family and Shufla de Shufla.

it sounded like the 3 Cohens have been playing together all their lives.  oh wait.  they have!

Anat was part of a troika of clarinetists who played at the Harbor Stage on Saturday.  simply put, for me those were the most exciting moments of the entire Festival.  the others were veteran Ken Peplowski and relative newbie Evan Christopher.

Peps, a high-voltage, physically active performer, who is at ease with playing his instrument as he is doing stand-up comedy, took the Benny Goodman role.  he swung when he needed to and he played ballads in that “perfectly” classical manor.  his soft embouchure attack is so fluid.

Cohen, again a one women cheering section, also has a soft embouchure but she can swing hard with more bite.  she’s got bebop in her soul and Israeli feisty folksiness in her heart.

i have seen Christopher a few times notably at Jack Kleinsinger’s Highlights In Jazz concerts and he is a phenominal player with a depth of musical knowledge that belies his age and experience.  he is from New Orleans which may help to explain his expansiveness.  by the way, Christopher, the least known among them, dresses impeccably.  he never removes his jacket, which belies his gritty playing.

Ellington’s harmonic structure for The Mooch featured his “jungle” band of Cotton Club fame.  he had his reed section turn into clarinet leads and it is impossible to hear or play the tune without acknowledging that early recording.  like Mood Indigo the instrumentation may change but the echo remains.

in both versions –the 3 Cohens performed it the following day (see above)– that plaintive line, almost a cry, reaches out and pulls you in.  Ellington himself expanded it on “Ellington Uptown.”  reverb was even added on some later recordings for that cry-in-the-night feeling.  to these ears it remains a plea from the oppressed and not the programmatic symbol it is purported to represent.

throughout the set guitarist Howard Alden was alternately and prominently, comping, filling and soloing adding that extra swinging rhythm chunk-a-chunk.

3 Clarinets: l-r Evan Christopher, Howard Alden, g., Ken Peplowski, Anat Cohen (photo Ayano Hisa, courtesy Newport Festival Foundation)

3 Clarinets drummer, the (very) late Lewis Nash, –he was stuck in traffic– was spelled by the preceding group’s Joey Baron, thereby making for an interesting comparison.  Baron, a hard-driving post bop modernist, sat in with a vengeance drawing cheers for his fills.  when the less demonstrative, though more supportive rhythm section drummer, Nash finally arrived, to much good-natured sarcastic cheers, the difference was dramatic.  Festival  producer George Wein, who was seemingly everywhere, couldn’t have made it more to his liking had he held up I-95 personally.

the group for which Baron was the drummer was Joe Lovano-Dave Douglas Quintet “Sound Prints.”  the ensemble had just come off an extensive tour and came to play.  there was so much relaxed spontaneous fun emanating from that stage that you forgot the fact that they had been doing it for months; every tune was that fresh.  there wasn’t a seat and standing room was three and four deep and up a fort wall and grassy hillock in what might have passed for “right field.”

meanwhile, at the Fort Stage the great guitar hope Bill Frisell was playing selections from his Beatles bag.  making him instantly more accessible, his Lennon-McCartney interpretations were, dare i say, actually hummable.  when i expressed my favorable opinion the nay-sayers outnumbered the praisers.

Bill Frisell Group featuring Jenny Scheinman, vln (photo Ayan Hisa, courtesy Newport Festival Foundation)

later in the evening, actually the closer on the Saturday main stage, Pat Metheny’s Unity Band held forth.  electronics notwithstanding, i appreciate what Metheny does and what he has done to advance jazz guitar.  (and how he never ages, while i do, which doesn’t seem fair.  but that’s another story.)

on the way up to Newport my driving companion, a prominent journalist, had me put Metheny’s latest CD in the slot as he was going to interview him.  to these ears –and i’m not by any means a purist who only listens to Charlie Christian acolytes– it was  inaccessible.  and in being so, a disservice to jazz.  how can we expect the uninitiated listener and CD buyer to get into our music when it is so difficult to understand?  Pat.  invite us in, please.

so to those who think Frisell was selling out via the Beatles i feel he will bring more people into jazz than Metheny’s electronic machinations.  perhaps Metheny feels he is at a point in his musical career that he can take it in another direction at his discretion.  more power to him.  just remember a leader needs followers and i for one will stick with my classic Metheny explorations which remain in my collection.

on the other hand, i am reminded of what Clark Terry loves to quip: “the only difference between a groove and a grave is the depth.”

tradition was the key to opening night at the Casino (Tennis Hall of Fame) with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band opening for Dr. John‘s Blues Band.  while not a fan of the PHJB i do enjoy the rollicking, if theatrical, good time they have on stage.  this time there was a difference.  in fact, two differences.

vocalizing was Cat Russell who is the real deal.  she has solid jazz genes –mother jazz bassist and vocalist Carline Ray; father Louis Armstrong’s bandleader and pianist Luis Russell– Cat Russell has chops for days.  her time in unimpeachable and her musicianship approaching perfection.  combine that with lungs so powerful she didn’t need a mic to project throughout the stadium.

the other difference was the addition of a Spanish banjoist.  we sometimes overlook the “Spanish Tinge” of Jelly fame when we listen to N’awlins music.  the Cajun-French influence is so strong and seemingly everywhere.  this picker cat brought it home by singing songs of the Spanish Crescent City.  stood us up.

like that journalist at the outset who couldn’t get to all he wanted to see and hear, i, too, left out some important and explorative groups, more than i included from this musically wide-ranging Newport Jazz Festival.

text © arnold jay smith

August 2012


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