Newport Fest Highlights Soloists and Teamwork

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Cécile McLorin Salvant performs at the Newport Jazz Festival. (Photo: Steve Benoit/Boston Concert Photography)

This year’s Newport Jazz Festival, held Aug. 4-6 at Fort Adams State Park in Newport, Rhode Island, marked the passing of the mantle of “artistic director” from founder George Wein to the protean bassist and bandleader Christian McBride.

Speaking in the media tent on Sunday afternoon, McBride said his goal was to maintain the festival’s diversity. “We tried to include r&b, funk, mainstream jazz, bebop, free jazz, a little bit of hip-hop ...” That something-for-everybody philosophy led musicians of all stripes to make the scene, from bebop pioneer Benny Golson to James Brown mainstay Maceo Parker, from hard-bop veterans One for All to Maria Schneider to Wadada Leo Smith, and from Snarky Puppy to Questlove and The Roots. 

“Newport is like a family reunion,” McBride said. “Everyone on the East Coast who’s a jazz lover gets here eventually, and they have high expectations.” Those expectations were largely met before an appreciative crowd estimated at 25,000.

Ever since Paul Gonsalves’ herculean 27-chorus tenor saxophone solo with Duke Ellington’s orchestra at the 1956 festival, Newport has been a soloists’ showcase and proving ground. Usually this is a good thing, although occasionally it’s not so wonderful. With so many accomplished young players hoping to have their Newport moment, you could be forgiven if you sometimes felt like you were watching a convention of peacocks in full courtship display.

Any such incidents of grandstanding at the 2017 festival were redeemed, however, by a handful of gorgeous, sometimes profound individual statements that could be heard over the course of the three days, solos that served both the individual and the team, and presented a point of view that teased out the deeper implications of the underlying song.

Many counted themselves lucky to have heard such brilliant moments from such first-rate musicians as pianists Aaron Diehl (playing with Cécile McLorin Salvant); Jason Moran (especially his emotionally revealing take on Bernstein’s “Lucky To Be Me” as part of a tribute to the late Geri Allen); Mike LeDonne, playing a hard-swinging piano solo on the Benny Golson classic “Whisper Not,” with Golson, bassist Buster Williams and drummer Carl Allen; pianist Cyrus Chestnut, appearing with his trio; saxophonist Chris Potter (with Danilo Pérez’s “Jazz 100”); vibraphonist Warren Wolf and saxophonist Ron Blake (with the Christian McBride Big Band); and harmonica virtuoso Howard Levy and banjoist Béla Fleck (with Béla Fleck and the Flecktones).

Some of the most extraordinary solos were in the service of the peerless composer and bandleader Schneider. With a cool breeze blowing in off Narragansett Bay on the festival’s final morning, Schneider stepped onto the stage in a white blouse and navy slacks. The 18 members of the Maria Schneider Orchestra wear their distinctiveness on their sleeves, literally: Unlike most big bands, every member wears what he or she wants, from trumpeter Greg Gisbert’s black shirt and tie to multi-instrumentalist Scott Robinson’s blue print shirt with a celestial theme.

The orchestra members all display a certain maturity and groundedness that seems like an entry requirement for the band. It’s not a factor of age—while some, like Gisbert and saxophonist Rich Perry, have been with Schneider since the beginning in 1992, others are relatively recent hires.

Trombonist Ryan Keberle, in his 10th year with the orchestra, said backstage, “Maria’s music has been hugely influential in my life—I owe her a lot.” For Schneider, the respect is mutual. “When I’m conducting,” she said after the show, “I look around at these guys sometimes and can’t believe that they’re playing my music.”

The Grammy-winning composer/arranger began her program with a breezy arrangement of “That Old Black Magic” that called to mind the unusual sonorities of Gil Evans and Bob Brookmeyer, her mentors, whose legacy she continues. A remarkable series of solos ensued from Perry, on the first tune, trombonist Marshall Gilkes and Gisbert, playing flugelhorn, on “The Monarch And The Milkweed” (from her Grammy-winning The Thompson Fields CD); and Robinson, playing alto clarinet, on “All Night, In Gusty Winds” from Winter Morning Walks (another Grammy winner).

Introducing “Do No Evil,” a Newport debut, Schneider inveighed against the practices of Google, whose corporate slogan, “Don’t Be Evil”—Schneider called it “bizarre”—inspired the piece. The slogan was modified in 2015 to “Do the Right Thing.” But, according to Schneider, when it comes to respecting the rights of musicians and other copyright holders, the company has a long way to go. “Just ask any musician or journalist who’s had their livelihood gutted,” she said.

This music, not yet released, was born of Schneider’s great passion and anger about what she called the flagrant copyright violations on YouTube. It also contained one of the indisputably great solos of the festival—a furious tirade launched by virtuoso guitarist Ben Monder, playing over-driven jazz-rock licks above a bitter descending orchestral chords; it was the sound of dystopia.

During a tranquil respite provided by the next piece, “Sanzen-in,” inspired by a Buddhist temple and garden north of Kyoto, Japan, a deep hush fell over the crowd, as if no one wanted to disturb the beauty and significance of the performance.

Another epiphany was provided by tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin, soloing on the final song, “How Important It Must Be,” from Winter Morning Walks. Building gradually, while the orchestra rose in a crescendo of crashing, majestic chords, he crafted a solo that was a fountain of creative ideas, soulful and assured, testifying and ultimately transcendent.

Another memorable takeaway from the festival was Cécile McLorin Salvant’s vocal on the traditional “John Henry.” She and her regular accompanists, The Aaron Diehl Trio (with Paul Sikivie on bass and Lawrence Leathers on drums), are four classicists with a postmodern point of view. The arrangements were bold, playing with the beat and updating—sometimes revolutionizing—the composers’ chord choices. Yet Salvant never lost sight of job one: cutting to the dramatic, emotional essence of each song. They applied this technique to standards like “Isn’t It Romantic,” “Everything I’ve Got,” “Devil May Care” and “It’s Magic,” with riveting results.

For her finale, summoning the spirit of “John Henry,” Salvant cocked her head as if listening to the ancients and connecting on another plane, utterly transported. Her effect was both operatic and politically provocative, ending with the line “The last words I heard that poor girl said were/ I wonder where John Henry fell dead,” moving the audience to concern for the widow’s point of view.

Perhaps no act summoned the spirit of Newport with more gusto and playfulness than the 16-piece Christian McBride Big Band, which performed on the main stage early on the festival’s second day. The ebullient bassist’s band is what nearly every big band aspires to be—tight, seamless and triumphantly swinging.

“You’re gonna feel a whole lot of soul,” McBride promised, leading the (mostly) veteran players through a set that included several McBride originals, Joe Henderson’s “Black Narcissus” and George Duke’s “The Black Messiah, Part 2.” Introducing the latter, McBride said, “Time for a little of that dirty f-word: funk. I’m partial to a little grease in my jazz.” Over an irresistibly sinuous, funky hook designed to get under your skin, the highly skilled young pianist Christian Sands killed it with a suitably oleaginous piano solo. 

Among the most experienced musicians in the McBride outfit was trombonist Steve Davis (or “Stevie D” as several of his admirers yelled out from the audience).  Responding to a reporter’s question about how he enjoyed playing in two of the groups heard at Newport (the other being One for All), he replied, “I love it—I’m spoiled rotten.”

And so were we. DB


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December 2017
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