Memorable Tributes Enliven Newport Sets

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Christian McBride (foreground) and Questlove (background) perform in The Philadelphia Experiment at the Newport Jazz Festival on Aug. 6. (Photo: Steve Benoit)

The annual pilgrimage to Fort Adams State Park, located at the mouth of Newport Harbor, Rhode Island, is a high point of the summer for thousands of jazz fans. Folks flock to that scenic locale on the banks of Narragansett Bay from all over the nation (along with some international jazz tourists) for three days of fun, sun and swinging sounds on four stages. This year’s Newport Jazz Festival, held Aug. 4–6, delivered on all counts.

Although there were afternoon rain showers on Saturday, patrons took cover under the Quad Stage tent for a scintillating set from Jazz 100, an all-star aggregation led by pianist and musical director Danilo Pérez and featuring an imposing frontline of saxophonist Chris Potter, trumpeter Avishai Cohen and trombonist Josh Roseman, with Ben Street on bass, Roman Diaz on percussion and vocals and Adam Cruz on drums.

The ensemble’s tribute to four major figures being feted with centennials this year—Mongo Santamaría, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie and Ella Fitzgerald—was marked by some inventive twists on familiar material and several invigorating solos along the way.

The group opened with a medium-tempo rendition of Quincy Jones’ “Jessica’s Day” (found on Dizzy In South America: Official U.S. State Department Tour, 1956, Vol. 1) that featured potent, pulse-quickening solos from Cohen and Potter and a soulful, relaxed piano solo from Pérez. Master percussionist Diaz opened a rendition of the iconic “Cubano Be, Cubano Bop” with some galvanizing chanting and drumming. Cohen engaged in some fiery call-and-response with Potter on soprano sax on this infectious Afro-Cuban jam.

Pérez opened the group’s Monk tribute with an extended piano solo that segued seamlessly from the engaging “Light Blue” to the gorgeous “Pannonica,” both full of nuanced reharmonization and playful discovery balanced by a genuine sense of reverence for Monk.

Drummer Cruz and conguero Diaz then launched into a simpatico clave-fueled hookup that led to an animated full-band interpretation of Monk’s “Off Minor.” Potter’s tenor breakdown with Cruz here showcased his ferocious chops and nonchalant double-timing, which drew enthusiastic applause. The group concluded with Perez’s ambitious re-imagining of Santamaría’s classic “Afro Blue” that had Roseman carrying the melody and soloing freely over a highly-charged montuno section.

At the intimate, indoor Storyville stage, New Orleans pianist David Torkanowsky was dripping with Southern charm on a beautiful solo rendition of Allen Toussaint’s “With You In Mind.” His expansive interpretation of W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” opened with a tango feel, transitioned to a shuffle-blues then went into a two-fisted barrelhouse section full of Fessisms (the stylistic signature of New Orleans piano master Professor Longhair) before heading into a touch of stride and some old school boogie woogie that showcased his strong left hand.

Torkanowsky closed with a clever medley that organically segued from classical (Isaac Albéniz’s “Estudios”) to jazz (Miles Davis’ “Nardis”). As Dr. John would say, “This cat really knows how to radiate the 88s.”

Back in the Quad Stage tent, drummer Tyshawn Sorey whipped up thunder, nasty flam beats and polyrhythmic pyrotechnics with pianist Vijay Iyer’s sextet on the darkly dissonant Rhodes-infused groover “Nope” and the explosive “Good On The Ground” from their new album, Far From Over (ECM).

Alto saxophonist Steve Lehman engaged in some blazing call-and-response with tenor saxophonist Mark Shim on the intensely swinging “Down To The Wire,” then the mood cooled for the spacious and atmospheric “Wake,” which featured some lyrical flugelhorn playing by Graham Haynes. The band closed on a dynamic note with “Threnody,” which had Lehman nearly levitating off the stage at the crescendo of his ferocious alto solo.

DJ Logic’s Project Logic featured the turntablist in the company of keyboardist James Hurt, guitarist Vernon Reid, alto saxophonist Jaleel Shaw, trumpeter Keyon Harrold (sporting a T-shirt with the motto “Creativity Is My Weapon”), electric bassist and YouTube sensation MonoNeon and remarkable drummer Marcus Gilmore. Together they conjured up a deep P-Funk vibe—with Reid, Shaw and Harrold alternately wailing over the top of the knee-deep funk grooves.

The emotional highlight on Saturday came at the Quad Stage when bassist-singer Esperanza Spalding and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington paid tribute to their ACS Trio comrade and mentor, pianist Geri Allen (who died on June 27), with a program titled “Flying To The Sound: To Geri With Love.” Newport’s artistic director, bassist Christian McBride, delivered a eulogy, of sorts, to introduce the proceedings: “Geri Allen transitioned last month. She was a source of inspiration and exemplified so much excellence throughout her career. We decided to keep that going with this program.”

Spalding and Carrington took the stage with McBride’s regular pianist, Christian Sands, to perform Allen’s “Unconditional Love” (from 2004’s The Life Of A Song). Spalding’s soaring, wordless vocals were spiced with daring octave leaps and a wildly uninhibited quality that was clearly heartfelt and cathartic.

Sands showcased his prodigious chops on a swinging rendition of “Feed The Fire,” a tune that Allen had played with Betty Carter on the vocalist’s 1993 album of the same name. Spalding fueled that fire with her insistent walking bass lines, and Carrington paced the proceedings with her ride cymbal pulse before exploding for a drum solo.

Iyer then replaced Sands at the piano and delivered a whirlwind solo of his own on Allen’s “Drummer’s Song” (from 1994’s Twenty One) before giving up the piano bench to Jason Moran, who delivered a graceful balladic interpretation of “Lucky To Be Me” and a swinging “Nothing Like You,” underscored by Carrington’s brisk brushwork. For a lively closer, the three pianists alternated at the keyboard, with Sands again displaying his abundance of chops with his dazzling double-timing while both Iyer and Moran massaged the harmonic fabric of the piece with masterful restraint.

Saturday also featured a dynamic set by Henry Threadgill’s Zooid, performing material from its Pulitzer Prize-winning In For A Penny, In For A Pound (Pi) at the Quad Stage. This long-standing quintet, featuring guitarist Liberty Ellman, tubaist/trombonist Jose Davila, cellist Christopher Hoffman and drummer Elliott Humberto Kavee, has internalized Threadgill’s singular language to the point that it’s difficult to tell where composition ends and improvisation begins.

While much of the material—particularly the sinuous “Chairmaster,” the bubbling “Tomorrow Sunny” and the urgent counterpoint number “Ceropic”—felt completely through-composed, there was indeed room for exploration. And each of the members of this versatile quintet rose to the occasion with probing solos.

Ellman, a key collaborator of Threadgill’s since 1998, has emerged as one of the most original guitarists on the scene today. Playing an amplified acoustic guitar with no effects, he conjured up odd-metered lines and interesting textures, alternating between torrents of single notes and fingerpicked chord voicings recalling Joe Pass or Ted Greene. Davila contributed a beautiful trombone solo on “Bingo/Unoepic,” and while Threadgill opened the first three tunes on flute, his bracing alto sound on “Ceropic” and “Not The White Flag” was a kind of clarion call for the set.

Threadgill’s plaintive alto cry on “Off The Prompt Box” poignantly conjured up the spirit of Ornette Coleman. Zooid concluded its captivating set with the avant-funk number “A Day Off” (from 2012’s Tomorrow Sunny/The Revelry, Spp) and delivered an encore with the more esoteric “Mac V.”

Sunday’s highlights included Moran’s Fats Waller Dance Party at the big outdoor Fort Stage (he turned Waller’s 1938 tune “Yacht Club Swing” into a kind of Mardi Gras dance number, with the help of vivacious singer Lisa E. Harris) and a turbulent set at the Harbor Stage by alto saxophonist Tim Berne’s Snakeoil quartet (with bass clarinetist Oscar Noriega, pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer Ches Smith).

McBride threw down some serious funk with his high school pals Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson (The Roots’ drummer) and Jason Kibler (aka DJ Logic) along with fellow Philadelphia native Uri Caine on Fender Rhodes electric piano in their jam-oriented set in the Quad Stage tent. Known as The Philadelphia Experiment, the band covered tunes by James Brown, Sun Ra, Grover Washington Jr. and others, with Caine conjuring up mid-’70s Herbie Hancock in his impressive Rhodes playing.

But the most memorable performance on Sunday was a set by the new supergroup Hudson, which released a self-titled album on Motéma in June. Comprised of guitarist John Scofield, keyboardist John Medeski, bassist Larry Grenadier and drumming great Jack DeJohnette, this all-star quartet collectively stretched on familiar pop tunes by the likes of Jimi Hendrix (“Wait Until Tomorrow”) and Joni Mitchell (“Woodstock”) and swinging originals by Scofield (“El Swing” and “Tony Then Jack”).

Medeski contributed subversive tones and other sonic tweakage on his distortion-laced Wurlitzer electric piano, and he swung in Jimmy Smith fashion on the Hammond B-3 organ. Grenadier was the fundamental anchor of the group while Scofield delivered the tunes with his uncanny vocal phrasing and wailed with Bird-like dexterity, unleashing a flood of ideas on his extended solos.

DeJohnette offered touching vocals on Hendrix’s “Castles Made Of Sand.” After the band’s triumphant set, the festival presented a birthday cake to DeJohnette, who would turn 75 three days later. The crowd serenaded the drummer with a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday,” with Medeski providing intentionally schmaltzy organ accompaniment.

The Newport Jazz Festival was founded in 1954 by George Wein, 91, who was seen darting around the festival grounds this year in a golf cart dubbed The Lean Green Wein Machine. Total attendance for the three days was 25,500, many of whom are already looking forward to next year. DB


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October 2017
Cécile McLorin Salvant
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