It rained through much of the 60th edition of the Newport Jazz Festival, held in Rhode Island’s Fort Adams State Park on the first three days of August, just as it did at the very first one in 1954. As was the case in 1954, music lovers donned rain slickers, popped open umbrellas, and endured a good soaking in order to hear an impressively diverse lineup of jazz artists.
Remarkably, two artists present at the first Newport festival performed at the 60th: George Wein, the festival’s visionary entrepreneur from the start, who is also an able pianist, and Lee Konitz, the pioneering cool alto saxophonist. The two octogenarians (both 88), showed they are still in fine form.
The 1954 festival, which featured Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, and the Oscar Peterson Trio, is generally considered to be the event that spawned the international jazz festival circuit that we now take for granted. It also led Wein to create the Newport Folk Festival. Together, the two festivals set the standard for the modern era of large outdoor music festivals.
The self-effacing Wein himself was, arguably, the biggest star of this year’s festival. Braving the weather along with the rest of the hardy festival-goers, he rode around the park in a chauffeur-driven golf cart dubbed the “Wein Machine,” drawing applause and well wishes everywhere he went.
Danny Melnick, who selects and books the artists along with Wein, says their mutual goal is to represent the music’s diversity. “Newport has evolved over the years, but especially since 2010, when we became a non-profit,” he said. “The pressure to book in a commercial way in order to maximize profits is not in our heads anymore,” he said. “It’s liberating.” Under previous sponsors, they had felt the need to book R&B, soul, fusion and funk acts. By contrast, Melnick pointed out that all the performers at the 2014 festival were jazz artists. “Improvised music is the theme.”
This year’s festival, which included 45 separate performances and attracted a crowd of more than 6,000, was also the first to expand from two days to three. The Friday program emphasized up-and-coming and experimental artists, including Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, Miguel Zenon, Rudresh Mahanthappa, and 24-year-old wunderkind Cecile McLorin Salvant, one of only two headliners to perform twice during the weekend (the other was Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra).
Among the more interesting contrasts at the festival was Friday’s shows by Mostly Other People Do the Killing and Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, two groups that both delight in resurrecting the jazz styles of the 1920’s and ‘30’s, but from radically different perspectives.
Giordano, the tuba player, bassist, and musical preservationist, and his crackerjack 11-member band, all clad in black tie, are meticulously faithful to the sound of the Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver and Fletcher Henderson orchestras of the 20s and 30s. Among their selections were Morton’s “King Porter Stomp,” Oliver’s “Snag It,” and Henderson’s “Stampede.” The band – rhythm section plus 4 sax/clarinet players, 2 trumpets, trombone, and banjo/guitar (depending on the era) is made up of fine, highly disciplined musicians; yet it’s the arrangements that are the star. One result of Giordano’s perfectionism is that the band’s performance, with its echoes of ragtime syncopation, intricately harmonized trio passages, and sometimes abrupt endings, captures the spirit of experimentalism that was present in the dawn of big band jazz. The music seemed as valid and, in a sense, as modern today as when it first scandalized a staid America nearly 100 years ago.
The cheerfully anarchic septet MOPDtK, on the other hand, is a rebellion against stylistic purity and the musical embodiment of Karl Marx’s statement that history repeats itself, the second time as farce. Led by Oberlin Conservatory grad Moppa Elliott, the band are surrealists in the tradition of the Spike Jones Orchestra and the 1960s British vaudeville-cum-rock group, The Bonzo Dog Band. Although their records faithfully record their wacky mash-ups of 20s and 30s jazz, German oom-pah, electronica, and avant-garde noise assemblage, they are best experienced in person. At Newport, they made an agreeable spectacle of themselves in a set that included a dementedly heroic slide trombone and yelling solo by Dave Taylor, bird-calls emanating from Jon Irabagon’s soprano sax, and an off-the-wall but expertly controlled slapstick drum solo by Kevin Shea, including toy trumpets and throwing of handfuls of drumsticks.
A standout performance on the festival’s last day was by the Django Festival All-Stars, from France, who in their first appearance at Newport proved to be a crowd favorite and my candidate for the hardest-swinging group at Newport. The quintet, now on a national tour, is modeled after the Hot Club of France, including two guitars (Samson Schmidt on lead and DouDou Cuillerier on rhythm and scat vocals), violin (Pierre Blanchard), button accordion (Ludovic Beier), and bass (Brian Torff, the sole American), with the occasional addition of a guest, pianist Peter Beets from Holland. The burly Schmidt, looking like a more swinging version of Ernest Borgnine, was dressed all in white, with a white fedora and black band. His lightning licks, touched by a kind of melodic genius, were nothing short of sensational. Yet matching him in impact was accordionist Beier, who looked like he might be the band’s accountant but played like an angel. On his own ballad, “Fleur de Brasil,” his heart-wrenching playing on the accordina (similar to a melodica but with buttons instead of a keyboard) was reminiscent of Toots Thielemans at his zenith and as good a solo as was heard at Newport this year.
Maestro Wein himself appeared on stage Sunday with his Newport All-Stars – Anat Cohen on clarinet and sax; Randy Brecker, trumpet; Lew Tabackin, tenor sax and flute; guitarist Howard Alden, bassist Jay Leonhart and drummer Clarence Penn. You might have thought a visit to this show would be nostalgic but lacking fire. You would have been wrong. First of all, Wein can play. Secondly, Wein had the good sense to let his group of jazz heavyweights strut their stuff in a series of classics including “Lover Man,” “The Mooche,” and “Honeysuckle Rose.” After Cohen wowed the crowd with one of her passionate clarinet solos, Wein quipped, “If I’d have met a Jewish girl like Anat Cohen 65 years ago, I’d have married her,” to Cohen’s evident embarrassment and the crowd’s delight.
The crowd demanded and received an encore of “Limehouse Blues.” As it concluded, Wein thanked the crowd, saying, “I hope I see you next year.” — Allen Morrison