• Newport Jazz 2012: Nine Stories in Nine Photos

    August 10, 2012. Posted by Tim Wilkins.

    One thing I always enjoy about the Newport Jazz Festival is the chance to trade thoughts with our friends, broadcast partners and fellow travelers from NPRMusic.org and WGBH. At the suggestion of Patrick Jarenwattananon, who writes NPR’s A Blog Supreme, I have drawn together a few notes and photos from my favorite sets at Newport this year.

    You can listen to many Newport sets, for this year and past festivals at NPR’s Newport Jazz Festival page. Where audio is available for the sets or acts I mention, I have linked to it. Enjoy!


    Newport 2012 was, for me, The Year of The Bands: more and more jazz acts present themselves as groups, which is part marketing mojo, but also a shift towards collective creation.  There were no last-minute personnel cancellations at this year’s festival, as there often are, which is a testament to these musicians’ commitment to performing together.

    This approach was pioneered a dozen years ago by groups like The Bad Plus and Jason Moran’s Bandwagon – who were both back at Newport this year - but it was new groups that caught my ear. Sound Prints, co-led by saxophonist Joe Lovano and trumpeter Dave Douglas, and Pat Metheny’s Unity Band both feature seasoned, fearless improvisers at the height of their talents on their front lines.

    The Unity Band matches Metheny’s guitar and wits the first time in thirty years with a saxophone, in this case with the superlative tenor played by Chris Potter, along with up-and-coming bassist Ben Williams and longtime Metheny collaborator Antonio Sanchez on the drums. Of course, the band played Metheny’s jazz-rock hits to please Newport’s main stage crowd, as well as original compositions from the Unity Band’s just-released CD, but the real magic was in the interaction between these two.


    There were five big bands at Newport this year – six, if you count the eleven-piece blues band which closed the festival. Three of these were forward-sounding, New York-based ensembles, led by Darcy James Argue, Maria Schneider, and Ryan Truesdell. The bands share inspirations – Bob Brookmeyer and Gil Evans, in particular – and also personnel. Trombonist Ryan Keberle, shown here, solos with all three groups. Trumpeter Ingrid Jensen and saxophonist Donny McCaslin also pull double-duties.

    Many things have changed in jazz since the days of Ellington and Basie, but there’s still a story to be told at Newport about how big bands serve as a springboard for musical creativity.


    Vince Giordano’s big band, The Nighthawks, was a crowd favorite at Newport on Sunday. The group recreates the proto-swing of bandleaders like Luis Russell and Fletcher Henderson with tremendous attention to detail, down to Giordano’s aluminum bass and his 1930s announcer’s mic, but more importantly, they’re having fun.

    Well-known nationwide through their appearances on A Prairie Home Companion and HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, The Nighthawks faithfully recreate for audiences the excitement of hearing early jazz for the first time. Giordano has the time of his life playing this music, and when he does, you do, too.


    Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire made waves on Sunday with a tightly-focused and propulsive set of new compositions which may surprise those familiar with the more introspective sound of his 2011 Blue Note debut, When The Heart Emerges Glistening.

    Akinmusire draws inspiration from Clifford Brown, and has introduced an edge and excitement to his playing which evoke the hard bop trumpeter’s later work with drummer Max Roach. Unfortunately, this set at Newport was neither broadcast nor recorded, although last year’s set, with the same lineup, was. We hope this compelling new material will soon find its way to a broader audience!


    As Miles Davis knew, Newport can be a great place to make fashion statements as well as musical ones. Dana Leong demonstrated his unique sense of style on Sunday, as he performed on both cello and trombone with the quartet of alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón, pianist Laurent Coq and drummer/percussionist Dan Weiss.

    The group was assembled to record a suite of compositions by Zenón and Coq for Sunnyside, which were inspired by Argentine writer Julio Cortazar’s 1963 novel Rayuela. Like Cortazar’s book, whose title means “Hopscotch” in Spanish, the suite follows a nonlinear narrative with multiple points of entry and exit. Surprisingly, the songs offered a coherent platform for improvisation by this versatile ensemble, which deserves to outlive the project.


    Theo Bleckmann was also fashion-forward at Newport – note the stainless steel screw that hangs from the singer's neck – as he presented What Is The Beautiful?, another set of literary-inspired art songs. For this project, drummer John Hollenbeck set the words of postwar poet Kenneth Patchen to music for Bleckmann and and the members of his Claudia Quintet +1, as well as Kurt Elling, who also performed an adventurous set on Saturday with his own group.

    These postmodern lieder confirm Hollenbeck as a master composer of jazz textures for ensembles of many sizes and shapes, and Bleckmann and Elling clearly relished the twists and turns his compositions offered them.


    Guitarist Bill Frisell and violinist Jenny Scheinman have a rare and intuitive rapport, forged over a decade of collaborations. Frisell performed a total of three times at Newport this year – on Saturday with his tribute to John Lennon and with The Bad Plus, but his duo set with Scheinman on Sunday, primarily of her compositions, was a true gem.


    The husband and wife team of Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi and their eleven-piece funk blues family got a sun-sapped, weary crowd onto their feet in the festival’s closing set on Sunday, with a rousing version of Sly & The Family Stone’s 1969 hit “I Want To Take You Higher.” It is worth noting that both the very first act of the festival – the group led by Cuban conguero Pedrito Martinez on Saturday morning, and the last, Tedeschi Trucks – got everyone in the audience on their feet to celebrate.

    Few recall that Sly & The Family Stone actually performed at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1969, just days before their more famous appearance at Woodstock. Miles Davis, James Brown and Led Zeppelin also performed that year.


    Still at Newport’s helm after fifty-eight years, George Wein has steered the jazz festival he founded through thick and thin, and a variety of incarnations. Wein came back from retirement three years ago to rescue the fest after the for-profit company he had sold it to fell into financial straits.

    The festival is once again a non-profit, with a renewed focus on young jazz talent and backed by a foundation whose sole purpose is to keep Newport’s twin jazz and folk festivals alive, and accessible to a younger generation.

    Newport Jazz has been criticized at various times for being too traditional, too commercial, too intellectual, or too pop – but it has emerged stronger every time. As this year’s sold-out festival demonstrated once again, George Wein still has a winning formula for presenting jazz: when you get your audience dancing, you open their hearts, minds and wallets.

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