Marsalis, JLCO & Bridgewater Celebrate 60 Years at Newport
On the first night of the 2014 Newport Jazz Festival, Aug. 1, impresario George Wein hosted a concert at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in downtown Newport to commemorate the festival’s 60th anniversary. The Aug. 1 programming at Fort Adams State Park had highlighted jazz’s avant-garde, with artists like John Zorn and Darcy James Argue, but overall the evening was about celebrating the legacy of jazz, specifically jazz at Newport. This was a role that felt tailor-made for the featured artists at the downtown show: trumpeter Wynton Marsalis with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO), joined by vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater.
The festival, which this year expanded from two days to three, drew an attendance just north of 20,000, over all three days and Friday night.
Under threatening skies—the rain held off until Saturday, then lingered for the rest of the festival—the concert was held on the grass courts of the adjacent Newport Casino, where the first U.S. National Lawn Tennis Championships were held in 1881. The jazz faithful who turned out were a curious mix of wealthy Newporters (more than one gent sported a seersucker suit and shorts) and out-of-town jazz-heads. If they were expecting a tame evening of Jazz 101 by Professor Marsalis and his cohorts, however, they got more than they bargained for.
For her opening set, the gifted Bridgewater, making her belated Newport debut, celebrated the legacy of Billie Holiday, who appeared at the first Newport festival in 1954. Bridgewater’s 2009 tribute to Holiday, Eleanora Fagan (1915–1959): To Billie With Love From Dee Dee Bridgewater (Emarcy), was honored with a Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album.
Bridgewater portrayed Holiday on Broadway last year in Lady Day, a play with music. But her performance at Newport was no impersonation. Bridgewater occasionally sang a line in Holiday’s persona, only to quickly discard it, telling the audience, “I’m interpreting Billie, not imitating her.”
During songs like “All Of Me,” “A Foggy Day” and “Lover Man,” two Bridgewaters were on display: the powerful, emotional jazz singer with a huge range and uncanny improvisational ability; and the demanding leader who challenges her band to keep up with her bold flights. Her current band—Theo Croker (trumpet), Irwin Hall (alto saxophone), Michael King (piano), Eric Wheeler (bass) and Kassa Overall (drums)—was more than up to the task.
On a stately “Good Morning, Heartache,” she luxuriated in the slow tempo, shadowboxing with the meter. Altoist Hall and trumpeter Croker weaved inventive solos; at one point Croker bent a plaintive note over several measures before letting it recover. In “A Foggy Day,” Hall blew a genuine bop solo, blues-soaked and elegantly structured.
The JLCO, the evening’s main attraction, has become, over its 26 years of existence, Wynton Marsalis’ main instrument, not unlike the way that Ellington’s orchestra completed his vision. Marsalis’ trumpet playing is better than ever: more mature, more conversational and emotive, distinctly himself, even while he encompasses so much jazz history.
In 2012, asked about how he felt about receiving top honors in the annual DownBeat Readers Poll, Marsalis murmured his appreciation, but added, “Those other trumpet players can play, too.”
Once you reach a certain level, superlatives don’t mean as much. The same can be said of the JLCO. There are certainly other great big bands working today, but two factors distinguish JLCO: They have become America’s (and the world’s) foremost jazz repertory orchestra, with a singular ability to play every manner of jazz, from each decade of its history right up to the present. Secondly, they are ridiculously tight, executing tricky maneuvers like a fighter jet. The latter quality is attributable, at least in part, to the institution Jazz at Lincoln Center, which has allowed them to play constantly, either at home in Rose Hall (“The House of Swing”) or on their demanding touring schedule.
Opening with a briskly swinging “Back To Basics” from Marsalis’ 1995 oratorio, Blood On The Fields (Columbia), Marsalis underscored that this would be no “pops” concert. The song, a Marsalis showcase, featured him wielding the mute to imitate the rhythms and sonorities of speech and laughter. Each of the three trombones and five saxes soloed briefly, leading to an ensemble section that featured laughing trombone and a mocking, “nyah-nyah” chorus of trumpets.
Starting with the second selection, Marsalis explicated the tie-in of each song or composer with Newport. Introducing “Señor Blues,” he noted that Horace Silver had performed it at Newport in 1958 with his quintet. (Blue Note released the long-lost performance in 2008.) Here, bassist Carlos Henriques’ arrangement provided a ferociously funky backdrop for blues testifying, Silver-style, by Victor Goines on soprano sax, Marcus Printup on trumpet and Dan Nimmer on piano.
Benny Carter (1907–2003), who headlined the festival in 1968, wrote the wistful ballad “Again And Again” for the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, at the age of 92. “When Benny Carter walked into a room, soul walked in with him,” Marsalis said. “You’re gonna wish it would happen again, after you hear Sherman [Irby] play this.”
Irby, a supremely soulful alto player himself, summoned up Carter’s sweet tone, vibrato and deep blues inflections. Nimmer added a brief, surprising piano solo that included some percussive, Erroll Garner-ish, chordal dog-paddling.
Calling Dave Brubeck “a man who carried gold dust in his pocket,” Marsalis led the JLCO on the late pianist’s tune “Cassandra,” in a swinging arrangement by Printup. Although the 1971 edition of the festival was marred by rioting gatecrashers enticed by that year’s rock-oriented attractions, the final set of that fest—by Brubeck and Gerry Mulligan (prior to the riot)—was “one of the great triumphs” in Newport’s history, said Marsalis. For his Brubeck-ian solo, Nimmer, who proved himself a musical chameleon throughout the evening, romped through the song’s changes with invention and swing.
The program included other gems with some association to the festival: Mulligan’s “Festive Minor”; Woody Herman’s “Early Autumn,” which catapulted Stan Getz to fame with Herman’s band; Herbie Hancock’s 1968 “Riot,” arranged by Irby; and for a grand finale, Ellington’s career-reviving “Diminuendo And Crescendo In Blue,” which featured the now-legendary 27-chorus tenor sax solo of Paul Gonsalves when the orchestra played it at Newport in 1956.
“Now we’re going to see what [saxophonist] Walter Blanding has to show us about his endurance,” Marsalis remarked. Blanding testified for nearly as long as Gonsalves did, capturing all the urgency and jump-blues spirit of that tour de force.