One of the treats of summer is the chance to go and see live music outdoors in a festival setting. I began attending the Newport Jazz Festival two years back and the experience has kept me coming back to hear more. I love the way it showcases both the big names and lesser known but brilliant talents. With no further adieu, here are some listening notes from the Saturday performances at Newport.
Jack DeJohnette - Jack is one of the all-time great drummers in jazz and he played with a quintet made up of several virtuosos. The gig featured his edgy compositions, which varied widely in tone, but gave the band a framework on which to build their improvisations. Jack is always relaxed behind the drum kit, but his sounds can be explosive in their intensity. Alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa comfortably rode over the top of the ensemble and offered a combination of power and lyricism in his lines. My favorite song was Miles, dedicated to one of Jack's early mentors, Miles Davis. The song had a recurring melodic line voiced by Rudresh over wah-wah sounds from keyboardist George Colligan; it felt like a mashup of In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. Toward the end, Rudresh and guitarist Dave Fiuczynski traded maniacal solo lines which left me gasping. At age 70, Jack DeJohnette remains a master composer and band leader.
Darcy James Argue's Secret Society - After DeJohnette's set, I returned to the main Fort Stage area and joined the line for Tim's Greek and Middle Eastern food. It was worth the twenty minute wait. My Mediterranean sampler included generous helping of humus, tabouli, stuffed grape leaves and a Greek salad. The weather was well into the 90's, so the choice of food fit the day and a lemonade offered a much needed thirst quencher. As I settled in my chair to eat, Darcy James Argue's group came onto the stage. This was the largest group I saw all day, a big band with full sections of trumpets, trombones and other wind instruments, along with a rhythm section of guitar, upright bass, keyboards and drums. His music is intricately composed and tightly arranged, though they covered a lot of different territory, wandering comfortably between the music of many different countries and showing a wide range of musical influences. The first piece was a showcase for the many colors that can be voiced by a large brass ensemble; it had originally been written to be played along with the late Bob Brookmeyer and showed the kind of interweaving voicings between multiple instruments that Brookmeyer had been known for. The third piece featured trombones and other low-pitched brass instruments, including tuba and reminded me a lot of the big band music Carla Bley's groups played durng the Eighties. Another piece had colors that reminded me of the music Gil Evans and Miles played together and it was amusing to hear the sounds of a foghorn from a ship in the harbor join in to fill out the low end. The last piece was dedicated to the Fung-wah bus -- which runs between Boston and New York -- and featured trumpeter Ingrid Jensen. Newport would be incomplete without a trumpeter who can rouse the crowd and Jensen proved herself very much up to the task. The music built ominously, while consistently driven forward by the drummer. Jensen's lead trumpet lines started quietly then developed more power as she ascended into the higher notes, ultimately getting into Freddy Hubbard territory with brilliant, fast lines that rode high over the rest of the ensemble.
Three Clarinets - I caught a few songs by this group while I was enroute from one stage to another. The clarinetists were Ken Poplopwski, Evan Christopher and Anat Cohen. The first song I heard featured the 3 players accompanied by guitarist Howard Alden. The music was soothing, a nice counterpoint to the glare of the overhead sun and the omnipresent humidity. They continued with some swing music, then announced a song featuring Anat. She's a woman from Israel who I first saw at last year's festival. The song was Artie Shaw's Nightmare. The mood of this song was dark and foreboding, then segued into sounds reminscent of Gershwin's Summertime. Cohen's tone was pure and powerful, riveting me to my standing room only spot so I could listen to every note. She launched into an expressive solo, showing the full range of the instrument. At the end of the solo, she jumped directly back into a restatement of the theme, bringing the song to a close. The audience roared its appreciation. This kind of moment is what makes a jazz festival special -- an artist at the top of their game creating music that moves us, backed by a rhythm section that lets the song unfold.
Pat Metheny Unity Band - I've been a fan of Metheny since his early days with the Gary Burton Group. I've seen him in many settings, but it was hard to believe that this current group, formed earlier this year, is the first time he's played regularly with a saxophonist since his classic 80 / 81 album recorded with sax greats Michael Brecker and Dewey Redman. The show began with Pat on solo harp guitar -- a double-necked instrument which adds a harp-like sound to six string guitar. He played a distinctive melody with his signature style and got the crowd going. He let the song stop just long enough for the band to join him: Chris Potter on saxophones, acoustic bassist Ben Williams and drummer Antonio Sanchez. With the full contingent, the song continued, as Pat shifted to his normal ES 335 axe. The real revelation for me in this group was Chris Potter. He plays with remarkable energy and his styles meshes very well with Pat's. On the first song, his tenor sax added powerful lead lines and quickly showed he could more than hold his own with Metheny.
The second song showed off the versatility of the group. Metheny shifted to a burgundy colored synthesizer guitar and used it to launch a fusillade of high, screeching notes in his solo part. The attention then shifted to Potter, who played dazzling soprano sax lines that made the inevitable bows to John Coltrane while still carving out his own solo space. Later, Potter and Metheny exchanged heated solo lines while the rhythm section kept the music charging forward.
The third song shifted tone and styles again. This time Pat played a different ES style guitar, but it was hooked into a box branded Petersen which looked like a shelf of different shaped bottles. The sounds ranged from mallet type effects to accordion, along with spacey background sounds that resembled the scratching sound some DJs get with vinyl record turntables. Later, perhaps on another song, Pat played with sampler effects and created a series of loops that built up to form a layered sound.
The band had a distinctive sound and mostly played music from their new album. At one point, after a wailing sax solo from Potter, Pat gave a shout out reminding us to remember the late Michael Brecker. Sometimes Ben Williams and Sanchez soloed, but most of the night they created the firmament upon which Pat and Chris weaved their magic.
The band ended the set with more ensemble music coupled with solos and it felt like they'd given us their all. The crowd demanded an encore, so they returned and Pat kicked off one of his most famous songs, Are You Going With Me, featuring the guitar synthesizer. The song has an almost hypnotic rhythm and builds up over several minutes. Potter showed his versatility by playing the melody lines on flute. Eventually, the song built into yet another hard charging romp, as Pat played fast flurries like a man possessed and Potter matched him with his own intensity on tenor sax. The song finally ended with Pat playing a single high pitched note which rained over us.
So ended another hot day at Newport as the music overcame all discomforts. Newport is a great refresher on what I love about jazz. Greats and lesser known come together to play music and manage to consistently surprise us with a cornucopia of special moments.