Saturday, August 26, 2006

Newport report (Part 2)

Peter Keepnews reports from the Newport Jazz Festival:

There weren’t a lot of big names at the jazz festival either. But then again — sad to say — there aren’t that many big names left in jazz, period. Anyway, for Irene and me the jazz festival has always been more of an opportunity to discover new music, or music we didn’t know about, than to see the stars. And so it was this year. And oddly, two of our most impressive discoveries were musicians who are based in New York, as are we, but whom we had somehow managed never to catch locally. Sometimes you have to travel a long way to appreciate what’s normally in your own backyard, I guess.

Those discoveries were Robert Glasper, a pianist with great chops, very original ideas, and — a rarity in modern jazz — a sense of humor; and Jenny Scheinman, a violinist with a really delightful sense of melody and play. (As a special bonus, her rhythm section included another amazing pianist, Jason Moran.) I’m sure that seeing either one of them in a nightclub would be a very different experience from seeing them outdoors in the daytime, when the beautiful sunshine may have made us more receptive and less discriminating than we would have been in other circumstances. But we are eager to find out for ourselves.

Most of the big names this year didn’t do much for us. Two years ago, on the 50th anniversary of the first Newport Jazz Festival, George Wein and company decided to reverse the trend of having non-jazz types like Isaac Hayes on the bill and experiment with a festival of what some call “pure” jazz. (I hate the term myself, but I’m not sure what else to call it.) That 2004 festival was extraordinary, and successful too. They did the same thing last year, with similar artistic results but less impressive financial ones. This year, presumably to boost ticket sales, things got a little less “pure.”

With the notable exception of Dr. John (whom I love, but whose Newport set was pretty lackluster), just about everyone on the bill qualified as “jazz,” but only in the loosest definition of the term — you know, the one the industry uses. We didn’t stick around for Chris Botti, who as far as I’m concerned is to the jazz trumpet what Kenny G is to the jazz saxophone. (In case you’re wondering, that is not intended as a compliment.) And we caught only a little of Al Jarreau and George Benson, which is less a comment on their talent (undeniable) than on the type of music they’ve both been making for the past couple of decades (uninspiring).

But if it’s the Bottis and the Bensons who sell the tickets, God bless them. (I haven’t seen any figures, but the jazz festival
definitely seemed to be doing better business than the folk festival.) And when a festival offers us the chance to see the likes of Dave Brubeck (looking frail and worn at 85, but still sounding good), McCoy Tyner (at the helm of a very powerful all-star septet) and the brilliant and bizarre saxophonist James Carter (with an old-fashioned saxophone-organ-drums trio), believe me, I am not complaining.

We’ll be back at both festivals next summer.

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