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2014 Newport Jazz Festival delivers big while celebrating its 60th anniversary

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The Newport Jazz Festival presented by Natixis Global Asset Management kicked off its 60th festival this past Friday with a series of performances by some of the top names in jazz. With the historic Fort Adams State Park serving as the festival site and the Newport Harbor providing the breathtaking backdrop, audiences were there for it all—come rain or come shine.

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Friday was reserved for marathon sessions and discovery. Risk-taking composer/saxophonist John Zorn worked out the Quad Stage crowd with a three- hour performance of music from his Masada songbook while rising star vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant with the Aaron Diehl trio wowed the Ertegun Fort Stage crowd with a rousing performance of material ranging from rarely covered songs to original compositions. McLorin Salvant and Diehl are a small representation of the up and coming jazz artist that is unafraid of marrying the history of the artform with the modern influences that shaped their musical upbringing while presenting their/packaging the two via style and art just as the jazz legends had done so many years before. Their set was a demonstration that they’re not interested in performing from the songbook for the sake of doing so as much as they are in sharing what’s possible with music in 2014 without destroying its essence. McLorin Salvant’s vocal treatment of Blanche Calloway’s “Growlin’ Dan,” and Bert Williams’s “Nobody,” put this writer in the mind of Lalah Hathaway, Billie Holiday, and Lila Downs. Definitely not in the sense of sound or technique, but in the sense of embracing a commitment to exploring what the voice can do and how to display those gifts within the context of a song’s feel or intention. Her performance on Friday afternoon was as close to vocal perfection as any jazz singer could ever hope for—whether the audience had ever heard the material or not.

Jon Batiste and Stay Human gave the most patently soulful performance of the entire weekend, taking the wonder and awe that the day’s other headliners put into the air and turning it into giant rain clouds filled with joy and good vibes. Soon after the group walked on stage, they opened their set with a danceable, spirit rattling version of “My Favorite Things,” and the whole crowd came to their collective feet. Jon Batiste is another example of the up and coming jazz artist who marries history with modern, adding some of his New Orleans soul and a “dance like no one’s watching” kind of freedom that has drawn new audiences to the music. Joined on stage by Stay Human band members Joe Saylor (drums), Jamison Ross (keyboards/percussion), Eddie Barbash (sax), Barry Stevenson (bass), and Ibanda Ruhumbika (tuba), Batiste gave spirited performances on piano and melodica of such classics as “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” and “St. James Infirmary,” while folding in good-spirited contemporary songs like “It’s Alright (Why You Gotta),” “Shreveport Stomp,” and “People in the World Today.”

By evening, the performances moved from Fort Adams State Park to the International Tennis Hall of Fame where Dee Dee Bridgewater and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra performed sets that paid tribute to artists who graced the Newport Jazz Festival stages in the early years. Ms. Bridgewater, making her Newport Jazz Festival debut, opened the show performing music from her Grammy Award winning recording, Eleanora Fagan: To Billie with Love From Dee Dee Bridgewater. The great Billie Holiday was one of the headliners for the inaugural Festival back in 1954, and Bridgewater channeled the legendary songbird with all the sass that she could muster for the Festival’s milestone event. Joined on stage by up and coming trumpet-phenom, Theo Croker, drummer Kassa Overall, pianist Michael King, bassist Eric Wheeler, and saxophonist Irwin Hall, Bridgewater sang such Holiday classics as “Good Morning Heartache,” “Lover Man,” “Fine and Mellow,” “Lady Sings the Blues,” and “All of Me.” It wouldn’t be a Bridgewater performance without a little flirting and teasing to keep things interesting, but it also wouldn’t be a Bridgewater show without the dynamic vocals that won her three Grammy Awards along with countless other accolades.

Before Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra's set began, Festival promoter Wein was celebrated for his tireless contributions to the promotion and edification of jazz. Then, with very little pomp, Wein introduced the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Like Bridgewater, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis performed the music of artists who are part of the Festival’s history. Providing a history of each selected piece and each related composer during the song introductions, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra recreated some of the more magical and outstanding moments on record. In addition to performances of Marsalis’s own “Back to Bassics” which was performed during the 2004 Newport Jazz Festival, the JLCO performed numbers by multi-Festival headliner Dave Brubeck’s “Cassandra;” 1968 Newport Jazz Festival performer Benny Carter’s “Again and Again;” Herbie Hancock’s “Riot” in acknowledgement of the 1971 riot that led to the Festival’s nine year relocation from Newport to New York City; 1976 Festival performer Horace Silver’s “Señor Blues;” and 1959 Festival performer Gerry Mulligan’s “Festive Minor.” With all the dynamite the Orchestra unleashed on the crowd, the true highlight of the set was saxophonist Walter Blanding’s solo a la Paul Gonsalves during Duke Ellington’s “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue.” Gonsalves gave what was arguably one of the most memorable singular performances in the history of the Newport Jazz Festival during his set with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. He gave a 20+ bar solo that was so energetic it seduced a woman right out of her seat and onto the stage leaving audiences in awe and revitalizing Ellington’s cooling popularity. Though no one dared attempt to climb on stage during Blanding’s solo, several couples danced in the aisles while others settled for yelping with delight.

Saturday’s energy initially felt as though it would be dampened (no pun intended) by the heavy rain that had overtaken the Newport sky since the early morning. Large mud-puddles filled walking paths impeding the flow of foot traffic and dirtying summer shoes along the way. As the day progressed; however, it became obvious that the crowd could care less. Large golf umbrellas and bright rain ponchos peppered the crowd offering a heartwarming demonstration of their allegiance to the festival and the music. McLorin Salvant and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra returned for day two of the Festival while the Robert Glasper Experiment, Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue, Gregory Porter, the SFJAZZ Collective, Pedrito Martinez, and Dave Holland’s Prism were just a few of the award winning performers to entertain the crowd of 6,000.

Porter opened his set with “Water” as the rain seemed to be at its heaviest. The celebrated vocalist seemed energized by the rain and those who toughed it out to hear him perform. Tearing into compositions from his three recordings including “Harlem,” and “Liquid Spirit” Porter made sure to take a moment during his set to serenade his wife as a tender gesture of love for her birthday. The Robert Glasper Experience and the SFJAZZ Collective also gave remarkable performances (note: this is not meant to offend any of the other performers. Every headliner was definitely praiseworthy, but this writer was unable to see and hear all of the great performances the Festival offered so the commentary is limited to what I was able to see).

The Festival closed out yesterday (Sunday, August 3, 2014), and by all accounts, it was a great success. Large crowds enjoyed the sunshine and endured the rain; world class, award-winning performers shared enough music to energize the state of Rhode Island for days; talented vendors shared their art and food with people who may not have had an opportunity to experience their wares otherwise; George Wein received his metaphorical flowers in front of a grateful audience; and jazz was the reason for it all. Though Dr. John was unable to attend due to an unanticipated illness, Ron Carter, Danilo Perez, the Mingus Big Band, the Brubeck Brothers, Ravi Coltrane, Lee Konitz with Grace Kelly, Gary Burton, and Bobby McFerrin are among those who were able to perform on the final day. And so it all ends—until next time.

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