Reviews & Opinions

Review: Gary Does Newport 2011
Gary Finney's Tour of the Newport Jazz Fesitval 2011

The Newport Jazz Festival, granddaddy of them all, premiered in 1954, which is the year that I was born, so it’s high time that I finally got there.


Hiromi greets the fans at Newport 2011


Three stages running concurrently over two days offer music for every stylistic taste. And the locale, Fort Adams State Park jutting out into Naragansett Bay, with Newport, Rhode Island (sailing capitol of the east coast) in the distance, isn’t too shabby either.

Like hundreds of white-gloved hands, the masted sails salute upon the azure sea, while the sound of jazz floats across the water and evaporates into the cerulean sky. Idyllic!

Mostly Other People Do The Killing

Mostly Other People Do the Killing at Newport 2011

Mostly Other People Do The Killing is an acquired taste to be sure, but for those not faint of heart, the music provides ample engagement. Tumultuous rhythms and frenetic energy abounds in their music. Opening with the piece titled “Pen Argyle” the crisp horn lines from altoist Jon Irabagon and trumpeter Peter Evans quickly disintegrate into the alto sax’s audio equivalent of a boxer’s speed bag workout and a trumpet solo that ends with the microphone embedded into the bell of the horn to better capture the guttural growls that sound like some untamed beast.

All the while as the music swirled like the Tasmanian devil, Moppa Elliot’s bass was the calm in the eye of the storm. “St. Mary’s Proctor” was next on the set list and in addition to his octopus on amphetamines drumming, Kevin Shea employed an electronic drum pad. A wild pattern would be hammered on the pad, only to surface three or four seconds later courtesy of an intended digital delay. Both horns were darting about like a hummingbird that drank way too much sugar water and Elliot’s bass was now firmly in the mayhem. Then suddenly, he drops seemingly out of nowhere into a killer walking bassline and the tune segued into “My Delightful Muse.” Avant-garde jazz in the ‘60s had a degree of narcissism to it, but not these guys. From their album covers, to song titles to their attire, their tongues are firmly in cheek while their chops are clearly on display. “Blueball” and “Two Boot Jacks,” both full of controlled abandon, rounded out what I heard.

Regina Carter's Reverse Thread

Regina Carter at Newport 2011

Regina Carter was on center stage, so I slipped away from MOPTDK to catch the last half of her set. Funk tinged rhythms grafted onto hoedown accessibility with gypsy flavoring tossed in for good measure was the recipe for a unique dish. Occasionally her violin playing swings like Stephane Grappelli, but with more grit, belying her motor city roots. Chris Lightcap’s bass was woody and resonant and Will Holshouser’s accordion was as far from polka sounding as you can get and still be on this planet. “Zerapiky” is a traditional African piece, for which kora player Yacouba Sissoko joined the quartet.

Bouncy village rhythms definitely meet the bluegrass ethic here and while Carter’s violin urges you to clap on the downbeat, Alvester Garnett’s drumming states the case for clapping with the backbeat. Looking around, everyone was putting his or her hands together wherever the tug was the greatest. The final number, written by Sissoko was called “Don’t Pretend.” The kora began the piece unaccompanied, the strings “singing” beautifully before the accordion softy entered and Carter’s violin also began to “sing.” This piece was much more subdued than the previous pieces and the droning accordion provided the perfect undercurrent over which the strings could interact. Fun stuff!

Ambrose Akinmusire

Ambrose Akinmusire at Newport

Ambrose Akinmusire’s quintet was my next anticipated visit. Having heard this band just over three months ago in Cleveland, I was most anxious to hear how they now sounded after numerous performances in the interim. Would the delivery sound rote? Would they sound bored? The depth of the compositions is the key, as there is still ample opportunity to mine more nuance and inspiration from these pieces. “Confessions To My Unborn Daughter” has a melody that was delivered pensively as though in the strictest of confidence. One of Akinmusire’s trademark sounds is to gradually slide into a note, like squeezing your foot into a tight pair of shoes, which he employed on this gorgeous piece.

“Henya” had a floating quality, similar to some of Wayne Shorter’s compositions written for Miles’ second great quintet, without sounding derivative to those masterpieces. Bassist Harish Raghavan’s tune “Jaya” was next. Saxophonist Walter Smith III and Akinmusire traded fiery salvos over the driving pulse supplied by Raghavan and drummer Justin Brown. Whew! ”Regret No More” offered a sonic respite as a duet of plangent trumpet and caressing piano from Sam Harris. If the petals of flowers could play music, it would sound like this. For “Walls Of Lechuguilla” the energy level was off the scale. Blistering notes spewed out of the trumpet like a serious vendetta while Harris’ jabbing piano was like a stiff finger to the chest just to make sure that you got the point.

Brown’s drums were bubbling like a pot of hot chili and then Smith took off on one of his searching solos. His probing intensity is the embodiment of the title to the U2 song “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” But I’ll listen to his discoveries any day of the week. The closing piece, “With Love,” sounded bright and brassy as Akinmusire delivered the simple melody. Smith’s sax solo built slowly like an eighteen-wheeler leaving the freight terminal while Harish was all over the place on bass with his eyes cast heavenward and notes gushed out of the piano like a showerhead set on pulsate. What a set closer!

Joey DeFrancesco

Joe DeFrancesco at Newport

Joey DeFrancesco began his set with a deep groove-fest, which is what he does best. Drummer Ramon Banda and guitarist Rick Zunigar are less equal band members than along to support their boss, which they do unobtrusively. The second piece called “V & G” had that roller rink sound to the Hammond B3 and couldn’t end soon enough for my taste. “Bluz ‘N’ 3” was a welcome relief. This catchy blues waltz was funky and soulful and garnered enthusiastic whoops of delight from the audience. This spurred Joey into crowd-pleasing “showbiz” mode. Falling back on clichéd grandstanding (repeating the same riff ad nauseam and holding a single note longer than a champion pearl diver can hold their breath) while throwing his head back in obvious delight, the audience ate it up. Could DeFrancesco unabashedly be his own biggest fan? Restraint was restored when Zunigar’s thumb pick solo calmed things down. A samba-tinged tune preceded “The Nearness Of You” where the big guy got to sing. While possessing a competent voice, it is unlikely that Andy Bey or Kurt Elling have reason to worry. Proving that Be-bop lives, for a finale, they went out with squealing tires on Bird’s “Confirmation.” But wait, there’s more; the crowd demands an encore. An R&B tune that could well be a Brother Ray song prompted dancing in the aisle (fire marshall be damned) and Joey De got to sing again as they burned through a gutbucket rendition of “Kansas City.” He could have played for the rest of the day and this crowd wouldn’t have been satiated.

Steve Coleman’s Five Elements

Steve Coleman at Newport

Polar opposite to this was Steve Coleman’s Five Elements band. This band is about as cerebral as you can get (well, maybe Cecil Taylor). They began tentatively, as the sound level check was extremely hurried and obviously not quite right. Coleman and vocalist Jen Shyu were visibly concerned/upset. To say that Coleman’s music is fiendishly syncopated is not an exaggeration. Tyshawn Sorey was ferocious on the drum kit without being cymbal heavy, making the music throb in God-knows-what time signature.

This music is dense, with everyone soloing simultaneously in an overwhelming polyphony. Many pieces were played, but they seamlessly morphed from one to the next without break. The only composition that I definitely recognized was “Atilla 02.” Coleman’s music is more rhythmically oriented than melody focused, which doesn’t help. Despite the seeming abstract nature of this music to the average listener, it is composed and arranged in precise detail, as the music stands of trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, bassist Thomas Morgan and Coleman himself can surely attest.

With eyes closed, Shyu listened attentively and contributed swooping lines that at times sounded mournfully desolate or at others like yet another horn. Most of the time, pianist David Virelles played one-handed, but even when using both, his playing was consistently rhythmic, never melodic. As much as I appreciate this music, after fifty-five minutes the relentlessness of its driving force left me feeling exhausted and I started looking at my watch. Answering my internal invocation, the music soon stopped. Another short piece concluded the set, beginning with all members engaged in syncopated handclaps while their leader and oracle sang strings of disassociated words. This eventually gave way to a final assault of driving sound before the small audience was released.

Randy Weston

Randy Weston at Newport

Simplicity is what was needed next and Randy Weston’s trio was the ideal tonic. Piano, bass and hand drums laid bare a number of Weston classics to their core essence. Afro-centric rhythms alternated between overt and subtle and without counter melodies from any horns, the simple beauty of the piece’s melody was able to shine brilliantly, beginning with “Tangier Bay.” Alex Blake’s bass playing is something that doesn’t translate well on records; it has to be experienced in a live setting. It is melodic and rhythmically percussive, with some similarities to flamenco guitar playing in there as well. There is virtually no portion of his right hand that is not making contact with the strings. Like Major Holley, he tends to wordlessly sing along with his playing.

The second tune of the set was “African Lady.” Weston’s long, graceful fingers hint at the coming melody, as he played unaccompanied. A tall, imposing man, it never ceases to amaze me that this gentle giant is capable of such tender playing. Having said his piece, he let Blake have his say unsupported. Hand drummer Neil Clarke rejoined them for “Ifrane” where his perky percussion fit hand-in-glove with the lilting melody from Weston’s Piano. What set would be complete without a run through of “Hi-Fly”? Even better, it was seriously reworked into a romantically bluesy version. Midway in, Weston took delight in cuing Blake and Clarke to trade “eights” for a spell, after which the melody reappeared in its customary jaunty cadence. But the blues were again dominant in the next piece “Birkshire Blues.” The slow, nuanced melody is occasionally accented with those dark chord, left-hand bombs for which Weston is so adept. And Blake had way too much fun during his bass solo.

The circumlocutory beginning of “African Sunrise” allowed Weston to ferret out the melody just as the bass and hand drums dropped into plce. Here more than anywhere else, the absence of accompanying horns was most notable. With acknowledgement to the Gnawa Masters of North Africa, the set ended with “Blue Moses.” The stately melody was given additional announcement with cymbals that sound like gongs befitting an emperor. The final syncopations of the piece were imparted to the audience and we all joined in, clapping as directed, and singing too, as the joyous energy lifted us all to our feet for the rousing finale.


Wow, Newport for live jazz; there’s nothing like it!

By Gary Finney
September 12, 2011