State of the art

By JON GARELICK  |  August 14, 2008

The rock thing is going around a lot in jazz these days, and it’s not really much like the old “jazz-rock fusion,” which was more often about funk jams. The “rock” on display at Newport was about songs. Ratliff has called Scott’s quintet (with guitarist Matt Stevens) the jazz equivalent of Coldplay, and he has a point. Aaron Parks, playing piano with Scott on Saturday, has a new disc very much in the current jazz-rock mold (see “Off the Record,” on page 18). And pianist Marco Benevento’s trio played My Morning Jacket’s “Golden,” Deerhoof’s “Twin Killers” (with a quote from “Rhapsody in Blue”), and Led Zeppelin’s “Friends.” This was bombastic, leadfoot, pedal-to-the-metal instrumental rock. On the last, saxophonist Chris Potter joined as a special guest, and he must have figured, what the hell, it’s a blues — he played his usual kick-ass solo. The twentysomethings beside me in the front row ate it up; I fled.

It’s ironic that one of the persons responsible for the popularity of classic rock being played by a piano trio, Ethan Iverson, is these days touring with Charlie Haden. The duo played the Regattabar last Thursday, and on Saturday, Iverson, Haden, and guitarist Bill Frisell played the Pavilion Stage. I can’t remember the last time I heard the sui generis Frisell do bebop, but here he was playing “My Old Flame” like Jimmy Raney with Stan Getz or something, and Iverson used all that Bad Plus precision and control in the service of song-form classicism, but he also drifted off into a series of scales in a very un-Bad-Plus-like reverie. Haden, meanwhile, took one of the best solos I’ve ever heard from him: it was pure melodic invention, with a minimum of scalar ornamentation, in his deep, singular, one-note-at-a-time vocal style.

In the Newport mixed crowd, it’s always interesting to see what will get over — what will project to the masses on the big main JVC Stage facing the harbor, as well as what will draw people to the Pavilion Stage (400 folding seats plus an easy couple of hundred spillover) and the tiny Waterside Stage (100 seats, plus overflow). It’s also a test of constantly shifting demands on audience attention. When Herbie Hancock’s playing “Rockit,” your ass will move even if you aren’t listening, and when Benevento is playing “Golden,” your foot will stomp even if you hate it.

The twentysomething Brit band Empirical played more than an hour of their complicated arrangements, continually shifting meters, rarely settling on a groove you could latch onto, but offering plenty of roiling rhythmic activity and some stunning solos. Still, when I walked over to the Pavilion to check out guitarist Loueke’s powerful trio, I realized how deep was my need for a driving 4/4 that just burned. Fred Wesley played deathless JB funk that put you in awe of its brilliant design (what is the secret that James’s former sidemen seem to have bottled?) at the same time that it had you jumping out of your skin. Chris Potter (who showed up everywhere as a sideman) made abstract funk with his Underground band that burned and grooved without a bass player — Fender Rhodes, drums, and guitar were all it took.

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