State of the art

By JON GARELICK  |  August 14, 2008

The sharp-witted singer-songwriter Melody Gardot had me leaning in to hear every word of her lyrics. The music played by Guillermo Klein’s big band (Los Guachos, as in “the homeboys”) was beautifully voiced and undergirded by a spine of clacking Afro-Latin dance rhythms. And Wayne Shorter’s drifting associations had the charisma to hold the big stage, even if your eyes began to close under the weight of the afternoon sun. Aretha has lost a few steps and gained more than a few unhealthy pounds; she rapped portions of “Chain of Fools” that she used to nail to the ceiling.

What else? Chevy Chase returning as MC remains a scourge on the festival. (It would appear he really likes this music, so why does he insult its players with his tasteless, unfunny patter?) And this year’s JVC Jazz Fest signature illustration is vaguely sexist: an African-American playing trombone, a Caucasian playing bass, and a woman . . . dancing and showing us her navel in her mini-T.

But, after all, there was Sonny, closing out the Festival Sunday afternoon. What could we expect from the notoriously quixotic Rollins — now 77, still looking for that note. Would he be stuck spinning his wheels, as he has on many a concert appearance? No. The band kicked into the driving vamp of his “Sonny, Please” (drummer Kobie Watkins was key here) and the tenor giant was off, using the tune’s short-short-long core riff as a motivic springboard, repeating and repeating it, coming back to the tune, then the riff, then slashing off into flurries of notes, fashioning long-toned arcing phrases and sputtering bursts, stalking the stage in white jacket and black pants and shirt, his hair no longer swept back and sleek, as it has been in recent years, but long and bushy. “Look at this beautiful Newport Harbor,” he told the crowd.

“It’s so beautiful I hardly know what to do with myself!” And then he was off again. One of jazz’s great individualists, still saying it.

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