Birds of a feather

The jazz flocks gather at Newport
By JON GARELICK  |  August 15, 2007

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INSTRUCTIVE: Gunther Schuller explained the pieces — and then Sue Mingus explained them again.

Watch a slideshow of images from the JVC Jazz Festival at Newport. Photos by Jean Hangarter
What continues to make the JVC Jazz Festival at Newport so vital these days isn’t just the variety but the depth of the variety, the cross-references, the styles within styles that bump shoulders from set to set, stage to stage, minute to minute. Swing, bebop, hard bop, post-bop, avant-garde, downtown nerd, Latin, funk, blues. And within those styles, individual voices. Music that, yes, maybe you can hear spread over a couple of seasons of local clubgoing, but here it was, last weekend, concentrated into two eight-hour days on three stages.

I say “these days,” because not that long ago Newport had become a pop-heavy affair, with not much for the serious jazz fan. But in recent years — and especially since the 50th-anniversary show in 2004 — the festival has been looking at its own history. And Festival Productions boss George Wein has been looking at his legacy — which more and more he sees as Newport. (He also produces, among other events, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.) If the living history of Dave Brubeck, Chico Hamilton, and B.B. King (all over 80) wasn’t enough, there were legacy shows all over the place. There were two “Newport ’57” acts: the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band on Saturday, and a match-up of the Count Basie Orchestra and singers Nnenna Freelon and Dianne Reeves at the Friday-night preamble at the Newport Casino that was meant to recall a concert with Basie, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald. Other tributes at the Fort Adams State Park shows on Saturday and Sunday: the Monk Legacy Septet (celebrating Thelonious at 90), the Mingus Orchestra (Charles at 85), and the musics of Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Getz & Jobim, and Bill Evans.

None of this was fusty or pedantic (with the possible exception of the Mingus, but we’ll get to that). You’d think if any tribute would be meaningless without the principal, it would one to Rahsaan Roland Kirk — isn’t this music completely identified with the volcanic personality at its center? But former Kirk bandmember Steve Turre fronted a powerful septet that brought back Kirk not just as a solo personality but as a songwriter: here was the gospel fervor of “Volunteered Slavery” and “One Ton,” and the medium-groove of “Donathan’s Walk,” which pressed forward like a chant. Kirk was known for playing three horns at once, but trombonist Turre did his routine with multiple conch shells, or engaged tenor-saxist Billy Harper and alto/soprano man Vincent Herring in collective sparring. (Another reason to go to Newport: where has Billy Harper been since, oh, 1979?)

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