Esperanza Spalding. Photo: Gloria So
When 17,200 jazz enthusiasts converged at the Fort Adams State Park for Newport Jazz Festival 2013 NJF on the weekend of Aug 2nd, it must have been with great expectations.
After all, this year’s marquee listed many iconic names. Expectations were definitely exceeded because what they would relish was a musical banquet so culturally diverse and palatable that some have labeled it a “jazz-feast.”
Taking the water-taxi to the Fort and back, balancing on the slightly wobbly platform to the boat is an experience on its own.
Although Saturday’s weather was somewhat overcast and Sunday’s sunny- a bit humid at times- the festival’s atmosphere exuded a consistent warmth. The Fort (main) Stage overlooked an expansive lawn that would be packed to capacity on both days with the “coolest” jazz-friendly audience, one seemingly unfazed by mundane discomforts from weather issues.
The venue’s arrangement which allowed a panoramic view from the stage to the audience and from audience to stage gave both the musicians and fans that perfect view of each other creating the synergy that many a music fest will envy.
The Quad & Harbor Stages no more than a five minutes walk away from the Fort Stage would entice attendees (some with their chairs in tow) because the mosaic that is the NJF was a compilation of the artists that performed at all three venues. A major milestone that was recognized throughout the festival was Wayne Shorter’s entry into the stratosphere of living jazz octogenarians (his birthday, Aug 25th).
Birthday greetings punctuated many performances as artists expressed their “love” for a living legend whose resume expands every year- he was recently crowned Jazz Artist of the Year 2013; Jazz Group; Soprano Saxophonist; and Best Jazz Album, for his Album Without A Net.
Thus when Herbie Hancock took the stage with the Wayne Shorter Quintet– the collaboration headlined Wayne Shorter Quintet 80th Birthday Celebration with Herbie Hancock, it was a love-fest expressed the best way they knew how. It was wonderful listening to them on “Adventures Aboard The Golden Mean” with the master saxophonist and his buddy the piano genius displaying a natural intuition to the other’s most subtle nuances successfully taking the audience through a journey that was just remarkable.
Later, Herbie blended his fingers with Shorter’s pianist Danilo Perez on the piece “Orbits” in a poignant conversation that reminded us that we were lucky witnesses to priceless musical moments. The Quintet also included John Patitucci on bass and drummer Brian Blade. NJF’s allure and eventual success is certainly based in its eclecticism. Wayne Shorter and Hancock, Terrence Blanchard, Joshua Redman Band, Bill Charlap Trio w/Bob Wilber and Anat Cohen, fusion pianist and keyboardist Chick Corea & Virgil and others were contributors to the classical (progressive) style.
The Dirty Dozen Brass Band provided nostalgic New Orleans jazz -complete with sounds reminiscent of the bayou- a showcase that began with a funky rendition of Donald Bird’s “Doing It Fluid”. Eddie Palmieri Salsa Orchestra created a Latin jazz fiesta fired up by congas, bongos, timales and the tres, instruments that are integral to the band’s spicy rhythm. “Azucar para ti” Eddie shouted to the audience as he launched into his hit “Azucar” which is now archived in the US Library of Congress. There was a lot of fine salsa dancing by those in the know and ambitious endeavors by amateurs.
Dizzy Gillepsie Big Band (dir. Paquito D’ Rivera) also shared a perspective that is simply classic. Emerging artists like Iraqi -American Trumpeter Amir Elsaffar and his Two Rivers Ensemble played exotic instruments like the oud, dumbek and buzuq in combination with the saxophone, bass and drums on selections like “The Great Dictator” and “ Flyover Iraq” – the result being a resonance that would vibrate across Fort Adams luring you to his performance at the Quad Stage as if spellbound.
A connoisseur on the piano, the young Japanese pianist, Hiromi’s rapturous renditions- she cannot remain seated – “Move”, “Endeavor” “Sweet Escapism” were so delicious they each commanded spontaneous standing ovations. Another young wonder Ali Amr, a former native of Palestine who studied music at Berklee College and his band The Experiment exposed us to the qunan a 72 string instrument on which her performed a diverse set list some pieces accompanied by his singing- in Arabic.
Roy Haynes Youth Fountain of Youth Band reinforced that Jazz should be ‘trending’ and so did the Rimea Senior All-State Jazz Band proof that there is no generation gap in the musical genre that is jazz.
Esperanza Spalding Music City never fails to blow our mind with their versatility. Her set list consisted of gems like “Can’t Help It” , “Crowned an Kissed” and “ Us”, which she garnished with her girlish tapestry of ‘love notes’ Her talented fingers never missed a cord whether we we’re witnessing her virtuoso on the base or acoustic guitar, both anchored by her vocals –her scatting is awesome!- that is just as solid. Her youthfulness and aesthetic appeal (funky, boho-style, natural) may well be that factor that will nudge the pop/hip hop diehards to at least open their minds and take a peek into the jazz genre.
A commendable and I dare say almost unique quality amongst jazz musicians is their respect for each other. My friend who describes himself as a jazz-head boasts that this is “spiritual music” in which artists revere each other. Whether it was Eddie Palmieri’s pause during his performance to give a brief history of African rhythms’ influence on Latin jazz- borne out of the agony experienced by slaves via Cuba or The Dirty Dozen Band’s repeated shout out of “Happy Birthday Louis Armstrong” (the anniversary on Aug 4) and young Hiromi’s encore piece dedicated to the great Ahmad Jamal, the jazz fraternity’s love affair was on admirable display. (And there were many others) Listening in on a conversation among a group of young men in transit after Sunday’s show was as surprising as it was inspiring. Their knowledge of jazz and the artists old and new were telling.
If this youthful discussion is any indication, NJF’s pioneer George Wein’s vision of creating a platform for upcoming and emerging jazz artists thus expanding the jazz universe may well be on its way to realization. When Justin Bieber’s halo was eclipsed by Esperanza Spalding’s at the Grammys it was that moment in music history that may have just signaled the beginning of a paradigm shift.
As the sounds of these phenoms continue to echo a new generation will hopefully not only embrace this genre but nurture its longevity. The global and cultural impact of jazz appears to be on the rise.
Other artists with outstanding performances at NJF 2013: Michel Camilo Sextet, Marcus miller, Mary Halvorson Quintet, Robert Glasper Experiment, Gregory Porter, Ray Anderson Pocket Bass band, Rez Abassi Trio, Edmar Castenada, Lew Tabackin Quartet, Uri Jazz Festival Band, Donny McCaslin Group, Jim Hall w/special Guest Julian Lage, Dee Alexander, Jon Batiste & Stay Human, Steve Coleman Projects, David Gilmore Numerology.