This year’s edition of the Newport Jazz Festival (official name: JVC Jazz Festival — Newport) last weekend was as balanced and musically nourishing as any in recent memory. What else can you say about a weekend that began with post–World War II crooner Tony Bennett and ended with post–Vietnam War crooner Isaac Hayes? In between was an array of just about every variety of jazz, near-jazz, and not-even-close-to-jazz that’s available in the current concert-tour marketplace. There was the undisputed authenticity of New Orleans’s Preservation Hall Jazz Band, the mainstream of Nicholas Payton, the left-of-mainstream Greg Osby, the downtown NYC high jinks of Ballin’ the Jack and Sex Mob, up-and-coming vocalists Lea DeLaria and Oleta Adams, Afro-Cuban and jam-band world beat from any number of outfits, the middling jazz funk of acts like Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, and the unapologetic avant-garde Coltrane-like spirit quest of David S. Ware. All that was missing was a viable closer — someone who could lock down a sellout for either Saturday or Sunday afternoon. Tony Bennett sold out the opening-night concert at the Newport Casino tennis club (which seats about 4500), but the overflow wasn’t enough to fill out the 10,000-capacity grounds of Fort Adams State Park at his repeat performance on Saturday. Festival promoter George Wein also brought in an all-star band under the direction of his friend TV superstar and jazz dabbler Bill Cosby on Saturday, and a bona fide supergroup, Directions in Music, on Sunday, all to little avail.
Which isn’t to say that this edition of JVC-Newport was a disaster — far from it. Official counts were 6500 for Saturday and a little under 6000 for Sunday. But the results of this year’s festival point up the difficulty of the challenge Wein has set for himself over the past 47 years — how to come up with the right mix of traditional and pop-infused jazz that will please the jazz-police press, draw a crowd, and satisfy his sponsors. To quote what has become something of Wein’s Law: "You can’t have a festival without people."
That said, this was a festival. Tony Bennett’s opening-night show was a kind of keynote address. Over the course of the weekend, a number of comments were heard around the festival regarding Bennett’s predictable big finishes, with their stentorian high notes, and his general Mr. Show Biz demeanor. But his performance on Friday belied such criticisms. He played before a noisy crowd that was fueled by a pre-concert cocktail party at the Casino — many chatted at full volume, and at least one cell-phone customer not only received a call but answered it. And yet, from the far bleachers, there was also the occasional, unmistakable paisan’s cry of "Toe-KNEEE!"
Bennett was unflappable, and despite smirks about the Bennett Big Finish, his delivery was intimate and conversational rather than ostentatious — even in his dramatic codas. One couldn’t ask for a better performance of the core repertoire of the Great American Songbook. Gershwin, Porter, Berlin — he delivered them all with relaxed, understated swing and peerless phrasing, singing rarely heard introductory verses as well as the familiar choruses of such classics as "Over the Rainbow" (a tune that finally quieted the crowd down). Even as his wonderful band played a lickety-split tempo of "I Got Rhythm," Bennett remained unhurried, swinging slightly behind the beat. When he sang, on Kander & Ebb’s "Maybe This Time," "Maybe this time, I’ll be lucky, maybe this time she’ll stay," you didn’t doubt a word in his conversational delivery. The delicate rests in his reading of "I’m not gonna lose her/Not like the last time . . . and the time before" paid homage to an almost vanished form of literate American songwriting. On a beautiful summer night, with the sibilant slapback of his words echoing off the rear bleachers at the Casino, it was hard not to think about the appearance of Rosemary Clooney in the same venue a few years ago and realize that, with Bennett now 76, another kind of era is coming to a close as well.
ONE THING ABOUT the current Newport set up, it keeps you running. You could have stayed until the end of the Nicholas Payton Quintet’s show on the front Fort stage, but then you would have missed the Holmes Brothers on the tented second stage (the "Mercedes-Benz Pavilion"). The Holmeses (pianist/guitarist Wendell and bassist Sherman, with Willie "Popsy" Dixon on drums) have been singing three-part-harmony electrified gospel for 22 years. Wendell’s gravelly tenor dominates the rockers; Dixon sings the high tenor and falsetto (à la Aaron Neville) in numbers like "Amazing Grace." Meanwhile, there’s the classic Heaven/Earth double entendres in lyrics like "You got me speaking in tongues/Calling your name/No I can’t really stand it." In their unaffected, earthy road-warrior way, the Holmeses were the blues-vernacular equivalent of Tony Bennett.
Also on the second stage were Ballin’ the Jack, a Knitting Factory–based New York crew (made up almost entirely of former Bostonians) who play the likes of early Ellington and Leadbelly in a manner that’s not as buttoned-down as a repertory band or as explicitly politicized as Don Byron’s Bug Music. Ellington standards like "Happy Go Lucky Local" and the rarely heard "Fugueaditty" were rearranged in a way that honored Duke’s omnivorous musical spirit if not every note of the score.
GIVEN ITS SELF-IMPOSED MANDATE to be popular and artistically viable, the Newport fest is the perfect place to consider what kind of chops and musical substance will draw them in. It’s a given that Arturo Sandoval’s stratospheric, land-speed-record trumpet chops and audience-pleasing scatting (even, this year, his impressive piano playing) will grab the main-stage crowd. Drum solos also seem to work, but there are too many of them (when Sandoval’s band left the Fort stage during one drum solo, that was my cue to head for the Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra on the Mercedes stage). The Preservation Hall Jazz Band got the crowd up and jumping in separate sets on both stages with its danceable Armstrong-era jazz. Dave Holland’s quintet offered the same mix of funk with brains that it did at the recent Globe Jazz & Blues Festival (with a bit of New Orleans polyphony in the collective jamming of Chris Potter’s soprano sax and Robin Eubanks’s trombone on one number). Afro-Cuban rhythms just can’t lose these days, so Jane Bunnett’s Spirits of Havana Band was a shoo-in on the second stage.
Which brings us to all the world-music offshoots at Newport. Yerba Buena is a New York–based Latin band with a solid salsa pedigree, a great mix of song forms (including one killer cumbia I heard), and three sexy singers on the front line. If its success led one club booker to ponder, "The economics of a nine-piece band are difficult," then consider the 13-piece Antibalas, with an infectious brand of Afrobeat and a four-horn brass section that, on the lengthy tune I heard, played one of those delicious long-lined melodies that is a dance.
In other hybrid forms, I remain mixed on the post-JBs-style Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, whose success seems to depend more on the tune than the playing — otherwise it’s all proficient, generic jazz funk. For different reasons I have trouble working my way through the goofy/serious equation of Sex Mob — alto-saxophonist Briggan Krauss screams with ’70s loft-jazz intensity and slide-trumpeter/bandleader Steven Bernstein makes electric-guitar noises, all while playing the theme from Goldfinger and the Stones’ "Ruby Tuesday." Meanwhile, Bullfrog was all harmless, good-humored jam-band charm with its rap of "Reverse Psychology" ("Be quiet! Put your hands down!") while Kid Koala played a plunger-mute-trumpet solo — and sustained it! — on turntables.
In the "real jazz" department, Greg Osby’s quartet was probing and inward-looking without generating much heat. Payton’s set was more adventurous than the funk-organ-combo set-up, with Miles-like tricky open harmonies, and solos that built with clear deliberation to their fiery climaxes. Cos of Good Music indulged Cosby’s interest in writing and arranging, but the one tune I caught (Cosby’s extended arrangement of "Bo Diddley") seemed to go on forever, despite plenty of sharp angles in a tenor solo from Javon Jackson.
The one clear real-jazz winner was Directions in Music. This aggregation — with Herbie Hancock, Michael Brecker, and Roy Hargrove — is dedicated to the music of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. It’s the kind of premise that promises supergroup rote but comes across with combustible spontaneity and beautiful playing. Hancock alternated between extended rhapsodies like a jazz-poisoned Debussy or Messiaen, and he just as often built up to furious two-handed syncopated chording (on one climax in particular he sounded on the verge of sending his fists through the keyboard). Meanwhile, tenor-saxist Brecker gave an a cappella "Naima" that was like a textbook lesson in how to play Coltrane properly. He attacked the tune compositionally, the familiar Coltrane scales breaking in at unpredictable points, spiraling off into their own orbits, the notes clearly articulated like long strings of pearls.
Because Directions in Music kept me in my seat, I almost missed David S. Ware on the second stage. This wasn’t the SRO crowd I’d seen in the 250-seat tented pavilion for other sets but a rapt, scattered crowd of true believers and recent converts, as Ware — resplendent in an orange, red, and blue dashiki and matching cap with round sunglasses — scorched us with his huge tenor tone and out-there testifying. He took a break, pianist Matthew Shipp played a familiar cadence, and when Ware came back, yes indeed, it was an altered but clearly recognizable piece by Sonny Rollins (whom Ware used to practice with regularly). Ware had given over his entire set to Sonny’s "Freedom Suite."
That left Isaac Hayes, who went on nearly 45 minutes behind schedule and therefore played an abbreviated set. That meant no South Park "Salty Balls" (which had been planned as an encore), only a symphonic "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" (with a salty, humorous spoken-word intro) and a "Shaft" that maybe wasn’t everything you’d have hoped for. But it was Isaac Hayes singing "Shaft." Another Newport Jazz Fest first.