August 1, 2012
At first blush, the venerable Newport Jazz Festival ostensibly looks like a guitar-lover’s dream. Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell, and Derek Trucks, three of the planet’s finest guitar players, are prominently featured at this weekend’s fest.
But in a conversation with Danny Melnick, one of the festival’s producers, he has us rethink the programming, pointing to pianist Jason Moran, drummers Dafnis Prieto and John Hollenbeck, bassist Christian McBride, saxophone player Rudresh Mahanthappa, and singer Kurt Elling.
“We have the legends like Pat Metheny and Dianne Reeves, who are still pushing the boundaries. But we also have many young people, musicians in their 20s through 40s, who are composers, band leaders, and great players. They are bringing their perspectives into what jazz is today,” Melnick says. “The Newport Jazz Festival wants to endorse and embrace what is happening in jazz today and show other venues and festivals that these are the artists that deserve a spot on the big stage.”
The Newport Jazz Festival begins Friday evening in the International Tennis Hall of Fame with a concert featuring New Orleans greats, Dr. John and Preservation Hall Jazz Band, plus their respective guest artists. The action then moves to Rhode Island’s Fort Adams State Park for programs on Saturday and Sunday that run from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Three stages are at the fort, with the main stage facing out toward the ocean, a tented “Quad Stage” inside the fort which mimics a concert hall, and the intimate “Harbor Stage” designed to replicate the night-club vibe. And the cool thing is that artists are creatively distributed among the stages. There are no real pecking orders in play-- you’ll find titans such as sax player Joe Lovano playing on the Harbor Stage and the legendary drummer Jack DeJohnette celebrating his 70th birthday with an all-star band on the Quad Stage, while young gun Darcy James Argue brings his Secret Society big band to the main stage.
Melnick says that assembling the weekend’s jazz jigsaw puzzle takes into account several factors: What kinds of energy do you need on the main stage? Where is the best place to accommodate the big bands? Which bands will benefit from fans packed in close to the stage?
The festival is also rolling the dice, not only having the Tedeschi Trucks Band headline on Sunday, but also giving them a full two-hour set. Led by the husband-and-wife team of Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi, the 11-piece TTB is a juggernaut more commonly found on the jam-band and rock circuits. But there is no mistaking the jazz elements in the Tedeschi Trucks combo, which cushions Trucks’s guitar work in a smartly arranged horn section and features sumptuous vocal parts, led by Tedeschi.
“Derek is one of the great improvisers, and anyone who says otherwise doesn’t know what they are talking about,” Melnick says, noting that George Wein, who founded the jazz festival in 1954, has been championing Trucks’s career and was hoping to land the guitar firebrand at jazz fest. “Derek and Susan met George at his apartment and when they found out he wanted them for Jazz Fest, they called the rest of the band and they couldn’t believe it. These are musicians immersed in jazz and excited to be at a jazz festival.”
Newport Jazz’s close cousin, the Newport Folk Festival, has seen a nice rebirth in recent years with younger crowds and younger bands claiming the historic event as part of their own culture. Newport Jazz seems poised to do the same.
Newport Jazz Festival runs August 3 - 5; ticket and schedule information is available online at newportjazzfest.net.
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Scott McLennan is a music correspondent for the Boston Globe and former entertainment columnist for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. His work as taken him from the Newport Folk Festival to the New England Metal and Hardcore Festival and many musical points in between. Scott also writes about skiing for Hawthorn Publications.
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