Jazz by the Sea
JVC Jazz Festival, Newport, RI – August 9, 2003
by Matthew S. Robinson
Though this was the first day of the two-day JVC Jazz Festival at Fort Adams State Park in Newport, RI, from the sound of some of the music, you might have thought it was the second. From the Boston based Big Band known by the name Kendrick Oliver and the New Life Orchestra to vocalist Lizz Wright to trumpeter Terrence Blanchard, there was a distinct Gospel theme to many of the selections. Fortunately for fans of other American musical streams, there was plenty of other fare as well.
Opening their Newport debut (and the 49th annual Newport festival) with their titular theme song, “Welcome to New Life,” Oliver’s band overcame frequent sound problems to get the crowd into the mood for music of many styles from the Blues chestnut “Everyday I Have the Blues” to a clap-along revival of “Wade in the Water.”
“That’s the way to start a festival,” said local Jazz luminary Fred Taylor, who often books Oliver at Scullers in Boston.
After a lengthy set change, Lizz Wright picked up where Oliver had left off, offering her own assortment of soul-full selections, including a funky snap through the traditional “Walk With Me Lord” that continued the Sunday prayer meeting theme. Though there was little temporal variety in Wright’s set of ballads (which also included the appropriately soaring “The Eagle and Me” and the title track to Wright’s Verve debut “Salt”), her rich and uplifting vocals recalled Anita Baker while demonstrating why she is a new artist to watch.
Unlike Wright, Blanchard got into the Gospel right off the bat, with a second line solo of “Amazing Grace” that sounded as if it might have come from Miles Davis’ version of “Porgy and Bess.” Amidst a variety of solos by other members of his band, Blancahrd wove a variety of explorations that had him floating all over the staff. By set’s end, he had much of the audience flowing with him.
With a flourish of keys, Dominican-born Michel Camilo opened a set of Carribbean cocktail music that was difficult to not dance to. From the gentle Billy Joel-esque keys of “Tropical Jam” and the Samba ballad “A Piece of Cake” with passion and balance. A tribute to the legendary Tito Puente and the tickly ballad “Afterthought” kept Camilo’s set interesting and varied.
As Camilo wound down with “Afterthought,” pianist/PhD Vijay Iyer and his energetic quartet began a set on Newport’s showcase stage that featured a distinctively Eastern bent. With titles such as “Kinship” and “Cardio,” Iyer revealed his interest in themes related to blood. And with a drummer who often used knives to work over his trap set and a piece that was in 4.5/4 time (as opposed to the typical 4/4 of Western music), Iyer’s band kept his audience’s blood pumping throughout.
By the time Iyer and his propulsive support staff finished an imaginative exploration of Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe” (cleverly retitled “Because of Guns”), main stage headliner George Benson was already starting his set. After some explosive fret runs that demonstrated why he is an eight-time Grammy winner, Benson settled into the smooth jazz styles he has come to be known for. Not afraid to tackle the classics, however, Benson made a strong showing of James Moody’s “Mood for Love” before popping back into the crowd favorite “Turn Your Love Around.” Though the Gospel theme had been greatly left behind, Benson ended the day with a spirit-lifting set that capped a beautiful day of music by the sea.
© 2003, M. S. Robinson, ARR