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    EARS NEW YORK: JAZZ SAFARI, NEWPORT

    Written by Jeff Levenson

     

    When George Wein first conjured the idea of a jazz festival - the year was 1954, the place, Newport, Rhode Island - he created a template that six decades later continues to serve.

    Wein and the Newport festival are still with us, and so too are innumerable global get-togethers that tie together jazz, travel, leisure and the communal consumption of music. Events of this kind are so commonplace, so much the fabric of a region's cultural identity, it is virtually assumed that they have been here forever. In fact, Wein invented them; he is one of our great pioneers, and jazz lovers everywhere - including the Safari faithful of Jazz.Fm91 who convened at Newport earlier this month - owe him dearly. This year's edition of the fest was a 60th anniversary salute, as much a celebration of the man as a milestone for the event itself.

    The festival is now run as a not-for-profit corporation; as a result, there is little need to juice line-ups with big-selling pop artists, a practice that outrages jazz traditionalists who seek "purity" in their programming. (Though rants are common, decrying  the practice of populating jazz festivals with pop artists, few critics acknowledge that as early as 1958 Wein had his eye on balancing the books when he invited Chuck Berry and his duck walk to take center stage, backed by the likes of Jo Jones, Jack Teagarden and Buck Clayton. Imagine, on the bill, a blues-based guitarist stepping right out of the R&B tradition. Heresy! Unwittingly or not, Wein was creating the blueprint for the modern-day jazz festival.)

    The musicians at Newport's 60th were a varied group, with nary a pop star in sight, lending ballast to the belief that jazz covers enough stylistic territory to pay the bills and satisfy all. During my two days at the fest, I hobnobbed with new Safari-goers as well as veterans I knew from previous jaunts to Monterey, New York or New Orleans. We witnessed a handful of artists.

     

    A few stayed with me, affirming jazz's definitional breadth, as well as its relatively good health:

    Cecil McLorin Salvant, the preeminent new voice among female singers, seemed perfect for this crowd, offering a modernist take on jazz classicism, and prompting one Safari-ite to declare her, "just breathtaking." (Not enough is said about her elegant look, a tidy persona framed by oversized glasses. She reminds me of Dr. Billy Taylor in that way - no joke!);

    Darcy James Argue, big band leader and critic's favorite, featured arrangements that sounded earthy one minute, ethereal and transformative the next. He struck me as a mystic, a jazz Harry Potter;

    Jon Batiste, an indefatigable disciple of all things New Orleans, pounced on the keys with a James Booker-Professor Longhair-Dr. John thing that made me want to dance and drink and down copious quantities of food that could only hurt me;

    Tuxedoed bandleader Vince Giordano and his Nighthawks played historically-rich manifestos that sounded like every Woody Allen film I've ever seen;

    Italian pianist Stefano Bollani, a television star in his native country, used humor as a sleight of hand, making his music sound easy and masking how accomplished he is as an instrumentalist. (Harpo Marx, though possessing far less musical gravitas than Bollani, once inhabited a similar zip code.);

    John Zorn, whose curation of 8 separate outfits performing under his proprietary Masada banner, yielded a number of easy-on-the-ear surprises, some at odds with his avant-garde reputation, including a group featuring guitarist Marc Ribot, whose Telecaster sound was equal parts James Bond and The Ventures.

    The sum effect of the weekend's nearly 40 acts reaffirmed that Wein has not lost his touch, that he deserves all the praise and accolades bestowed him, that his life's work is inseparable from the growth of jazz and the industry supporting it. He is a central figure in the jazz eco-system, influencing or guiding our actions, whatever our roles within it. Some of us stand on his shoulders. Which is a perfect perch, if your idea of a winning weekend includes jazz, blue waters and white sails at sunset.

    At age 60 Newport remains a model. Take a bow, George.

    Jeff Levenson is a label executive, writer-producer, consultant and jazz columnist. His affiliations include posts at Half Note, Sony, Warner Bros, Downbeat, Billboard and the Blue Note jazz club in New York. He currently produces the annual Thelonious Monk Instrumental Competition in Washington DC, and has authored and/or produced events for the NEA, the US State Department, the White House, the New School for Social Research and the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. His credits include collaborations with McCoy Tyner, Michael Brecker, Herbie Hancock, Branford Marsalis, Bela Fleck, Arturo Sandoval, Randy Brecker, Kenny Werner, Lee Konitz, Savion Glover, Esperanza Spalding and Bill Frisell. He has produced and/or supervised 9 Grammy albums - 2 winners, 10 nominees. He is a member of the Blue Note management team, consulting on club programming and international development. He currently chairs the National Jazz Committee for the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, serves as Board Governor for its New York Chapter, and enjoys the company of jazz musicians.

     

     

     



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