Newport Jazz Festival All Stars in Michigan
“ That the players... young, old and in between... were able to find so much inspiration from that rich past is a testament to the versatility and resilience of jazz and the universal appeal of swing. ”
History Lesson at the Frauenthal: Newport Jazz Festival All Stars salute first 50 years of America’s first jazz festival.
Monday night at Muskegon’s historic Frauenthal Center for the Performing Arts, the Newport Jazz Festival All Stars completed a swing through Michigan with a two and half hour concert that brought to life the repertoire of jazz greats Miles Davis, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Don Byas and Duke Ellington.
This performance was unique in that it was free as a gift to the people of Muskegon County from the Collins Fund of the Muskegon Community Foundation, so all 1,700 plus seats were taken.
It wasn’t repertoire alone that evoked jazz played on those long July 4th weekends in Newport, Rhode Island, but the way the melodic vocabulary of an era salted Monday night’s improvisations. And, of course, the band member's introductions – this group used everything in its power to connect with the audience: information, humor, a variety of instrumental settings and most of all music.
The band featured a trumpet/two saxophone front-line with a full, i.e. four-man, rhythm section of guitar, piano, bass and drums. Trumpeter Randy Brecker; saxophonists James Moody and James Carter; guitarist Howard Alden; bassist Peter Washington, and drummer Lewis Nash made for the all-star band.
Chief instigator of the spontaneous review of jazz vocabulary and popular song favorites was pianist Cedar Walton, who was introduced as the band’s composer as well as pianist (near the end of the concert, the full band played Walton’s "Firm Roots").
When joined by bassist Peter Washington and drummer Lewis Nash for the feature "Over The Rainbow" Walton improvised a clear, continuous flow of ideas, which lingered on that famous rhythmic figure in the bridge to "Over the Rainbow." Walton lightened the mood and seemed to be talking over the fence to his band mates with melodic allusions to "There’s No Business Like Show Business," "Mona Lisa" and a handful of other familiar themes. His other feature on the night was "Without A Song."
At one point in James Carter’s tenor sax feature for Coleman Hawkins, "Stuffy," guitarist Howard Alden ended his solo with a famous riff from the Count Basie band, the figure leading to Jimmy Rushing singing, "Don’t the moon look lonesome shining through the trees?" on “Sent For You Yesterday.”
During the full ensemble opener, "Dig," Miles Davis variation on "Sweet Georgia Brown," James Carter soloing on soprano sax laid in one of Charlie Parker’s recognizable variations on those familiar chords.
That sort of stuff went on all-night and there was so much of it woven into the fabric of the music that it became more than just quipping or joking or coasting: it was deep, though playful, homage.
The historical terrain of the Newport Festival is the landscape of brilliance and creativity made last century. That the players Monday evening young, old and in between were able to find so much inspiration from that rich past is a testament to the versatility and resilience of jazz and the universal appeal of swing.
And that seemed to provide a more entertaining history lesson than musician s aping styles by the masters of jazz: if individuality was a hallmark of a musician’s greatness in the tradition, then James Moody was there to remind us of it.
Sounding like no one else but himself, Moody played an imaginatively taught, melodically sustained improvised performance on "Body and Soul" with just the swinging bass of Peter Washington to set him off. Since 1939 “Body and Soul” belongs to Coleman Hawkins, and Moody’s brilliantly arppeggiated and extended harmonic lines were in the spirit of Hawk. Yet unlike Hawkins famous recording Moody played the whole tune, and in method was as much informed by the mid to late-1950’s music of John Coltrane as he was by the first great tenor saxophonist of jazz. In any case, it was beautiful and a highlight of the concert.
Moody did comedy, too. "Women are like pianos: when they're not upright, they're grand." "I've been in love with the same woman for 50 years" (sighs from the crowd)"hope my wife never finds out." "Last night we played some music that left a beautiful taste in your mouth, oh it was delicious. Hey, Peter Washington, let's play "Poppa Take Your Dentures Out, Mama Wants to Check Your Gums." Moody said, "Ladies and gentleman, I'd like to attract your attention to the center seats" (house lights come up, spot light pans across the crowd) "as the former heavy weight champion Joe Frazier is here tonight, the great Jo oh, sorry ma'am."