Last weekend, I went to Newport Jazz Festival for the first time. I just went on Sunday. That was probably plenty. Some of it was great and some of it reinforced critiques I’ve had of it from the lineup sets for years. One thing that was fun up front: it was my first time seeing any of these artists.
I’ve long had my critique of Newport Jazz, part of the reason I’ve never gone. It’s a fundamental very conservative institution. George Wein died recently and the festival this year was dedicated to the founder. That’s fine naturally, it should be that way. But Wein’s vision of jazz was not only conservative for my 2022 tastes, it was conservative for the taste of the early 60s, which is why there were protest festivals at the same time in Newport by better artists all the way back then. It got a little better more recently, but still reflected Wein’s tastes way too much, which basically means people who wish jazz innovation had ended in 1958.
Now, the people who run the festival today realize that this not the way to move forward. What makes Newport Folk the best it can be–which is not entirely unproblematic in its own right in that the audience there is as white as the LGM comment section, as opposed to the quite diverse Jazz audience–is that it recognizes that while the geezers have value, the festival will die soon if it pretends it is still 1962. Jazz has a little harder time making that move.
So I chose one day–the day with the most interesting and forward thinking music. It was absolutely worth it. I saw some sets of really fine music. But if this is as forward thinking as it gets, it has a ways to go still.
I want to start by noting an error on my part. I missed Ron Carter play because he was on at 11 AM and I am not a morning person, plus I had to finish a grave post. Yes, I missed Ron Carter because of a grave post. Never let it say I am not committed to the bit. Now, a Ron Carter led outfit is of course going to be a return to a lost time, but my god it is Ron Carter. Sigh. Why did he have to play so early? I thought I might make it, but of course on top of it all, there was traffic. Newport, being an island and all, is not that easy to get to. I will probably regret that one forever.
Well, what I don’t regret is the three pretty cool sets I saw. The first is from the Jazz is Dead folks. This is the guitarist Adrian Younge and the keyboardist/DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad, who you know as the DJ from A Tribe Called Quest. I’ve reviewed some of their work in these posts as I’ve heard it, though I’ve probably heard at most half the releases, which are at 13 now. They started a jazz project, ironically titled, bringing both lost legends out of the woodwork and finding new talent, to show that jazz is far from dead but is in fact vibrant and amazing. This was a fascinating set. It featured the LA band of young cats Katalyst as the backing band–and these guys were perfect backing up short sets by three legends. The first was The Skipper himself, Mr. Henry Franklin. The second was from the keyboardist Doug Carn. The third was from Gary Bartz, who you probably know as the saxophonist on Miles’ Live Evil album, one of the great live albums in the history of recorded music. All of these guys are old but very much alive, like so many others from that era. It’s just that they are forgotten about despite their vitality, experience, and badassery.
Now, what was interesting about this from a musical perspective is how the soul jazz and post-fusion genres have had revivals in recent years. Carn, who just destroys the organ, was just astounding in this setting. Much of this music was great, but fell out of favor to the point that by the mid-90s, when I went whole hog into jazz, I didn’t know any of this stuff for years after. Meanwhile the fusion guys like Bartz had trouble taking the music new places beyond the early 70s. I mean, my god have you heard the Hancock and Shorter and Corea and Williams stuff from the 80s? Puke. It took a younger generation of people such as William Parker and David S. Ware to bring the forefront of the music back to innovation. But Younge/Muhammad see value there. Hearing Bartz sing some cheesy song was not great. Hearing him blow the living hell out of sax was astounding. Overall, it’s a great project and I look forward to hearing what they do going forward.
Oh, and I got to see Ali Shaheed Muhammad spin the turntables. Goddamn.
Speaking of hip hop legends, while two of the stages had pretty traditional jazz, the other had Digable Planets! (!!!!!) Now that’s a band I never thought I’d see. Now Digable is Digable. They are still hippies. They are exactly what you think they are except they are as old as me. Gray hair or not, they still groove the hell out of it. The backing band was excellent, the interplay of the three vocalists still work, and they seem over their problems as a band, at least one stage. I don’t have that much to say here really–again, it’s Digable and they are what they are. Also, Ladybug Mecca has a hammer and sickle tattoo on her side. More importantly, what hip hop group better fits Newport Jazz than the first to bring serious jazz sensibility into the genre?
Then, shit really went down. I saw Vijer Iyer and his trio and this was the best piano trio set I’ve ever seen live. He’s long been a favorite for those associated with Newport who want to press the music a bit. Because he’s a pianist who plays with a traditional trio, I suspect he’s been the guy they can get through over the traditionalists because he’s played there a bunch of times over the years. This was the kind of great forward thinking jazz I love. Of course he was also on the smallest stage. But….wow. The real star of the set wasn’t even Iyer, as great as he is. It was Linda May Han Oh, the Korean-Australian bassist who is just an absolutely animal on that instrument. Again and again, she wowed with her work plucking that bass. Just a great, great set.
And then….well, I was interested in what was going to close this out. It was a tribute to Wein. So I thought something interesting might happen. It did not happen. It was Wein’s favorites. Now I might be interesting in seeing Christian McBride do his thing someday because I know he is a very good musician. But I find his work boring. And Wein’s favorites were usually pretty boring. When Randy Brecker was announced as one of the stars of that set, I knew it was going to be lame and it was pretty lame. I lasted about 30 minutes, ate a sandwich, drank a beer, hoped it would get more interesting, and then just left to beat the traffic. Friends, not only is it not 1958 anymore, but we shouldn’t want it to be. I suppose nostalgia has its place in music, but in jazz, it’s mostly cancerous. And Newport Jazz has struggle to overcome that for 60 years. Wein deserves a ton of credit for putting this festival together but the festival needs to make the move as Folk did. Hopefully in the future, it can be more Digable and Iyer and Ali Shaheed Muhammad and other musicians who actually matter to people young enough to still have sex.
It should be noted that the first set of artists I had the chance to see was just bad, which is too common there. The choices on the three stages, as I quickly discovered, were a) bad, b) boring, c) acceptable enough to eat a lobster roll and listen from the back. Looking at the Friday and Saturday lineups, this kind of choice seemed pretty common in many time slots. There’s a lot of amazing talent out there. Newport Jazz can do better!
Also, this is from 2020 but this conversation between Ishmael Butler of Digable and his son Lil Tracy, who is an artist with highly unfortunate face tattoos, is quite good. Also, it turns out Butler’s father was Reginald Butler, the pioneering Black history professor at the University of Virginia.
One other piece of news–the great conductor and Grammy Award winner star Darcy James Argue has a new album coming out. But conducting big band music takes cash. For a set of music based on Buckminster Fuller, surely you can spare a dime to get this to the public.
This week’s playlist:
- Laura Veirs, The Lookout
- Willie Nelson, Teatro
- Alabama Shakes, Sound & Color
- Staples Singers, Best of
- Lucinda Williams, self-titled
- Iron & Wine, The Creek Drank the Cradle
- Mourn, self-titled
- The Go Team, The Scene Between
- Al Green, Gets Next to You
- Richard and Linda Thompson, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight
- Nick Drake, Pink Moon
- Joe Ely, Live at Liberty Lunch
- Justin Townes Earle, Harlem River Blues
- Ray Charles, The Genius of Ray Charles
- Tom Russell, Blood and Candle Smoke
- Bruce Cockburn, Salt, Sun, and Time
- Waxahatchee, Cerulean Salt
- Jamila Woods, Legacy! Legacy!
- Neko Case, The Tigers Have Spoken
- Ray Price, Night Life
- Larry Sparks, Ramblin’ Bluegrass
- Torres, Sprinter
- Richard Thompson, You? Me? Us? Electric disc
- Kris Kristofferson, Essential Kristofferson, disc 1
- Drive By Truckers, The New OK
- Leonard Cohen, Live in London
- Flying Burrito Brothers, Burrito Deluxe
- Drive By Truckers, Brighter than Creation’s Dark
Martha Wainwright, Love Will Be Reborn
I admit to not having paid much attention to Wainwright, despite her tremendously famous parents. I love Kate and I like Rufus well enough mostly. But the kids, I dunno, just never got there. Rufus’ Broadway thing didn’t help me want to either. Finally listening to the new Martha Wainwright album though and this is good singer-songwriter material right here. She sounds a touch like her mom and a touch more like Kate Bush. She’s known for her brutal honesty in her songs and you can really see this here as this is a quality breakup/divorce album, one of my very favorite genres. (Shoot out the Lights, Blood on the Tracks, Sea Change, Phases and Stages–it’s a deep list of greats). Sure, I like some songs better than others and some hit me harder, but this is solid work.
Say Sue Me, The Last Thing Left
This is a Korean band from Pusan that sings in English. I’m always somewhat ambivalent about the need to sing in the global language in order to make money, but from Bjork to Mourn, this has been common for decades now. Even if your fellow native language speakers can’t understand what you are singing, this is the way forward. Well, in any case, this is a pretty good band. It’s also the type where you can check off the influences from the history of indie and noise song by song. At best, the influences are Yo La Tengo guitar freakouts and Dinosaur Jr. At the least successful, they are kind of boring dream pop stuff. What this leads us to is a band that is perfectly capable, but is a little more pastiche than is good for them.
Villagers, Field Dreams
Moving from Korea to Ireland, Villagers is a band with a reputation of moving their sound to fit the current moment, whatever that moment is. That’s fine on my end. I like bands that change their sound, so long as it works.
However, I found this fairly bland soft rock with a few slightly more interesting moments using effects to provide some different sounds. Although this was reasonably well-reviewed, it just feels downright boring to me. Evidently, this is more attuned to the noise rock of the moment than previous albums. Sure, I can hear that, but I imagine the other albums are even more boring. To me, it feels like the kind of album for 20 somethings who like updated version of The Eagles, with more variety of sound, but still something pretty easy to hear, without being challenged or pushed in any way, with a warm embrace of fuzz.
A solid album of electronic heavy psychedelia, with plenty of guitars and effects throughout. Usually, this isn’t quite my thing, but the songs work well as songs as opposed to just extended repetitive electronic rhythms, which helps a lot. This an upbeat and fun album. A little Flaming Lips, a little LCD Soundsystem. Not bad.
Wadada Leo Smith, The Emerald Duets
OK, I only listened to the first and fourth (and a bit of the second) discs of this five disc set. One only has so much time. Smith got together with five of his favorite musicians to record duet albums. Each is around an hour, sometimes more. The first disc is with Pheeroan AkLaff, the legendary drummer. For those of you who know the Sonny Sharrock Band from the late 80s and early 90s, you know how AkLaff and beat the living hell out of the drums. I was hoping for a bit more of that here and it is there in places, but Smith isn’t really that kind of guy so much. This is a subdued but fascinating set from two greats. As for Wadada, who of course is the real star of the show here, it’s interesting how he has gone in the last 10-15 years from “great trumpter” to “one of the greatest trumpeters in jazz history” thanks to his late life productivity, experimentation, and vision. The other discs are with Jack DeJohnette on two, including the fourth that I did hear, Andrew Cyrille (the second that I grabbed a bit of), and Han Bennink. Those are all absolutely legends and I look forward to listening to them, but 5 discs was too much for one week. DeJohnette plays drums and piano and he divides his time between the two on this disc, which gives it a firmly modernist classical vibe. I am also reminded of the one time I saw Bennink, playing with Peter Brotzmann, and for awhile, he was playing the cymbals with his feet. What ties all of this together is Smith’s love of the drums, even though he doesn’t play them. Hard to argue, as drums are not only key to jazz and not only the fundamental instrument of the African diasporic musical tradition, but the fundamental to almost all music ever made by human beings. At least in the two and a half sets I heard, at worst this music is interesting, at best it’s transcendent. But what does diminish this over time is that it is so, so long and the sets don’t differentiate themselves enough to make this a must purchase piece.
Virginia Wing, Private Life
80s inspired British art pop at its most interesting. Lot of Kate Bush, lot of Laurie Anderson, lot of post-punk too. It’s arch but interesting, dense but not nonsense, retro but not derivative, experimental but accessible. Not a great album, but a very good one.
As always, this is an open thread for all things music and art and definitely not an open thread for any goddamn politics.