One index of the effectiveness of a jazz group in the yeasty activity of a festival is how much attention they get from other musicians. Backstage at Jazz at Newport, visiting players from New York and California raised eyebrows and leaned forward as they listened to Portland’s PDX Quintet. Led by trumpeter and flugelhornist Dick Titterington, the band played a set that started with Mike Wofford’s arrangement of Cole Porter’s “Dream Dancing,” then turned to post-bop repertoire. Freddie Hubbard’s “Skydive” was closely harmonized for Titterington’s flugelhorn and Rob Davis’s soprano saxophone in a classic bop configuration. On the Stanley Clarke blues “Why Wait?” bassist Dave Captein soloed first, followed by Titterington, who has a huge sound on trumpet. Next in the programming of the piece, Davis played a harmonically audacious tenor solo accompanied only by Captein for a chorus before pianist Greg Gobel and drummer Todd Strait joined them. In Joe Henderson’s “Our Thing,” Davis was again impressive on tenor, reminding one of the backstagers of Dexter Gordon. Strait soloed with speed, technique, imagination and humor that made it clear that he belonged in the company of Jeff Hamilton and Lewis Nash.
Strait returned Saturday evening with Anat Cohen, Tamir Hendelman and Hassan Shakur. Captein teamed with Terell Stafford, Wofford,Nash and Portland alto saxophonist David Valdez. The two sets consisted mostly of standards to which the players could apply their common language. The peak moments in the first included the samba beat with a touch of funk that Strait applied to “Love For Sale,” Hendelman’s lyrical conclusion to “Memories of You,” Cohen’s keening tenor sax solo on “Don’t Explain” and her emphatic one on “Good Bait.” In the next group, Stafford ended his solo on “It Could Happen to You” with a quote from Thelonious Monk’s “Nutty.” Nash instantly fired off a fusillade of Art Blakey triplets, the perfect reflexive response. Wrapping up “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes,” Stafford and Valdez floated out in soft counterpoint. Playing chorus after chorus of “Love Walked In,” Stafford built to a peak and leveled off without losing intensity. In his bass soloing in that piece and others, Captein used pauses, to great dramatic effect. Toward the end of Clifford Brown’s E-flat blues “Sandu,” Stafford and Nash developed a march beat that would have had Benny Golson smiling if he’d been there.
For their second set of the weekend, the Jeff Hamilton Trio opened with “Poinciana” as a tribute to Ahmad Jamal, then played “Hat’s Dance,” a happy tune Hamilton wrote for his mother. His “Fascinating Rhythm” solo was a demonstration of his ability to play melodies on the drums. Luty’s showpiece featured his arrangement and bowing on “Blues in the Night.” Hamilton’s drumming on the final piece of the set, a Jobim song whose name I have lost, was executed solely with his hands, his wedding ring striking accents on the rim of the snare drum. It was pure rhythmic virtuosity.
At the Saturday Shilo Inn nightcap session, the combination was vibist Mike Horsfall, guitarist Howard Alden, bassist Kristin Korb, reed artist Anat Cohen and drummer Nash. This time, the sound system worked. Korb’s vocal microphone was set up, but Cohen, who assumed leadership, neglected or forgot to call a tune that Korb could sing. The Ray Brown protégé compensated with powerful bass support and solos. After “’S Wonderful,” which may have been a tad faster than it needed to be, Cohen’s clarinet established an earthy groove on “Cry Me a River,” all hands soloed, and Alden and Cohen took it out in a duet. Highlights of “I’ll Remember April”taken fast, as in “whew”were Cohen’s idiomatic little licks, Horsfall’s lightning solo, and the dazzle of Nash’s flurries around the cymbals. Following a relaxed “Body and Soul,” with Cohen opening on clarinet and closing on tenor, the quartet wrapped it up with Charlie Parker’s blues “Cheryl.” Horsfall, who came as a welcome surprise to many at the festival, had another imposing solo. Korb worked in just a suggestion of singing in unison with her bass lines. Intriguing, it seemed more intuitive than planned. I’d like to have heard more of it. Nash’s spectacular drum solo ushered in the final melody chorus. Tired but happy after a long day of music, the audience left wanting more, always a good sign.
For several years at Newport, Holly Hofmann and Mike Wofford have played an intimate (it’s okay; they’re married) Sunday morning recital of devotional music. This time, they announced that it would be from the hymnal of the Church of Les McCann. First, Hofmann played herself from the wings onto the stage with “Amazing Grace,” which set the mood. Then they did McCann’s “A Little Three-Four For God & Co.” and Bill Mays’s “Thanksgiving Prayer,” with Hofmann on alto flute. In “Exactly Like You,” whose religious overtones are not apparent, Wofford combined the spirit of stride piano with chords worthy of Ravel. After Pat Metheny’s “Farmer’s Trust,” Hofmann and Wofford brought out Terell Stafford for the closer, a Stafford composition called “Cousins.” The unison blend of flute and trumpet in the melody would have been satisfaction enough. The solos by all three were bonuses.
Speaking of Ravel, Weber Iago’s Chamber Jazz Project is a quintet that draws on the French impressionist tradition of Ravel and Debussy, on Iago’s Brazilian heritage and on jazz from the mainstream and outside of it. In harmonic and instrumental textures and in demanding rhythms, it was the most challenging music of the weekend. There was speculation going in that the Project might offer more adventure than the mainstream audience was ready for, but the Newport listeners validated their reputation as open-eared and open-minded. Their applause offered testimony. Iago co-leads the group with saxophonist David Valdez. The other members are violinist Eddie Parente, bassoonist Evan Kuhlmann and percussionist Reinhold Meltz. Iago played keyboard bass with his left hand, the Steinway with the right. At the top of the set, he warned that they had so much music to get into 45 minutes that he would forego tune announcements. I presume that all or most of the compositions were by Iago or Valdez. To hear and see the group minus Meltz, click here. The piece is Iago’s “The Nest.”
As much as they may have enjoyed Iago’s group, the audience was ready for Monty Alexander with Hassan Shakur and Lewis Nash. They broke into applause and shouts at the first notes of his opening blues and grooved in place throughout a set of six Alexander staples, including “Fly Me to the Moon,” “The River” and a powerful “You Are My Sunshine.” The richness of Alexander’s chord changes in Johnny Mandel’s “Close Enough For Love” was enough to inspire sighs among the listeners. He went to the microphone for a moment to sing a few bars of “For Sentimental Reasons” like Louis Armstrong, then like Ella Fitzgerald, and to thank the sidemen and the audience. He slid back onto the bench and tore into “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” A couple of the backstagers were so inspired that their dancing edged onto the stage for a moment.
The good feeling extended to a closing jam session with nearly all 23 of the festival musicians. They played Johnny Hodges’ “Squatty Roo” and “Lullaby of the Leaves.” Hamilton and Nash shared brushes and a snare drum to exchange four- and eight-bar phrases in a hilarious display of coordination. Bassists took turns. Pianists spelled one another, all of the horn players soloed and the little seaside festival was over.
The success of Jazz at Newport is due not only to Hofmann’s ability to assemble and coordinate a congenial, flexible and gifted group of musicians. Credit must also go to Executive Director Catherine Rickbone of the Oregon Coast Council for the Arts and her crew of Newport volunteers who were tireless in their attendance to every detail that made things run smoothly.