There was something very familiar about Newport Jazz 2002 at Royce Hall Friday night, and not just for the obvious reason — the link with the indefatigable inventor of the outdoor jazz festival, George Wein. The concert was really a throwback to the original vision of the late Norman Granz, who would gather bunches of jazz headliners and send them to the world’s great and not-so-great concert halls to jam under the aegis of Jazz at the Philharmonic.
But that was a long time ago, when jazz giants were still stamping their own powerful imprints upon the Earth. And we’ve been spoiled by recordings of those concerts, with Pablo’s release last month of an amazing 1949 JATP session at Carnegie Hall just the latest newly uncovered example.
Yes, the players under the Newport umbrella — Terence Blanchard (trumpet), Joe Lovano (tenor sax), Justo Almario (tenor sax, flute), Howard Alden (guitar), Cedar Walton (piano), Peter Washington (bass) and Idris Muhammad (drums) — are a formidable septet that any festival would snap up. Missing, though, was a set of formidable personalities that could combust in the heat of an intense jam session.
Hopes went up at the outset when Walton, a highly underrated composer, kicked off his marvelous modal vamp “Fantasy in D,” sending the septet into the transitional sound world of Blue Note circa 1968. The band wasn’t quite together, but it felt good and sounded as if it might get tighter, with Muhammad’s driving cymbals pushing everyone — including Washington, in a memorable solo spot — to swing harder.
Yet “Fantasy in D” turned out to be the highlight. They tried mixing up their pitches, reducing the group to subdivisions — the pairing of Almario’s virtuosic flute flurries with Washington on “Pent Up House”; a subdued Blanchard with Walton and Washington on Gordon Jenkins’ “Goodbye”; or the Walton piano trio’s Billy Strayhorn medley. An opportunity for a good old-fashioned tenor duel between Lovano and Almario on “Bags’ Groove” fell just a bit flat; they ran the scales, screeched a little, yet couldn’t generate real onrushing excitement. The one departure toward southern regions, Almario’s “Salvation,” turned out to be an uneasily mixed gumbo of New Orleans and Havana. And in the closing “The Song Is You,” everyone played fast, technically brilliant, but emotionally distant bebop.
Finally, and crucially, the sound wasn’t very good, obscuring some instruments — especially Alden, whose solos veered in and out of audibility — and coarsening others.