NEWPORT, R.I. "Live in and enjoy the moment," the announcer said as he introduced "the queen of Latin music," Celia Cruz.
Cruz, 76, one of the many performers to take the stage at the Newport Jazz Festival last weekend, played an inspiring hour-long set of Afro-Cuban music on Sunday afternoon. The rhythmic, soulful music had much of the crowd dancing in delight as Cruz joined the ranks of the great artists who have performed at the legendary festival, held this year at Fort Adams State Park.
The new millennium brought several interesting changes to the long-running event, first held in this city in 1954 and immortalized when the movie "Jazz on a Summer's Day" was made about the 1958 edition. In addition to the massive main stage, which overlooks the picturesque Newport harbor, a second stage now graces the grounds and over the weekend provided a platform for many of jazz's rising stars.
"I thought it was terrific because it gives some choice of the style of music you want to listen to," said Dave Radachek, 45, of North Plainfield, N.J. Radachek was attending the festival as part of a bicycle club trip and "had a good time doing some cycling and listening to music."
Like virtually all other major jazz fests, Newport has gone with the crossover approach, bringing in such acts as Cuba's Cruz, Nigeria's Femi Kuti, funk specialist Maceo Parker and jam-rock band Deep Banana Blackout to lend variety to the proceedings. But jazz happens to be a big enough umbrella to embrace these acts.
Speaking of umbrellas, although the sky was thick with threatening clouds throughout the weekend, protection was only needed briefly during a short-lived rain shower on Sunday afternoon. But the weather had little effect on the spirits of the several thousand music fans who enjoyed the sights and sounds of this well-organized and smoothly run event. Food and merchandise booths lined the path between the two stages, and lines were never too long. The area remained clean, and the crowd stayed happy, friendly and cheerful.
Saturday's performances featured a small sampling of jazz's generous variety. The Carnegie Hall Jazz Band, performing on the main stage, gave a fine example of tightly arranged, well-played big-band jazz. Their rendition of John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" had the entire band running though the song's fast-paced changes in perfect unison. Lew Tabackin's tenor sax was featured on the re-creation of the Duke Ellington Orchestra's famous "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue," recorded live at the 1956 Newport Jazz festival.
Over on the smaller and much more intimate Harbor Stage, sax wizard James Carter and his Electric Project practically tore the roof off with a bass-heavy blend of jazz and funk. Meanwhile, back on the main stage, Kuti and the Positive Force had the crowd dancing and swaying along with colorfully clad dancers to Afro-beat polyrhythms. Kuti's emotional "Beng, Beng, Beng" (RealAudio excerpt) had everyone singing along.
Vocalist Dianne Reeves proved to be another crowd favorite with her mix of jazz standards, pop ballads and blues burners. Deep Banana Blackout also were faves at least of the "funk mob" that follows them around to all their shows, à la the Grateful Dead. But these fans were a welcome addition to the festival, bopping and dancing to the music of several other acts.
Fourplay, the long-running smooth-jazz superstar quartet, closed things out on Saturday with a pleasant and mellow set of tunes featuring some fine chops and good group interplay.
On Sunday, James Brown's most famous graduate, saxophonist Parker, had things off and running in fine funky style by noon. He and his 10-piece band proved the perfect lead-in to Cruz's set. Her fans were sprinkled throughout the audience, and their loud cheers left no doubt that she was well loved. Cruz's new album, A Night of Salsa, features the tune "Celia and Tito."
The music took an abrupt turn when saxophonist John Zorn took the stage with his Masada Quartet. With their heady mixture of crisp ensemble playing and wild improvisations, all based on Zorn's klezmer melodies, Masada Zorn on alto, Dave Douglas on trumpet, Greg Cohen on bass and Joey Baron on drums left many listeners in awe.
Like Saturday's schedule, Sunday's featured a vocalist in the fourth position. Cassandra Wilson enthralled the crowd with her deep-toned and blues-laden music that pushes jazz vocals into uncharted waters. After spending many years on the fringe of stardom, Wilson has finally made it to the top, and her musical vision remains intact.
Sunday's performers on the harbor stage included the young keyboard player D.D. Jackson, electric guitarist Vernon Reid, drummer Brian Blade's Brian Blade Fellowship and saxophonist Karl Denson's Tiny Universe.