Newport Jazz Festival - Fort Adams State Park - Newport, RI
Saturday, August 8th
I've never bothered making the trip down to Newport for its iconic jazz festival because, like most big jazz festivals, it tends to feature lowest common denominator acts that play the same old tunes year after year. Newport Jazz impresario George Wein decided to do something about that this year, as this article from the Boston Globe back explains. This year's line-up is fairly impressive, but the Vandermark 5 alone was worth the price of admission for me. Alas, I was not disappointed.
One of the great things about Vandermark is he never talks down to his audience. When I saw him play with School Days at SXSW in 2001, they played a couple of old Archie Shepp and Roswell Rudd songs and he dutifully announced the song titles and composers to the crowd despite the fact that most of them were there for the punk rock act that followed them and most certainly had never heard of Shepp or Rudd (or Vandermark, for that matter). The Vandermark 5, as far as I know, only plays original tunes, so there was no free jazz history lesson going on, but their song selection was in no way pandering to the audience in Newport.
Simply put, their set rocked - literally and figuratively. I don't think I've ever heard them play a set as hard-hitting as the one they played in Newport. The first number that they did started out on a rocking note with Fred Lonberg-Holm playing a great serpentine cello solo against the bass and drums before Vandermark and Rempis joined in on tenor and alto saxes, respectively. Vandermark played tenor for most of the set. He occasionally picked up the clarinet, but his bari was not on stage. His most impressive solo was during the most subdued number of the set, Early Color, but all of his solos were strong. The band sounded really tight. It probably helped that most of the songs were from their forthcoming album, but still, it's pretty amazing to watch a band playing music that is both highly improvised and very precise at a breakneck pace stick together as well as they did.
I was quite impressed with the crowd; at its peak, it was standing room only. Vandermark appeared to share my sentiments, as he spent most of his time between numbers thanking the crowd and George Wein himself, who was on hand for most of their set. The biggest crowd pleaser of the day was Cement, a cacophonous song that was let off by Tim Daisy and featured some devastating hooks in addition to a Vandermark-Rempis tenor sax tête-à-tête.
The few times I've seen Vandermark play in front of a so-called crossover audience, he's been incredibly well-received and this show was no exception. While it's never going to be considered mainstream, this is music that adventurous ears are ready for, even if they aren't particularly attuned to jazz. Hopefully, the Vandermark 5's first US jazz festival appearance won't be their last.