We spent yesterday afternoon at the 56th annual Newport Jazz Festival. I was very excited about this year's lineup, which was even more adventurous than last year. The first concert that we checked out was the Dave Douglas Brass Ecstasy quintet. I saw Douglas play with his Tiny Bell Trio about 12 years ago and I was really impressed, but with the exception of a couple of Masada records, I haven't paid too much attention to his work since then. I really liked their show, and especially liked the songs where Douglas really got to shine. My favorite numbers were a couple of original compositions dedicated to and in the style of two great jazz trumpeters (Enrico Rava and Lester Bowie).
Next up was the most anticipated show of the festival, Powerhouse Sound. I wasn't sure which version of the band was going to be appearing, but I was excited to see Jeff Parker walk out on stage, as I've been an admirer of his work for years but have never had the chance to hear him perform. Ken Vandermark lead the band along with longtime collaborator Nate McBride on electric bass and John Herndon on drums. While this was my favorite show of the festival, I didn't enjoy it as much as I had hoped. The first problem was the sound. It was really hard to hear Vandermark (who played tenor exclusively for this show) over his electrified colleagues. As Vandermark tweeted earlier today, the entire set was very intense. I thought it got to be a bit much at times. They did mellow out a bit in the final third of their set and delivered a stunning rendition of the trippy dub-inspired "Coxsonne".
The crowd was sparser than last year's Vandermark 5 performance (I'm sure overlapping with the Wynton Marsalis show on the main stage this year didn't help). I was a bit disappointed that Ken didn't take any breaks between the songs to announce their titles or the band members. It also pains me a bit to admit that I wasn't a big fan of Herndon's work on the drums. Until I sat down to write this post, I didn't realize that he's the drummer for Tortoise, one of my favorite bands. His drumming took the music into a more rock-oriented direction, which I felt was unnecessary with Parker and McBride already pulling the band that way. Powerhouse's other lineup features Paal Nilssen-Love on the drums and I think I would have enjoyed his sound better.
The final show, pianist Jason Moran was most pleasant surprise. His band played a good mix of originals and reinterpretations, including a stellar rendition of Monk's "Crepuscule With Nellie" to close their set. It was good, solid jazz and Moran's work on the piano was always compelling and even a bit unconventional while still staying inside of a fairly conventional straight ahead jazz framework.