Newport Jazz Fest offers much

Date: 8/1/2012

By Craig Harris

Special to Reminder Publications

Celebrating its 58th anniversary, the Newport Jazz Festival, in Newport, Rhode Island, has continued to grow as one of the world's most diverse showcases of improvisation-rooted music. This year is no exception. A New Orleans celebration, at the International Hall of Fame, on Aug. 3, kicks off the three-day event with performances by Grammy-winning Dr. John and The Lower 911, featuring pianist/vocalist Jon Cleary, The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and Louis Armstrong's music director's daughter, Catherine Russell, with pianist Jonathan Batiste.

Moving to Fort Adams State Park, on Aug. 4 and Aug. 5, the Newport Jazz Festival continues to branch out to the full spectrum of jazz music. Performers range from Sarah Vaughn-influenced vocalist, Dianne Reeves to jazz fusion guitarist Pat Metheny, and the jam band-inspired Tedeschi Trucks Band, featuring Boston-born blues-rock guitarist/vocalist Susan Tedeschi, and her guitar-wiz husband, Derek Trucks, of The Allman Brothers Band. Guitarist Bill Frisell will be performing a set based on the songs of John Lennon, and playing a set with neo-jazz group, The Bad Plus.

New Orleans' connection to jazz remains a theme throughout the weekend. Long Beach, California-born, and New Orleans-based, Evan Christopher, will be showcasing his Crescent City-influenced clarinet playing, as part of a three-clarinet workshop with Anat Cohen and Ken Peplowski.

"The roots of our music are very evident," Christopher said, "but we're not married to past recordings. It's not repertory music. Anat's interests are really diverse and she's never been interested [in recapturing historic sounds]. Those are her strengths, while an interest in the history is one of mine. Ken comes from both places. He's got a lot of new ideas, but he actually worked with Benny Goodman. It's really the best of all three worlds."

Born on August 31, 1969, Christopher has found his musical voice through much older sounds. "I couldn't tell you what was on the radio [when I was a kid]," he said. "The only thing that interested me was the movie, The Sting, with Robert Redford and Paul Newman. The soundtrack had a couple of rags written by Scott Joplin. That was the only popular music that caught my ear"

First coming to New Orleans, while touring with the late Jim Croce's son, AJ, in the early-1990s, Christopher felt at home from the start. "There were a lot of people playing music that I was interested in," he said, "and there was a huge variety of work. I could be playing with Al Hirt one night and with a jazz or funk band the next."

In addition to working with such bands as Irvin Mayfield's New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, Christopher continues to focus on his own groups The Jazz Traditions Project and Django a La Creole. He recently released In Sydney's Footsteps, the third entry in an on-going series, Clarinet Road, begun in 2001. "It makes the clarinet the focal point," he said, "and gives me a way to talk about what I do without using the word 'jazz.'"

The global range of jazz will be exemplified by the southern India-meets-American jazz playing of alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa. Making his third Newport Jazz Festival appearance in four years, Mahanthappa will be performing as part of a seventieth birthday celebration for ex-Miles Davis drummer Jack DeJohnette on Saturday, and with his Indo-jazz band, Samdhi, on Sunday.

"Indian music does not have harmony," said the Trieste, Italy-born, Colorado-raised, and New York-based son of Indian immigrants. "That leaves an openness when we're in a Western setting, as to what we want to convey with the harmony. But, it's easy to compose something that's contrived. That has been the challenge, composing music that's real."

Though he was raised as a Hindu, eating Indian food 85 percent of the time, Mahanthappa was inspired more by the alto saxophone playing of Charlie Parker, David Sanborn, and Grover Washington, Junior. "I grew up in a predominantly white community," he said, "and it was easy to think of myself as white. When I got to North Texas University, in 1988, I found that there was a Black community, a Latino community, and a white community. I didn't fit into any of them. That's when I started to explore what it meant to be Indian American."

Trips to India enabled Mahanthappa to further immerse himself in Indian music. He studied and recorded an album, Kinsmen, with Dr. Kadri Gopalnath, pioneer of Indian saxophone playing, in and composed the music that Samdhi will be performing at Newport.

A trip to India, in 2005, enabled Mahanthappa to further immerse himself in Indian music. He studied and recorded an album, Kinsmen, with Dr. Kadri Gopalnath, pioneer of Indian saxophone playing. Returning to India, two years later, as the recipient of a Guggenheim Foundation for musical composition, he worked on the music that he and his band Samdhi will be performing in Newport.

Samdhi reunites Mahanthappa with David Gilmore, a veteran session guitar that he first played with in the early-2000s. "He's amazing," he said, "one of a kind. I heard him playing with Steve Coleman, in the 1990s, while I was studying for my undergraduate degree, at the Berklee College of Music, in Boston. Then I heard him, in Chicago, playing with German percussionist Trilok Gurtu. He's extremely versatile."

One of New York's busiest instrumentalists, Mahanthappa has been involved with a wide range of musical projects. He performed and recorded several albums with jazz pianist/keyboardist Vijay Iyer, in the 1990s and early-2000s, and recorded an album, Apex, with senior alto saxophonist Vernice "Bunky" Green, in 2010.

Since 2009, Mahanthappa has also performed as a member of Jack DeJohnette's band. "It's been amazing to play with him," he said. "He's a great composer, as well as a master drummer. My motivation to move to New York, from Chicago, was that I wanted to someday play with him."

Some dreams do come true.

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