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Newport news
Taking stock of this year’s Jazz and Folk Festivals

Newport might as well be Mecca when it comes to the region’s jazz and folk scene. The festivals celebrating both genres at Fort Adams State Park are New England’s classiest summer-concert events. They serve food that’s several cuts above the popcorn-and-burgers fare of other venues, and they have the benefit of the sea as a backdrop. They also have a rich history that goes back to the 1950s. Next year the Newport Jazz Festival will celebrate its golden anniversary, and the Folk Festival isn’t much younger.

Over the decades, as both events have grown, changing economics, styles, and tastes have driven the festivals’ founder, George Wein, and his New York City–based Festival Productions to search for big stars and flashy line-ups. And this year’s pool of talent — with Pat Metheny, George Benson, India.Arie, Joan Armatrading, and Ani DiFranco on the main stages — is no exception. But one of Newport’s best-kept secrets is its continuing legacy of great performers on its small stages.

"In the early years of the Jazz Festival, we would put on smaller-scale shows in the afternoon, and that’s where Thelonious Monk and Cecil Taylor made their festival debuts," says Wein. Bob Jones, who started working at the Folk Festival for Wein and now runs that event, fondly recalls the workshop stages of the early ’60s, which were on the lawn of St. Michael’s School on Memorial Boulevard, near the fests’ original downtown Newport location. "There would be maybe a dozen people gathered around the workshop stages, and the musicians wouldn’t even use microphones. Great bluesmen like Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James would be on for 35 or 40 minutes, or maybe trade songs back and forth." Jones also recalls that Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Bill Monroe, and Muddy Waters played the workshops in the Folk Festival’s early years. "Very often, the best acts at the festivals have been on those small stages."

Concertgoers at this year’s Jazz and Folk Fests should take that last remark as advice. Although it’s been decades since the festivals have had workshops or matinees, in the late ’90s the tradition of smaller stages was reinstated. And this year the quality of artistry on the Jazz Fest’s pavilion stage and the Folk Fest’s three alternate stages is sufficiently rich and diverse to merit comparison to the festivals’ formative years — it’s a festival all by itself. (See "Less is more," below.)

"Having a second stage gives you a lot more freedom to book different kinds of acts," says Art Edelstein, who books the Jazz Festival Mercedes-Benz Pavilion. "Although I’m aware of the festival’s history, quite a lot of who appears has to do with what’s going on in the music business. But this year is really interesting. The Bad Plus are hot as a pistol. For me, having Dewey Redman is special. He made one of my favorite records, and he and Lou Donaldson are historic artists. And because the pavilion has seating and is covered by a tent, they can play the festival and still have some of the intimacy of a club." It’s worth underlining that the smaller tented stages provide refuge from the sizzling summer sun for festivalgoers who need to cool down but still want hot music.

And for relative newcomers like New York City–based Oscar Hernández’s Spanish Harlem Orchestra or the estimable folk talent Kris Delmhorst, the smaller stages provide a place where they can introduce their art to new audiences without feeling the pressure to draw ticket buyers. "It’s a really important notch on our belt in terms of the trajectory of the band, what we’re doing, and where we want to go," Hernández explains. "The Newport Jazz Festival has an international reputation and a great history, and we’re proud to be part of that. But we’re also excited that people who have never heard of the Spanish Harlem Orchestra are going to be surprised because we have one kick-ass band."

The schedule of performances for this year’s events is especially diverse and brings a number of important artists — Metheny and Me’Shell Ndegéocello among them — to Fort Adams State Park for the first time. The Jazz Festival begins next Friday, August 8, at 8 p.m. with a vocal night featuring k.d. lang and Peter Cincotti at the Newport Casino’s International Tennis Hall of Fame (194 Bellevue Avenue). From there it moves to Fort Adams, where two stages will showcase acts from 11:30 a.m. until 6:30 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. On Saturday, R&B-inflected singer-songwriter India.Arie, guitar hero George Benson, pianist Michel Camilo’s trio with guest saxist David Sánchez, trumpeter Terence Blanchard’s sextet, and vocalist Lizz Wright will hold court on the main stage. The pavilion will feature arranger and tuba player Kendrick Oliver and the New Life Jazz Orchestra, legendary alto-saxist Lou Donaldson’s quartet, pianist Vijay Iyer’s quartet, and Afro-samba duo Smokey and Miho.

On Sunday on the large stage, guitarist Metheny (playing both solo and with his trio), bassist Stanley Clarke and his band, piano guru Dave Brubeck, singer Cassandra Wilson, and Eddie Palmieri’s salsa big band will appear. Under the tent, singer-songwriter Ndegéocello, the great free-jazz saxist Dewey Redman’s quartet, modern jazz wildmen the Bad Plus, techno-jazz innovators the Detroit Experiment (with trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, pianist Gerri Allen, and violinist Regina Carter in the line-up), and the percolating Spanish Harlem Orchestra will play.

The Apple & Eve Newport Folk Festival starts Friday August 15 at 8 p.m. in the ballroom of the Viking Hotel (1 Bellevue Avenue) with the "Ribbon of Highway — Endless Skyway" tour, offering music "in the spirit of" Woody Guthrie performed by singer-songwriters Jimmy LaFave, Ellis Paul, Eliza Gilkyson, Sarah Lee Guthrie, Johnny Irion, Slaid Cleaves, and Michael Fracasso as well as recent addition Pete Seger. Then it’s on to Fort Adams, where the music will continue on three stages from 11:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Saturday the main stage will feature a tune-swapping performance by Southern songwriters Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt, Guy Clark, and Joe Ely plus prickly legend John Prine, West African world-pop singer Angélique Kidjo, folk trio Nickel Creek, Australian folk-blues trio the Waifs, emerging star songwriter Mary Gauthier, and Texas tunesmith Jimmy LaFave. An intermediate-sized stage will sport gutsy female singer-songwriter Tift Merritt, a song swap with Kevin Briody, Mieka Pauley, Michael Fracasso, and Susan Gibson, Austin folksinger Eliza Gilkyson, New England troubadours Ellis Paul and Slaid Cleaves, folk-pop performer Erin McKeown, and emerging Northern California singer/strummer Jackie Greene. A smaller "Family Stage" will feature three groups on Saturday: the Georgia Sea Island Singers, who perform a unique brand of African-American folk music, Afro-Latin group Sol y Canto, and Malian dance, drum, kora, and song ensemble Troupe Baden’ya.

On Sunday, genre-busting pop-folker Joan Armatrading, punk-folk princess Ani DiFranco, pop bluesman Keb’ Mo’, Boston darling Aimee Mann, mandolin wizard Sam Bush, ex-Del-Fuego-turned-children’s-songwriter Dan Zanes, and New Orleans harmony-singing roots-rockers the Subdudes will play the main stage. The mid-sized stage will feature Nashville country-pop singer Kim Richey, queen of the banjo Alison Brown, a blues song swap with John Herald, Ray Bonneville, David Jacobs-Strain, and Precious Bryant, the Ben Taylor Band led by the son of James Taylor, traditional folk duo Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion, and old-time string band trio the Mammals. And the "Family Stage" will be replaced by a "Roots Stage" with piano-and-guitar smooth jazz duo Lake Effect, the Amerdings (featuring father-and-son bluegrassers Taylor and Jake Amerding), and another song swap with up-and-comers Jake Armerding, Rachael Davis, Kris Delmhorst, and Mark Erelli.

Issue Date: August 1 - August 7, 2003
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