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Ella sparkles as jazz and blues legends revive Newport era at Wolf Trap

 

Audiences at Wolf Trap's Jazz and Blues Festival witnessed jazz history live and jazz history kept alive.

The Thursday-Sunday concert event hosted almost 30 artists on two stages – as well as some showers of rain that unquestionably should have been edited out of the worthy program.

For those fans who remember the Newport jazz festivals in the 1950s and '60s, Wolf Trap's jazz weekend was a welcome mini-revival of those historic celebrations of the heritage and treasures of this most American of musical contributions to the world.

The evening concerts included such blues and jazz vocal legends as Ella Fitzgerald, Ruth Brown, La Verne Baker, Etta James, B.B. King and Al Green.

The highlight was undoubtedly Ella's appearance Saturday night in the Filene Center, which drew a full house and several hundred more open-air fans on the lawn. The Grand Lady of Jazz received an honorary degree from the George Washington University for her excep­tional contribution to American popular singing.

Though she seemed frail, ill health did not prevent her from showcasing her talent in unique renditions from the Great American Songbook of evergreens. The absence of her magnificent scat improvisation was remedied by emotional depth that gave new dimensions to her per­forming art.

No less moving was her special guest, young blind pianist Marcus Roberts, who gave a solo performance at the Saturday-night concert. This extremely talented pianist is in the fore­front among young musicians turning back to jazz history to study, preserve and present its essence and traditional values.

Mr. Marcus' tribute to the great composers of classic blues and jazz, such as Jelly Roll Morton, W.C. Handy and Charlie Parker, received an enthusiastic welcome from the audience. His technically brilliant, emotionally lyrical approach earned him a standing ovation.

By and large, pure jazz was presented at the Filene Center, while blues and non-traditional ensembles took the stage in Theatre in the Wood.

Among the matinee performances, from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, was Sun Ra, a one-time avant-garde big band leader. While he is still exploring a musical space research, his compositions are now rhythmically more fluid and laid down, paving a more melodically accessible way to the galaxies.

Max Roach, veteran master of the drums, came up with a strong quartet – trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater, sax player Odean Pope and bassist Tyrone Brown – that presented technically complex harmonies in a masterful yet straight-ahead display. Mr. Roach was kind enough to please the audience with a solo bravura on just one of his high hats.

Tony Williams, another drum whiz, led his hard-swinging quintet of young lions. Un­fortunately, his often too-loud drumming made it difficult to hear the music in its complexity.

The duo of alto saxophonist Frank Morgan and pianist George Cables, as well as Don Pullen's trio, showcased these masters of their instruments in full force.

And there were the jazz youngsters, led by saxophonist Branford Marsalis and trumpet player Roy Hargrove. They are the students researching the past to carry its message into the present. However, Mr. Marsalis, while deserving credit for his missionary zeal, seemed a bit in­troverted with his trio music on Saturday afternoon. Mr. Hargroves' Jazz Futures octet, though overlarge for the arrangements, offered more varied and dynamic music with shining trumpet solos on Sunday.

The only thing missing at the Jazz and Blues Festival, some might feel, was any kind of straight experimental exploration. Perhaps that will come in future festivals at Wolf Trap.

(The Washington Times, 1991)