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Jvc Festival: All That Jazz In All Those Places

June 23, 1987|LEONARD FEATHER

NEW YORK — The JVC Jazz Festival--formerly the Kool Festival, previously the Newport/New York Festival, originally the Newport, R.I., Jazz Festival--continues to spread its wings all over the area: in concert halls around town, on day cruises, and at performing arts centers in Upstate New York and New Jersey.

The relative intimacy of the Newport years is long gone, but the advantages of bigness (mainly a great diversity of talent) outweigh the obvious handicaps. Ironically, some of the old ambiance was best captured at a preview performance, staged through the grace of Mayor Koch at Gracie Mansion, for an audience composed mainly of show-business notables and the media. Strolling around the lawn or sitting on portable chairs, you could recapture some of the informal feeling that pervaded the original event and seemed to be part of its raison d'etre.

The speeches of Koch and producer George Wein having been duly delivered, and the tenor saxophone of Lew Tabackin taking formidable charge, an all-star group took to the makeshift bandstand. Roger Kellaway, Marian McPartland and Jane Jarvis alternated at the piano. Norris Turney and Benny Wallace added their saxes, Milt Hinton's bass provided a vital undercurrent. Except for one weak link, the faltering trumpet of Donald Byrd, these participants seemed to be saying: "This is what it's all about. Here's what you will be hearing through Sunday."

Actually, much of the music planned for this week is neither as spontaneous nor as accessible as that opening salvo. Some of it involves extensive preparation. Typically, Sunday evening at Carnegie Hall, the Modern Jazz Quartet was heard in a unique setting, augmented by the 19-member string ensemble known as the New York Chamber Symphony.

Announced as a world premiere, this ambitious venture did not quite live up to the premise. John Lewis, the group's musical director, had indeed written and scored additional material, but works announced as brand new were in fact extensions of some of his most successful early compositions, culled from 30-year-old records or from the music Lewis wrote for the 1957 Roger Vadim film "No Sun in Venice." The new arrangements, however, involved enough fresh thematic passages to sustain the interest. His wistful "Django" made unpretentiously charming use of the strings. One movement was written in a lilting waltz meter; another found Milt Jackson in full 4/4 flight on vibraphone. A long-familiar piece in adventurous new garb was Lewis' "The Golden Striker." Still another attractive work, "Encounter in Cagnes," turned out to be a revision of an early Lewis blues.

The chamber ensemble concluded with what was apparently the only completely new addition, a 16-minute, three-part suite titled "A Day in Dubrovnik." Again Lewis' singular gift for melody, coupled with an avoidance of writing that would have placed excessive rhythmic demands on the strings, worked out agreeably. Overall, though, the Lewis ability to mine so much that is new out of old sources would justify calling him the Golden Recycler.

After intermission the MJQ played unencumbered, with feature numbers for all four members (Percy Heath on bass and Connie Kay on drums), and with that perfect balance of freedom and strictures that has always been essential to the group's character. The shimmering blues cascades of Lewis' piano in "One Never Knows" and the buoyant Ellingtonian groove on "Rockin' in Rhythm" brought the evening to a long-delayed climax.

In the room known as Weill Hall (formerly Carnegie Recital Hall), Marian McPartland was heard Friday in a solo piano recital that seemed unlikely to be surpassed. Over the years she has burnished a style that blends elegance with a rhythmic finesse.

There are times when one need only glance at a list of songs performed to draw a fairly safe conclusion about the quality of the recital. Taking full advantage of their inherent harmonic beauties and further enriching them with her own imagination, McPartland played Billy Strayhorn's "Isfahan," Benny Carter's "Lonely Woman" with its hauntingly elusive chords, Alec Wilder's "I'll Be Around" and a song Wilder wrote for her, the waltz "Inner Circle."

Her gift for melodic creativity was charmingly displayed in her own "Time and Time Again." Although the accent leaned toward ballads, there were a few excursions that found McPartland whipping up a fine, striding beat, most notably on the very early Harold Arlen song "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea." Here and elsewhere, she showed that like a growing proportion of jazz pianists, she needs no rhythm section for support; her left hand is constantly agile and interactive.

McPartland's impeccable and moving performance left one regretting that this gifted woman so rarely visits the Southland--a situation she has promised to rectify in the near future.

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