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Festival Provides a Contemporary History Lesson


NEWPORT BEACH — It's easy to forget that the label "contemporary jazz" has been in use for more than 25 years. But there were plenty of reminders Saturday on the main stage at the Newport Beach Jazz Festival as veteran "contemporary" performers dominated the first day of the two-day festival on the golf course at the Hyatt Newporter.

George Duke, one of the first champions of electric keyboard technology, and Bob James, among the first to bring virtuosity and taste to the plug-in instrument, gave object lessons on keeping current. The Yellowjackets, that longest lived of fusion bands, reminded concert-goers just how intelligent jazz fusion can be. By contrast, next-generation saxophonist Andy Snitzer demonstrated how difficult it is to find an identity among today's batch of sound-alike pop-inspired tenor players.

Despite competing with the sunshine, pastoral setting and picnic-like atmosphere, the music remained central over the program's nine hours. The sizable crowd was treated to respectable sound, even as far away as the top of the hill above the stage. Between sets, fusion band Under the Lake played near a host of food and beverage vendors.

Keyboardist James reunited with saxophonist Kirk Whalum in a closing set that showed just how smart jazz with a beat can be. Whalum, who got his start in James' band, shows the same taste as the keyboardist, bringing full measures of technical ability and lyricism to his tenor play while avoiding over-dramatic cliche and repetition.

The two combined for cool sax-keyboard exchanges, crisp unison accents and sharply cut theme statements with matching dynamics. James was especially astute while accompanying the saxophonist, providing just the right surface for Whalum's bouncy play.

Added to the James-Whalum mix, the rock-hard edge of guitarist Jeff Golub (who leads his own contemporary band, Avenue Blue) gave the band's sound a decidedly electric feel. Golub's moody original "Stockholm" shimmered with guitar and synthesizer blends.

Duke, a pioneer of electric funk, showed a soft side through most of his late afternoon set, concentrating on ballads and mid-tempo vocal numbers before breaking out with backbeat. His hurried medley of six tunes from his most recent release included little that was memorable. A solo synthesizer piece that contained spacey effects, Miles Davis-like trumpet sounds and acoustic piano excursions was a surprising success with the audience.

Earlier, the Yellowjackets played the kind of intelligent, well-crafted music they've been known for since arriving in 1981. Also avoiding songs from their past in favor of their most recent material, the Jackets worked a variety of moods and colors, layering Bob Mintzer's tenor or electronic wind instrument against Russell Ferrante's blend of acoustic and electric keyboards and William Kennedy's snappy time-keeping.

Snitzer gave a competent though undistinguished set with a band that included keyboardist-composer Phillipe Saisse. While playing with promise, Snitzer did little to separate himself from the current crop of pop-instrumental saxophonists.

The concert's only pure jazz act, pianist Brad Mehldau, opened the day with his quirky, decidedly Bill Evans-influenced style applied to standards. R&B singer Marilyn Scott brought the audience to life just after noon with her enthusiastic blues and beat material.

Sunday's concluding day of the Newport Jazz Festival, with the exception of veteran keyboardist David Benoit, was scheduled to concentrate on the current generation of contemporary jazz musicians with performances by trumpeter Rick Braun, guitarist Norman Brown, the band Pieces of a Dream and saxophonist Dave Koz.

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