NEWPORT, R.I. -- There were smashing debuts from little-known artists such as violinist Jenny Scheinman and trombonist Sarah Morrow. There was the eccentricity of solo guitarist Marc Ribot and exciting pianist Hiromi Uehara . There were the dated but crowd-pleasing R&B vocals of George Benson, the anticipation of the really-I'm-not-smooth-jazz trumpeter Chris Botti, and the hype surrounding the attendance of Prince Albert II of Monaco. But one thing never seems to change when it comes to the JVC Jazz Festival in Newport: The old stuff is what gets the fans juiced.
There were a lot of fans to juice: 7,200 on Saturday and somewhat fewer yesterday. The lawn at Fort Adams State Park had not been this crammed with blankets and chairs in a long time. The postcard-perfect weather surely helped sell tickets, but so did the caliber of talent.
It started Friday night under clear skies at the Newport Casino in a double bill that featured an intimate, old-fashioned set by the much-ballyhooed singer Jane Monheit and a tribute to Frank Sinatra by the singer-guitarist John Pizzarelli and his new big band.
Pizzarelli isn't the best singer around -- he's got a thin voice and a narrow range -- but he is a consummate entertainer. Weaving humorous tales and cute anecdotes between the tunes, he put on a wholly enjoyable show, and the crowd ate up his interpretations of ``The Way You Look Tonight" and ``Witchcraft." The smart insertion of the novelty song ``Rhode Island Is Famous for You," of course, went over big. But despite the bold sound of the band, the most riveting moments were the quiet ones. Surely inspired by Sinatra's longtime partnership with pianist Bill Miller -- who died this summer, though oddly it wasn't mentioned Friday -- Pizzarelli sang sweetly while Larry Fuller carefully picked out the notes of ``One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)." Even sweeter was Pizzarelli's duet on ``Stars Fell on Alabama" with his 80-year-old father, Bucky, who used to be a lot more famous than his son.
Monheit, backed by a five-piece band, has gotten into Brazilian music lately, and her concerts are the better for it. She has long included ``The Waters of March" in her sets, but now she incorporates other tunes by Antonio Carlos Jobim , and even sings them in Portuguese. Her bossa nova take on Cole Porter's ``In the Still of the Night," too, was charming; she held notes longer than expected, sang behind the beat in places, and aimed at one point for an extremely high note, and almost hit it. Whether Monheit has altered her approach because of those nasty critics who complain that she's not really a jazz singer isn't clear, but she improvised and scatted much more than she has in previous engagements.
The three stages at Fort Adams featured more than two dozen artists and bands ranging from newcomers to legends, and predictably it was the Preservation Hall Jazz Band that drew the most enthusiastic response. Odd, given post-Katrina interest in New Orleans music, that the band was relegated to the midsize pavilion stage, when it had the entire main stage audience up and dancing two years ago. No matter. Fans crowded around the pavilion's edges, and little children danced with abandon on the lawn as the group tore through the second-line stomp of ``Bourbon Street Parade." Traditional jazz doesn't get any better than Preservation Hall.
Dave Brubeck, the 85-year-old pianist who is a mainstay of the Newport festival, drew a standing ovation upon finishing his set, which opened with a bright rendition of ``Sunny Side of the Street" and, naturally, climaxed with ``Take Five." (There would probably be a riot if he ever did a show without playing it.) It's amazing -- not only the youthful exuberance he still brings to his signature tune but also the fact that, no matter how many times he plays it, it never quite sounds like it did the previous time.
For my money, the festival's star was Christian Scott, the 22-year-old trumpeter who arrived this year with a brilliant CD. He and his young sextet -- which was inspired, but not limited, by Miles Davis's fusion-era groups -- tore the roof off the smallest stage in an adrenaline-fueled performance that made an hour seem like an insanely short span.
The festival featured too many highlights to dissect -- the Bad Plus's wonderfully bizarre cover of the Bacharach/David hit ``This Guy's in Love With You," saxophonist James Carter's riotous squawking over his Hammond B3 organist and drummer on ``Bingo Domingo," Scheinman's hot-jazz arrangement of the obscure Duke Ellington tune ``Awful Sad," and Angelique Kidjo's spiritually uplifting vocals on ``Pearls." And only a few hundred people witnessed the weekend's most touching moment: George Wein, the festival's founder, playing piano and singing ``Solitude" in memory of his late wife, Joyce.
Steve Greenlee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.