Trumpeter Randy Brecker introduced the Newport Jazz Millennium Celebration on Saturday at the Irvine Barclay Theatre as "an overview of the last 100 years of jazz," an obviously impossible task to achieve in a bit less than 2 1/2 hours of music. But by touching on some of the jazz world's greatest personalities--Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver, Miles Davis--the 10 musicians who made up the Newport, R.I., troupe gave good measure of the music's spirit if not its history and development.
Many of the Celebration's participants now touring the country have played a role in that history. Saxophonist Red Holloway, 73, came out of the Chicago big bands of Gene Wright and Roosevelt Sykes in the '40s to explore the more soulful side of jazz with everyone from vocalist Billie Holiday to organist Jack McDuff (he and McDuff were reunited at last year's West Coast Jazz Party in Irvine).
Pianist Cedar Walton, 66, was a member of Art Blakey's groundbreaking Jazz Messengers in the early '60s with such giants as saxophonist Wayne Shorter and trumpeter Lee Morgan, and has gone on to compose a number of now-recognized jazz standards as well as leading important combos over the last 30 years.
Trumpeter Brecker, 54, along with his brother, saxophonist Michael Brecker, was a pioneer of the jazz fusion
movement in the '70s as the Brecker Brothers but is also admired as a strong performer in the bebop tradition of the '40s and '50s.
The music's future was represented as well with organist Jay McShann, drummer Mel Lewis and trombonist Joel Helleny, 43, who developed his craft with such senior figures as trumpeters Buck Clayton and Doc Cheatham. Guitarist Howard Alden, 41, whose association with the late seven-string master George Van Eps has left him with one of the most authentic, well-rounded sounds in jazz. The presence of trumpet sensation Payton, 27, whose quintet with emerging stars Tim Warfield on saxophone, Anthony Wonsey on piano, Sean Conley on bass and drummer Adonis Rose served as the core rhythm section, demonstrated that jazz will not be static in its second century.
Working in mix-and-match ensembles ranging from nonet to duo, the bands changed front lines more often than the Mighty Ducks on a bad night. Payton paid tribute to Armstrong with "Wild Man Blues," inserting growls and yammers reminiscent of the 1930s but still inside his decidedly contemporary attack.
Helleny, Alden and Walton then jumped into the hard-bop '60s with composer-pianist Silver's classic "Nica's Dream." Holloway, Brecker, Helleny and Walton then leaped back to the '30s for "Moten Swing," the Benny Moten number championed by Moten's onetime sideman Count Basie. Alden stayed in the '30s with Django Reinhardt's "Castle of My Dreams" (Manoir des mes Reves).
Brecker, noting that his old boss Art Blakey claimed the song was written on the bottom of a garbage can, moved into the '40s with Gillespie's "Night in Tunsia," as Holloway's wily tenor adding to the feel.
Not everything was a look back. Payton's quintet opened the second set with originals from his new album "Nick @ Night," including Wonsey's furiously modern "Blacker Black's Revenge" which was received by the audience as enthusiastically as it had it had received Billy Strayhorn's "Take the 'A' Train."
Payton's octet will be at Founders Hall in the Orange County Performing Arts Center on April 28-29.
Not everything was perfectly assigned. Holloway's cover of John Coltrane's "Mr. P.C.," though competently played, seemed to put Holloway out of his element and might have been better served by saxophonist Warfield. Wouldn't Holloway's approach have fit better with music from his late associate Ben Webster, or maybe applied to the kind of blues and bop blowing vehicle on which he and saxophonist Sonny Stitt used to tangle?
There were standout performances galore: Holloway's smooth, gliding alto work filled with blues touches; Walton's superb remake of Monk's "Rhythm-a-Ning"; Helleny's Lawrence Brown-inspired play on Ellington's 'Creole Love Call"; and Brecker's warm fluegelhorn play on "Someday My Prince Will Come," less pithy than Miles Davis' renowned version but equally pretty. To their credit, none of the musicians sought to ape the various eras they were recreating.
Instead, they brought these classics into the present, injecting their personality and experience into the pieces, underscoring the fact that the music of Ellington, Gillespie, Reinhardt and the others will never grow old as long as there are talented musicians willing to make something new of it.