When pianist Hank Jones died in 2010 at the age of 91, his passing marked the end of an impressive familial dynasty that included stints with some of the biggest names in jazz history. Between Hank and his brothers Elvin (drums) and Thad (trumpet), the Jones brothers served as sidemen for some of the most important music recorded in the mid-20th century, be it Elvin’s storied time as a member of John Coltrane’s seminal quartet, Thad’s stint with the Count Basie Orchestra, or Hank’s association with a seemingly endless list of musicians ranging from Cannonball Adderley (the era-defining Somethin’ Else) to Marilyn Monroe (that’s him backing her slurred rendition of “Happy Birthday, Mr. President”).
In this, Jones, the oldest of the three, served as a vital link to a quickly vanishing past. Still recording and performing right up until his death, his mere presence on an album or performance could instill it with a level of greatness and reverence virtually unmatched by any living musician.
Over the years, tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano has become nearly as ubiquitous. Always assembling stellar bands, Lovano himself functions as something of a link between the old and new guard of jazz. Despite having begun his career in the 1970s, his approach has long been more traditionalist than modernist, honoring the music’s heritage while ensuring its continued existence for future generations. One of the most recent incarnations of his group featured bassist Esperanza Spaulding, who some have hailed as one of the purveyors of the future of jazz.
Recorded at the 2005 Newport Jazz Festival, Classic! Live at Newport brings together not only Lovano and Jones, but also a pair of highly-regarded sidemen in drummer Lewis Nash and bassist George Mraz for a rollicking set of straight-ahead jazz played by some of the best in the business. From the opening moments of “Big Ben” through the final reverberating strains of “Six and Four”, Classic! Live at Newport offers a number of tour de force performances. Front and center throughout is the horn of Lovano, its throaty, phlegmatic growl cutting through, the notes melding into an unarticulated blur of melodicism and studied musicality.
On “Bird’s Eye View”, he unleashes a series of cascading, frenetic runs that call to mind prime Coltrane. In this, he shows his approach to be one that falls squarely between both the harp and post-bop players and free jazz screamers. It’s one of many impressive solos performed with a deceptive ease and lyrical fluidity. There seems to be something about the Newport Jazz Festival that brings out the best in performers. Half a century prior, saxophonist Paul Gonsalves delivered a mind-blowing 27-chorus solo in front of an awe-struck crowd. Immortalized on Ellington at Newport, this is but one of many classic and career-defining performances brought out by the storied festival.
And while there are no 27-chorus solos, all four take impressive turns throughout the six-song program. On “Don’t Ever Leave Me”, Mraz deploys a thrillingly fleet-fingered solo with a higher level of harmonic sophistication that finds him pushing the tune well beyond its basic parameters. Teasing classical melodicism, he makes use of the full range of the instrument, leaving an indelible imprint on the performance.
Despite this, there are moments during which the quartet sound as though they are still feeling one another out. With Nash filling in for Paul Motian, the group had a fairly short amount of time to shore up their interplay. Yet all four performers were at the top of their respective games, and by “Kids Are Pretty People” they’ve locked in, with Nash swinging hard and a sense of ebullience permeating the performance.
Classic! Live at Newport offers little in the way of new or unexpected turns from any of these performers. Instead it serves as a fine reminder of the strengths of each and a fitting showcase for the link between jazz’s old and new guard, Lovano falling squarely in the middle. Fans of straight-ahead jazz and thrilling live performances will find much to like here.