Thursday, August 09, 2018

Newport Jazz Festival 2018 - Soaking in the Jazz

by Ken Laster

Friday at International Tennis Hall of Fame

This is the first year I attended the special gala event at the historic International Tennis Hall of Fame; the original site of the Newport Jazz Festival starting in 1954. This affair is part Jazz concert and part "high society" event. Many attendees are in formal attire, and it is the place to be seen in social circles in Newport.

The music was as cool as the historic setting. Pat Metheny took the stage first with his 44 string instrument to create a sound as large as an orchestra and transitioned into his electric quartet set. Linda May Han Oh laid down the bass lines, Antonio Sanchez hit the skins and Gwilym Simcock played keys. The set was comprised of Metheny's work from past and present with new interpretations on his old favorites. After a 45 minute set, Pat came back on stage for an ovation of solo acoustic guitar. It was a bit annoying that the audience began chatting and wandering towards the concessions while Metheny poured his heart and soul into his acoustic performance. Perhaps it is a reflection of a not so seasoned jazz audience.
After a brief intermission it was Jose James turn to take the stage. His latest project is the music of Bill Withers. This was an R&B, soul and funk affair. With the bassist Ben Williams, and drummer Nate Smith, both with serious jazz and funk chops, the music took on more than an R&B swoon fest. Jose James has taken on a new look as well. When I had seen him previously doing the music of Billy Holliday, he had slicked back hair and a three piece suit. Now he sports a 70’s Afro, bell bottoms and a jacket and scarf you would expect on Prince. But above all Jose James has the pipes to expertly deliver songs of any genre. After classics like Use Me Up, Lean On Me, Ain’t No Sunshine and others he finished his set with a rousing version of Lovely Day that had much of the audience dancing in front of the stage and in the isles.

The Saturday Soaking

Sadly, Saturday was punctuated by torrential rain and floods. As you can imagine these conditions are not compatible with an outdoor jazz festival with three stages spread out over the expansive Fort Adams State Park! The acts that were of greatest interest to me were all situated at the Fort Stage. This is the largest of the venues, and also the most exposed to the elements. The great trumpeter Roy Hargrove was the first to take stage and after a couple tunes, the rains came. We sat through that getting fairly wet. Then Pat Metheny was next up. He began a great set of music that varied from the previous night’s play list, but the rain and wind intensified. At one point everyone’s cell phones were ringing with National Weather Service warnings.

Roy Hargrove

Pat Metheny
We were fortunate to have access to the media tent where we ducked for cover. Even that gave us only temporary relief, and the tent itself began to flood. We then escaped to a room in the bricked Fort. While that provided some dry comfort, by this time we were soaked from head to toe, right down to our undergarments. With no end in sight, we left the festival to dry off in our accommodations in Newport.

Glorious Sunday

Ahhh! A warm sun and gentle breezes greeted us at the Festival Sunday morning, and continued throughout the day. The music was just as fine.

After we claimed our little bit of real estate in front of the Fort Stage, and put down our soggy blanket and chairs, we headed right to the Storyville Stage. This indoor venue has limited seating and creates the most intimate performance space within the festival. There we witnessed an incredible duet performance from pianist Helen Sung and tap dancer Mechela Marino Lerman. Their interplay was precise and exquisite. Most impressive was the wide range of styles played. From stride piano, to the quirkiness of Monk to a classical play on Chick Corea’s Aramando’s Rhumba, this duet took solos and “traded fours” like you would expect to hear on any jazz combo.

It was back to the Fort Stage next to hear Herlin Riley’s group play his modern jazz set that had a subtle New Orleans tinge as you might expect from this NOLA native. An expert drummer often heard with Marsalis’ Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, he shined in his role as a leader of this quintet. Marcus Strickland was particularly impressive playing tenor and bass clarinet.

Renee Rosnes, Melissa Aldana, Anat Cohen

We stayed put at the Fort Stage to see an all-star ensemble of women who are top shelf in today’s jazz scene. Led by pianist Renee Rosnes, the group also features Melissa Aldana and Anat Cohen on reeds, Ingrid Jensen trumpet, Allison Miller drums and vocalist extraordinaire Cecile McLorin Salvant. They romped through standards and originals. The highlight of the set for me was a Rosnes/Salvant duet of Stevie Wonder’s Magic.
Next I switched venues to the smaller tent covered Harbor Stage to see drummer Nate Smith’s Kinfolk ensemble. There he put on a funk laced set with great playing by Jaleel Shaw on sax and John Coward on keys along with a rockin’ guitar. A soulful singer joined in at one point, that moved the set in a smooth R&B direction.

Charles Lloyd
Then back to the Fort Stage where Charles Lloyd was unexpectedly rockin’ out. His regular quartet of Jason Moran p, Rueben Rogers b, Eric Harland d, was joined by a rock guitarist, slide guitar and second drummer. I’ve seen Lloyd in several settings, but none quite like this, and make no mistake, Lloyd can rock out. Singer Lucinda Williams joined in and the set took a turn towards country roots rock that I couldn't appreciate as much.

Time to move to the large tent covered Quad Stage. This for me was the creative highpoint of the day with trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire. This hard-to-define set had a string quartet, poet/rapper Kool A.D., and jazz cats Sam Harris p, Marcus Gilmore d. I’ll just say that this was the most original and creative set I saw during the festival. His compositions and the string arrangement with the integration of spoken word was unique and showed how you can take jazz music to new directions.
Sam Harris, Ambrose Akinmusire, Kool A.D.
Gregory Porter
Several other great shows filled the afternoon. Gregory Porter put in a jazzy, R&B and gospel set No one today can match his deep rich vocal tones. I caught Jennifer Hartswick on the Storyville Stage with guitarist Nick Cassarino and joined by Christian McBride on bass. Ms. Hartswick was once introduced to me as “sings like Aretha and plays trumpet like Hubbard”; that's a winning combination. My wife caught Jazzmia Horn’s vocal set and said that was outstanding, particularly her singing of “The Peacocks”. Sorry I missed that one as well as several others. With three stages playing continuous music of such high quality throughout the day, it is a challenge to get to all the acts you wish to hear. We finished the festival with Black Arts Jazz Collective, a septet featuring Jeremy Pelt, Wayne Escoffery, Jonathan Blake and more. It was a straight ahead swing-fest and a great way to end this year's festival.

Check out the complete photo gallery here.

Photo credits: Ken Laster

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

A New Way to Buy a Mattress

Review: My new leesa mattress

In the past, purchasing a mattress has been akin to buying a car. When you walk in the showroom, the price tags seem ridiculously high and you never quite trust the sales rep. When you decide you surely can find a better deal elsewhere, they always come up with a discount that for some reason hadn’t been offered earlier.

Now, with today’s technology the mattress industry has been transformed. Like nearly every other retail business, “Click and Order” has encroached on “Brick and Mortar”. But that isn’t the only thing that has changed. The materials and construction are different. Mattress springs are replaced by high density pads and memory foam. The entire mattress can be compressed, rolled-up and boxed. What had been an unruly shipping, delivery and set-up, is now delivered in a manageable box by UPS, easily carried to the bedroom, and unwrapped. Magically, within a couple minutes this hard flat pad unfolds and decompresses into a real full bed,

What is really important is the quality of the sleep. I have been sleeping on our new leesa mattress for over a month. I can confidently say that this is the most comfortable mattress I have owned, and I have had waterbeds, air mattresses and conventional mattress/boxspring sets. This is a firm bed. My first impression was maybe too firm. But within minutes the mattress conforms nicely to the contours of your body as you settle into a good nights sleep. The leesa has me sleeping more soundly and awakening ache-free.

This new paradigm of mattress shopping is definitely taking the industry by storm. There are now at least a half dozen Internet offerings to choose from. I can only speak for the leesa. I am very pleased with my choice. Ordering couldn't be more simple, free shipping and you have up to 100 days if you don't like it, they will pick it up and issue a prompt refund (so they say). If you are considering getting a leesa mattress, please use this link.  You will get a hefty discount and I get a referral bonus as well.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

The Joy of Vinyl

During this year’s holiday season I decided to set up my turntable which had been purchased during my college years back in the 70s. Sometime after the advent of CDs in the 80s my records and turntable had been relegated to storage in my basement. On rare occasions I would peruse through my collection, and at times I would bring a record to the radio station where I host a jazz show and play it over the air.

In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in vinyl long playing records (LP’s). Ironically, the impetus for this has not been from my generation which grew up with this medium, but with millennials who’s current popular format for music is digital streaming.

Digitization of the music industry has been a double edged sword. While there is more music available with unlimited streaming at the touch of your iPhone, music has also become a cheap commodity. The experience of discovery, acquiring and listening to your music is now so easy and commonplace that its value has been diminished.

The LP “experience” was a significant part of my formative years. Leafing through albums in the record store, marveling at the cover art, shelling out my hard earned cash, unwrapping, carefully handling the disk, setting the needle down on the spinning turntable is an experience that is totally lost in the digital age.

Listening to records was also a social experience. Untold hours were spent with friends taking in the music, passing around the album covers, reading the lyrics and liner notes, sharing our recently purchased LP’s, discovering new music together. Admittedly we were often stoned as we enjoyed the music and each other’s company. We listened to the music intently. It was not background sound or dance music. We listened to the lyric, musicianship, compositions and arrangements.

I am now re-discovering much of this experience. Listening to these old albums is like getting back together with old friends, re-experiencing some important times of our lives. My collection has some iconic rock albums (Meet the Beatles, Sargent Pepper, Electric Ladyland). However, my most cherished albums are those that introduced me to Jazz (Kind of Blue, Miles Smiles, A Love Supreme). I remember buying Miles Davis Bitches Brew at Sam Goody’s because I was enthralled by the artwork. That album along with Mahavishnu John McLaughlin's Inner Mounting Flame introduced me to Jazz/Rock Fusion and eventually to Miles and Coltrane which began my obsession for Jazz. Those albums changed my life. Another life altering experience was listening to Chick Corea’s  Light as a Feather. Playing this LP in my dark smoke filled dorm room one evening with new friends was responsible for hooking up with my wife of over 40 years.
Cover art by Mati Klarwein (click to enlarge)
But, enough of nostalgia. There really is something to recordings on vinyl. There is a warmth to the sound that is unique to this format . Vinyl fans had told me this, but I always discounted it. Digital is cleaner, more accurate, truer to the source, I always thought.  But now I hear a lush warm sound that is comforting like a warm blanket over the music. It is a softening of the edges that is inherent in analog recordings compared to the antiseptic feel from a digital format.

Besides the obvious differences in packaging, handling and playing of records versus digital, there is something wonderful in the format itself. Records have a physical “limitation” of having two sides of about 20 minutes of music, 40 minutes in total. This is a perfect amount of time to stay immersed in the music. It requires you to get up and turn the disk after 20 minutes, keeping you engaged. Artists used this time-frame to sequence their songs into a cohesive story. I find that this format lends itself to listening to an entire album from the first track on Side One till the last one on Side Two. Not so with CD’s, which are nearly 1 1/2 hour in length, or streaming digital where single tracks and shuffle modes are more common.

I've only listened to a dozen or so albums in the last couple of days, but I look forward to getting to know my old records once again. And, due to the resurgence of vinyl, there are record shops here in Connecticut like The Telegraph in New London, or Integrity in Music (Wethersfield) where I can get lost flipping through isles of record bins and filling in the holes in my collection of classic Jazz releases, and maybe some new vinyl too!

Friday, December 29, 2017

Ken's Brain Drain Redux

It's been well over 2 years since I posted on the Brain Drain. I started this blog in 2001, over 17 years ago. I have posted here 537 times.

I've got several ideas of things I wish to write about that just don't fit into a Facebook, Twitter or Instagram post. We will start with the Joy of Vinyl Records and a review of my new Leesa Matress for starters.

Let's dust this baby off and start anew.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Thoughts on the Benghazi Inquisition

I have to give props to Hillary for Thursday's congressional "hearing". I don't think any of the Presidential hopefuls on either side could have withstood such an abusive marathon interrogation, and turn it into a positive like Hillary. The contrast in style between accusers and the accused was startling. The Republicans were "over the top" mean spirited, abusive, and partisan. Hillary answered every question with a steely rational intelligence. The Republicans did everything possible to prove that this WAS a partisan political hatchet job. I love my Bernie, but I have a renewed respect for Hillary and its becoming apparent that she is best prepared for the office of President of the United States.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Update on the GOP "Debate"

credit CNN
After watching all three hours of this debate, I have to give credit to those candidates that tried to stay above the fray despite CNN's baiting to turn this into a cock-fight. Shamelessly, CNN structured the questions to pit one candidate against the other. There were a few candidates that saw this as their best opportunity to get their message across to potential voters. Fiorina, Christie and Rubio tried really hard to re-direct the "debate" to express their policies and values. I commend them for their efforts.

In those rare moments where policy and values punched through the inevitable mud-wrestling, we heard the typical conservative line;
  • Chest thumping calls for sending our military back into the Middle East (boots on the ground).
  • De-funding Planned Parenthood, an important resource for women's health including contraception, breast and cervical cancer screenings and safe pregnancy terminations.
  • Opposing reasonable legislation to reduce gun violence including universal background checks and a ban on the most deadly and violent guns and high capacity magazines.
  • Undermining an agreement, in conjunction with our allies, to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
  • Denying millions of Americans health insurance by repealing the Affordable Care Act. 
Every one of those candidates, to some degree hold these positions (except Rand Paul for not advocating boots on the ground)

Congratulations to those candidates that were able to rise above the mud-slinging. I appreciate hearing your point of view. Now I know with even greater clarity that none of you are fit be President of the USA.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Fight night at the GOP

(credit: NY Daily News)
C’mon CNN. I’ve never heard so many stupid metaphors, particularly boxing ones, for a Presidential debate. On CNN, Round 2. First is the undercard for those polling at less than 2% (aka the Kiddie Table). For the Main Event, who will throw the first punch at Donald Trump, known as the great counter-puncher? blah, blah, blah.

And the irresponsible media is just baiting these candidates. I am hearing over and over again that it is not so important to talk policy as it is to get in that one-liner. What people will remember is the big “Zinger”. (followed by clips of Reagan, “I’m paying for this microphone”; Bentson/Quayle “You’re no John Kennedy”; Mondale’s "where’s the beef”). 

It’s easy to blame the media, but the truth is Republicans brought this on themselves. The media is just egging them on. It’s good for the ratings. But let’s not ignore the fact that the "Trump Effect" is just a reflection of the bigots and haters that have taken over Conservatism and the Grand Old Party.

Listen, I’m not expecting an intellectual policy discussion from this band of morally deficient carnival hucksters. But, it’s disgusting that this is being marketed more like Wrestlemania than a serious debate intended to help Americans make an informed decision.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

The President's Amazing Eulogy

The media seemed to focus solely on the two minutes of the President breaking into song. The real message is in the other 35 minutes of this extraordinary speech. While I may not subscribe to the religious overtones that frame this eulogy, the message of racism, gun violence and how we need to come together in the face of such tragedies is inspiring. Take the time to listen to this eulogy in its entirety. It is time well spent. 

Despite all the haters, the deniers, the bigots and obstructionists that make up conservative America; despite all those that wish to destroy this presidency even if it puts our Nation at risk, President Obama will truly go down in history as a great moral leader for our country.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Nothing will change

Nothing will change. We all know it. Racism is pervasive, even institutionalized. Conservatives will marginalize or deny the role of racism in our society. Republican presidential candidates will fall over each other to gain these red-necked racists votes. America's sick lust for guns and violence will continue. Politicians will cower to the NRA and it's supporters and shun legislation to control gun sales. Nothing will change. We all know it. I'm ashamed of my own country.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Review: Garmin Vivofit Activity Band

Recently, I purchased this Garmin VivoFit activity monitor, and I am very happy with it. It's basically just a pedometer that measures steps via a motion detector. It will estimate calories and distance based on the numbers of steps you take during the day. I didn't, but you can purchase an optional heart rate monitor as an add-on for more accurate activity stats.

I did a lot of research prior to buying this device, comparing it with the Fitbit, Nike Fuelband and a few others. What swayed me to the Vivofit is the long battery life (no charging needed), and an always-on large display. There is also a simple yet effective motivator, in a little red bar.

No charging needed.
We have cell phones, laptops, e-readers, iPads, and other gadgets that need charging. Another gadget usually means more cables, adapters and power supplies. But the Vivofit is unique, as to never need charging. Most of these activity bands need to be recharged every couple of days or once a week. There are no adapters, ports or cables with the VivoFit. It contains two replaceable disk batteries that are claimed to last a year or more. There is no reason to take this band off your wrist or find yourself in a situation where you are low on juice and can't find a place to recharge. This means you are more likely to wear it at all times.

Always-on display
This activity band has a large reflective display (no backlight). Hit the button on the band and it cycles through your dalily number of steps, steps till goal is reached, distance, calories, time and date. Add the optional heart rate monitor, and that information is displayed. Most other fitness bands have a minimal display and require a continuous connection to your mobile phone to check your stats. The VivoFit's always-on display makes it more of a stand-alone device. It gives you the important information you need throughout the day. When you are ready to sync, you can get more detailed stats.

That damned red bar
An interesting user interface element is this little red bar that appears above the numerical display. You can see it in the picture above. If you have been sedentary for an hour, the red bar pops up telling you it is time to get off your butt and take a walk. If you stay inactive, the red line grows longer each 15 minutes and flashes. Get up and move around for a few minutes, and the line disappears. Its a simple yet effective motivator to get you more active throughout the day.

Sync it up
Syncing can be done on either a smart-phone or your personal computer. Garmin Connect Mobile is software that runs on iOS or Android. It requires a compatible phone with Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE). On an iPhone that is a 4S or later. Alternatively, you can sync with your computer using the included ANT adapter that plugs into a USB port, and software for Mac or Windows. Press and hold the button for a couple of seconds and the band syncs your data. The data is extensive, and is displayed in cards on your dashboard. Double click on the card and you drill deeper into the data, historical trends and sleep graphs. See below for a screen shot of the Dashboard. The User Interface is similar on your mobile phone.

There is another kind of sync that you can take advantage of. You can merge your step data from Vivofit with calories consumed and fitness activity from the popular MyFitnessPlan. This is a two way synchronization that enhances the reporting for both programs.

Goals and Challenges
I mentioned the little red bar in the Vivofit display, and that is a strong motivator to get you moving. But it doesn't stop there. The Vivofit dynamically sets a goal for the number of steps each day. Your goal is based on past performance (number of steps), and changes every day. If you consistently surpass your goal, the next day's goal will become tougher. Then there are challenges. Each week you are put into a Step Challenge with some other folks. A leaderboard is displayed that shows how you stand in relation to the others in your group. You can also create your own challenge groups with your friends. You also earn "badges" for winning Step Challenges and passing milestones. These features are designed to add some fun and competition to your efforts to get more active.

It's not all rosy
There are some issues. Some of these are related to maximizing battery life. The display has no backlight, so you can't see it in low light situations. Other monitors also have vibrating reminders and notifications; not the VivoFit. Syncing with Garmin Connect and MyFitness plan has sometimes been unreliable, with periods of downtime. Also the sleep reporting is weak. It would be nice to measure periods of deep sleep. You can see it graphically, but the data is not presented as well as I've seen in other programs.

In Summary
I am really enjoying my Vivofit. It has motivated me to be more active in my daily routine, hit the gym more often and be aware of my calorie intake versus calories burned. Compared to other activity bands, I like the fact that I don't have to think about charging, and I don't have to check my phone to see my daily progress. Meeting my daily goal and competing in community challenges is fun and motivating.

If you have a Garmin Vivofit or intend to get one, please contact me. I'd love to add you in a custom Challenge group.