Newport Jazz Fest
7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 27
Wharton Center Cobb Great Hall
Detroit-born jazzman Clarence Penn savored an afternoon of solitary bread baking last week. Drummers don’t often get to cook alone.
“If you could smell my house right now, it’s killing,” he said. “I know what’s in it. No weird chemicals. Three or four simple ingredients.”
This week, New York-based Penn is back to cooking on stage as part of an all-star band celebrating the 60th birthday of Rhode Island’s Newport Jazz Festival, coming to the Wharton Center Thursday.
Impresario Danny Melnick, a longtime associate of Newport Jazz Festival founder George Wein, put together a group that’s unusually diverse in gender, age and background. With personalities as distinct as veteran trumpeter Randy Brecker, incandescent Israeli clarinetist Anat Cohen, sophisticated vocalist Karrin Allyson and soulful guitarist Mark Whitfield, the music is unlikely to come out like Wonder Bread. A dream rhythm section of Penn, pianist Peter Martin and bassist Larry Grenadier helps to leaven the loaf.
“He wanted something fresh, and that’s what he got,” Penn said. “We wanted to pay homage to songs of the past 60 years, but also show the evolution of jazz and where it is today.”
Some all-star tours throw too many master chefs into the kitchen, but the Newport group has become a tight unit on stage and off.
“It really feels like a family,” Penn said. “We hang out after the show, talk about life.”
Brecker has a million road stories; old friends Whitfield and Martin swap sarcastic barbs on the bus. Penn is learning about Israel from Cohen and sharing his passion for cooking and wine with everybody.
“Audiences see that,” he said. “They feel the closeness on the bandstand. They tell us it looks like we’re having fun and we are.”
Brecker is the closest thing to a living legend in a group that skews young.
“We grew up listening to Randy and now Randy’s listening to us,” Penn said. “His energy is amazing, a high point of the night. His tunes have humor in them, too.”
In addition to showcasing Brecker, the Newport tour offers a rare chance to hear Cohen, a peerless instrumentalist, joyous stage presence and exemplar of the changing face of jazz.
“Now you have women on the scene, instrumentalists, and they’re really killing,” Penn said. “It’s a whole other game now. Anat plays tenor, too, but her clarinet is really magical.”
Allyson is a classic jazz vocalist influenced by Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday and Carmen McRae, adding the sarcastic bite of her near-namesake, Mose Allison.
On guitar, Whitfield weaves twinkling strands of city-lights soul into the mix. “He comes out of the George Benson school, and that’s a nice flavor to have on the bandstand,” Penn said.
The group’s vibe is tight, but there’s air in the loaf. They all brought tunes and arrangements to the tour and worked out the details collectively.
“We are supposed to be supportive, but everyone is soloing,” Penn said. “You definitely hear from every player on the stage.”
Penn grew up in Detroit and graduated from Interlochen Arts Academy in 1986, but hasn’t played much in Michigan until three recent gigs at the Detroit Jazz Festival. He wants to spend more time in Michigan and plans to perform with bassist Rodney Whitaker, head of MSU’s Jazz Studies program and a friend from his Detroit days.
Penn moved to New York in 1991 after graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, where he came to the attention of pianist and jazz patriarch Ellis Marsalis and drummer Lewis Nash. His big break was a baptism-of-fire tour with singer Betty Carter, who heard about Penn through Nash.
“You want the gig? Be in New York tomorrow,” Carter told him.
Penn packed up, moved to New York and within three days, he was on the West Coast touring with Carter. Then came six grueling weeks of one-nighters in Europe, hitting a new club every night.
“It was pretty rough,” he said.
Penn has become the go-to drummer in New York’s jazz scene. “I wouldn’t trade being in New York,” he said. “The energy! Being in New York just makes me want to be better all the time.”
Penn has backed almost every jazz musician alive, but when the Newport gig is over, he’s interested in stepping out as a composer and leader. He’ll premiere a suite of new Thelonious Monk arrangements with his band at Lincoln Center April 16.
Lately, he’s been cooking solo in more ways than one, writing music for his own groups. He finds inspiration anywhere he looks, from his favorite artist, surrealist Salvador Dali, to encounters with elk and grizzly bears. Penn taught for 10 years at the Banff International Workshop in Canada with trumpeter Dave Douglas and loved it up in the mountains. His newest CD, “Dali in Cobble Hill,” imagines what would happen if Dali came to Brooklyn.
“There’s always a great song out there,” Penn said. “You just have to listen.”