Newport Jazz Festival Testifies to the Vitality of Today’s Artists
Posted 8/16/2013

The 59th annual Newport Jazz Festival—produced by 87-year-old George Wein and this year presented by Natixis Global Asset Management on Aug. 2–4—was irrefutable testimony to the vitality and diversity of today’s leaning-in jazz artists.

Of 30 acts presented on three stages over two days at Fort Adams State Park, one third were new faces in Newport debuts, another third NEA masters, MacArthur fellows and/or Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Performing Artists playing at their peaks, and the remaining longtime, hardworking pros deservedly rising to headliner status. The influence of Miles Davis, via former members of his bands and self-enlisted followers, was prominent. So was math-jazz, electronics gear and processing, cultures from beyond the United States and evidence that the sounds, songs and strategies of early jazz are meaningful now.

Wayne Shorter with Herbie Hancock, Steve Coleman and Roy Haynes as well as Jim Hall, Terence Blanchard, Joshua Redman, Eddie Palmieri, Chick Corea and Marcus Miller reinforced their appearances with special guests and new projects or simply unflagging energies that held listeners rapt. Baritone Gregory Porter, Chicago chanteuse Dee Alexander and New Orleans post-modern piano professor Jonathan Batiste asserted themselves as crowd-pleasers with unforced yet contemporary approaches to age-old traditions.

Rambunctious bands led by electric guitarists Mary Halvorson and David Gilmore bookended Saturday morning (Aug. 3) to Sunday evening (Aug. 4) at the Park; saxophonist Donny McCaslin’s group, keyboardist Hiromi’s Trio Project and the Robert Glasper Experiment all seemed hot-wired into the zeitgeist—tapping into a vague but nonetheless tangible sense that jazz is fresh, strong and real, neither virtual nor phoned-in. Perhaps every jazz fest, and in particular the point-of-origin fest at Newport, is a bubble. But everyone under this bubble believed without reservation that jazz is a birthright, a natural manifestation of American-bred culture, exciting and enriching as it happens, live.

To its credit, Newport books some challenging music, but the general level of musicians’ chops has never been higher and audiences welcomed everything on the bill. Tenor saxophonist Jon Irabagon, trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, bassist John Hébert and drummer Ches Smith nailed Halvorson’s densely detailed yet slippery compositions and thorny improvisations, demonstrating feel as well as technique throughout. Halvorson herself brought distortions à la Jimi Hendrix together with dry, wry single-note runs in unpredictable succession, and provided crunchy, irregular chordal accompaniment for her sidemen’s excursions. Maybe 800 people heard this—there were no boos, a handful of walkouts and more cheers.

Gilmore’s overall sound was comparably glossy and fluid. His Numerology project—with vocalist Claudia Acuña, alto saxist Miguel Zenón, pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Christian McBride (playing electric), percussionist Mino Cinelu and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts—works with repetitions and variations of cycling phrases that morph complexly but resolve in convergence. That’s a concept Gilmore may have borrowed from alto saxophonist Steve Coleman, his former mentor.

Coleman employed similar strategies in his duet with pianist David Bryant, a tight set with Bryant joining Coleman’s quartet Five Elements, and “Synovial Joints,” a brief concerto he wrote and performed in with the chamber orchestra Talea Ensemble and traps drummer Dafnis Prieto. While the altoist-composer and trumpeter Finalyson ad-libbed through Talea’s sinuous stream of strings, brass, woodwinds and percussion, Prieto skillfully inflected the polyrhythms with attitudinal nuance. This math swung.

Cyclical melodic cells and rhythmic complications took on another cast when deployed by Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble. A trumpeter, vocalist and santoor (hammered dulcimer) player, ElSaffar used microtonality and melodic decorations derived from 14th century Iraqi maqam practices in songs that bristled with free-jazz frontline urgency. His pliant tone on horn was matched by the tough tenor of saxophonist Ole Mathisen, Tareq Abboushi on buzuq (a long-necked lute), Zafer Tawil on oud and dumbek, bassist Carlo De Rosa and drummer Nasheet Waits. This was certainly the first Middle Eastern-imbued jazz combo at Newport to win a standing ovation for its first song.

The Newport audience amounted to about 7,000 each day at the park (there was also a Friday-night concert on Aug. 2 by Natalie Cole and Bill Charlap, plus Freddy Cole). The weather Saturday started rainy, but the rain-or-shine event continued, the skies cleared and few were deterred. The field on Fort Adams’ promontory point, facing the main Fort Stage, filled with folks on blankets and folding chairs, but there was enough room to walk around and cruise the crowd—remarkably multi-generational, multi-racial, evidently including families and friends, die-hard fans and the casually curious.

Crowds had already assembled at 11:15 Sunday morning at the Quad stage inside the massive brick fort for saxophonist McCaslin with keyboardist Jason Lindner, bassist Tim Lefebvre and drummer Nate Wood. The quartet launched into uninhibited post-bop/post-fusion tunes goosed by special effects and hard-hit rhythms. Nobody blinked.

Listeners stood five or six deep around the small Harbor Stage for Batiste’s opener, a florid and not utterly ironic interpretation of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” His Stay Human band (Ibanda Ruhumbika, tuba; Joe Saylor, drums; Edwin Barbash, alto sax; Philip Kuehn, bass) was ready to chime in, tastefully, at Batiste’s every caprice. He crooned “On The Sunny Side Of The Street” and a subtle yet ultimately epic rendition of “St. James Infirmary” that encompassed a fast foray into “Sweet Georgia Brown.” He got cute playing “Killing Me Softly With His Song” on melodica, teased out the theme of Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer,” broke into a montuno, wailed “Why You Gotta Be Like That?” (a prototypical New Orleans novelty-courtship song) and concluded a second-line breakout by taking over Saylor’s tom-tom. There’s no denying Batiste’s infectious charm.

Porter’s step up to the head of the class of male singers was similarly clear to those who’ve watched his ascent over the two years since Water, his first album (on Motéma Music). With the release of Liquid Spirit, his initial release on Blue Note, imminent, Porter and his regular quartet of alto saxophonist Yosuke Sato, pianist Chip Crawford, bassist Aaron James and drummer Emmanuel Harrold offered up original tunes and lyrics, Nat Adderley’s “Work Song” and Jule Styne’s “I Fall In Love Too Easily.” Porter’s own pieces aren’t exactly unfamiliar—they adhere to conventional formats, as does his vocal approach, conversational and declamatory in alternation, something for everyone overall. Attendees who spent most of the days wandering among the fest’s three stages seemed to collect en masse as Porter’s set continued—which happened when Alexander sang, too, culminating in her full-force roar through “Caravan.”

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Mary Halvorson (Photo: LaNita Adams)

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