Newport Jazz Festival 2015 – my take (DownBeat, 8/7/15)


The audience at the main stage of the Newport Jazz Festival.

The audience at the main stage of the Newport Jazz Festival. (NPR photo)

The 61st edition of the Newport Jazz Festival, America’s first jazz festival, included heroic instrumental performances by emerging artists such as alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, pianist Aaron Diehl and child prodigy pianist Joey Alexander; and by veterans like trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, multi-reeds player James Carter, pianist Fred Hersch, and guitarists Bill Frisell and Mike Stern. Their virtuosity and charisma were matched by four masterful singers, all on Saturday, the festival’s second day: Cecile McLorin Salvant, Lisa Fischer (the former backup singer made famous by the film Twenty Feet From Stardom), José James, and Cassandra Wilson (a separate review of Ms. Salvant’s and Ms. Fischer’s performances will appear here soon).

A festival as significant and storied as Newport can be a force for good or evil, wielding influence far in excess of its three-day duration. Considering its provenance and the historic albums it has spawned – the new 4-CD set Miles Davis at Newport 1955-1975 is only the latest – it is more than a taste-maker; it’s a market-maker.

Fortunately, impresario George Wein has mostly used his influence wisely over the years. The 2015 edition was no exception, presenting a representative cross-section of jazz, at least American jazz. The near-total absence of European and Brazilian artists, however, felt like a missed opportunity.

Even so, the dizzying array of talent on hand, in overlapping performances, made for some impossible decisions – bandleader/composer Maria Schneider or the charismatic chanteuse Salvant? Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro-Latin Orchestra with guest soloist Mahanthappa, pianist Billy Childs with a trio and string quartet, or the dazzling Diehl? Many audience members (including this reporter) dashed between the four stages to catch at least a few minutes of each performer.

Unlike last year’s rain-soaked event, the hot sun shining on Newport this year caused many to seek refuge under a tent or in “Storyville,” a repurposed bunker on the Fort Adams Park grounds named after Wein’s first Boston night club. As usual, opening day showcased newcomers, younger and more experimental acts, including the Steve Lehman Octet, the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble, Kneebody and Snarky Puppy. And, in an interesting example of symbiotic cross-marketing, the festival included four panel discussions about the outsized legacy of Miles Davis at Newport, led by jazz journalist Ashley Kahn, and coordinated with the release of a new Columbia/Legacy box set of his historic festival performances. The interviews, held in the cozy confines of “Storyville,” included such Davis colleagues and friends including Wein, drummer Jack DeJohnette and guitarist Stern.

José James had the unenviable task of following a performance by Salvant that thoroughly captivated the large crowd. Backed by his agile, hard-swinging quartet, and in an effective contrast to Salvant’s dramatic storytelling style, he used his flexible, sonorous baritone as a solo instrument, often sounding like he was riffing on trombone. James flexed his considerable muscles on Coltrane’s “Equinox” and standards like “Good Morning, Heartache” and “Body and Soul,” at times heightening the sense of playing an imaginary trombone with his arm movements.

Later that day, Cassandra Wilson performed her tribute to Billie Holiday on the main stage. As a table-setter, her band (Jon Cowherd, Piano; Lonnie Plaxico, bass; Brandon Ross, guitar; Davide Direnzo, drums; Charlie Burnham, violin; and Robby Marshall, tenor sax) conjured a moss-covered, swampy mood with slide guitar over a one-chord blues vamp. Once the proper mood was established, Wilson entered, applying her measured, smoky alto to Holiday’s “Don’t Explain,” albeit with updated lyrics suggestive of a more modern, empowered female protagonist, e.g., “I’m glad I’m back” instead of “I’m glad you’re back.” As on her recent Holiday tribute album, she and her musicians found the funk in Lady Day songbook essentials such as “Crazy He Calls Me” and “What a Little Moonlight Can Do.”

Joey Alexander, who recently turned 12, drew large crowds in two separate appearances. In the second he played two Monk tunes, one solo (“Round Midnight”) and the other (“Think of One”) with bassist Russell Hall. Both would have been worth hearing by any measure. Beyond Alexander’s ridiculous technique, one hears lots of melodic and harmonic imagination at play. In other words, he’s not just a piano wunderkind; he’s a jazz musician. Bassist Hall, who has developed an excellent rapport with his young colleague, played the entire tune with a bemused smile on his face.

Sunday morning’s eye-openers were among the most sublime affairs we heard: Billy Childs’ Jazz-Chamber Ensemble, including a string quartet and harpist Carol Robbins, featured the inspired saxophonist/flautist Steve Wilson, the versatile West Coast guitarist Larry Koonse, and the enterprising drumming of Ari Hoenig, alternately hard-driving and delicate; he expertly steered the shifting meters of Childs’ intricate compositions – post-bop jazz informed by 20th Century classicists like Ravel and Stravinsky.

Programmed roughly concurrently – life and Newport are unfair – was Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, who played a powerful set before a large crowd. O’Farrill introduced guest soloist Mahanthappa to play alto on the bandleader’s “Afro Latin Jazz Suite.” The suite, featured on O’Farrill’s forthcoming album Cuba: The Conversation Continues, was written expressly with Mahanthappa in mind. It proved to be an enthralling combination of Mahanthappa’s geyser-like, Asian-influenced melodicism with O’Farrill’s nimble Latin rhythmic engine. It seemed at times like a new world-music hybrid that was strange, infectious and weirdly compelling – abstract jazz you can dance to.

Two brilliant piano trios played crowd-pleasing sets as well, both featuring leaders with classical technique and highly developed hand independence. Fred Hersch, finally making his Newport debut, played his compositions “Whirl,” “Floating” and “Dream of Monk” with an uncompromising delicacy, combined with a sense of freedom and swing. Sinuous left-hand melodic lines were nearly as common as right-handed ones. He was accompanied by his usual trio partners, John Hebert (bass) and Eric McPherson (drums), both of whom played with a winning combination of abandon and restraint, strict time, taste and sensitivity.

An overflow crowd lined up at Storyville to hear Aaron Diehl’s spectacular playing and utter dynamic command of the piano, from ppp to fff, along with his crackling, precise trio of Paul Sikive, bass and Lawrence Leathers, drums. One highlight among many: “Jitterbug Waltz,” played as a marriage of Claude Debussy and Ahmad Jamal. Fats Waller would have loved it.  – Allen Morrison