by Dan Lehner
Even if you’ve never set foot on the historic grounds of the Newport Jazz Festival (like me), the atmosphere quickly engulfs you. Fort Adams State Park, where the festival has resided since 1981, can’t be anymore picturesque—a seaside event surrounded by boats with antebellum stone walls and turrets essentially pre-customizing the event. Add a couple thousand people and an especially hot New England sun, and the mixture is complete.
The mid-day acts on Saturday were good indicators of jazz within a historical mindset. At the giant Fort Stage, John Ellis and Double Wide cycled through a whole roster of New Orleans styles, from Zydeco to neo-classical funeral marches, equally showing NOLA’s dark mystery and mirth. It was essentially an organ trio meets a brass band: Matt Perrine’s sousaphone thumped and squealed while Ellis and trombonist Alan Ferber yearned out amidst organ and drums.
Over by the Harbor stage, Christian McBride’s Inside Straight practiced the fine art of swinging their behinds off. The soloists got into an unintentional cutting contest just by their own virtuosity, with vibraphonist Warren Wolf and saxophonist Steve Wilson seeing the energy and raising them one more hip line.
As I walked around, the perimeter got wider, both in distance and in history. Jack DeJohnette Group was unabashedly moving between and beyond African, Middle Eastern, and American fusion music in whirling electro-acoustic cascades. Imbued with the sound and swagger of late Miles Davis, DeJohnette’s loose but potent support allowed his younger cast to bring all of their material to the forefront.
Back at Harbor, a much younger drummer, Dafnis Prieto, was blurring genres with his sextet. Prieto’s music had a kind of playful bombast, where the hits are potent, but the groove and the horn lines still had the dance flavor of the Latin music Prieto knows so well.
At the Quad Stage, The Bad Plus and Bill Frisell—just by name alone—drew the curious attention of hundreds, and their curiosity did not go unappreciated. They were joined in spirit by the recently departed Paul Motian, whose melody-driven compositions (like “The Owl of Cranston” and “Mumbo Jumbo”) were lovingly atomized by the trio and painted in sonic Technicolor by the guitarist. After a conversationally swinging performance of Sonny Rollins’s “No Mo’”, the band got quiet—really quiet. Frisell’s ethereal touch was met slowly by the rest of the band in a performance of Motian’s “It Should Have Happened a Long Time Ago” that had no fall, only a rise, arching up with beauty and mystery until it finally stopped.
Darcy James Argue was spinning both musical and prosaic yarns at Fort with his Secret Society, one in particular from the commissioned “Brooklyn Babylon.” “Ellingtonian” is a title as coveted as it is clichéd, but between the combination of the sublime and the intense, the mixture of newer styles in an older format (which for DJA includes overdriven grunge guitar and Balkan beats) and a cast of champion soloist likes Ingrid Jensen (who it seems will never play anything less than epic on Argue’s “Transit”), it’s fitting.
Pat Metheny’s Unity Band closed the night. It’s easy to tell Metheny’s life ambitions from performances like these even if it was your first time seeing him. The Unity Band has all the Metheny trademarks: the Ornette Coleman with a side of bluegrass type of melody making, the floral acoustic guitar textures and the killin’ soloists (Chris Potter’s last tenor sax solo was particularly earth-shattering). But then you get something like the Orchestrion machine (you ever see a player piano? Well, this is a player-everything) that surrounded the quartet in what could have been Danny Elfman’s orchestra behind him. Metheny is a big presence with a long history and he’s remarkably good at getting it all out at once.