by Dan Lehner
All photos: Adam Kissick, NPR Music
NEWPORT, RI — If there’s one thing that the 2013 Newport Jazz Festival instilled upon its audience, it's that jazz, despite fears that the idiom will either completely stalemate or go astray, will reject both destinies and evolve in a completely unpredictable way. This year’s musicians created a cross-section of jazz that simultaneously embraced its roots while taking them to startling new places.
At the Quad stage, guitarist Mary Halvorson and her working quintet showed that they have elevated the post-rock “Brooklyn sound” of modern improvised music in the same way Art Blakey did with hard bop. Halvorson, bassist John Hébert, and drummer Ches Smith’s grungy rhythms—like the swing style before them—was loose, open, and occupied a relentless pocket. The true jazz spirit of the group, however, laid in trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson and saxophonist Jon Irabagon; Finlayson soared with a sharp, full-toned clarity, and Irabagon fleshed out a classic jazz vocabulary, unearthly alien hums, and backwards-sounding manipulations in breathing.
Another young musician, trumpeter Amir ElSaffar, took the “new breed” concept even further. His Two Rivers group combined the mournful and swirlingly triumphant rhythms and modalities of traditional Iraqi music with the kinetic expression of modern jazz. But the Iraqi-American trumpeter wasn’t limited to his microtonal technique, as ElSaffar did a tremendous amount just using the typical Western twelve-tone tuning, creating amazing angularity and rhythms similar to past trumpeters like Woody Shaw.
At the Harbor stage, a somewhat older group, Ray Anderson's Pocket Brass Band, was a bit more traditional, traversing Ellingtonian wah-wahs and NOLA funk during Anderson’s “Sweet Chicago Suite,” but there was something uniquely hip-hop in the “tuba scratching” of sousaphonist Matt Perrine and the steady groove of drummer Eric McPherson.
A similar sentiment applied itself to Michel Camilo's sextet at the Fort Stage. What could have been a well-cast but typical “Latin meets straight-ahead” group was subverted by the hyper-dense harmonies executed by both the rhythm section and the horns, combing both weight and tremendous speed.
At Fort, Wayne Shorter's legendary quartet continued its legacy of breaking down barriers of improvised communication and the possibilities of multigenerational groups. After a synchronous duo version of Shorter’s “Footprints” with guest pianist Herbie Hancock, the quartet used Shorter composition like “Water Babies” and “She Moves Through the Fair” as tectonic foundations, firm but constantly shifting. The group’s further deconstruction on an already-deconstructed “Orbits” flipped, passed around, and scattered the melody amongst the entire group, with Shorter yanking the melody off its axis into new territory. Hancock rejoined the band for a four-hands piano addition (alongside group pianist Danilo Perez) for a richly colored take on “Adventures Aboard the Golden Mean.”
Hancock wasn’t done for the day, though: at Terence Blanchard Group's performance on the Harbor Stage—one filled with the group’s tried-and-true blend of hypnotic compositions, ever-shifting rhythmic terrains, ferocious soloists like saxophonist Brice Winston, and diverse palette of sounds (including the harmonized voice of guitarist Lionel Loeuke)—Hancock joined the group for a (possibly impromptu) performance of “Footprints.” Playing the song as a hip-hop jam, Hancock’s polished-yet-searching harmonies, reminiscent of his time with Miles Davis in the '60s, reacted in staggering ways with the rest of the group.
Lew Tabackin Quartet’s closing performance at the Harbor Stage was a hearty blend of Ornette Coleman-esque blues, dovetailing horn lines, and wild solos (nobody else truly gets into the gritty corners of the tenor sax like Tabackin). However, their role in the relentless push of jazz into the future came with their Charles Ives-ian mash-up of Thelonious Monk tunes—all played simultaneously. They’d realized what a lot of the audience didn’t appreciate before: Monk’s music is in the collective jazz unconscious, a field that can now be easily traversed.
An archive of the performances is available here, courtesy of WBGO and NPR Music. Check back tomorrow for coverage from Sunday's bill at Newport.