Our Man in Newport, No Jive

The late composer-arranger Gil Evans’ music finally, gloriously, reached the Newport Jazz Festival, 58 years after the fest began. Drummer Jack DeJohnette celebrated his 70th birthday onstage there, as vigorous and inquisitive as a 40-year-old. Guitarist Bill Frisell jammed with the Bad Plus, duoed with violinist Jenny Scheinman and led a lyrical quintet interpreting John Lennon’s songs. Clarinetists Anat Cohen, Ken Peplowski and Evan Christopher wove round each other in a sensuous, set-opening rendition of Duke Ellington’s “The Mooch.” Bassist Vince Giordano and his Nighthawks made a strong case for the enduring vitality of 80- and 90-year-old swing band charts.

These were some musical highlights from the three stages on the promontory of Fort Adams State Park in Newport, a historic town about four hours by car or train from New York City, where 6,800 people on Saturday, Aug. 4, and 4,600 on Sunday, Aug. 5, roamed about in the sun’s heat and bay’s breeze. From 11 a.m. until 7 p.m. on those days, the most pressing concern for those of us in attendance might have been how to conquer the semi-simultaneous schedule of jazz-connoisseur favorites, whether to buy a lobster roll, and where to sit for a moment on the grass—on a blanket, in a tent’s shade or a rented lawn chair.

The connoisseur behind it all is George Wein. He didn’t invent the pleasure of crowds gathering for leisurely outdoor entertainment—that must be ancient, giving rise to ritual—but he established a model presentation, spread now throughout America and the world. At 86, Wein’s no old fogy. He’s frequently in Manhattan clubs, scouting talent with Dan Melnick, half his age, who has become the Newport fest’s artistic director. Wein was everywhere at Fort Adams, wearing a jaunty cap, zipping from stage to stage in his “Wein Machine” golf cart.

Wein and Melnick prefer dependable mainstream progressives, which in jazz means few avant-gardists but yet surprises are expected and welcome. For instance: Jason Moran played a hushed version of “Body and Soul” on piano then amplified from his iPod singer Eddie Jefferson’s 1952 recording, over which he and drummer Nasheet Waits added soft touches. Moran showed up later for a free exchange with drummer DeJohnette. Listening to each other, they created drama and found resolution, with no pre-plan at all.

When the music was good—most of the time—it was very good. DeJohnette is his generation’s prevailing rhythm-maker; his stick-work explodes in phrases like a boxer’s punch combinations, so that swing and groove merge into sheer propulsion. And his group with alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, who employs sonic inflections from Indian classical music; microtonally attuned guitarist David Fiuczynski; electric bassist Jerome Harris, and keyboardist George Colligan has more interesting activity in their pauses, as what they’ve done resounds, than other ensembles have in their climaxes.

Alto saxophonist Steve Wilson also delved into microtonal note-bending in his solo on Gil Evans’ “Punjab,” a work dealing with South Asian modal motifs, written but not recorded in 1964. As performed (and now recorded) by Ryan Truesdell’s Gil Evans Centennial Project, “Punjab” should leave contemporary composers envious. Evans may have done for Indian classical music (back then recently introduced to the U.S. by Ravi Shankar and taken up by John Coltrane) what he and Miles Davis has done for music from Hispaniola on Sketches of Spain. Evans here balanced jazz riffs and modal themes upon a light, sturdy framework of Western instrumentation. The solos by Dan Weiss on tabla, Wilson on sax and Frank Kimbrough, piano, were compelling. Two tunes later, Evans’ arrangement of John Lewis’s composition “Concorde” contained the kind of pan-cultural joy heard in Messiaen’s masterpiece the Turangalîla-Symphonie.

Truesdell’s set alone was worth my trip to Newport. Yet anyone could watch or hear it stream online thanks to a collaboration between WBGO (Newark) and WGBH (Boston). The video is gone now, but at least 18 live concert recordings from Newport 2012 remain available at www.NPRMusic.org. After 58 years, the Newport Fest keeps giving.

Contact Howard Mandel at jazzmandel@gmail.com