George Wein has overseen the Newport Jazz Festival since its 1954 debut, but for this year’s incarnation of the granddaddy of outdoor jazz festivals he put the emphasis on the music’s future: Jason Moran, Miguel Zenón, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Gretchen Parlato, Lionel Loueke, Jenny Scheinman, John Hollenbeck, Ambrose Akinmusire, the 3 Cohens … The list goes on and on with artists either at or still approaching their primes, with a sprinkling of slightly older, more established jazz stars-Jack DeJohnette, Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell, Joe Lovano, Dave Douglas, Lewis Nash, Kurt Elling, Dianne Reeves, et al.-around for seasoning, and very little of the pop-oriented stuff that sometimes nearly dominated festivals of years past.
The festival kicked off on Friday night, as it has in recent years, with a slightly showier (and dressier) opening event at the Newport-based Tennis Hall of Fame, with Dr. John as this year’s headliner and a focus on New Orleans. But the night commenced with Wein himself playing alone at the piano for a few bars, soon to be joined by clarinetist Charlie Gabriel of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Gabriel’s Preservation Hall cohorts joined him onstage next for a lively set that built to the inevitable “When the Saints Go Marching In” and included singing by trumpeter Mark Braud, tenor saxophonist Clint Maedgen and guest vocalist Catherine Russell. The young pianist Jonathan Batiste played a dazzling solo set featuring a lushly embellished instrumental exploration of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and his charming, dramatic vocals on “St. James Infirmary.” Dr. John wrapped up the evening with a strong set ranging from old hits (“Right Place, Wrong Time”) to tunes from his new album (Locked Down), with Russell coming back out to join him on two songs (“Makin’ Whoopee,” “Save the Bones for Henry Jones”) and energized by the horns of trombonist Sarah Morrow and saxophonist Ronnie Cuber. (Cuber, of all people, played the whole night on tenor sax, which worked to the detriment of “Revolution,” which on the new album is built around a grippingly infectious baritone sax line.)
The bulk of the festival took place in Fort Adams State Park on Saturday and Sunday, with three stages in operation throughout each day, meaning hard choices often had to be made. At 12:30 on Saturday, for example, would you catch Bill Frisell playing the music of John Lennon on the Fort Stage, the Jack DeJohnette Group (with Mahanthappa on alto sax, Dave Fiuczynski on guitar, George Colligan on keyboards and pocket trumpet, and Jerome Harris on bass) on the Quad Stage, or Christian McBride and Inside Straight on the Harbor Stage? I went with DeJohnette and company (though I also saw a snippet of Warren Wolf soloing impressively on vibes with McBride) and caught a great set topped off by the piece “Miles,” written after the passing of the employer who first brought DeJohnette to Newport in 1969, and “Ahmad the Terrible,” a tribute to Ahmad Jamal that opened with a dazzling intro from Mahanthappa. But I’m nonetheless half kicking myself for missing the other two. Likewise, between 3 and 4:30 on Sunday the choice was among the Maria Schneider Orchestra, the Miguel Zenón Rayuela Quartet, and Jason Moran & the Bandwagon. I chose Zenón, whose project with pianist Laurent Coq dedicated to its namesake novel (known in English as Hopscotch) by Julio Cortázar may never be presented live hereabouts again.
What else I saw and/or heard Saturday included a bit of John Ellis & Double-Wide’s New Orleans-influenced fun, the tail end of Cuban conguero extraordinaire Pedrito Martinezon on the Quad Stage (my wife’s favorite set of the weekend, though we both missed most of it), a pinch of the Dafnis Prieto Sextet, some James Carter Organ Trio with Rodney Jones wafting across the quad to the press tent, most of a piece featuring Anat Cohen as her part of 3 Clarinets (with Ken Peplowski and Evan Christopher), and a little of Dianne Reeves from the side of the main stage. I found more time for The Bad Plus’ collaboration with guitar giant Frisell, catching atmospheric covers of two tunes (“It Should’ve Happened a Long Time Ago” and “Abacus”) from a set almost entirely devoted to Paul Motian compositions, the exception being a cover of Sonny Rollins’ “No Moe” (which the saxophone colossus had recorded nearly 60 years ago with a popular working group of that era, the Modern Jazz Quartet). DeJohnette played a duo session with Moran that touched on something from Moran’s Gangsterism series, and then DeJohnette brought out an all-star contingent of Tim Ries on tenor sax, young trumpeter Jason Palmer, guitarist Lionel Loueke, bassist McBride, percussionist Luisito Quintero and keyboardist Colligan from his earlier band for a set that included Joe Henderson’s classic “Black Narcissus.”
I also planted myself in the front row and watched the entirety of the Joe Lovano and Dave Douglas Quintet performing their Sound Prints project, their homage to the genius of Wayne Shorter. I’d caught this group this past winter in Boston and been impressed, but they’ve further gelled since then, and if someone put a gun to my head and demanded I choose a favorite set for the Newport weekend, this would be it. Lawrence Fields was nicely understated on piano, Linda Oh held down the bottom brilliantly on bass through tricky tempo changes (and played an impressive solo on Douglas’ “Power Ranger”), and Joey Baron propelled everything along with cunningly accented drumming. Lovano and Douglas each contributed four originals, and they inspired each other to greater and greater heights with their furious soloing-all the while, like Baron, appearing from their facial expressions to be having the times of their lives. If there isn’t already an album in the works of this stuff, there ought to be.
On Sunday, I caught a couple of pieces from Frisell’s folky duo performance with violinist Scheinman; saw Elling, in exaggerated hipster mode, breeze through “Dedicated to You,” “Samurai Cowboy” and “On Broadway”; had a taste of the 3 Cohens-Anat and brothers Avishai and Yuval, with the equally estimable Aaron Goldberg on piano-playing the main stage; watched rising vocalists Gretchen Parlato and Becca Stevens work their soft, moody alchemy in a trio set with Loueke; caught parts of competing sets from the groups of two cutting-edge composers, the Ambrose Akinmusire Quintet and John Hollenbeck’s Claudia Quintet +1 (I saw Elling sit in with Hollenbeck’s group but just missed Theo Bleckmann doing so); and stuck around for a soupçon of the Tedeschi Trucks Band, the one big exception to keeping the festival’s focus on jazz. I made a point of seeing most of Mahanthappa’s Samdhi set, with most of the tunes from the fusiony album of that name (an exception, “Enhanced Performance,” played sort of in honor of the Olympics), with regular band members David Gilmour and Rich Brown joined by substitute drummer (and the leader’s fellow Colorado native) Rudy Royston; Frisell, Stevens, Akinmusire, Moran, Tarus Mateen and writer Ashley Kahn were all spotted at various points watching the Mahanthappa group from the side of the stage. I much enjoyed the Rayuela set, for which Zenón and Coq were joined, as on the album, by Dana Leong on cello and trombone and Dan Weiss on drums and tabla, and was particularly pleased by the closing tune “El Club de la Serpiente,” the straight-ahead jazziest tune in the bunch (owing to the club sitting around listening to records in Cortázar’s book), despite Weiss’ solo tabla workout toward the end. And I scurried to catch the end of the Bandwagon’s set as well.
Other stuff I missed: Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, Ryan Truesdell’s Gil Evans Centennial Project, Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, the Lewis Nash Quintet, and-looking ahead to the more distant future-the student groups Berklee Global Jazz Ambassadors with Adam Cruz and RIMEA Senior All-State Jazz Ensemble. But there is comfort in knowing that some of it, as well as much of what I did see, NPR has archived here .