When organizers of the Newport Jazz Festival said they wanted to showcase young talent, they weren’t kidding. The first band performing Saturday at the festival’s two-day run at Fort Adams State Park was the Rhode Island Music Educators Association Senior All-State Jazz Ensemble, a group of talented high schoolers whose set drew on-stage praise from festival founder George Wein.
That upbeat start reverberated throughout the day as the festival celebrated jazz in its many forms, from the prickly improvisations forged by the duo of drummer Jack DeJohnette and pianist Jason Moran to the grand themes composer Darcy James Argue created with his Secret Society jazz orchestra.
While not a packed house, Saturday’s crowd was diverse, with enough young people in the audience to dispense with the notion that the jazz crowd is forever graying.
The festival admirably catered to many tastes, with 15 hour-long performances spread around tree stages.
Familiar songs filled the main Fort Stage, yet true to the spirit of jazz, no song sounded the way you may best know it. Guitar visionary Bill Frisell led a mesmerizing instrumental program of John Lennon tunes that underscored the emotional richness of the late Beatle’s tunes.
And singer Dianne Reeves reconfigured Bob Marley’s “Waiting in Vain” and Ani DiFranco’s “32 Flavors” to better suit the broad range she roams in a song.
Guitarist Pat Metheny closed the main stage with his Unity Band, a new project featuring sax player Chris Potter. The playing was crisp and tasteful, though sometimes bloodless before the players really lost themselves in “Breakdealer” at the end of the set.
The legendary DeJohnette ruled the Quad Stage inside the fort. First he led the nimble Jack DeJohnette Group which features guitarist David Fiuczynski and sax player Rudresh Mahanthappa pushing at the boundaries. Then DeJohnette assembled an all-star band with bassist Christian McBride, sax player Tim Ries, guitarist Lionel Loueke, and others to explore the provocative twists of the drummer’s latest work, “Sound Travels,” after his aforementioned throwdown with Moran. In both sets, DeJohnette demonstrated why drummers are great band leaders as he pushed his players and kept the action spry with deft rhythm work.
Frisell resurfaced on the Quad Stage playing with the Bad Plus, offering a set, at least in its early goings, of turbulent, challenging music that inspired each musician to spur the others on.
Sax player James Carter’s swinging organ trio (plus guest guitar player Rodney Jones) and Pedrito Martinez’s Latin jazz also lit up the Quad Stage
The Harbor Stage is where people went to pack themselves closely to the action, which ranged from the bopping enthusiasm of McBride’s Inside Straight to the contemplative musings that sax player Joe Lovano and trumpet player Dave Douglas conjured with their Wayne Shorter-inspired “Sound Prints” quintet.