NEWPORT, R.I. — The Newport Jazz Festival always comes weighted with its own history — and, by extension, the history of jazz. This year was a special anniversary — 60. There were downpours Saturday, and intermittent showers throughout Sunday. In a way, that was appropriate. It rained at the first event, in 1954, and a photo of a sea of umbrellas at the Newport Casino tennis club went out over the wires and instantly put the festival on the map. So, yes, this edition of the festival was drenched in history.
Festival producer and co-founder George Wein, now 88, and associate producer Danny Melnick drew heavily on that history, booking Lee Konitz, 86, who played that first festival in 1954, as well as pianist Dick Hyman (87), and slightly younger elder statesmen like Cecil McBee (79), Gary Burton (70), and Dave Holland (67). (Dr. John, 73, canceled his Sunday performance after being hospitalized in New York overnight.)
But the festival was also about continuity. At his Sunday set, vibist and composer Burton said he played his first Newport in 1960, and that throughout the ’60s he performed at the festival with the drummer Roy Haynes. Now, Marcus Gilmore, Haynes’s grandson, was in the drum chair of the Gary Burton New Quartet.
Burton’s band was a good example of how Newport isn’t merely a preservation society but, at least in recent years, an active participant in the music’s ongoing evolution. Burton has always drawn on fresh blood to reinvigorate his bands. Aside from Gilmore, the New Quartet included the 26-year-old guitarist Julian Lage (with whom, astonishingly, Burton has played for 12 years), and pianist Vadim Neselovskyi, 36, both of whom provided knotty, engaging originals for Sunday’s set.
This year the festival added a third day, Friday, for “emerging artists,” encompassing a special set by John Zorn, himself now 60, who has been goading jazz from the fringes for decades. That same night, in the festival’s annual concert at the International Tennis Hall of Fame at the Newport Casino, Wynton Marsalis held court with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Marsalis is Zorn’s opposite in just about every way. In the
JLCO set, he made a point of connecting the pieces the band played, including his own, to Newport history. The hard bop of Horace Silver’s “Señor Blues,” he said, transformed the language of Charlie Parker’s bebop with fresh infusions of gospel spirit and R&B grooves.
All weekend you could hear those hard-bop echoes: in the Cookers, a band of veterans who draw on their relationships with two of hard bop’s progenitors, Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard; in the SF Jazz Collective, an up-to-the-minute all-star group with a front line and sonorities (replete with vibes) that could have come out of a classic Blue Note date; and, most surprisingly, in Brian Blade & the Fellowship Band. Drummer Blade’s group takes the churchy sound in another direction, with the arcing melody lines and slow-boil dynamics of original epic Americana hymn tunes. The singer Gregory Porter made the church connection even more explicit with the gospel shout and handclaps of his “Liquid Spirits.”
In a weekend that also included two sets by the stunningly versatile singer Cécile McLorin Salvant, the double-wide New Orleans funk of Trombone Shorty, and the tweaked contemporary R&B of the Robert Glasper Experiment, maybe the most surprising transformation of the readymade jazz language came from pianist Vijay Iyer’s sextet on Sunday. Iyer, 42, is one of the most decorated jazz musicians of his generation; a MacArthur fellow, he’s also now a Harvard music professor. His music can be dense and a bit math-y. But at Newport he fronted yet another classic hard-bop lineup of brass and reeds, and though he favored mixed and odd meters, the music never lost its groove. Like the Blade Fellowship, Iyer’s group played long arcs of material. In a band of tight song forms like the Cookers, the soloists take turns telling essentially the same story, each in his own way. In Iyer’s music, the story itself changed, even as it arrived at a very gratifying, anthemic, hard-bop kind of climax.
Iyer’s band also featured another odd Newport continuity — familial. Here again was Marcus Gilmore, but the sextet also included Gilmore’s uncle, Graham Haynes, son of Roy, on cornet and flugelhorn. Later on Sunday, pop-jazz singer Bobby McFerrin was joined by his daughter Madison on vocals. And pianist and composer Danilo Pérez brought up his 3-year-old son to join his band on congas. Danilo III didn’t seem to have a lot of arm strength, but he looked like he knew what he was doing. More hope for the future.