The Newport Jazz Festival wrapped up on a bunch of high notes on Sunday — quite a few literal ones in the case of trumpeter Jon Faddis, one of several surprise artists to play a fest-closing tribute set celebrating the festival’s late founder George Wein, who died last September at age 95.
Wein’s spirit was present throughout the three-day festival, most visibly via the golf cart dubbed the Wein Machine, which had been used to ferry Wein from stage to stage in his later years. Displayed as a memorial near the festival entrance, it served as a popular prop for festivalgoers’ photos.
The music, in its range of styles, quality, and ages of the artists performing it, also projected Wein’s spirit. The sets of two legends suffered somewhat from logistical glitches. Ron Carter’s set opening the Fort Stage was a half-hour late getting started and subsequently truncated. Likewise the group Jazz Is Dead, featuring sax great Gary Bartz, was still puttering through soundcheck at the Quad Stage 20 minutes after its set was supposed to begin. Anyone hoping to catch some of it before heading to the Fort Stage for Jason Moran and the Bandwagon was faced with a tough decision as to when to give up and move on.
The Moran set was worth seeing in its entirety — arguably the highlight of the day for hard-core jazz heads. His trio with bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits, now entering its third decade as a unit, tore through a mix of its own music (“Gangsterism on Stages” and “For Love”) and covers of Geri Allen (“Feed the Fire”), Wes Montgomery (“Four on Six”), Fats Waller (“The Sheik of Araby”), and Thelonious Monk (“Thelonious”). “For us it’s all a family,” he told the audience during a break. Later came several pieces by James Reese Europe, whom Moran described as “the big bang of everything that’s happening here.”
Moran’s set concluded with him leading the audience in a brief sing-along. Audience participation is commonplace at the Fort Stage, where most of the bands are chosen to appeal to a wide audience. The best of these Sunday was the fiery New Orleanian horn ensemble the Soul Rebels, who coached the jubilant packed crowd in front of the stage through both singing and dancing assignments. Angélique Kidjo was positively breathtaking, but her set didn’t require coaxing the Fort Stage audience to dance — they were already doing it.
More highbrow stuff was happening around the corner at the relatively intimate Harbor Stage, among it sets by the Emmet Cohen Trio, the saxophonist Melissa Aldana, and the Vijay Iyer Trio, which featured Linda May Han Oh on bass and had Jeremy Dutton subbing for Tyshawn Sorey on drums.
The British tenor saxophonist Nubya Garcia played a stellar set, her Newport debut, at the middle-size Quad Stage, mixing tunes from her album “Source” with new material and dancing whenever a bandmate was soloing. One new piece hadn’t been named yet, but gauging by the audience reaction it will be a keeper.
The Wein tribute on the big Fort Stage began with an intergenerational all-star jam featuring Faddis and Randy Brecker on trumpet, Lew Tabackin on tenor sax, Anat Cohen on clarinet, Christian Sands on piano, festival artistic director Christian McBride on bass, and Lewis Nash on drums. Jay Leonhart replaced McBride on bass for surprise guest Cecile McLorin Salvant’s vocal contribution. She was followed by piano virtuoso Hiromi, who walked onstage holding up a sign saying “Thank You George,” then performed unaccompanied, smiling at the audience periodically as she blazed through astonishingly difficult flurries of notes.
Faddis, Leonhart, and Nash joined Hiromi for a touching “Over the Rainbow.” Next up came Trombone Shorty, who blew trumpet and sang on “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” then switched to his namesake instrument for “St. James Infirmary.” The feast of standards beloved by Wein being performed by artists he had loved and championed continued with Cohen returning for “Jitterbug Waltz.” For the sizable crowd that lingered for all of it, Wein’s memory was indeed a blessing.