NEWPORT, R.I. — You’d think that torrential downpours like Saturday’s would kill an open-air event like the Newport Jazz Festival. Only three of the four stages at Fort Adams State Park offer coverage, and the big acts (Charles Lloyd, Pat Metheny, Andra Day, Laurie Anderson) play the Fort Stage, where the audience is completely exposed.
But the Saturday crowd for this three-day event was undaunted. Flash-flood alerts kept cell phones beeping, but a healthy audience hung tough — and heard some stellar performances. Jazz, as Friday performer Robert Glasper has said, has different rooms, and an agile festival-goer could visit many of them.
One room was occupied by hard-bop pianist Harold Mabern, 82, in a quartet co-led by saxophonist Eric Alexander — the only straight jazz swing I heard all afternoon, fast and furious, spelled in the slower numbers by Mabern’s churchy tremolos. At the other end of the spectrum, in the same generation as Mabern, was the ongoing tradition of the avant-garde: Trio 3, with saxophonist Oliver Lake, 75, bassist Reggie Workman, 81, and drummer Andrew Cyrille, 78. Their music was spare, impressionistic, and lyrical, but for a show-stopping solo tribute to Art Blakey by Cyrille.
Somewhere in the middle was newcomer Louis Cole, who conducted his big band like an open rehearsal (“Don’t play until I count off!”), with a sense of humor that was underscored by his artless singing and dancing (with two back-up singers) and cheeky lyrics, and lifted by a crew of ringers (Joel Frahm, Mark Shim, Jon Irabagon, Ben Monder, Claire Daly, et al.). The fiendishly tricky section parts were executed with aplomb over funk grooves.
Among numerous other highlights sampled in bits and pieces from the 20 acts: Mary Halvorson fronted her Code Girl quintet, featuring her own kaleidoscopic and sometimes ecstatic guitar shredding in a setting of her own chamber-art-songs, sung by singer Amirtha Kidambi. Lloyd — being celebrated at 80 by playing all three days, in different bands — matched fire and eloquence in his flute and tenor saxophone playing. Metheny delivered proggy tunefulness with deft picking, as one of his latest recruits, bassist Linda May Oh, enlivened the ensemble by digging into shapely counterlines with rhythmic muscle.
And of course, the pressures of the outside world were acknowledged more than once. Singer José James gave new relevance to Bill Withers hits like “Lean on Me” and “Just the Two of Us.” Grace Kelly wrote “Trying to Figure It Out” about her own struggles as a former child prodigy trying to manage an adult career, but in the post-Trump era the personal has become political, and her affecting performance, vocally and on alto sax, gave the song the solidity of a standard.
Jon Batiste acknowledged social divisions, too, offering the Louis Armstrong-popularized “What a Wonderful World” as a meditation, pianissimo treble piano passages and his voice floating over the din of rain on the Quad Stage tent. His take on “’Round Midnight,” meanwhile, revealed the deep architecture of the Thelonious Monk masterpiece note by note, unhurried, unshowy, and deep.
Laurie Anderson — performing another kind of chamber-jazz, with festival artistic director Christian McBride on bass, cellist Rubin Kodheli, and her own violin— invited the audience to scream for 10 seconds about the state of the world: North Korea, school shootings, “today’s [Trump] tweet about LeBron James.” Amid improvs over vamps and drones, Anderson also told the story of Aristophanes’s “The Birds,” where a wall is proposed “between earth and the sky.”
Closing the afternoon of almost nonstop rain was charismatic R&B singer Day, refashioning Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddamn” and, as a kind of benediction of hope, offering her own “Rise Up.” As if on cue, the sun broke through the clouds and bathed Fort Adams in light.
Newport Jazz Festival
At Fort Adams State Park, Newport, R.I., SaturdayJon Garelick can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jgarelick.