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Music Review

Diversity instrumental to Newport Jazz Festival

Pianist Herbie Hancock (left) joined Wayne Shorter Saturday, in a set celebrating Shorter’s upcoming 80th birthday.JOE GIBLIN/AP

‘Hey you! Wake up!” That was singer Herman Olivera of the Eddie Palmieri Salsa Orchestra confronting perhaps the only snoozing patron Sunday afternoon at the Newport Jazz Festival Presented by Natixis Global Asset Management. Most everyone else was up and dancing.

Afro-Latin jazz is nothing new at Newport, but this year — the event’s 59th anniversary, with 7,500 in attendance on Saturday, 6,200 on Sunday — it represented a singular concentration of a diverse range of styles and talent.

How diverse was it? One of my favorite solos of the event (which began Friday night with a sold-out crowd of 3,500 at the open-air Newport Casino headlined by Natalie Cole and continued Saturday and Sunday at Fort Adams State Park) was by an oud player. No, not your average jazz instrument. The oudist was Zafer Tawil in trumpeter Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers quintet on Saturday. ElSaffar is an Iraqi-American from Chicago with a classical-trumpet education and background in blues, jazz, rock, and salsa. Two Rivers picks up on the modal scales and keening melodies of Iraqi maqam music and odd-meter grooves. Jazz is not a stranger to those Arabic modes, and by the time Carlo De Rosa took his bass solo — blunt and eloquent — it was easy enough to think, “Of course, this is what jazz bassists have always done!”

This is not to minimize what was singular and moving about the Two Rivers performance. But the cross-references could be heard throughout the Saturday shows on the festival’s three stages. During one song, ElSaffar played the hammered dulcimer-like santur. Meanwhile, on the Fort Stage, Ali Amr, the Moroccan-born Berklee student, played the qanun, a plucked zither, with Brookline resident and Berklee grad Grace Kelly on alto. When they launched into Chick Corea’s modern jazz standard “Spain,” with its own “exotic” scales, one was reminded of Spain’s Moorish past. (Corea and his band the Vigil played on Sunday.) The sound of the qanun itself was not that different from the sound of ElSaffar’s santur or, for that matter, the Colombian harp played by Edmar Castañeda later in the day.


Esperanza Spalding.Joe Giblin/AP

Even when “world music” wasn’t making itself felt on Saturday, everywhere you could hear the sound of jazz expanding: whether it was guitarist Mary Halvorson’s semi-abstract quintet, the hip-hop influenced Robert Glasper Experiment, Esperanza Spalding’s sprawling jazz-pop Radio Music Society, or Terence Blanchard’s left-of-mainstream quintet. Even players working more closely within a tradition seemed to be giving it a new spin, like the powerful singer Gregory Porter’s latter-day gospel funk, or octogenarian soprano saxophonist Bob Wilber jamming with young reed virtuoso Anat Cohen. And, of course, there was the day’s birthday boy, Wayne Shorter (celebrating his 80th on Aug. 25), with his free-associating quartet. Shorter’s music has always been anything but old-fashioned, and this challenging set — a free-associative mix of magic and muddle — won’t have anyone counting him out soon. For good measure, he opened his show with longtime colleague, pianist Herbie Hancock, who also sat in for some four-hand with pianist Danilo Pérez as an encore.


You could say that overall Sunday was more mainstream. But, really, is anyone playing anything more “modern” on guitar than 83-year-old Jim Hall, who shared the stage with 25-year-old rising guitar star Julian Lage? Another highlight: listening to Hall and Lage finish each other’s musical sentences on the out-chorus of “My Funny Valentine.” Likewise for 88-year-old drum legend Roy Haynes, cranking it with his Fountain of Youth Band. One of the big crowd pleasers of the day was pianist and singer Jon Batiste, 26, a young man playing “old” and making it modern, giving a New Orleans second-line feel to “Killing Me Softly” (on melodica, backed by tuba and tambourine), referencing Louis Armstrong with “Sunny Side of the Street,” and tearing up the house with “St. James Infirmary Blues.”


On the research-and-development end of Sunday’s spectrum was alto saxophonist and composer Steve Coleman, who unveiled a new piece with the Talea Ensemble — a mix of strings, winds, and percussion. The cross-hatched rhythms, the music’s bounce and timbre, suggested Stravinsky in Brooklyn. The bump and flow of guitarist David Gilmore’s Numerology band (with Miguel Zenón on alto and Claudia Acuña on vocals) was driving bebop for the 21st century.

And then there was tenor Joshua Redman with his quartet, showing how to build excitement and get the crowd screaming without pressing or compromising his art. Even simple pleasures don’t have to be simpleminded.

Jon Garelick can be reached at jon.garelick4@gmail.com.