NEWPORT, R.I. — Jazz is history. Not in the sense of “over,” but in the sense of a living tradition — the music is always paying that history homage, consciously or not.
Saturday, the middle day of the weekend-long Newport Jazz Festival, had history in abundance. Most explicitly, it had Benny Golson, now 88, one of the living legends of the music, author of some of its indelible classics, playing a few of them and talking about them just as much. No matter, it was great talk, and great playing. John Coltrane, Jimmy Heath, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis were all colleagues. Golson’s tenor sax on uptempo numbers was fleet and imaginative, but it was his cadenza on the ballad “I Remember Clifford” (for trumpeter Clifford Brown), floating with elegiac tenderness, that held the heart.
Saturday was typical of the latter-day, nonprofit Newport Jazz Festival — in which young and old and various adjacent genres rubbed shoulders, including student ensembles and the folk-blues singer Rhiannon Giddens.
Another elder statesmen, Henry Threadgill, a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, obliterated strict jazz categories long ago. His band Zooid (who played on the recording of his Pulitzer-winning composition) laid down an evocative web of counterlines — tuba/trombone and acoustic guitar, with drums, and Threadgill, 73, on flutes and alto sax. You could argue about whether this was jazz, but you couldn’t imagine anyone but jazz musicians playing it. Likewise for trumpeter Peter Evans, who played a solo set in the smallest of the four venues at Fort Adams, a room in the Fort’s museum, dubbed Storyville, after festival cofounder George Wein’s long-ago Boston club. (Wein, now 91, could be seen checking out the acts from his golf cart.)
Evans specializes in solo trumpet, which he augments not only with various extended techniques created with tongue, fingers, and vocal cords, but also with electronic enhanced percussive effects. Like the best solo artists, Evans does indeed “contain multitudes,” riffing with himself in different registers. It works.
There were other, more familiar displays of the jazz tradition. The chorus of horns in bassist Christian McBride’s big band caressed soloists Warren Wolf (vibes), Sean Jones (trumpet), and Ron Blake (tenor saxophone) in a style traceable back to Basie, Ellington, and Fletcher Henderson, though the tunes (Joe Henderson’s “Black Narcissus” and McBride’s own “The Shade of the Cedar Tree”) were of more recent vintage.
Pianist-composer Danilo Pérez’s “Jazz 100” was also unabashed in looking back — the project was a tribute to the centenaries of Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Mongo Santamaria, but Pérez’s arrangements of chestnuts like Santamaria’s “Afro Blue” were fresh and unhindered by reverence.
Firmly in the now was Vijay Iyer’s sextet, which built off of the pianist-composer’s angular lines and odd-metered rhythms with a visceral charge. Surprisingly, the band moved closer to a hard funk groove by mid-set (anchored by bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Tyshawn Sorey). Equally challenging, with stronger grooves still, was drummer Antonio Sanchez and his band Migration, with its mix of Afro-Latin and swing beats, exploring Sanchez’s impressive writing in long forms, not to mention at least one particularly skronky excursion from pianist John Escreet on Fender Rhodes.
Bassist Esperanza Spalding and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington had originally been scheduled to play in their trio with pianist Geri Allen, but Allen, who had battled cancer, died in June. In her stead, Iyer, Jason Moran, and Christian Sands alternated at the keyboard. It was an apt celebration of Allen’s life to see the three pianists take turns mid-song sliding on and off the piano bench.
A couple of other snapshots from Saturday (when 20 separate performances were scheduled): the Branford Marsalis Quartet, equal parts brawn and finesse, and trumpeter Dominick Farinacci’s band, with a startling take on “I Put a Spell On You” from singer Shenel Johns. History in the making.
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.