All that jazz: Review of Newport Jazz Festival

Kieran Delaney

The sun is setting on the last day of the Newport Jazz Festival, and I am faced with a problem.

How does one describe the most varied of American art forms? As the infectious New Orleans grooves and soulful melodies of saxophone legend Sonny Rollins waft over the granite walls of Fort Adams, I am reminded of the single most important tenet of jazz: Rules are meant to be broken. After two days of listening to many of the most celebrated minds in contemporary jazz, it is obvious that the improvisational spirit the weekend’s performers shared far outweighed the stunning differences between them. All are pioneers in their own ways, each crafting a unique voice that incorporates both incredible intellect and staggering skill.

Charlie Haden, Bill Frisell and Ethan Iverson gave one of the most traditional performances of the weekend early Saturday. A quiet crowd at the Pavilion Stage remained seated and attentive during the set, zeroing in on every nuance of the trio’s set. Though a passing refrigerator truck briefly impeded his solo, Haden’s playing was inspired — he even took a moment to applaud the truck’s driver, who punched a few honks of his horn before passing. Frisell was also in top form, showcasing his impressive dexterity with crisp, clean lines dancing above the smooth counterpoint of Iverson’s piano. Though a mellow group, the audience responded to every move of melody and texture with spontaneous applause and enthusiastic grins.

In stark contrast to both the sound and attitude of Haden, Frisell and Iverson, the highlight of my weekend was Marco Benevento’s set at the intimate Waterside Stage. Relatively unaware of Benevento’s jazz chops, I was surprised to find his selections both accessible and profoundly dramatic. Refreshingly authentic and personable, Benevento was clearly at ease on the small stage, performing both original tunes and re-engineered covers of Led Zeppelin, Deerhoof and My Morning Jacket pieces. Through a combination of electronic wizardry — an electric Steinway — and animated piano mashing, Benevento offered his crowd a fresh perspective on what is possible in the territory between jazz and rock.

Ledisi was another of the young genre-jumping groups to appear at the Fort Stage this weekend. Steeped in soul and grounded by funky backbeats, the New Orleans vocalist one of my favorites of the weekend.

Saxophonist Chris Potter is my nomination for the festival’s most valuable player, having played with several groups throughout the weekend,  including Herbie Hancock, Marco Benevento and Dave Holland. Potter is a masterful player, finding his way seamlessly into the vibe of each group, yet retaining his own sense of melody and phrasing.

Performing with Soulive and jazz/funk amalgamation Lettuce, famed James Brown collaborator and 41-year veteran of the music business Fred Wesley brought the party to Newport. Playing for the most raucous and vocal crowds of the festival, Wesley lived up to his reputation as one of music’s most adept trombonists. Sunday brought a similarly energized crowd to the Pavilion tent as Soulive welcomed several of the festival’s performers onto their stage, including vocalist Anthony Hamilton, whose band had performed on the enormous Fort Stage earlier.

Following a piano-accompanied introduction from master of ceremonies Chevy Chase, Hancock performed on Sunday at the Fort Stage. Playing a number of tracks from his Grammy-winning release “River: The Joni Letters,” Hancock was backed by a group featuring bassist Dave Holland and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta.

Looking back on the plethora of performers that I enjoyed, it seems that the most interesting facet of jazz is that which one cannot quite put their finger on. It’s that sense of the multitude of possibilities inherent in improvisational music, the compositions serving as a starting point from which higher moments can be reached.

Kieran Delaney, who lives in Burlington, Vt., is a musician and graphic artist.