Newport Jazz Festival 2016

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Newport Jazz Festival 2016

The idea of Kamasi Washington is more interesting than his actual music. The idea of an instrumentalist reconnecting jazz to the popular black dance tunes of the day—which in our own time means hip-hop and funk—is immensely appealing. But his execution of that idea is underwhelming.

Washington is the most talked-about figure in jazz these days, so it’s not surprising that he was one of a handful of artists who were given more than one set at this past weekend’s Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island. And if he wasn’t quite able to realize his vision of reuniting jazz and popular music, there were several other artists who could.

Washington’s live show at Fort Adams State Park, looking out over the sailboat-dotted Narragansett Bay, revealed the same strengths and weaknesses as last year’s album The Epic. He displayed both a genuine talent and a flair for showmanship. The description of his tenor-sax sound as a cross between James Brown’s Maceo Parker and free-jazz’s Pharoah {cq} Sanders has some merit, and his two drummers and bassist were a powerhouse. And Washington’s band brought a visual flair to the proceedings; he himself wore a three-piece blue suit that included a shirt, pants and super-hero cape bordered with a gold pattern.

But the material was underwritten, and the borrowed funk elements never developed into mature harmonies. The piano playing was merely decorative, while the lyrics were new-age sloganeering and warbled in a thin soprano by Patrice Quinn. The attempts to compensate for the undernourished compositions with grandiose gestures backfired more often than not.

Does this mean that Washington’s ambitions are impossible to achieve? The Newport Jazz Festival provided multiple examples of how jazz can incorporate hip-hop and funk without lowering its standards.

Perhaps the best example came on Sunday from the Charles Lloyd Quartet. Lloyd may be a 78-year-old legend but half of his current quartet is made up of pianist Jason Moran and drummer Eric Harland, who both grew up on hip-hop in Houston in the ‘90s, and who incorporate that rhythmic vocabulary into everything they play. But they don’t merely regurgitate those beats unaltered; Moran and Harland transform those rhythms into something more elastic and unpredictable. They make it “the music of surprise,” which is one useful definition of jazz.

Bringing a full-bodied tone to both his tenor sax and his flute, Lloyd played long, elegant lines that sometimes locked into the rhythm section’s contemporary pulse and sometimes soared above it. On “Tagore,” Moran reached inside the piano to strum the strings like an autoharp, while Harland and bassist Reuben Rogers generated a stomping groove. Lloyd’s flute dipped in and out of that river of funk like a bird, demonstrating how jazz can make good use of contemporary pop without being constrained by it.

In similar fashion, the 33-year-old New Orleans trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah began his set by tapping a laptop to trigger a repeating hip-hop loop on “Encryption.” But his drummer Corey Fonville wasn’t content to merely reinforce the loop; Fonville created counter rhythms that kept the beat interesting. Adjuah and flutist Elena Pinderhughes added lyrical solos that extended the possibilities of hip-hop far beyond anything on the radio.

Adjuah calls this “Stretch Music,” as if jazz were a rubber band that he could spread wide enough to accommodate any other kind of music, but when it snapped back it would still be jazz, full of daring harmony and spontaneity. It’s a way of realizing Washington’s vision without reducing one’s freedom of action.

New Orleans has always been the best place to find creative fusions of jazz and popular dance music, and another highlight of this year’s Newport Jazz Festival centered on New Orleans pianist Henry Butler. This blind musician has absorbed the second-line syncopation of his predecessors Professor Longhair and James Booker to reach an astonishing level of virtuosity. But Butler needs the right context to channel that technique, and he got it as part of Butler, Bernstein and the Hot 9 at Newport.

Steven Bernstein, a New York trumpeter known for working with the Lounge Lizards and Sex Mob, has created the Hot 9 as a vehicle for Butler to do what he does best. Bernstein’s smart, sharply executed arrangements distill the best of New Orleans jazz—its sharp dance rhythms and sparkling horns—to a comfortable bed for Butler’s remarkable, two-fisted solos. Bernstein is even more of a showman than Washington. Wearing a purple suit, the bandleader cued his arrangements with flamboyant gestures and played witty solos himself—often on the slide trumpet, a bugle with a miniature trombone slide attached.

The highlight of the set was a new arrangement of Duke Ellington’s “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue,” which received a legendary performance at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival when Paul Gonsalves’ tenor solo kept building and building till the crowd was in a frenzy. Sixty years later Butler took the Gonsalves role on the tune, playing chorus after chorus with increasing excitement till this year’s crowd was shouting too. On the set’s final song, Billy Preston’s “Will It Go Round in Circles,” Butler sang the bouncy lyric as tenor saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum had his own Gonsalves moment of a wild, extended solo.

With Butler added to the band, the Hot 9 contained 10 musicians, including cello and clarinet, the same number as the Anat Cohen Tentet. That sized ensemble, halfway between a quintet and a big band, is yielding some terrific music these days. And nobody seems to enjoy playing music more than Cohen, an Israeli native who has lived in the U.S. since 1996.

A young woman with an untamed mane of dark curls, she grins widely when the music is going well and even dances on stage when one of her colleagues takes an especially stimulating solo—as when her vibes player soloed over accordion and upright bass on “Putty Boy Strut.” Cohen’s own clarinet work on tunes borrowed from Brazil, Mali and Israel revealed how jazz can once again be danceable without sacrificing any of its musical surprise.

These were just some of the highlights at this year’s festival. Alto saxophonist Steve Coleman and his trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson extended Ornette Coleman’s harmolodic methods into dazzling new territory. Etienne Charles fused jazz with the music of his Caribbean childhood with stimulating results. Vocalist Gregory Porter proved that smart, literate lyrics can stick to jazz if some old-school R&B acts as the glue.

Tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano and guitarist John Scofield renewed their partnership by soloing on blues changes. Pianist Chick Corea played some of the best music of his long career in an all-star trio that also included drummer Brian Blade and bassist Christian McBride. At this year’s event, McBride was announced as the new artistic director of the Newport Jazz Festival.

All in all, this year’s festival proved that jazz is at its best when it talks to popular music without being drowned out by it. And perhaps Kamasi Washington will add something important to this dialogue before he’s through. He’s talented and well intentioned; he just needs to stretch a bit more. Thus it was a good sign when he was spotted in the wings during the Charles Lloyd set, so pleased with what he heard that he was grinning like a kid who just opened a Christmas present.