Second-stage acts and other surprises steal the show in Newport

Singer/bassist Esperanza Spalding performed at the jazz festival Saturday; drummer Roy Haynes played yesterday. Singer/bassist Esperanza Spalding performed at the jazz festival Saturday; drummer Roy Haynes played yesterday. (Photos By Joe Giblin/Associated Press)
By Steve Greenlee
Globe Staff / August 10, 2009

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NEWPORT, R.I. - One of the great moments in Newport jazz festival history went down this weekend, and it happened away from the main stage. Pianist Hiromi Uehara had been enthralling the crowd at the midsize stage with her wild brand of fusion when she asked her sidemen to step away for a moment so she could dedicate a solo piece to jazz impresario George Wein, who created the festival in 1954 and stepped in again this year to save it.

Hiromi (she goes by her first name) started picking out a pretty stride version of “I Got Rhythm,’’ but it erupted into a lightning storm that would have stunned Bud Powell. She half-stood and bounced on her feet as she played, her hands a blur. She leaned into the piano and bobbed her head, heavy-metal-drummer-style. All the while, her hands blazed across the 88 - banging up and down the octaves, clanging thunderous clusters, landing precisely where she aimed. When she brought her hands down on the final chord, the audience too erupted: The Berklee grad was awarded a spontaneous and sustained standing ovation in the middle of her set.

In fact, many of Newport’s finest moments occurred away from the main stage this year. And to think it almost didn’t happen. The world’s oldest jazz festival was in danger of disappearing when Wein announced in March that he would return to make sure the show went on. With a new sponsor, he rechristened it George Wein’s CareFusion Jazz Festival 55.

Despite the abbreviated planning season, Wein put on an exceptional event that was particularly strong on second-stage acts. With 30 sets of music over two days at Fort Adams State Park, virtually every style of jazz was represented on the big stage: the stately cool jazz of the Dave Brubeck Quartet; the straight-ahead hard bop of groups led by Roy Haynes and Cedar Walton; the modern-meets-traditional sounds of pianist Michel Camilo, Branford Marsalis’s quartet, Joe Lovano’s two-drummer quintet, and Joshua Redman Double Trio with two bassists and two drummers; the 21st-century blends created by singer/bassist Esperanza Spalding and by Mos Def’s jazz-slash-hip-hop act the Watermelon Syndicate.

But listeners who spent time at the two smaller stages were rewarded with new experiences and revelations.

Saxophonist Miguel Zenon, the recipient of a 2008 MacArthur genius grant, introduced a new cocktail that mixes jazz with the plena music of his native Puerto Rico. Debuting music from his forthcoming CD “Esta Plena,’’ Zenon began his set with a long, long solo that seemed intended to rival Paul Gonsalves’s legendary 27 choruses back in 1955.

In the same vein, saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa bridged East and West with his Indo-Pak Coalition, a trio featuring guitarist Rez Abbasi and percussionist Dan Weiss. On tunes like “Apti’’ and “Palika Market,’’ Weiss switched easily between drum kit and tablas as Abbasi dug out a hypnotic groove and Mahanthappa improvised on Middle Eastern scales.

In a more traditional trio, Vijay Iyer, one of today’s most compelling pianists and writers, served up complex harmonic improvisations over his serpentine compositions. With a varied touch - he placed rolling ostinatos and staccato stabs in the same phrase - Iyer gave himself the freedom to allow pieces to develop. A blues groove and a New Orleans stomp grew out of his new modern-jazz tune “Historicity.’’

Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra played like the Preservation Hall Jazz Band on Papi-enhancing supplements. A throwback to the territory bands of the ’30s and ’40s, Bernstein’s nine-piece outfit approached old-time jazz with a rock sensibility, one in which hyperactive Dixieland-style treatments of the 1928 tune “The Boy in the Boat,’’ the country song “It Makes No Difference Now,’’ and Prince’s “Darling Nikki’’ made perfect sense lined up one after the other.

As the action wound down on the small stages late yesterday, it actually heated up. Saxophonist James Carter’s organ trio brought fresh power to soul-jazz tunes such as Jack McDuff’s “Walking the Dog’’; the Bad Plus turned rock songs such as U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday’’ and Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb’’ into avant-garde jazz with help from singer Wendy Lewis; and a trio led by fire-and-brimstone saxophonist Charles Gayle put on a free-jazz clinic, playing 60 minutes of spontaneously created music without framework or boundaries.

The weekend’s biggest surprise came from the Vandermark 5. The first surprise was that the Chicago quintet was even invited. Multireedist Ken Vandermark is one of the leaders of today’s free-jazz scene, but the Natick native’s style is so far outside the mainstream that he rarely gets to play US festivals. On “Spiel,’’ his group improvised at length against a single repeated bass note, but eventually the punk-jazz aesthetic receded and the tune evolved into a proper swing with a walking bass line.

Perhaps unintentionally, the V5’s cellist became the center of attention. Manipulating his instrument with electronics and electric amplification, Fred Lonberg-Holm turned the cello into an electric guitar. When he monkeyed with his sound on “Second Marker,’’ many people in the overflow crowd thought the audio was going screwy. Once they figured out what was happening, they were loving it. “Man, that was awesome!’’ a child in the back shouted at the end of “Cement,’’ a particularly raucous song.

It sure was.

Steve Greenlee can be reached at

GEORGE WEIN’S CAREFUSION JAZZ FESTIVAL 55 At: Fort Adams State Park, Newport, R.I., Saturday and yesterday

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