Music Review

Newport players don’t miss a beat

Young talent, big names at jazz festival

By Steve Greenlee
Globe Staff / August 8, 2011

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NEWPORT, R.I. - If the organizers of the Newport Jazz Festival flubbed anything this year, it was in putting Esperanza Spalding on the second stage.

Spalding, the 26-year-old bassist and vocalist who this year became the first jazz musician to win the Best New Artist award at the Grammys, played a set each day on the festival’s midsize stage. Her appeal has grown so wide so fast that she could have easily been on the main stage. It seemed like half the crowd (7,500 Saturday; 5,000 Sunday, with the rain impeding turnout) found its way to her anyway, either jammed under the tent or sitting so far from the stage that they couldn’t see a thing.

They had plenty to choose from. With 30 acts on three stages over the two days, there was no break in the action. Music was always happening somewhere, and it ranged as wide as do the boundaries of jazz, from mainstream (Mingus Big Band, Joshua Redman’s James Farm quartet) to Latin jazz (Michel Camilo, Eddie Palmieri) to world jazz (Charles Lloyd’s Sangam, Randy Weston’s African Rhythms Trio) to avant-garde (Steve Coleman & Five Elements, Mostly Other People Do the Killing) to fresh young talent (Ambrose Akinmusire, the Mario Castro Quintet).

Spalding’s relegation to the middle stage was odd, given that the festival had splashed her name across ads; one might have thought the young Berklee College of Music graduate was the headliner. It didn’t seem to bother her, though. Already a Newport veteran, her attitude was sunny and engaging, and her bands - which were different each day but included Akinmusire, Boston saxophonist Bob Mover, pianist Uri Caine, and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington - proved tight, versatile units whether serving up swinging bop (“Miss Anne’’) or more experimental fare that bridged the worlds of jazz and chamber music (“O Bem do Mar’’).

In fact, the festival teemed with accomplished young women from Berklee. Pianist Hiromi Uehara, who too has played Newport several times, did two sets - a set of solo material on the main stage Saturday and an acoustic-electric jazz-rock fusion set with her trio on the second stage Sunday. With electric bassist Anthony Jackson and rock drummer Simon Phillips supporting her, she was a ball of contagious energy - standing up and sitting down, kicking her right leg like a dog getting its ear scratched, all while blazing with surgical precision through ridiculous tempos.

On the third stage, Grace Kelly, a teenage alto sax prodigy and Berklee senior, blew strong, muscular phrases on a speedy version of “The Way You Look Tonight’’ before inviting her mentor, Phil Woods, to join her on a run through “Man With the Hat,’’ her tribute to him. They stated the theme of the tune in unison, then each took solos, then traded eights and fours. The whole thing felt right out of Greenwich Village 1955, down to the composition itself, which sounded like it came from Thelonious Monk’s songbook.

For all the young talent, however, it is the big names that draw, and they were there - though the biggest, 90-year-old Dave Brubeck, was slated only as a special guest on the smallest stage, with his sons’ quartet, and then didn’t go on, for fear of how performing in yesterday’s chilly, windy, and damp conditions could affect his health.

Saturday on the big stage, Wynton Marsalis’s quintet played lively, old-school hard bop, doing what they always do - and pleased the crowd. The trumpeter gave his sidemen ample room to put their skills on display, but people come to Wynton to hear Wynton, and he delivered. During a take on “Sparks’’ - famous for its use in an iPod commercial a few years ago - he blew staccato attacks, fluttered notes, and growled with the mute plunger.

Perhaps the weekend’s most innovative set came from John Hollenbeck’s Large Ensemble, a 19-member band - with two vocalists, Theo Bleckmann and Kate McGarry - that rearranged disparate pop songs (“Wichita Lineman,’’ Kraftwerk’s “The Model,’’ “A Man of Constant Sorrow’’) into a new sort of avant-garde big-band rock-jazz.

The closing sets each day could not have been more different - or elicited more different reactions from the crowd.

On Saturday, guitarist Al Di Meola dueted with pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba on a series of Di Meola’s “World Sinfonia’’ pieces, which draw from flamenco, tango, and Afro-Cuban music. The guitarist’s classical-jazz chamber ensemble apparently had some trouble getting into the United States, so the set was scaled back to a duo. Intimate, lovely, and tasteful, it was the wrong way to end the day. Di Meola knew it too, as he ribbed what remained of the crowd for its lack of enthusiasm. “I hope this shows up on YouTube and my agent sees it,’’ he said, probably half joking. “I will never play last again.’’

Yesterday’s closer was a 180 from that. Trombone Shorty and his band, Orleans Avenue, had everyone on their feet, swaying and dancing to high-energy funk-rock. Shorty may be more of a rock star in training than a jazz artist - he would rather tell people to clap their hands than weave intricate solos - but he sure knows how to start a party, even at the party’s end.

Steve Greenlee can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SteveGreenlee.

NEWPORT JAZZ FESTIVAL At: Fort Adams State Park, Newport, R.I., Saturday and Sunday