“Riot Prevention.” “Pandemonium.” No, these aren’t titles off Billboard’s Hard Rock Albums chart — they’re track names from Duke Ellington’s seminal Ellington at Newport, recorded 50 years ago at the Newport Jazz Festival. That same festival took place this past weekend (July 29-31) at Newport’s Fort Adams State Park with — for one last time — the same artistic director at the helm: George Wein, often credited as the inventor of the modern music festival. No riots broke out and there wasn’t much in the way of pandemonium (though traffic leaving the festival’s sold-out second day came close), but per usual, the diverse lineup and enthusiastic crowds proved an excellent retort to jazz’s stodgy reputation.
Especially in 2016, when the genre is once again becoming synonymous with hipness, the genre’s favorite summer camp was chock full of artists relevant to not just jazz, but pop as well. Festivalgoers could hear the some of the minds behind David Bowie and Kendrick Lamar’s most recent albums: Donny McCaslin, who played a song “we did with David Bowie that didn’t make the record,” and Kamasi Washington twice, respectively. Robert Glasper cited his two Grammy wins (notably in R&B categories) while joking about sound issues early in his Sunday set (“I’ve got two Grammys and nine nominations, I can’t work like this!”), before playing Lamar’s “How Much A Dollar Cost” and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Norah Jones affably performed her many hits, perfectly suited to the breezy waterfront venue, before diving into funkier new material — though no one captured the mood of the summer idyll like alt-rock hero Nels Cline (Wilco, Thurston Moore), who debuted upcoming Blue Note album Lovers (Aug. 5) on Sunday at the festival — a well-timed seagull squawk seemed like intentional punctuation to his gutting, gorgeous guitar-playing, which in turn blended seamlessly with the onstage orchestra.
There was certainly sufficient material for the traditionalists as well — on Saturday, piano lovers could go from hearing Chick Corea, 75, play Miles Davis’s “All Blues” to hearing Joey Alexander, 13, play John Coltrane’s “Countdown,” each with their own trio and per press tent gossip, their own personal grand piano (who says jazz can’t have high rollers?). Swinging acts like the Hot Sardines and Anat Cohen’s flawless nonet had even security guards showing off their jazz hands (or spirit fingers, in more modern parlance), and New Orleans pianist and singer Henry Butler turned flipped classics like “C.C. Rider” upsidedown and backwards, all while maintaining a decidedly-not-corny stride feel.
Although there was certainly something for everyone present, the density of the stages (it takes about 10 minutes to do a lap of the whole festival) meant occasionally, even the most stationary of the sunscreen-smeared masses were jolted out of their stupors, whether by the club-ready grooves of Kneebody (whose bass levels were on par with those of Lollapalooza, also this past weekend) or Charles Lloyd’s eternally imaginative and energetic soloing, even at 78. Bright and experimental brass quartet The Westerlies brought the packed Storyville stage to its feet, while Ben Williams enchanted the his audience with a just-Dilla-enough opening number that he explained after was a version of N.E.R.D.’s “Fly Or Die.” “That was a Pharrell song you just listened to,” he told the crowd, chuckling.
Even without the riots and pandemonium, a half century later Newport is still presenting jazz as Wein intended, supporting his philosophy which continues to inspire music festivals around the world: “from J to Z.”