Review: Masada graces Newport Jazz Fest


Launched in 1954, before the birth of rock and other music festivals, the Newport Jazz Festival expanded upon its legacy Friday by kicking off its 60th anniversary weekend with an opening third day that truly pushed jazz in dizzying directions.

Friday’s centerpiece was John Zorn’s Masada marathon, a two-and-a-half hour spin through nine configurations of virtuoso musicians associated with that prolific, maverick composer/saxophonist. It marked an extremely rare convergence of players from New York’s downtown avant-garde scene — less than 90 minutes from Boston. Yet wherever one turned on the grounds of Fort Adams State Park, there was an ensemble cooking on a comparable plane of adventurous, top-flight musicianship that pulled from a range of ethnic influences.

Zorn’s original Masada group with trumpeter Dave Douglas, bassist Greg Cohen and drummer Joey Baron began the marathon in the fort’s open Quad tent, tapping the same instrumentation as Ornette Coleman’s radical late ’50s quartet while drawing on Jewish folk scales under its bursts of feisty improvisation. Across a 20-minute slot, the quartet shifted from spirited to whimsical, from free skronk fest (led by Zorn on alto sax) to a burning bop solo by Douglas. From there, composer Zorn deftly directed the program’s mix ‘n’ match pool of musicians associated with his Tzadik label in some of the hundreds of songs in his Masada repertory.

Bar Kokhba first suggested a chamber group with bassist Cohen, cellist Erik Friedlander and violinist Mark Feldman. As a conductor, however, Zorn egged on guitarist Marc Ribot (Robert Plant/Alison Krauss, Tom Waits) to seize the lead in a scorching Latin-rock jam with gleeful basher Baron. A duet by violinist Feldman and pianist Sylvie Courvoisier shared precision and attitude, flashing classical technique and Astor Piazzolla’s modern-tango flourish. The band Dreamers introduced drummer Kenny Wollesen on vibes and built a dreamy sound into fierce rock grooves. And the young quartet Abraxas brought the noise level to extremes with its heavy Moroccan-metal mash around Shanir Blumenkranz’s bass-like sintir, bookended by refreshing, intricate changeups from both string trio (conducted by a sitting Zorn) and a Friedlander cello solo. Finally, Electric Masada brought the largest ensemble to a cathartic boil akin to Miles Davis’s Agharta period. Jamie Saft laid overamped ribbons of Rhodes piano over the cushion of drummers Baron and Wollesen, sweeping percussionist Cyro Baptista and laptop sonic colorist Ikue Mori. And if Zorn grew overly busy in cuing quick-cut changes, he had the players to execute it.

If the Masada marathon was the main event, it was easy to forget upon a stroll to Friday’s other stages. There were premiere big bands in Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society (its empathic spread of dynamics leading to a Levon Helm homage) and New England Conservatory professor Miguel Zenon’s “Identities” Big Band, which folded rich, contrasting horn layers in pieces that explored Puerto Rican heritage. Asia informed the music of Indian-American alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa (whose Charlie Parker Project mixed its bop with Mahavishnu-like energy) Iraqi-American trumpeter Amir El Saffar. The horn and keyboard-driven ensemble Snarky Puppy hit some interesting moments with its more mainstream fusion, while Jon Batiste & Stay Human went all out with a populist New Orleans-styled repertoire that went over the top with a guest sax spot by local favorite Grace Kelly. And the oddly named Mostly Other People Do the Killing lent off-kilter personality, from a piano solo that wove mayhem and quoted standards (even Elton John) to a banjo attacked by violin bow.

Perhaps the day’s most radical inclusion might have been Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks, which neatly recasts the repertoire of big bands from the 1920s and ’30s. After tracing the history of “The Sugarfoot Stomp” through King Oliver and Fletcher Henderson, tuba leader Giordano noted he “had nothing to do with” a Pete Rock hip-hop remix of his version, suggesting there were limits to what was proudly flown under jazz’s tent on Friday.

After a rainy Saturday with a strong bill ranging from the challenging bandleader Dave Holland’s Prism to New Orleans upstart Trombone Shorty, the 60th edition of the Newport Jazz Fest closes Sunday with another fabulous lineup the includes the Mingus Big Band, Bobby McFerrin, Gary Burton, Danilo Perez, David Sanborn and even the Newport All-Stars led by 88-year-old pianist George Wein, who founded the whole thing. Like the festival itself, Wein offers us, as Zorn said in salute, “Living history.”

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