Hitting the high notes

By PHILIP EIL  |  July 31, 2013


NAME | Rez Abbasi


SHOWTIME | Saturday at 2:30 pm with his trio

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW | Abbasi comes to Newport via Pakistan (where he was born), LA (where he moved at age 4 and studied at USC), NYC (where he also studied music and currently lives), and India (where he went on a pilgrimage to study under the percussionist Ustad Alla Rakha). He often shares the stage with his wife, vocalist Kiran Ahluwalia.

WHAT HE SAYS | The first time [I played Newport] was as a sideman with Rudresh Mahanthappa and then the second time I brought my band, an acoustic group. This time is with just a trio. It’s a different kind of project.

As a sideman, you don’t have the same challenges as a leader does. There are pressure differences. I mean, as a leader you have your name right up there and people remember the concert through your name. As a sideman, you are really helping the leader to sort of bring out the music as well as possible — his or her version. 

As a jazz musician, Newport is definitely I think on everybody’s radar, just given the history of it. The first time I played there, what I recognized right away was the audience is very excitable and that creates the desire within the artist to step it up, which is great. We need that as artists. And so I don’t feel like anybody holds back at Newport.

Even if it’s not the stage that you’re performing at, you have a pass to get into any backstage. So the first couple times, it was quite amazing because after our concert, I went to the main stage and I saw Roy Haynes’s group from the back. I’ve never seen a concert from a back so close up. I was actually standing on the same stage — it was a huge stage. And you can do that, kick off to the side and watch these guys play. The second time, I did that with Herbie Hancock and that was really neat as well. I never thought I would share the stage with Herbie Hancock but, in that sense, loosely, I did.



NAME | Terence Blanchard


SHOWTIME | Saturday at 3:20 pm

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW | He’s the go-to composer for Spike Lee (among other filmmakers). It’s Blanchard’s music you hear in Summer of Sam, Inside Man, Bamboozled, and the documentary When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts.

WHAT HE SAYS | How do I explain it? Newport is like one of those crown jewels of jazz festivals. When you say “Newport,” to me, I think “Louis Armstrong,” “Miles Davis,” “Duke Ellington,” “Ella Fitzgerald,” all of those people who graced that stage. So it’s an honor to be a part of that festival any time.

That stage is just like a slew of activity of artists and back then [at my first festivals] I was a real shy guy so I just stood back there and just watched all of this activity, people coming back and forth, coming off the stage after doing their shows. I remember Etta James. I walked out, I was trying to check out that show from out front, and then before she finished I was backstage again. I was just trying to learn what it was like to be a musician, what it was like to have a musical presence, so to speak, and to watch these people come on and off the stage doing their thing and learn what their personalities were like off the stage and how [it] was connected to what it was they were doing on stage.

The main thing that I learned is that most people — the great ones, that is — they were just being themselves. You didn’t see any transformation of personality from stage to offstage. They were always the same.

You can tell the artists that played Newport understood that it was an educated audience that came to the show and that made a big difference in terms of how they approached their shows. We constantly use the word “performance” but the more common word that should be used is “shared experience.”

One of the things I [bring] to performing music . . . is you don’t play down to the audience, you don’t play above the audience. You just play straight to it. I try to be myself no matter where I play, but the difference is that you don’t know how people are going to respond . . . But I know when I go to Newport, I know that I’m going to be comfortable just being who I am.

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