But, minor problems all. A bigger problem at Newport, as I've written before, besides taking in only partial sets as you jump from stage to stage, is having to keep refocusing your attention — by scale, by style, by historical era. Everything's here: the big Fort Stage that faces Narragansett Bay; the new cozy open-tent Quad Stage that's actually in the centerfield of the Fort; the Harbor Stage against another outside wall. On Saturday, I had to travel from the Quad, where tenor-saxophonist J.D. Allen's trio were playing brilliantly focused Ornette-style freebop, down the stone-laid drive and through the Fort's wall to the Harbor Stage, where polymath violinist Mark O'Connor was leading his Hot Swing band (with young star guitarist Julian Lage) in "Fascinating Rhythm" and a program that otherwise was reminiscent of Django Reinhardt and Bob Wills.
The al fresco setting and those shifts in scale — not to mention that constant sprinting from stage to stage in the summer heat — shoved critical judgment into the redline of subjectivity. I'd always admired the craft and beauty of composer Maria Schneider's orchestra recordings, but, truth be told, I found her band's show at Berklee last year a bit snoozy — even with all the ingenious use of South American Afro-Latin folk rhythms. But playing on the big stage, her orchestra breathed with the setting of white-sail-dotted blue water and puffy-white-cloud-dappled blue sky. On an original Afro-Peruvian lando, Scott Robinson took an extended clarinet solo that was beautifully modulated, from the highest singing altissimo to the deepest woody chalumeau. At one point, Schneider brought the orchestra down to a hush: muted trombones against the soft lando clack of drumsticks and handclaps.
On the other hand, Indian-born New York guitarist Rez Abbasi's quartet, playing later that day (Saturday), required more concentration than I could muster. Abbasi's Things To Come (Sunnyside) was one of my favorite albums on 2009. Here, a new quartet were previewing a September release of rarely performed covers. But pieces like Joe Henderson's "Punjab" seemed busy and unfocused except for the occasional arcing quarter-note lines of vibist Bill Ware. Finally, Andrew Hill's "Up on the Hill" cohered around the spine of a three-beat hook from bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Eric McPherson (who had been a member of Hill's band). But I kept thinking the music would have worked better on my kitchen stereo, with Krump's bass more subdued. It was after five by then, and I was longing for the wide-open spaces and long breaths of the Schneider orchestra.
What else? A glorious outing from Dave Douglas's Brass Ecstasy with tubist Marcus Rojas, trombonist Luis Bonilla, and the all-too-rarely heard great horn player Vincent Chancey. ("There's nothing French about that horn," Douglas announced.) Here was funk, gospel, and bebop held in perfectly balanced, exuberant jazz arrangements. Jason Moran's Bandwagon trio reprised their retrospective album Ten (Blue Note), including "To Bob Vatel of Paris," a piece by one of Moran's teachers, the late Jaki Byard. In the spirit of that eclectic genius, it traveled from stride to free and then back to vaudevillian Bert Williams's "Nobody." And the trio of pianist Matthew Shipp, Boston guitar hero Joe Morris playing his more recently acquired bass, and the great Sun Ra alto-saxophonist Marshall Allen showed that there's as much lyricism as brawn in old-school free jazz.