What's more, many of these players (Steve Coleman & Five Elements, the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble, Mostly Other People Do the Killing, trumpeter Avishai Cohen, and the band Apex, with saxophonists Bunky Green and Rudresh Mahanthappa) are decidedly left-leaning. Even Miguel Zenón's "Puerto Rican Songbook" with arrangements by Guillermo Klein was not exactly the return of the Mambo Kings. Which is just as well. For all intents and purposes, this was a jazz connoisseur's Newport, where people not only knew who Eric Harland was, they could also tell you how many bands he was playing in on Sunday (three).
In my case, I tried to focus on bands I'd never seen or who don't often get to Boston. One of the best of these was the Hollenbeck group. Hollenbeck's compositions and arrangements for this 19-piece band are a complex weave of cyclical cross-rhythms and multi-hued orchestrations over tricky forms. They're stunning, and they have a groove — but they're not pop or dance music.
Playing the Quad Stage, Hollenbeck offered his own surprises: his set, featuring singers Theo Bleckmann and Kate McGarry, included Jimmy Webb's "Wichita Lineman," Kraftwerk's "The Model," the O Brother, Where Out Thou? hit "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow," Imogen Heap's "Canvas," and — more typical of Hollenbeck — Ornette Coleman's "All My Life" and his own setting of Rumi, "Constant Conversation."
Just about everything in his set worked beautifully (even as the rain poured down and, following the Webb piece, pianist Uri Caine played a snatch of that songwriter's "McArthur Park" — "someone left the cake out in the rain"). Sometimes Bleckmann and McGarry sang wordlessly. On "Wichita Lineman," they traded verses, leading to a dense, brooding elaboration by the band. During "The Model," they struck witty, dead-on fashion poses. The exciting tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby was also featured, and was perhaps best when he stood for a free-ranging solo over Caine's equally expansive piano. And the Rumi was a hefty little concerto for orchestra marked by long tones that Bleckmann and McGarry sang over the churning ensemble, the soft slap of Hollenbeck's drum complemented by low woodwinds. Before their last number, Hollenbeck thanked Wein, who, he said, "just showed up" for one of the band's gigs in Brooklyn. And hired them.
A roughly matching bookend for Hollenbeck was Coleman, whose long-standing band, Five Elements, also build their music on layers of cross rhythms. In their Saturday set at Newport, Coleman, trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, and singer Jen Shyu often played three-line counterpoint over one of Coleman's bumpty-bump syncopated beats. The density would build to near bursting — the roiling of rhythmic figures from pianist David Virelles, bassist Thomas Morgan, and drummer Tyshawn Sorey, the weave of lines by Shyu, Finlayson, and Coleman. Shyu often sings in her own invented language, and she's a charismatic presence on stage — often tracing long phrases with her hands as her voice joins the others in long-tone lines or sputtering patterns.