EVERYWHERE MAN Bill Frisell showed up in at least three configurations — with his own John Lennon-project band, with the Bad Plus, and, here, with Jenny Scheinman
Bill Frisell offered another way to win the crowd with instrumental music under the punishing heat in front of the Fort: play John Lennon songs REALLY FUCKING LOUD. When I took a shortcut through the Quad and emerged on the Fort side on Saturday, Frisell and company were in the middle of a chugging, obliterating "Come Together." It sounded great. This really could have been gimmicky, but I don't think Frisell has ever played a dishonest note, and the album All We Are Saying. . .(Savoy Jazz) works so well because, as Jim Macnie pointed out in his Phoenix preview, Frisell isn't afraid to let the melodies do the heavy lifting.
At Newport the band dug into those great melodies and then some. With Greg Leisz's pedal steel and Jenny Scheinman's violin, Frisell was able to work vocal and guitar melodies on multiple levels, as well as take extra pleasure in that little Baroque-dance in the bridge of "In My Life." And when the finale of "Strawberry Fields Forever" called for a free psychedelic jam, they obliged.
Frisell was one of the "special guests" who kept showing up at other people's sets all weekend (overlapping personnel that allowed many angles on a single musician was one of the pleasures of this year's Newport). He found common ground with post-everything piano trio the Bad Plus on Saturday in the music of drummer and composer Paul Motian, who died last November. The seemingly free jams — Ethan Iverson's tone-row piano lines, bassist Reid Anderson's textured drones, drummer Dave King's rockist kick, and Frisell's array of sighs, whines, and pinging harmonics — would come together in grand, and moving, melodic crescendos. On Sunday, Frisell was Scheinman's guest, in a series of folk-wise fiddle-and-guitar improvisations that, especially in Frisell's "Rag," took on a very heady playfulness.
There were other wonderful quiet moments. Ken Peplowski — playing the Harbor stage with Anat Cohen and Evan Christopher in a trio of clarinettests — offered the rarely played Jelly Roll Morton tune "Why" as a duet with guitarist Howard Alden. Peplowski's soft notes floated on the damp air over the hushed crowd. Singer Gretchen Parlato led a bare-bones trio with singer/guitarist Becca Stevens and singer/guitarist Lionel Loueke that split the difference between Appalachian and African folk.
There were at least three bona-fide big bands this year: Darcy James Argue's Secret Society, the Maria Schneider Orchestra, and arranger Ryan Truesdell's Gil Evans Centennial Project. And believe me, these are orchestras, not swing dance bands. I was afraid that too much pastel harmony and no rhythmic drive would put me to sleep out in front of the Fort. But I caught Truesdell just as he was closing with a rabble-rousing multi-horn counterpoint on Horace Silver's "Sister Sadie" that sounded as much like Charles Mingus as Gil Evans. Schneider's undulating rhythms and beautiful solo work from flugelhornist Ingrid Jensen and saxophonists Scott Robinson and Steve Wilson lifted her band. And Argue's clockwork rhythms and orchestral detail threatened to become a Stravinsky concerto (I would not have complained). In a piece he introduced as part of a new suite about the building of a giant carousel in Brooklyn, a flamenco dance eventually gave way to a poignant long-toned theme that was worth the price of admission.