Hitting the high notes

Leave the improv to the musicians — plan ahead for the Jazz Fest
By JIM MACNIE  |  July 30, 2014

John Zorn

You wanted more, you got more. Thanks in advance to this year’s Newport Jazz Festival and its extra day of action at Fort Adams. The programming has been truly impressive in the last several years, and the 2014 edition — 60th anniversary, y’all — invites even more improvisers to the scene, kicking off on Friday at noon. The cornerstone attraction? A glorious mitzvah from Team Wein: the two-and-a-half-hour Masada Marathon. John Zorn has said his ever-expanding book for this project represents a way of mixing “Ornette Coleman and Jewish scales.” Riding rad-trad impulses, the Masada material (more than 500 pieces so far) has become one of the most enticing canons in modern improvised music. A number of ensembles — including Bar Kokhba, Dreamers, Abraxas, and the original Masada quartet of Dave Douglas, Greg Cohen, Joey Baron, and Zorn — will interpret the tunes. Some will be electric, one will feature a string trio, and cellist Erik Friedlander will perform solo. Variety is central here. On record, the music’s breadth is overwhelming. “Zechriel” is a slinky ode that lets guitarist Marc Ribot wax eerie. “Hashul” unites Kenny Wollesen’s vibraphone and Jamie Saft’s piano in an MJQ surf-rock samba distillation. “Lilin” is maniacal turbulence that contours skronk while swerving through Zorn’s beloved pan-genre mise-en-scène. The leader’s coterie is a who’s who of New York improvisers. Never had the Zorn experience? Here’s your shot. He’s a marvel.

There’s a grand unity in Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society work. Sustaining a big band is a tough job, but the NYC-based composer’s outfit always plays tight and uses its unity to explode the music’s varied emotions. Last year’s Brooklyn Babylon (New Amsterdam) was awash in moods and tones, conjuring Copeland, referencing Piazzolla, and using his 18-piece ensemble to create swinging excursions and dreamy reveries. Don’t miss the trees for the forest. Several members — baritone saxophonist Josh Sinton, for example — are superb soloists.

You can’t play alto sax and not tip the hat to Bird in some way. Rudresh Mahanthappa is one of the instrument’s most vital players these days — his fierce attack gooses his fleet runs to build an imposing sound. He’s unveiling his Charlie Parker Project at Fort Adams, a series of original pieces that reference the master’s bop frenzy while digging into the kind of animation pianist Matt Mitchell, bassist François Moutin, and drummer Rudy Royston can conjure. There’s lots of finesse in the air with these guys, and they’ll definitely hit it hard.

Mostly Other People Do the Killing

I caught Mostly Other People Do the Killing doing the music from Red Hot (Hot Cup) in January, and their idiosyncratic swirl of in and out couldn’t have been better balanced. The album harks to Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, and other early jazz sources from New Orleans and Chicago and they milk the material for all it’s worth. Humor is key to the MOPDTK vibe — they explode polyphonic glee while cranking out witty solos. Augmented by banjo player Brandon Seabrook, bass trombonist David Taylor, and pianist Ron Stabinsky, the band is thick with sound. Slide trumpeter, early jazz encyclopedia, and Sex Mob hero Steven Bernstein is also part of today’s show.

Miguel Zenón has spent the last several albums examining the cultural particulars of his Puerto Rican homeland. From the propulsion of plena drumming to the sentiment of the island’s classic songs, he infused them with an intrepid jazz spin. Last year’s Oye!!! (Miel) was a live shot with an electric band that reminded us just how hot his alto sax burns. This year’s Newport gig features an extended new piece, “Identities Are Changeable,” written for a large ensemble. It’s inspired by the notion of outsiders — Puerto Ricans living in the US and hanging on tight to their history while establishing themselves for the future. I haven’t heard the music yet, but elaborate rhythm is certainly part of it. Few bandleaders are able to make intricate beats stack up to a groove-driven experience like Zenón.

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