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Five Must-See Bands at the 2011 Newport Jazz Festival

It’s coming up fast, and as veteran’s know, you have to have your map laid out in front of you if you want to catch all the good stuff. Which there’s plenty of, by the way – this is another well-curated program for the Fort Adams affair. Ambrose Akinmusire, Randy Weston, Miguel Zenon – there are lots of big talents taking the stage in Newport (check this wider list). Here are five groups that need to be circled in advance. Grab a ticket and head to the Ocean State this weekend. Can’t make it? The heroes at NPR bring it to your ear-buds (donate to your local station this year!).  Here’s the Spotify list

1. John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble

Wow, a working big band. Meaning they may have charts in front of them, but they play often enough to bring a true immediacy to the table – there’s always lift-off when they take the stage. That’s key, because the percussionist-composer’s detailed pieces sound best when all the nuances are being appreciated. The title track from Eternal Interlude (Sunnyside) offers flashes of swing-based history and allusions to pulse-driven minimalism, and the subtleties need to be attended to. The who’s who of NYC improvisers that comprise the outfit usually do their boss proud.

2. Steve Coleman & Five Elements

Can a band be simultaneously skittish and stable? Coleman’s rigorous M-BASE antics – an amalgam of precise zig-zag melody lines and intricate cross-rhythms – offers a resounding “hell, yeah.” Led by the  revered alto saxophonist, they’re one of the most self-assured outfits you’ll ever see, exploding the concept of counterpoint, stressing individuality while proffering collectivism, and making the funk woof in an idiosyncratic way. Saw them last month, and was reminded of one thing: their precision is devastating.

3. Wynton Marsalis 

He has a way of making raucous and rowdy morph into sweet and sultry, and if you’ve seen his small ensemble of late, you might agree: his version of swing encompasses so many of jazz’s outre impulses it’s impossible to mistake how widely inclusive his approach actually is at this late date. Terrific musicianship and judicious sense of experimentation? I’ll take it over one-dimensional radicalism any day.

4. Mostly Other People Do the Killing

Trumpeter Peter Evans, saxophonist Jon Irabagon, drummer Kevin Shea, and drummer-composer Moppa Elliott have been together long enough to let their cohesion be represented by swagger. The cover art of their latest disc sticks out its tongue at Keith Jarrett’s The Koln Concert – a wealth of deep thoughts that finds the pianist judiciously gauging each note. Cagey and cavalier, MOPDTK has a blast plopping a cream pie in the face of such sobriety, romping through their sets with an agitated informality. Their rambunctious freebop is built on a manic esprit that’s proud of its entertainment skills.

5. Apex: Rudresh Mahanthappa & Bunky Green

Twenty five years ago, Steve Coleman hit NYC talking Bunky Green, Bunky Green, Bunky Green. The 70-something educator is an idiosyncratic alto man who bends the norm to suit his needs and comes away with solos that burst with singularity. Ten years ago Mahanthappa, himself a singular alto firebrand, also stressed BG’s skills in conversation. Now they’re a wily intergenerational front line, winning accolades for their fervent exchanges and clocking critical awards for the very impressive debut disc, a record that storms in several different ways while wafting strains of South Indian music into the mix.

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