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Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Bill Charlap highlight day one at Newport Jazz Fest

August 4, 2013

4aThis year’s Newport Jazz Festival began Friday night at the International Tennis Hall of Fame, the festival’s original home in 1954. The wealthy sponsors who buy the expensive tickets come in high fashion, more interested in being seen than in listening to the music, and they chattered throughout the concert. It was unfortunate because the opening act, the Bill Charlap Trio, can be terrific.

Charlap is an old-fashioned kind of musician, dressing in suits and ties and playing melodic versions of venerable standards. Within those parameters, however, he is witty, inventive and irreverent, twisting the tunes into knots until they crack open and yield new delights. And his allstar rhythm section, drummer Kenny Washington and bassist Peter Washington, is of the same mindset.

Freddy Cole, Nat King Cole’s kid brother, joined the trio, sang a few songs in a diminished but still sly voice, then slid alongside Charlap on the piano bench. They played a few bars of four-handed piano, then Charlap slid off to allow Cole to show off his own keyboard chops. Unfortunately there was no such collaboration when Cole’s niece, Natalie Cole, played the headlining set.

The T-shirted crowd that showed up Saturday afternoon at the festival’s current home, Fort Adams State Park, was much more attentive than the gala’s audience. The Charlap Trio was even more appealing in the relative quiet, but they again brought out some special guests: the clarinetists Anat Cohen and Bob Wilber. The duet between Charlap and Cohen on “Jitterbug Waltz” was one of the day’s highlights, an exhilarating exchange of reinvented variations on Fats Waller’s tune.

A well designed festival will always take advantage of having so many musicians on the premises to create collaborations that could never happen in an isolated club or theater (are you listening, Artscape?) This year’s Newport Jazz Fest was dedicated to Wayne Shorter’s 80th birthday. On Saturday afternoon, 22 days before the actual birthday, Shorter celebrated by bringing out his longtime friend (and former Miles Davis Quintet bandmate) Herbie Hancock for an unaccompanied duet.

Shorter, wearing a gray, untucked shirt, leaned against a barstool and coaxed fragmentary phrases of suggestive melody from his silver soprano sax. Hancock, wearing wraparound shades and a plum-colored shirt, answered those phrases with fragments of his own, sometimes trading fours with Shorter, sometimes overlapping, always on the brink of a captivating song before the music slid off in a new direction.

After that 10-minute duet, Hancock exited and Shorter’s superb quartet emerged: pianist Danilo Perez, upright bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade. With Shorter now switching between soprano and tenor sax, the group began a four-way trading of similar phrases, alternating between loud eruptions and quiet meditations. They sustained this improvisation for 50 minutes without interruption.

For the encore, Hancock sat down on the piano bench next to Perez, and the now five-member group played for another 10 minutes. Each of the pianists kept coming up with phrases that caused the other to raise his eyebrows in laughing surprise and to try to come up with a surprise of his own. This four-handed piano duel upped the ante again and again till the crowd was roaring with approval. I looked over my left shoulder and saw a man in a gray suit smiling with pleasure. It was Charlap.