For the five years I have been going to Newport for the Folk Fest I have never stuck around for the following weekend for the Jazz Fest. The festival has been taking place since 1954 and is one of the most beloved music festivals in the world. Last year I had planned on attending, but we all know how that went. When it was announced that it was going to be taking place this year, after six days of the Folk Festival, I knew I would have to gut it out and make this a nine day affair of music.
To say I was at a loss for words for most of the music I was hearing would be an understatement. First, I didn’t know most of the musicians playing over the three days. Second, jazz is not in my music vocabulary. I enjoy it, but it’s not something I go out and search for when seeing live music. Most importantly though I was absolutely stunned at the musicianship I was witnessing. It seemed as though every player was someone famous who I had never heard of that was either the best or damn close to it for their instrument. It was honestly jaw dropping and I was told that is what Jazz Fest is like every year.
The weather was perfect all three days and was kicked off by Avery*Sunshine, who welcomed us all in with open arms and her bigger than life voice and sang a song about what else, but the sunshine. It felt like the right way for the festival to introduce itself in 2021. Danielle Ponder the next day also began the day with an amazing set where her voice was booming through the Quad. Both acts saw their crowds grow over their hour set times. The bands behind each woman were fantastic and let their voices be the focal point while those who were listening closely heard some great playing.
The different types of jazz seen and heard over the weekend was truly awesome. The Arturo O’Farrill Quintet had more of a Latin vibe while David Ostwald’s Louis Armstrong Eternity Band were pure New Orleans. There were more traditional jazz acts like the Chris Potter Circuits Trio, Immanuel Wilkins, and The Jazz Gallery All-Stars. There were legends on stage giving jaw dropping performances where you could hear a pin drop in the crowd like Kenny Garrett, Charles Lloyd, and the Kenny Barron/Dave Holland Trio. Unlike other festivals where you might see smaller crowds for some acts, each act that played the festival had a large welcoming audience that was there because they loved music.
Robert Glasper gave three very different performances over the three days. He began with an acoustic trio set, that doubled as a partial comedy set. Glasper is hilarious and he was so comfortable on stage and having a great time. The crowd was quiet and attentive and loving each song and DJ sample that was queued up throughout the set. The following day was the all-star Dinner Party set. Together with Kamasi Washington, Terrace Martin, Justin Tyson, Jahi Sundance and guest spots by Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah and Phoelix, Glasper took us through the Dinner Party EP that came out last year. It was the first performance of any of these songs live and the set was easily one of the highlights of the weekend. Watching them play together was transcendent. The final set of the weekend saw him perform songs from his album Black Radio and included Ledisi coming out to guest on “Gonna Be Alright (F.T.B.)”. Having him there all weekend was such a great booking by the festival.
Not only did Kamasi Washington and Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah play during the Dinner Party set, but they each put on their own amazing sets. Kamasi came out with his entire band and showed why they were one of the hottest bands to catch before the pandemic. I don’t think they had played live yet, but you wouldn’t know it by listening to the set they played. They were completely dialed in. The same could be said for Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah and his band who were just as amazing to watch. Christian’s fingers move at such wild speeds on his trumpet that you would think your eyes deceive you.
Some of the younger acts at the festival made sure to make a name for themselves too. Yola, who was the only act to play both festivals, was happy to be playing songs off her album that was released that morning. She told us she was a little tired from doing some press late at night, but you wouldn’t know it from the great set she put on. One of the wildest sets of all nine days at the Fort was Cory Wong and his band. For an hour straight the tempo was high and Cory never stopped moving. The guitar wizard had an unbelievable amount of energy that crowd gave right back to him. Brandee Younger, alongside Dezron Douglas and Allan Mednard, took the crowd on a trip with her harp playing including a tribute medley to Alice Coltrane. Brandee invited Mikaela Davis up for one song so that Rochester native could show her talents on the harp. The love being shown from musician to musician at the festival was heartwarming, especially after the long layoff of live shows. The crowd was obviously loving it, but to see the musicians soaking it all in too was fantastic.
The headliners were all pretty fantastic, each getting about an hour and a half to close and putting on fantastic sets. Khruangbin were the funkiest of the bunch, giving the audience all of the reasons to dance at the main stage. It was the trio’s first gig back and they delivered everything you could have wanted them to. Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue put on their ridiculously high energetic show on the busiest day of any festival day. The crowd just never seemed to stop on Saturday going all the way back to almost the water and every single person who was standing was dancing, while those who were sitting were bobbing along to the great horn led music. Andra Day closed the festival down, starting her set with “Strange Fruit” and moving on to her own music. Her band was absolutely top notch and Andra was excited to play her first show of the year and be among the crowds at the festival. A special moment preceded her coming out with festival director Christian McBride facetiming festival founder George Wein on the phone so he could say hello to the crowd. It was bittersweet that he couldn’t be there but it was a beautiful moment that could only happen with today’s technology.
While the headliners were great, a few acts and collaborations stood out above everything else. The Bogie Band featuring Joe Russo had the crowd out of their minds on the last day of the festival. The band made up solely of horns and percussion gave us the feeling of something akin to Felt Kuti had arrived at the festival. Directly following that was The Jam Jawn featuring McBride, Joe Russo, Marco Benevento, John Scofield, and Mikaela Davis. They went on stage with no plan at all and just jammed for an hour. They went through passes on “The Other One” by The Grateful Dead and “Hey Joe” made most famous by Jimi Hendrix. Eventually a slew of horns hit the stage and the end of the set was absolutely a no holds barred affair. Earlier in the weekend McBride held another great jam session dubbed A Christian McBride Situation that saw him collaborate with a number of musicians and put on a wild funk clinic that drew goosebumps in the hot sun.
The real act that stood out above the rest was the one and only Mavis Staples. With an introduction by Jay Sweet and a pre-recorded message from George Wein, Mavis came out and blew us away for an hour. Mavis, now 82, was visibly excited to be on stage again. She is always one to smile and dance a little on stage, but it seemed to be a little more than normal. There were no songs that came out of the blue during the set, but the magic that Mavis has is second to none. She spoke about how she thought it was possible this would never happen again and how happy she was to see the crowd of people. Mavis is an institution about both Folk and Jazz and is the queen of the Fort. Hopefully she will continue to return for many years to come.
Article/Images: Bryan Lasky