Newport Folk gets all the glory in the news. I mean between the collaborations, the surprises, and the instant sell out, it has become one of the premier festivals on the planet. The fact that only 10,000 tickets are sold makes it even better. But what you may not realize is that Newport Jazz happens the following weekend, has a class of musicianship that can go toe to toe with anywhere in the world, is held on the same sacred grounds, and doesn’t immediately sell out. The bang for your buck is just as good, if not better, than Newport Folk, and yet Jazz doesn’t get the love it should.
The entire weekend you can bop from stage to stage, taking in some of the most interesting sounds on the planet. On Friday the day opened with Michela Marino Lerman, alongside a fantastic band, tap dancing up a storm on the stage to literally kick things off. I don’t know of any other festival that can pivot from that to a solo tuba player looping sounds and making beats (Theon Cross) to old school jazz scatting (The Baylor Project) to woodwinds made from natural material for when the world ends so music can still be played (Shabaka Hutchings) all on the same stage. Not only did that happen this year, but each act was thoroughly appreciate by varying crowds passing through and watching parts of or full sets.
Cross and Hutchings returned the following day for their last set at the festival together as Son of Kemet, who are disbanding after their remaining tour dates this summer. The quartet, including Tom Skinner and Eddie Hick, put on a blistering nonstop hour long set that the crowd did not want to see end. While bittersweet, it was one of the most jaw dropping sets of the weekend. Hutchings would show up one more time over the weekend, sitting in with Esperanza Spalding, who is easily on the most talented live performers right now. Her voice sails over you like a gentle breeze and then her bass playing floors you. Her humor cannot be dismissed either, as a few misstarts took place and she was just having a blast with it, letting the crowd in on the joke.
There was plenty of rock and funk on hand as well. Celisse, one of two artists who played both Jazz and Folk this year, came out like a rocket and had the crowd standing in appreciation pretty early on in the set as her three piece band rocked as hard as anyone can. She spoke about all of the artists who paved the way to her being on stage and how thankful she was to be honoring them by being there. Cory Wong, who played last year as well, put on a stunning fast paced all out funk party from the Fort Stage about halfway through the day on Saturday. It set the stage for what was to come later on as The Fearless Flyers made their Newport Jazz debut and through a mix of originals and covers, put on a funk clinic to close out the second day.
There were so many varying forms of jazz all weekend long. Tuba Skinny brought us to New Orleans, The Mingus Big Band brilliantly played some of the legendary bass player’s catalog, Sampa The Great took us to Zambia with her impressive rapping, Jazzmeia Horn transported the crowd into a small club with her scatting and singing, and Mononeon took us to outer space with his rocking band. Ron Carter, a literal living legend, brought his quartet to the Fort Stage and took the crowd back in time showing the history of jazz. The Soul Rebels had enough horns on to stage to literally blow you over with their power. BadBadNotGood infused some psychedelia into the mix for the festival, truly reaching out to the cosmos during their hour on stage. Lettuce threw down a rager of a set at the Quad Stage, jamming out some excellent funk with plenty of attendees dancing under the tent. Digable Planets brought early hip-hop to Newport and the crowd ate it up with it being one of the livelier sets of the whole weekend.
Women were featured prominently throughout the line up, which is always welcome in an industry that doesn’t do enough to make sure billing is at least close to equal. Norah Jones capped off day one with a career spanning set. Lady Blackbird, with her wild white hair and an equally wild outfit, blew everyone away with a voice of an angel. Nubya Garcia’s saxophone playing reverberated beyond the Quad Stage’s tent. Angelique Kidjo’s Remain in Light set had everyone at the Fort Stage dancing up a storm, following in Angelique’s footsteps as she also never stopped moving during the hour she was on stage. Both Melanie Charles and Samara Joy showed off their powerful voices, making many festival attendees stop in their tracks and take in what was happening. Holly Bowling captivated everyone at the Harbor Stage to begin the second day with her piano playing as she weaved songs together that spanned from the Grateful Dead to solo material to classical pieces.
There were a few special collaboration sets over the weekend that probably won’t happen again or are rare occurrences and were a big deal for the festival to get. One of those was the Benevento/Russo Duo playing acoustically. Duo shows don’t happen very often and for it to be acoustic was mesmerizing. The fun Marco and Joe have on stage can be easily seen, with the pair flashing smiles at something the other did for a fill or solo. Brad Barr of The Slip came out for a few songs to help close the set as well. Jazz Is Dead Presents was one of the most anticipated sets of the weekend and it did not disappoint. Anchored by founders Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, the mix of jazz, funk, and hip hop was amazing. With special guests Henry Franklin on bass, Doug Carns on the organ, and Gary Bartz on saxophone, the set never ceased to produce amazing moments. Then there was the quartet of Pino Palladino, Blake Mills, Sam Gendel and Abe Rounds who played one of the most relaxed awe inspiring sets of the festival. The instruments all weaved around one another creating a wonderful sound collage. Also seeing Pino Palladino, one of the most accomplished bass players in the world, in this setting was amazing.
Christian McBride, the artistic director of Newport Jazz, was all over the place during the weekend helping to introduce bands and watching so many from the sides of the stages. The two sets he played were also stunning. The first being the Newport Jawn, where he brought together a stacked line up including Makaya McCraven, Brandee Younger, Mike Stern, Vijay Iyer, and Chris Potter together to just jam for an hour. With no set intentions, the group just went on a journey and had fun on stage just going with the flow. Watching musicians of this caliber just go for IT before a large crowd is why you go see live music.
The second set he was part of was the tribute to George Wein that closed down the festival. George, the founder of both Newport Folk and Jazz, passed away last year and the set paid tribute to him with plenty of special guests who came to pay their respects. Hiromi, one of the most electric piano players in the world, came and sent a jolt of energy through the crowd like only she can. The horn section of Jon Faddis, Randy Brecker, Lew Tabackin, and Anat Cohen came in and out of the set in varying configurations. Trombone Shorty did a couple of songs, really putting his entire soul into them for his late friend. The ending jam was tremendous and I’m sure George would have loved it. His influence will always loom over the festival, but with McBride in the driver’s seat, there’s no reason to worry about this festival ever going anywhere but up from here.
Article/Images: Bryan Lasky