Newport Jazz Fest Aimed to Please All

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“Something for everybody” was the strategy of the Ed Sullivan Show, the most successful variety show in TV history, and the key to its longevity (it couldn’t have been Sullivan, who had all the personality of an actuary, and that’s unfair to actuaries).

Recognizing that jazz is an enormous umbrella, the late George Wein, founder of the Newport Jazz Festival, provided something for every fan of jazz and “jazz-adjacent” music. That philosophy, now carried forward by his appointed heir, Artistic Director Christian McBride, is the key to Newport’s success, allowing it to become the nation’s oldest and, arguably, most prestigious jazz festival.

Newport has always presented the leading names in mainstream and avant-garde jazz — Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk, Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor. But it was never only jazz: Wein also presented R&B, pop, rock, gospel and funk artists, including Aretha Franklin, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Mahalia Jackson, James Brown, the Allman Brothers and Sly & the Family Stone.

This year’s edition, from August 4–6, presented, as usual, a staggering array of talent. There were hugely popular artists like Herbie Hancock, Diana Krall and Jon Batiste; two octogenarian saxophone legends named Charles (Lloyd and McPherson); and a host of other jazz masters including Dave Holland, Bill Charlap, Branford Marsalis, Bobby Watson, Marcus Miller, Joshua Redman, Brad Mehldau, Brian Blade and McBride himself. The next generation was well represented by Grammy-winning Best New Artist Samara Joy, pianist Julius Rodriguez and saxophonists Lakecia Benjamin, James Brandon Lewis and Immanuel Wilkins. “For the youngsters,” as Sullivan might say, there were Thundercat, Big Freedia and The Soul Rebels.

And dozens more, certainly too many for one reviewer to hear, much as I would have liked to. A few personal highlights follow.

Friday featured many of the younger and more experimental acts. Good vibes ruled, and strangers smiled at each other, at least partly because the heavy thunderstorms that had been predicted all week never came to pass. A young-ish crowd was much in evidence, especially at shows with whiz-kids like Rodriguez, DOMi & JD Beck, and the hip-hop stars DJ Pee .Wee (Anderson .Paak) and Big Freedia.

Introducing the first act of the day, Endea Owens and the Cookout, McBride revved up the crowd at the Fort Stage, saying, “Let’s get this party started!” The ebullient bass player and bandleader, known from her stint with The Late Show with Stephen Colbert house band, appeared, resplendent in a spangled yellow dress with feathered fringes and giant red hoop earrings. She led an energetic septet through songs including “The Creator Has A Master Plan,” and her own “Feel Good,” which set the tone for the day.

Meanwhile, at the Harbor Stage, in an early highlight of the day, baritone saxophonist Lauren Sevian led a cooking quartet of seasoned players: Miki Yamanaka (in trademark kimono) on piano, Boris Kozlov on bass and Johnathan Blake on drums. In her performance of McCoy Tyner’s “Search For Peace,” her plaintive tone and sinuous, soulful improvisation proved her command of the entire range of the baritone. It was followed by a delicate, but completely in-the-pocket, solo by Yamanaka, who displayed outstanding dynamic control and articulation. Kozlov and Blake provided inspired support and thoughtful solos. Her closer, “Lamb And Bunny,” a contrafact of “Cherokee,” was a speedy hard-bop romp.

Altoist Immanuel Wilkins’ set was, by turns, reflective and incantatory. Starting out laid-back, the songs slowly built to shattering climaxes. Wilkins is no show-off, but he can shred when the spirit moves him.

Derrick Hodge, with his electric quartet, was one of the many exponents of funky, bass-driven grooves in evidence during the weekend — which can’t be an accident considering McBride’s proclivities. And, while many toiled in the vineyards of technology-assisted funk, Hodge delivered the goods big-time. It’s all about the material, and Hodge is a formidable trans-genre composer/arranger and musical director, including composing for film, TV and conducting the Oscars orchestra. There’s a grandeur to his linear excursions as he takes the melody into the upper registers of his five-string electric bass. He’s one of the most astounding soloists on the instrument since Jaco Patorius.

One of the weekend’s more unexpected pleasures was Armstrong Now, a group organized by Jake Goldbas, artistic director for the Louis Armstrong House Museum, including rising star trumpet players Bruce Harris, Giveton Gelin and Marquis Hill, with Herlin Riley on drums, Mathis Picard on piano and Russell Hall on bass. Each song was preceded by audio of Armstrong speaking his memoirs into a tape recorder, from the collection of the museum. The three trumpeters did an admirable job of evoking Armstrong, a tough assignment for any trumpeter — to emulate a genius without imitating, and to bring his spirit into a more modern musical context. A trumpet trio arrangement of Armstrong’s immortal “Weather Bird” was especially charming.

Guitarist of the moment Julian Lage, with trio-mates Jorge Roeder (bass) and Dave King (drums), delivered one of the standout performances of the entire weekend to an overflow crowd filled with younger listeners straining to savor every note. And he did it with just the basics, no flash, no theatrics, no stage patter, just a fertile musical imagination and awesome skill; soul and curiosity meet total technical command.

It may be that Lage’s enormous success has something to do with his attraction, even reverence, for the song form. He’s not into jamming on a simple three- or four-chord sequence — he plays songs, and, apparently, that’s something that people really like.

Singer and tenor saxophonist Camille Thurman, with the Darrell Green Quartet, delivered a crowd-pleasing set in which she blew up a storm and scatted brilliantly in three octaves.

Kurt Elling, featuring eight-string blues guitar maestro Charlie Hunter and his horn section, the Hunter Tones, proved to be one of Saturday’s biggest crowd-pleasers. Elling’s show is jazz at its most populist, and his gleeful, speed-talking hipster routine may get a bit silly at times but is undeniably entertaining. Before the pandemic Elling had told me that he had a burning desire to sing more blues, a goal he achieved with this inspired collaboration. He proved that he does it well on funked-up treatments of Eddie Money’s “Baby Hold On” and a delightful take on Bob Dorough’s musical math lesson “Naughty Number Nine,” from the group’s forthcoming album.

Saturday’s climactic show was crowd favorite Jon Batiste, who came with a 17-piece big band including, among others, trumpeters Summer Camargo and Giveton Gelin, and his compatriot Joe Saylor on drums. He used the band to great advantage throughout, allowing members generous solos. He performed his huge pop hits, “Freedom” and “I Need You,” but my personal favorite was of “Let The Good Times Roll,” with a pitch-perfect rendering of the original Quincy Jones charts for Ray Charles.

On Sunday, altoist Charles McPherson, who first played at Newport with Charles Mingus, seemed utterly undiminished in his presentation and his skills. With an exceptional quartet of trumpeter Terell Stafford, pianist Jeb Patton, bassist David Wong and drummer Billy Drummond, they played several songs from the saxophonist’s recent Jazz Dance Suites. In their closer, “Cherokee,” McPherson’s solo scooted and danced and soared, bar-lines being only guidelines to be ignored at will. Stafford and Patton’s solos were like steeplechase events played at a torrid tempo.

Short takes on other highlights:

Also on Sunday, McBride, introducing the Bill Charlap Trio, pronounced them “one of the greatest trios this music has ever known.” Charlap, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington then demonstrated the correctness of that judgment. Ebullient in a dapper black suit and sunglasses, Charlap was a wizard, leading the most sure-footed trio in mainstream jazz through witty, scintillating arrangements of Ellington’s “Love You Madly,” “Caravan” and “Mood Indigo.” He also played a moving solo version of “I Left My Heart In San Francisco,” as a musical eulogy to his dear friend Tony Bennett.

Scary Goldings, the collaboration of L.A. funk specialists Scary Pockets with keyboard great Larry Goldings, played on the main stage with two special guests: guitarist John Scofield and bassist Tal Wilkenfeld. The enthusiastic crowd that couldn’t keep from dancing. Through songs with titles like “Day-Old Socks” and “Cornish Hen,” Goldings’ funky textures and unusual settings on the B-3 organ were a thing of wonder.

The 23-year-old vocal phenom Samara Joy attracted a vast audience that spilled out of the Quad Stage and just about filled the enormous courtyard. She showed why she is the big story in vocal jazz this year, performing hits from her best-selling second album, as well as “Chega de Saudade” in Portuguese and Betty Carter’s “Don’t Let Him Go.”

The festival’s grand finale was Herbie Hancock (on Fazioli grand piano and keyboards), appearing with an all-star ensemble of trumpeter-composer Terence Blanchard, guitar/synth wizard Lionel Loueke, bassist James Genus and drummer Jaylen Petinaud. Defying his 83 years, Hancock led arguably the youngest-sounding, most adventurous band heard at Newport this year. The members used technology to alter their sound, enhance it, reinforce it, harmonize it, reconstitute it, distort it, and generally turn their instruments into digital playgrounds for exploration. Chameleons, indeed. DB



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