Review: Newport Jazz Festival 2017

The famed American jazz festival gives Brian Payne much to enjoy from musicians young and old, including Christian McBride and Tim Berne

Under blue skies and in warm temperatures the longest-running jazz festival in the world took place from 4 to 6 August at Fort Adams State Park, Rhode Island and in the International Tennis Hall of Fame, Newport. The festival was founded by George Wein (pictured right) in 1954. These days it’s presented by Natixis Global Asset Management and produced by the Newport Festivals Foundation which George, aged 91, still chairs.

Fort Adams was built in the early 1800s to protect the entrance to Narragansett Bay from attack by ships. It’s now the picturesque setting for the festival with ample space for its four performance stages and “village” of assorted food, beverage and merchandise vendors.

Top tip - the best way to get to Fort Adams and back to your accommodation in Newport each day is by boat from Newport harbour. It can take too long by road during the festival weekend. The local water taxi firm increases the number of vessels it has available for festival goers at this time.

Friday’s performances included the tenor saxophonist Jimmy Greene and his quartet; Iraqi trumpeter and santur player Amir ElSaffar and his River of Sound Orchestra; Evan Christopher’s Clarinet Road and Christian Sands’s quartet with Gilad Hekselman on guitar, Yasushi Nakamura on bass and Jerome Jennings on drums. On the main Fort Stage banjoist Béla Fleck & The Flecktones with the piratical figure of Roy “Futureman" Wooten on drumitar delivered a spellbinding mix of jazz, electric blues and bluegrass. Maceo Parker and his signature brand of soul, funk and showmanship held an engrossed crowd in the palm of his hand with numbers such as Stand By Me and James Brown’s Soul Power. Hammond organist Joey DeFrancesco and his band The People over at the Quad Stage delivered a high-octane set of postbop and soul-jazz.

Stand-out sets on Friday included the distinctive piano and trumpet duo of Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith along with Cécile McLorin Salvant’s unique delivery of originals and standards such as Sophisticated Lady and Broonzy’s Black, Brown And White. Salvant was backed by Aaron Diehl’s tightly knit trio and entranced the audience with her strong voice, incredible range and sharp wit. George Burton’s quintet with Jason Palmer on trumpet and Tim Warfield on sax provided an absorbing mix of straight-ahead jazz and avant-garde, and the swinging One For All sextet with Eric Alexander on tenor sax and Jim Rotondi on trumpet gave us the hard-bop gospel.

However, the headline set of the day had to be Rhiannon Giddens (pictured left), the folk, blues and country protest artist who played Friday night at the International Tennis Hall of Fame. She was there ostensibly as the warm-up for Trombone Shorty and his New Orleans Avenue but whilst the latter’s trombone performance was certainly high voltage and his trumpet playing surprisingly good, Giddens nailed it with her powerful voice, dancing delivery and rousing violin and banjo musicianship. The applause in response to her performance hit the roof.

Bassist Christian McBride was appointed by Wein as Newport’s new artistic director. On Saturday his big band hit the main stage with special guests Sean Jones on trumpet and Warren Wolf on vibes. Numbers included Gettin’ To It from McBride’s first album and a nice arrangement of Joe Henderson’s Black Narcissus. Branford Marsalis’s killer quartet followed with Marsalis on sax, Joey Calderazzo on piano, Eric Revis on bass and Kobie Watkins on drums. Also on the main stage came Snarky Puppy, the 20-strong collective led by guitarist Michael League. They were voted “Best Jazz Group” in Downbeat’s 2015 poll and were clearly popular with large numbers of college students and young people present in the crowd. The nearby Quad stage hosted Jazz 100 whose repertoire celebrated the birth centennials of Dizzy Gillespie, Mongo Santamaria, Thelonious Monk and Ella Fitzgerald. The Jazz 100 band comprised Danilo Perez on piano, Chris Potter on sax, Avishai Cohen trumpet, Josh Roseman trombone, Roman Diaz percussion, Ben Street bass and Adam Cruz on drums. Lizz Wright joined for the Ella Fitzgerald vocals.

Flying Toward The Sound was formed in tribute to Geri Allen who died two months ago. She’d been scheduled to play at Newport with her trio ACS - Allen on piano, Esperanza Spalding on bass and Terri Lyne Carrington on drums. In her place Spalding and Carrington were joined by three other pianists - Christian Sands, Vijay Iyer and Jason Moran who each played two numbers in commemoration of Allen. Vijay Iyer was on stage earlier in the day leading his contemporary jazz sextet with Graham Haynes on flugelhorn, Mark Shim tenor sax, Steve Lehman alto, Stephan Crump on bass and Tyshawn Sorey on drums. Later, the eclectic and boundary pushing approach to music demonstrated by avant-garde flautist Henry Threadgill (pictured right) and his band Zooid was clearly appreciated by an attentive audience.

One of the noticeable things about Newport was the even balance of younger musicians with older established performers. The age balance was also reflected in the make-up of the audience. Benny Golson clearly represented the living legend end of the spectrum - he’s probably the only person alive who has written eight jazz standards. With Golson on sax, Mike LeDonne on piano, Buster Williams on bass and Carl Adams on drums his quartet delivered an absorbing and memorable set on the Harbour Stage. Golson has an easy conversational rapport with the audience and it was interesting to hear how Whisper Not took him only 20 minutes to write. The song’s title has been the source of much analysis and interpretation over the years but Golson informed us that there was no profound meaning to it at all. In his intro to its delivery he joked self-disparagingly that it was really a song about nothing. Saturday’s Harbor Stage hosted three other great acts - pianist Uri Caine’s trio with Mark Helias on bass and Clarence Penn on drums; trumpeter Dominick Farinacci’s sextet with Shenel Johns on vocals (don’t miss Farinacci’s performance if you ever get the chance to see it) and drummer Antonio Sanchez & Migration with Thana Alexa on vocals, Seamus Blake on tenor sax, John Escreet on piano and Matt Brewer on bass. Could this festival get any better? Well, yes it could.

The main stage on Sunday opened with the Maria Schneider Orchestra - considered by many to be the best large ensemble in jazz. Schneider was presented on stage with the Jazz Journalists Association award for Arranger Of The Year. During the set she conducted the world premiere of her composition Do No Evil which is directed at the tech companies she believes are destroying the livelihoods of musicians. When she’s not composing or conducting, Schneider is an avid birdwatcher and naturalist. Her composition The Monarch And The Milkweed derived from her planting milkweed in order to aid the survival of monarch butterflies.

Cyrille Aimée, expertly backed by her band’s two guitars, bass and drums, delivered a stunning performance of gypsy swing and jazz sung in English, French and Spanish. What a class act Aimée is. She had the crowd shouting for more. A little later we had Jason Moran’s Fats Waller Dance Party with pianist Moran dancing round the stage to Ain’t Misbehavin’ with a giant, papier-mache head of Waller over his own. The Philadelphia Experiment had Uri Caine on keyboards, Christian McBride unusually playing electric bass, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson on drums and DJ Logic on turntables. The highly electronic output was not my personal cup of tea but the audience loved it. A dynamic performance from trumpeter Theo Croker and his talented band followed which had the crowd in front of stage dancing. After a terrific Snake Oil set from saxophonist Tim Berne (pictured right) - the driving percussion of Ches Smith is something to behold - came the blues and gospel-tinged jazz of virtuoso pianist Cyrus Chestnut’s trio and then Sean Jones with his superb quintet of Brian Hogans on alto sax, Orrin Evans on piano, Luques Curtis on bass and Obed Calvaire on drums. Jones has rightly earned the soubriquet of maestro trumpet player. The jazz supergroup Hudson, with John Scofield on guitar, John Medeski on piano and keys, Larry Grenadier on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums brought up the rear with a majestic rendition of classic 60s rock re-arrangements from their current CD. Memorable numbers included Hendrix’s Wait Until Tomorrow and Castles Made Of Sand and Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock.

It was The Roots who closed the festival on the main stage with their loud and frantic, beat throbbing, all singing and dancing, hip hop and funk display. (How Damon Dyson can shimmy continuously back and forth with a huge sousaphone wrapped around him is a wonder in itself.) The band’s 9000-plus audience was stretched all the way out on the grass in front of them to where the white boat sails could be seen glistening in the sun out at sea.

Newport 2017 was a great festival and if you get the opportunity to go next year you should certainly make the trip. As George Wein says - “Don’t miss the beat”.

Photos by Brian Payne

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