Review: Newport Jazz Festival 2019

In a star-studded bill in the 'absolutely magnificent' setting of Fort Adams, Brian Payne is particularly impressed by Sammy Miller and Tarriona 'Tank' Ball

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Marshall Allen at Newport 2019. All photos in this article © Brian Payne

With clear blue skies and temperatures in the 80s, the 65th Newport Jazz Festival took place from 2 to 4 August at Fort Adams State Park and the International Tennis Hall of Fame, Rhode Island. George Wein, now 93, founded the legendary festival in 1954 and he still chairs the non-profit foundation which produces it today. The festival is sponsored by Natixis Investment Managers.

Fort Adams was built in the early 1800s to protect the entrance to Narragansett Bay from attack by ships. These days the natural harbour and its fortified emplacement provide an impressive backdrop to the festival’s four performance stages and village of food, beverage and merchandise stalls. It’s an absolutely magnificent place.

The best way to get there and back from Newport Harbour is by small boat – the ferry pilots promise not to leave you stranded when the festival finishes each evening.

The main stage on Friday opened with Sun Ra Arkestra resplendent in their space cloaks and ancient Egyptian headgear. Their boisterous repertoire of free jazz, Fletcher Henderson swing, Chicago blues and bebop was ably marshalled by its leader, 95-year-old altoist Marshall Allen. Musical exhibitionism abounded – singer Tara Middleton excelled in her eccentricity and gravel voiced saxophonist Knoel Scott, now in his mid 60s, back-flipped and somersaulted across the stage at will.

Friday’s performances included singer and pianist Kandace Springs, her rendition of Oscar Peterson’s Chicago Blues well received; the highly rhythmic Dayna Stephens Group; contemporary classical and jazz pianist Ben Morris and his quintet; and Corinne Bailey Rae who entranced the crowd with her sensuous arrangement of Bob Marley’s Is This Love amongst other numbers.

Darcy James Argue’s 18 piece Secret Society played the premiere of his composition Ebonite; saxophonist Tia Fuller’s Diamond Cut was dynamic; and Domi & JD Beck’s sonic jazz and hip-hop duo had their young fans shouting for more. We had Alphonso Horne & The Gotham Kings; the multi-national vocal quartet Women Of The World; and maestro bassist Thundercat and his trio.

On the Harbor stage was the excellent Billy Hart Quartet with Mark Turner on sax, Ethan Iverson piano and Joe Martin on bass. Meantime over at the Quad stage were the Bad Plus with pianist Orrin Evans now in place of Ethan Iverson. They presented Never Stop II – their first album since Evans joined. Iverson himself appeared again later in the evening as one of Jon Batiste’s guests at the International Tennis Hall of Fame. His dramatic piano solo Showdown, about two enemies connecting eye to eye, was much applauded by the capacity audience.

Stand-out sets on Friday included the Spanish Harlem Orchestra and Mwenso & The Shakes. Loose-limbed Michael Mwenso from Sierra Leone lived in England for 15 years before moving to Harlem. In flamboyant, black cat-suit he sang, danced and fronted his band with a musical mesh of Tin Pan Alley, Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters and Fats Waller. Theatre collided with opera and the joint really was jumpin’.

Gary Bartz (pictured by Brian Payne) presented the 50th anniversary of his album Another Earth, recorded in 1969 before he famously joined Miles Davis at the 1970 Isle of Wight concert. Charles Tolliver who played trumpet on the original LP was special guest, Ravi Coltrane was on tenor sax, Paul Bollenbeck guitar, James King bass and Nasheet Waits drums. Newport’s artist-in-residence, Herbie Hancock and his quintet closed the first day with Terrace Martin on sax, Lionel Loueke guitar, James Genus bass and Vinnie Colaiuta on drums. Hancock’s special guest, 24-year-old flautist Elena Pinderhughes, added a colourful dimension to this stellar performance.

During the festival’s busy schedule of top rate artists I managed to catch presentations by two authors of their recently published books on jazz. In the Storyville building, Maxine Gordon talked about her husband’s bio, Sophisticated Giant – The Life And Legacy Of Dexter Gordonreviewed for Jazz Journal by Steve Voce. And Mark Stryker presented his book, Jazz From Detroit. Mark is planning to tour the book in the UK so if venue promoters fancy adding his talk to their programme they’re more than welcome to get in touch for contact details.

Saturday opened with the bop harmonies and vocalese of the Royal Bopsters with Sheila Jordan going strong at 91. Other performances included The Messenger Legacy whose past members of Art Blakey’s band – Ralph Peterson, Bobby Watson, Essiet Essiet, Geoff Keezer, Brian Lynch and Bill Pierce – played a hard-bop tribute to their mentor; the sax/piano duo of Ravi Coltrane and pianist David Virelles with a stirring rendition of Strayhorn’s Lush Life; and singer/songwriter Buika with her distinctive blend of Latin jazz, Afro-beat, reggae and soul. Dianne Reeves, who had clearly brought her fan club with her, gave a stunning performance including a highly individual take on Pat Metheny’s Minuano.

The day continued with jazz/rock from James Francies’ Flight; Joel Ross with his new outfit “Good Vibes”; virtuoso pianist Brian Marsella; the rock/jazz/hip-hop of drummer Makaya McCraven’s band and Herbie Hancock’s trio with Christian McBride and Vinnie Coliauta. They opened with Wayne Shorter’s Footprints and went on to cover a range of compositions by Hancock (pictured by Brian Payne) from Maiden Voyage and Head Hunters. And as if that wasn’t enough, over at the Harbor stage we had the outstanding Ron Carter Trio with Russell Malone on guitar and Donald Vega on piano.

Saturday’s highlights included the excellent Jenny Scheinman & Alison Miller’s Parlour Game with Scheinman on violin, Carmen Staaf piano, Tony Scherr bass and Miller on drums. Dee Dee Bridgewater on the main stage with her Memphis Soulphony held the crowd in the palm of her hand with Howlin Wolf’s Going Down Slow and other superb deliveries. And on the Storyville stage we had the Phil Madeira Trio. Madeira, who supported Emmylou Harris for 11 years with the Red Dirt Boys, is a multi instrumentalist. Having morphed seamlessly from Americana to jazz he was on piano at Newport with excellent bassist Jesse Murphy (ex John Scofield Uberjam Band) and drummer Bryan Owings. This trio packed real punch.

Saturday closed with Kamasi Washington’s high-octane band with singer side-mate Patrice Quinn on top form. There was a distinctly humbling touch when Washington introduced his father Ricky on soprano sax saying that he’d taught him everything he knew.

One of the things you noticed about Newport was the even balance between young and old in the audience make-up. This age balance was also reflected in that of the artists, ranging from 13-year-old wonder pianist Brandon Goldberg through the student-age ranges of the Berklee Global Jazz Institute big band to veterans with several decades of experience.

Sunday opened with one of the best jazz acts I’ve seen in years. Sammy Miller & The Congregation believe in joyful jazz and they elicited gales of laughter from those witnessing their performance. Miller on drums (pictured by Brian Payne) is a natural comedian and he peppers the set with musically enhanced story telling. In one tale he referred to an affair he had when younger but confides that he’s “a guy that doesn’t kiss and tell”. Next minute though, with choruses from all the band of “Shush – don’t tell the President”, he’s openly singing that the affair was with Rancy Neagan. Preposterous I know but a must-see if you get the opportunity.

Three grand pianos were played by Christian Sands, Helen Sung and Tadataka Uno in a main stage tribute to Erroll Garner. In Common (not to be confused with Common who came on later) followed on the Quad stage with Walter Smith III on sax, Matt Stevens guitar, Joel Ross vibes, Harish Raghaven bass and Kendrick Scott on drums. This was top quality interplay. After Sons of Kemet with Shabaka Hutchings on sax, Theon Cross tuba and twin drummers Eddie Hick and Tom Skinner had caused a storm with their jazz trance and dub delivery, we had Terence Blanchard & The E-Collective with Blanchard on electronic trumpet, Fabian Almazon piano and synth, Charles Altura guitar, David Ginyard bass and Oscar Seaton drums.

A little later, Cécile McLorin Salvant backed by Aaron Diehl’s tightly knit trio appeared somewhat subdued. It became clear why when she dedicated the set to the memory of her drummer Laurence Leathers who had sadly died in June, the victim of an apparent assault. But the professional artist that she is, Salvant managed to convey her personal compositions and classic song interpretations with her customary clarity and albeit under the circumstances tempered wit.

Over at Storyville, Eric Wurzelbacher’s quartet gave us a foot-tapping mix of hard-bop impro and rock. In neat contrast they were followed by Marika Hughes’s New String Quartet and later on Matana Roberts with her experimental solo sax session interspersed with talking to the audience. One of the standouts on Sunday was Camila Meza & The Nectar Orchestra. With her eight-piece band the New York based, Chilean born singer and jazz guitarist delivered an exotic set that was totally fresh and uplifting. The packed-out Harbor audience loved it.

American actor, rapper and social-justice activist, Lonnie Rashid Lynn, commonly known as Common, closed the festival on the main stage. To a large extent though he’d been overshadowed by the preceding act, Tank & The Bangas, the effects of which were still ringing in people’s ears. Tarriona “Tank” Ball (pictured by Brian Payne), who fronts the band, has an electrifying stage presence. She galvanised the massive audience the moment she appeared and from then on it was a non-stop soul, funk, jazz and hip-hop performance of dazzling, in-your-face intensity. Not one to be forgotten.

Indeed, Newport 2019 as a whole was a festival to be remembered. Its organisation was superb and if you get the chance to go next summer you should certainly take it.