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Review: the 68th Newport Jazz Festival

The world's longest-running jazz festival was a smörgåsbord, featuring just about every imaginable variety, graft and offshoot of the j-thing

The 68th Newport Jazz Festival took place under blue skies and wall-to-wall sunshine from 29 to 31 July at Fort Adams State Park, Rhode Island. It’s the longest-running jazz festival in the world. As in previous years, the crowds waiting each morning by the harbour for the gates to open were welcomed by a man with a microphone who exhorted us all to “be present; be kind; be open and be together”. His inspirational address always goes down well and helps set the scene for one of the friendliest festivals you can have the pleasure of attending.

Friday began with the mighty Mingus Big Band with Alex Norris on trumpet, Scott Robinson baritone sax, Robin Eubanks trombone and Boris Kozlov on bass amongst its luminaries. The day’s performances included New York tap dancer Michela Marino Lerman who last time she was here starred with the memorable Mwenso and the Shakes; the splendid jazz guitarist Dan Wilson and his quartet; tuba soloist Theon Cross, who managed to play the instrument so softly it was mesmerising; multi-instrumentalist and singer, Celisse; Nate Smith & Kinfolk with their fusion of modern jazz, R&B and hip-hop; bassist Carlos Henriquez and his nonet – Henriquez has performed with Paco de Lucía, Wynton Marsalis and Bob Dylan amongst others; Nicholas Payton’s trio with stalwart bassist Ben Williams; the rock, punk and acid jazz of Marco Benevento / Joe Russo; Croatian American jazz vocalist Thana Alexa and her band; Pino Palladino & Blake Mills – Welsh bassist Palladino has worked with almost everyone and for 14 years was the invisible member of The Who; Canadian jazz and hip-hop outfit BadBadNotGood; husband and wife jazz duo Marcus and Jean Baylor; Shabaka Hutchings playing the Japanese bamboo flute the shakuhachi in a solo set; Terence Blanchard’s band with the Turtle Island Strings delivering numbers from his Wayne Shorter tribute album; and late on Friday evening Norah Jones closing her main-stage set with her hit single, Don’t Know Why.

Stand-out sets on Friday included the impressive funk band Lettuce, with startling trumpet playing from Eric Benny Bloom and McBride’s Newport Jawn with Chris Potter on tenor sax, Mike Stern guitar, Vijay Iyer piano, harpist Brandee Younger, the artistic director on bass and Makaya McCraven on drums.

Female artists opened all three stages on Saturday morning with improvisational rock pianist Holly Bowling at the Harbor and singers Melanie Charles at the Quad and Jazmeia Horn at the Fort. Bahamian trumpeter Giveton Gelin and his quintet energised the audience at the Harbor stage. Eric Wurzelbacher’s hard bop and rock trio stepped in at short notice after one of Jack DeJohnette’s quartet had succumbed to Covid-19. Makaya McCraven, who’d drummed in McBride’s Newport Jawn the day before, returned to the Fort with his own band featuring Joel Ross on vibes and thrilled the crowd with their re-arrangements of Blue Note classics. Over at the Harbor, Lady Blackbird intrigued the overflowing audience with her flamboyant demeanor and numbers from her Black Acid Soul album. She reminded me a little of Lady Gaga.

The day continued with top drummer Antonio Sanchez and Bad Hombre delivering a foot-tapping, electronica-loaded set with Thana Alexa supplying the vocals. Theon Cross and Shabaka Hutchings rejoined their host band, Sons of Kemet, on the main stage. They were swiftly followed by Sullivan Fortner (Roy Harper’s pianist) who delivered a tight set with his trio at the Harbor. And as if that wasn’t enough, we then had Cory Wong, Esperanza Spalding, Joe Lovano’s Trio Tapestry (with Marilyn Crispell on piano and Carmen Castaldi drums) and acerbic singer Cecile McLorin Salvant in quick succession on all three stages.

Saturday’s highlights included the excellent Yussef Dayes and his band; the melodious and clear-voiced Samara Joy who updated classic songs with a contemporary spin and Maria Schneider’s Orchestra with saxists Donny McCaslin and Scott Robinson (the latter featured with the Mingus Big Band earlier), trombonist Ryan Keberle and Ben Monder on guitar. Schneider conducted pieces she’d composed almost 30 years ago from her album Evanescence and from her recent magnum opus, Data Lords. The latter is directed at tech companies that compile and sell information about you and who pay minuscule royalties to artists. She’s an avid birdwatcher and naturalist and her composition The Monarch And The Milkweed, derived from her planting milkweed in order to aid the survival of monarch butterflies, was well received.

For many though, it was the pulsating performance of the Fearless Flyers that stole the show on Saturday. With Cory Wong and Mark Lettieri on guitars, Joe Dart bass and Nate Smith on drums, this energetic blue boiler-suited band positively rocked it to the audience and their predominantly younger fans responded with ecstasy.

One of the noticeable things about Newport is 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 those who have not long started out to established veterans with several decades of experience.

Sunday was opened by Icelandic-Chinese singer and guitarist, Laufey, with her set of self-penned jazz-based songs about self-discovery. Acclaimed street-band Tuba Skinny followed shortly, playing in the New Orleans and Chicago styles of the early 1900s. They gave us a taste of Magnolia Stroll, their first album of all-original tunes. Incidentally, Shaye Cohn, cornet player and leader of this ensemble, is Al Cohn’s granddaughter. Shortly after we heard the most recorded jazz bassist in history – 85-year-old Ron Carter with Jimmy Greene on alto, Renee Rosnes piano and Peyton Crossley on drums. Their set on the main stage set received massive applause. 

Over at the the Harbor Emmet Cohen’s piano trio were absolutely superb. At the Quad were soul and funk band Nth Power who were quickly followed by the drum-heavy Soul Rebels on the main stage. You had to be nimble if you wanted to see all the bands on offer. The day continued with Japanese post-bop and soul jazz trumpeter Takuya Kuroda and his quintet; then Jazz Is Dead, who started life as a Grateful Dead cover band with a contemporary jazz influence; Jason Moran & the Bandwagon; Chilean sax player Melissa Aldana; then Mononeon, who despite the ornamental dressing is no mean musician – he was Prince’s bassist. Next were hip-hop rappers Digable Planets; then Sampa the Great with yet more hip-hop, rap and neo-soul followed by British saxophonist Nubya Garcia with Greg Spero on keys, Daniel Casimir bass and Sam Jones drums. In a blast from the past, Beninese diva Angelique Kidjo gave a barn-storming performance with songs from her Remain In Light album. Vijay Ayer’s trio with bassist Linda May Han Oh and Jeremy Dutton on drums was faultless as expected and then PJ Morton’s band pumped out more soul and R&B.

The finale on the main stage on Sunday evening was entitled Celebrating George Wein and comprised an alternating list of jazz greats paying tribute to the festival’s founder, who died in September last year. They included Randy Brecker, Jon Faddis, Lew Tabackin, Jay Leonhart, Christian McBride, Anat Cohen, Christian Sands, Hiromi, Cecile McLorin Salvant and Trombone Shorty. It turned out to be the grandaddy of all jazz jams. When Jon Faddis’s remarkable trumpet solo of Somewhere Over The Rainbow rang out above the audience stretched all the way in front to where the white boat sails glistened at sea, it seemed that time really did stand still.

Newport 2022 was a great festival and if you get the opportunity to go next year you should certainly make the trip. As George Wein said: “Don’t miss the beat!”

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