Newport Jazz Festival 2023

As before, the venerable jazz festival enlisted pop (in this generation hip-hop, rap, etc) to help attract younger punters into the jazz fold

Newport 2023, clockwise from top left: Herbie Hancock, Ingrid Jensen, Jon Batiste, Kurt Elling, Joshua Redman, John Scofield. Photos © Brian Payne

The 69th Newport Jazz Festival at Rhode Island’s Fort Adams State Park took place from 4 to 6 August. With temperatures in the mid-80s, the water fountains dotted around the grounds for refilling bottles and free sun-screen stations were in demand. With over 50 acts spread over four stages there was plenty to choose from musically.

The main stage on Friday opened with energetic New York altoist Lakecia Benjamin and her band delivering a homage to John and Alice Coltrane with pieces from Benjamin’s Phoenix album recorded in tribute to former female activists and musicians. The day’s performances included the splendid baritone saxophonist Lauren Sevian at the Harbor Stage with Miki Yamanaka on piano, Boris Kozlov bass and Johnathan Blake drums; then there was the surprisingly good voice of soulful singer and saxophonist Durand Jones, gospel-based jazz from the Immanuel Wilkins Quartet, the jazz & hip-hop mix of the Butcher Brown collective led by tenorist and trumpeter Marcus Tenny, and clarinetist / Afrofuturist Angel Bat Dawid doing her thing with Tha Brothahood.

Bassist Derrick Hodge’s quartet blended elements of soul, funk and R&B; creative British pianist Alfa Mist and his band delivered an expansive set of hip-hop infused contemporary jazz and bassist Endea Owens & The Cookout provided an eclectic mix of blues, straightahead, hard bop and gospel. The latter’s rendition of Moanin’ was particularly well received. The soul jazz, funk and fusion of Soulive, with Eric Krasno guitar, Neal Evans keys and Alan Evans on drums had the crowd at the Fort Stage jumping; the hip-hoppish duo of Domi & JD Beck had their predominantly younger crowd wanting more and flamboyant New Orleans Bounce rapper Freddie Ross Jr with two twerking dancers in Big Freedia tickled the audience at the Quad stage.

Stand-out sets on Friday included Dave Holland’s New Quartet. Holland, who played with Miles Davis between 1968 and 1970, informed us that his new band had just completed a European tour and that Newport was their first performance on American soil. Along with Holland on 3/4 double bass, the band comprised Jaleel Shaw trumpet, Kris Davis piano and Nasheet Waits on drums. Branford Marsalis and his longstanding quartet of Joey Calderazzo piano, William Ledbetter bass and Justin Faulkner drums wowed the main-stage audience. Later on Marsalis (who’d actually played with the real Grateful Dead in the 90s) joined Joe Russo’s Almost Dead and their renditions of historic pieces such as King Solomon’s Marbles (inspired by Shelley’s Ozymandias) and Terrapin Station closed the day.

So far, the festival had been noticeably weighted towards the rap/hip-hop end of the musical spectrum. This had been by design as the organisers and artistic director Christian McBride are keen to platform the “newer” music and attract its concomitant youthful footfall. The idea is that the younger fans might also get to appreciate the range of jazz on offer and perhaps eventually take up the jazz mantle.

Multi-instrumentalist and singer Camille Thurman with the Darrel Green Quartet opened Saturday on the Harbor Stage. Her swinging tenor playing and expressive voice clearly captivated the audience. On the same stage another tenorist, James Brandon Lewis, playing with his trio, delivered a cutting-edge free jazz, funk, rock and hip-hop set while at the Fort, Kurt Elling headed a dynamic performance in Superblue with the three Huntertone Horns, Julius Rodriguez on piano, Charlie Hunter guitar and Nate Smith on drums. Later on Bobby Watson, who played with Art Blakey, Max Roach, Dianne Reeves and Betty Carter amongst others, delivered a spirited straightahead hard-bop set with his All Star Quintet.

The day continued with the trumpet trio of Giveton Gelin, Marquis Hill and Bruce Harris, pianist Mathis Picard, bassist Russell Hall and legendary drummer Herlin Riley celebrating Louis Armstrong in a dazzling performance entitled Armstrong Now. (If they’d played the day before it would have been on Satchmo’s 122nd birthday); Charles Lloyd’s New Quartet with pianist Jason Moran, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland delivered a magnificent set with Lloyd, now 85, on tenor, alto, flute and tárogató; husband & wife duo Michael and Tanya Trotter aka The War and Treaty sang a mix of blues, gospel, folk and soul; Louis Cato played guitar and sang numbers from his new album Reflections while Christian McBride’s Jam Jawn hit the main stage with Ravi Coltrane on sax, Eric Krasno guitar, Celisse vocals, Bob James, almost 84, on piano, Nêgah Santos percussion and Nate Smith on drums. Numbers jammed by the band included Afro Blue, Hound Dog and Sex Machine – the latter with McBride dancing just like James Brown.

Dexterous guitarist Julian Lage and his trio with bassist Jeorge Roeder and drummer Dave King played the Harbor to an overflow crowd who listened attentively to pieces from their album View With A Room and from what Lage described as a soon-to-be-released, avant-garde gospel album. Over at the Quad another trio – Arooj Aftab, Vijay Iyer and Shahzad Ismaily – provided a calm oasis from some of the earlier more raucous sets with Aftab’s melismatic singing mesmerising the appreciative audience. Iyer was on piano and Ismaily on bass. Meanwhile, six-string bassist Thundercat (aka Stephen Bruner) and his band provided stark contrast with their amplified performance at the Fort. Later, pianist Orrin Evans’s quintet with Ingrid Jensen on trumpet, Gary Thomas tenor sax and flute, Luques Curtis bass and Mark Whitfield drums played a smashing straightahead set with Jensen soloing superbly. Then at the Quad, the hip-hop and jazz duo of tenorist Dominic Lalli and drummer Jeremy Salken presented Big Gigantic Does Jazz with guests Eric “Benny” Bloom on trumpet, Clayton DeWalt trombone, Jennifer Hartswick vocals, Yaki Hirano piano and Nate Edgar bass.

Saturday closed with red-suited pianist and singer Jon Batiste’s high-octane performance on the main stage. Backed by 11 brass players he delivered a mix of originals and classics such as Let The Good Times Roll and Moon River. This was some performance and had the massive crowd dancing and singing along. He ended the set by leading the players off the stage in a snaking line through the clearly adoring audience while playing the melodica. They loved it.

Chilean singer Claudia Acuna and her trio opened Sunday at the Quad with a set of Latin American standards, her own compositions and a tribute to Chick Corea. Blind piano prodigy Matthew Whittaker, 22, had the crowd at the Harbor clapping along in unison; the 84-year-old former Mingus altoist Charles McPherson and his quintet of trumpeter Terell Stafford, pianist Jeb Patton, bassist David Wong and drummer Billy Drummond wooed the audience with a lively bebop / hard-bop set while French Caribbean contemporary soul singer and electric bassist Adi Oasis and her band delivered songs from her album Lotus Glow, amongst others. A little later, fleet-fingered pianist Bill Charlap and his longstanding trio of Peter Washington bass and Kenny Washington drums (they’ve been together for a quarter century) provided a powerful set of Duke Ellington numbers and American Songbook standards that went down well with the packed audience.

Scary Goldings, featuring guest guitarist John Scofield, delivered a funk-laden set on the main stage with organist Larry Goldings, Wurlitzer pianist Jack Conte, rhythm guitarist Ryan Lerman and electric bass virtuoso Tal Wilkenfeld – she’s supported Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter among others. Another bassist, Marcus Miller and his powerful, jazz/funk and fusion session at the Quad had the crowds hopping; Pedrito Martinez and his collective played a sparkling mix of traditional Cuban rumba, flamenco and Afro-Latin jazz; and on the main stage, the Moodswing Reunion of tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman, pianist Brad Mehldau, bassist Christian McBride and drummer Brian Blade celebrated the first gig they’d played together as a quartet 30 years ago at Newport. Somi, with her quintet at the Harbor, sang an expressive selection of soul jazz, African jazz and contemporary jazz with songs from Zenzile, her tribute album to the South African singer and anti-apartheid champion Miriam Makeba.

With a voice matured beyond her years, Samara Joy excelled at the Quad where the huge overflow audience gave her a resounding ovation. Since last year’s appearance at Newport, Joy has won two Grammy awards for best new artist and best jazz vocal album. A singer and pianist with a different style, Diana Krall, impressed another huge crowd, this time at the Fort. They listened attentively as she and her backing trio delivered an absorbing set of standards. Anthony Wilson was on guitar, Robert Hurst bass and Karriem Riggins on drums. The drum-heavy, brass band Soul Rebels provided their signature high-energy performance at the Quad with their explosive amalgam of jazz, funk, soul and hip-hop. With guest rappers Rakim and Talib Kweli they had the audience on their feet dancing.

It was Herbie Hancock though, pianist with Miles Davis in the 1960s, who closed the festival in style on the main stage. The young-looking 83-year-old introduced the set saying it was great being his age as they now call him “sir” at airports. Terence Blanchard was on trumpet, Lionel Loueke guitar, James Genus bass and up and coming Jaylen Petinaud on drums. Hancock led his band through 85 minutes of music, largely drawn from his back catalogue, including Rockit, Footprints (composed by his best friend Wayne Shorter), Actual Proof and the jazz-funk classic Chameleon – the latter with his keytar strapped on the shoulder. This final performance was exhilarating and a fitting end to this year’s Newport festival.