Angel Bat Dawid, Herbie Hancock and Big Freedia are among this year’s highlights
Before pianist and jazz club owner George Wein was hired by a couple of socialites to bring Jazz to Newport Rhode Island in 1954, most people who heard Jazz performed live heard it at nightclubs.
But the success of that initial festival led to a proliferation of jazz festivals. They are now common, but nevertheless the words Newport and Jazz Festival just seem to go together. And while dozens of states and many countries have them now and were it not for this pioneering jazz festival, it’s doubtful Texas and Argentina would each have six of them.
This storied festival has been the subject of both feature films (Jazz on a Summer’s Day, the 1959 concert film of the 1958 festival) and innumerable recordings (Duke Ellington’s 1956 performance – featuring saxophonist Paul Gonsalves playing 27 choruses of “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” – helped revitalize his career and the recording is rightfully cited as essential) and a full-on riot.
The festival has been held in several places in Newport and was even for a time moved to New York City. But starting in 1981, the festival has been held at Fort Adams State Park. The festival is no longer broadcast on The Voice of America as early editions were, but for a time in recent years it appeared on Public Television, and Fort Adams looks great on television, with footage of sailboats interspersed with the performances. The setting is wonderful.
As long as jazz festivals have been presented, there’s been discussion of what sort of performers deserve inclusion. Few argued that Thelonious Monk was out of place when he performed at Newport in 1958. But Chuck Berry struck a lot of festivalgoers as out of place that same year as well. And the controversy continues at Newport – and to a much greater extent at most every other jazz festival – to this day.
Bassist Christian McBride was named artistic director of the Newport Jazz Festival in 2016, leaving the festival in very capable hands when founder George Wein died in 2021. Mr. Wein used to be conveyed around the grounds in a golf cart, called The Wein Machine, schmoozing and posing for selfies. Now Mr. McBride has one, called Christian’s McRide, so he can get quickly between stages to introduce the acts he’s booked – and to perform himself.
This year, Friday was the day most of the “Jazz Adjacent” (Nate Chinen’s very useful phrase) acts were heard. The “Bounce” music and twerking of Big Freedia delighted the crowd at the Quad Stage, while others – seeking pure jazz, simply opted for one of the other performers at that time. With four stages, the festival can present mostly jazz, while still showcasing a few performers who color outside the lines and help ensure sellout crowds. In fact, few festivals can compete with Newport in offering the most bang for the jazz dollar.
Highlights on Friday included the legendary bassist Dave Holland’s new quartet (with Kris Davis on piano), Domi and J.D. Beck, a duo consisting of a French keyboard player and a drummer from Texas, who I found delightful, and no fewer than three performers who ended up lying or kneeling on the stage from sheer exuberance, more or less in the manner of participants in a faith-healing tent show: the dazzling alto saxophone star Lakecia Benjamin, singer and saxophone player Durand Jones, and multi-instrumentalist Angel Bat Dawid. I don’t know whether I was more surprised when Ms. Dawid fell to the floor or when she spontaneously sang a chorus of Leon Russell’s 1970 hit “A Song for You,” but I can’t wait to see her again.
Saturday was just packed with performers I would love to have seen. But one must choose when there are several stages. I started by seeing Camille Thurman, who I was delighted to find on the schedule. I’m not sure whether I love her exuberant tenor saxophone playing or her roof-raising singing more, but she’s a showstopper who really should be better known. Then I went to see an old favorite, Charles Lloyd, who hasn’t lost a step since I saw him here playing on his 80th birthday five years ago. He sounded, as always, like nobody else whether on tenor saxophone, flute or Tórógato, a sort of Hungarian clarinet. I always choose to see him when I can. He brings the joy wherever he plays. Another standout was the crowd-pleasing set led by artistic director Christian McBride himself. He unleashed the members of the ad hoc group he assembled, and they were having a ball. It’s not every day you’ll find pianist Bob James (who wrote the theme from the television show Taxi – and who appeared at Newport in the 1960’s playing with Sarah Vaughan) and John Coltrane’s son Ravi on the same stage playing James Brown’s “Sex Machine.” But when you do, it’ll be Christian McBride, wearing a huge grin, as the instigator and bassist. Mr. McBride even pulled a perfect stranger out of the crowd to play bass on one number so he could demonstrate a couple of James Brown’s signature dance moves.
Sunday was the day I’d have chosen if I had to choose between the three. On paper the lineup was jaw dropping. And in fact, it did not disappoint. I finally got to see Herbie Hancock’s new band, with the young Brooklyn drummer whose reputation precedes him, Jaylen Petinaud. It was worth the wait to see this group, featuring trumpet player Terence Blanchard (who may be even better known for the 40+ film scores he’s composed), guitarist Lionel Loueke (who can conjure seemingly any sound from his guitar) and bassist James Genus, whose day job is playing in the Saturday Night Live band.
There’s seemingly nothing Mr. Hancock can’t do, and he managed to fit much of it into his 80-minute set, to the delight of the enthusiastic crowd. People had either stayed through a long day of music to see this set or arrived late in the day primarily to catch it, and nobody left disappointed.
Another standout set, in a day full of them, was the reunion of the quartet which recorded the album Moodswing, with second generation sax great Joshua Redman as leader. Since that classic was released in 1994, each of the players on it has become a major star in the jazz world, headlining festivals worldwide and making their own acclaimed recordings. Drummer Brian Blade, pianist Brad Mehldau and Christian McBride (there he is again!) somehow managed to exceed expectations during this highly anticipated performance.
Diana Krall also performed on Sunday, as did Samara Joy, the extraordinary young singer who won a Grammy this year for Best New Artist and another Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album. See Ms. Joy as soon as you can. She’s lived up to her reputation every time I’ve been fortunate enough to catch her in the last couple of years. Ms. Krall sang several songs from Frank Sinatra’s repertoire during her set and sounded terrific. I was also lucky enough to catch a remarkably powerful set from pianist Bill Charlap’s trio, with bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington. This is the trio which backed Tony Bennett and Diana Krall on Love Is Here to Stay, released in 2018.
It’s days like these which continue to make the Newport Jazz Festival a calendar highlight, something to plan for every year. It’s remarkable that on any of the three days of this festival, so many artists of this quality can be seen in one place for the price you’d pay to see a couple of the acts in your local performing arts center or jazz club.
VIDEO: WPRI 12 News’ coverage of the Newport Jazz Festival 2023