Over the course of three days last week my response to the jazz is dead proclamation changed from “oh really, that’s a shame,” to “you’ve got to be kidding, music this vital will never die.” I want to say at the outset that I’m not expert. I’ve always liked jazz, and some jazz artists like Miles Davis, Bill Evans, and Charlie Haden are among my favorite musicians ever. It’s just that I’m no expert on the subject. So if I get anything wrong, please feel free to educate me in the comments section.
Although I’ve been covering the Newport Folk Festival for many years, I’ve never covered the Newport Jazz Festival for the very reason stated above. I just didn’t feel that I could write about it in an educated manner. But this year was the 60th anniversary of the Jazz Festival, which qualifies it as the oldest popular music festival in the world, and I had to jump in. I’m very happy that I did.
The festival expanded to three full days at Fort Adams State Park this year, and a Friday night concert at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport. The lineup at Fort Adams on Friday was set aside for young artists, and those on the cutting edge of the art form. I was impressed by how wholeheartedly the audience took to music that was at times really pushing the borders.
The very first group I saw was Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society. The big band of young Brooklyn musicians performed admirably on a set of challenging compositions that ended with a touching tribute to an artist who had meant so much to the Folk Festival over the years, “Last Waltz for Levon.” This is a group to keep an eye on.
Next up was Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Charlie Parker Project on the festival’s Harbor Stage. The quintet, led by Mahanthappa on alto sax, thrilled the audience with a set of original music that was inspired by Parker. Of particular note were the 19 year-old trumpet player Adam O’Farrill, and bass player Francois Moutin.
Over on the Quad Stage, John Zorn was set up for what was billed as the “Masada Marathon.” The 2 1/2 hour performance featured nine different configurations playing a varied and fascinating range of music that ranged from heavy jazz fusion to string trios to solo performance. There were a lot of musicians involved, but one standout was guitarist Marc Ribot, well known for his work with Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, and others.
The Friday festivities at the Fort were closed out by Jon Batiste and Stay Human on the main stage. Batiste is a young New Orleans musician with an unlimited future before him. He is an irrepressible showman which sometimes masks the fact that he is one of the most brilliants pianists to emerge in quite some time. Batiste’s crowd pleasing band, which includes Ibanda Ruhumbika on tuba, left the crowd wanting more, and eager for the next day of the festival.
But Friday was not over yet when the music finished at the Fort, not by a long shot. The festival’s traditional Friday night show at the tennis stadium (where the first festival was held in 1954) featured Dee Dee Bridgewater. The three-time Grammy Award-winner, who has won acclaim for her performance as Billie Holiday in Lady Day, paid tribute to Holiday in her Newport set, including Holiday favorites like “Lady Sings the Blues,” “Lover Man,” and “Good Morning Heartache.” Bridgewater was in fine voice, and backed by an excellent young quintet of musicians that featured trumpeter Theo Croker, and tenor sax player Irwin Hall.
The evening’s headliner was the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis. If you know anything about Wynton Marsalis you know that he is not only a fine musician, but also a student of the form. One of the the things he knows about is the Newport Jazz Festival, and his between songs commentary on Friday night traced the history of the festival from its beginning. Marsalis introduced each song by talking about the artist who made it famous, and their relationship to the Newport Jazz Festival. There was “Señor Blues” by Horace Silver, who played the festival in 1959, “Again and Again” by Benny Carter, who played in 1968, and “Cassandra” by Dave Brubeck who played in 1971. It was clear early on where this was all headed, and sure enough the Orchestra ended the evening with a sublime take on the most famous Newport Jazz Festival performance ever, Duke Ellington’s “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” from 1956.
The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra is a class act that reflects the respect that its leader has for jazz history. That does not in any way make them stiff or studied, in fact far from it. The members are the creme de la creme of the jazz world, and they swing like mad. They would bring that swing to Fort Adams for another set on Saturday afternoon.
It rained Saturday. It rained hard. Although two of the festival stages are under tents, it wasn’t always easy to find a seat under the tents and that left some people, myself included, watching from the open sides of the tent, exposed to the elements. No matter, the music made it all go away.
One of the artists I looked most forward to seeing was Gregory Porter, and the singer did not disappoint. Given the weather, it was no surprise that Porter opened with a song called “Water,” and later included “Liquid Spirit” in his set. The most stunning moment, and perhaps the most stunning of the entire festival, was Porter’s reading of a beautiful ballad called “Wolfcry” from his Liquid Spirit album. That was followed by a lovely tribute to Porter’s wife in the former of a medley of “You Send Me” and “I Love You For Sentimental Reasons.”