If you are a jazz musician, and you get to play the Newport Jazz Festival, you have reached the peak of your chosen profession. That goes for the headliners on the main, or Fort Stage, the sidemen on the smallest Harbor Stage, and everyone in between on the Quad Stage. There is simply is no greater achievement for a jazz musician than playing this festival. Each of these musicians is accomplished on their instrument(s), so it’s a matter of getting them to work together in duos, trios, quartets, quintets, and big bands in order to create a joyful, coherent (alright, sometimes not so coherent) sound.
Vijay Ayer – Wadada Leo Smith
Newport Jazz Festival presented by Natixis Global Asset Management could not have begun more auspiciously for me than when I caught a set by the super duo of pianist Vijay Iyer and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith when I arrived at Fort Adams on Friday. The gist of the pair’s set consisted of music from their 2016 album A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke, a slow-burning, brooding suite replete with spoken word samples of Malcolm X discussing Islam. The work brought to mind, in feeling anyway, In a Silent Way-era Miles Davis, and immediately immersed me in the musical waters of the weekend ahead.
I would return to the Harbor Stage at the end of the day for another fine, and very different set from the Rodriguez Brothers. The quintet was led by pianist Robert Rodriguez with his brother Michael Rodriguez on trumpet. They brought a fine Latin feel to the proceedings, ably abetted by drummer Nomar Negroni, percussionist Samuel Torres, and bass player Luques Curtis. The young group excelled on tunes like “Guayaquil,” dedicated to the Rodriguez brothers’ Ecuadorean mother, and an as-yet unnamed composition that brought to mind warm tropical nights.
A highlight set of the weekend came between those two performances when funk master Maceo Parker took to the Fort Stage for performance that had everyone on their feet and moving around. If you’re going to play funk, you’re going to need a funky rhythm section and Parker certainly had one in drummer Pete MacLean and bass player Rodney “Skeet” Curtis.” There was more than one reference to Parker’s former employer, James Brown, as the band slid over, under, and around tunes like “Make it Funky,” “Cold Sweat,” and “Doing it to Death.” Parker, who shines on sax, is not a bad singer at all as shown on songs like the Ray Charles chestnut “You Don’t Know Me,” and just a hint of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get it On.” Far be it for me to tell Maceo Parker what to do but I’d love to hear him do some more singing in his set.
Like most people, I’ve been aware of Bela Fleck and his Flecktones over the years, but I can’t say that I’ve ever really sat down and listened to their music. So Fleck’s headlining set on the Fort Stage on Friday seemed to provide a great opportunity to do that. After having seen their set all I can say is that it’s still not music that I would sit down and listen to. It’s very popular, just not for me. No matter how it’s showcased, at the end of the day it’s still banjo music to me, and while there’s nothing objectionable about it, there’s nothing exciting there for me either.
Saturday may have been threatening in terms of the weather but musically it began just as beautifully as Friday did. And in any event, the bad weather never materialized. The day began on the Quad Stage with a presentation by Jazz 100, a wonderfully talented group of musicians that included pianist Danilo Perez, sax player Chris Potter, and trombonist Josh Roseman. They billed their performance as “The Music of Dizzy, Mongo, and Monk” and they delivered the goods in a way that would have made the three masters proud. I was particularly impressed with their take on Monk’s “Off Minor” which featured some dazzling work by Perez, and George Russell’s “Cubana Be-Cubana Bop,” made famous by Gillespie, which featured rhythmic intensity courtesy of percussionist Roman Diaz.
Then it was off to the Fort Stage for the highly anticipated appearance of the Christian McBride Big Band (pictured at top). McBride, in his first year as the festival’s Artistic Director, made several appearances over the weekend, and his big band set was a highlight. McBride’s group included the very talented young pianist Christian Sands and featured a guest appearance by vibraphonist Warren Wolf, who played brilliantly on “Under the Shade of the Cedar Tree” which McBride dedicated to his mentor, Cedar Walton. Another set highlight was the band’s take on Joe Henderson’s “Black Narcissus.”
This year Rhiannon Giddens joined the short list of performers who have played the Newport Folk Festival and the Newport Jazz Festival in the same year. And not only did she play both festivals, she made two appearances at the Jazz Festival including one on the Fort Stage on Saturday afternoon. Giddens released her highly acclaimed debut solo album Freedom Highway this year, and she performed several songs from it including the stirring “At the Purchaser’s Option” and Pop Staples’ “Freedom Highway,” and a fine cover of Aretha Franklin’s “Do Right Woman.” Giddens left the festival crowd with little doubt that she has a major career in front of her.
Christian Sands – Esperanza Spaulding-Terri Lyne Carrington
Geri Allen was supposed to play at the festival with her trio ASC which includes bassist Esperanza Spaulding and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington. Sadly, Allen passed away in June, but her bandmates decided to turn the festival performance into a tribute. They called their set ““Flying Toward The Sound: For Geri, with Love” and they recruited not one but three pianists to fill Allen’s chair. The set began with Christian Sands at the keyboard giving lovely voice to Allen’s “Unconditional Love.” Vijay Ayer took over capably for “I’m All Smiles,” and Jason Moran remembered Allen on her composition “Drummer’s Song.” For the final number, “Beautiful Friendship,” Sands, Iyer, and Moran took turns at the piano.
Next, it was back to the Fort Stage for the Branford Marsalis Quartet. I had been looking forward to their set but I have to say that I was a bit disappointed with it. Maybe that stage was too big for a small group but as part of a festival that values innovation the quartet’s set seemed a little pedestrian. The highlight for me was a lovely performance of the Marsalis ballad “A Thousand Autumns.”
Speaking of innovation, it was on full display as Henry Threadgill performed the final set of the day on the Quad Stage. Threadgill is always on the cutting edge, and his performance at this year’s festival was no exception. For the occasion, he brought together an unusual lineup of instrumentalists that included Threadgill on flutes and saxes, Liberty Ellman on acoustic guitar, Christopher Hoffman on cello, Jose Davila on trombone and trumpet, and Elliott Kavee on drums. The music they played was complex and required the audience to pay strict attention. But the effort from performers and audience was rewarded. We got a fascinating, deeply felt set, and Threadgill and his friends were the recipients of much love and several standing ovations from the crowd. One of my favorite things about the Newport Jazz Festival is the audience appreciation for the new. It must be very gratifying for an artist to bring difficult work to the stage and receive a ringing endorsement from the audience.
There is some walking involved in traveling between the festival’s three stages and I know very well from past experience that I would be footsore by Sunday night. With the Roots, a band I love, closing out the festival on Sunday night I was determined to conserve some energy that day. So my list of artists to see was a short one on Sunday and when vocalist Andra Day was forced to cancel her appearance due to illness it became shorter still.
Maria Schneider Orchestra
Sunday began for me with my favorite performance of the weekend. I know that I’m late to the game but I was totally blown away by the Maria Schneider Orchestra on the Fort Stage. The five-time Grammy winner has a band full of stars including sax player Donny McCaslin, trumpeter Mike Rodriguez, guitarist Ben Monder, and multi-instrumentalist Scott Robinson. Their set included “The Monarch and the Milkweed” from her highly acclaimed 2015 album The Thompson Fields, a beautiful tribute to the importance of that particular weed to the world of butterflies.
There were also two commissioned pieces receiving their premiere performances. One of these, “Do No Evil,” was so moving that it had me standing in a crowd of people in front of the stage hoping that they wouldn’t notice the tears on my face. If they didn’t it was because they were similarly moved. “Sanzenin,” a Schneider composition inspired by her visit to a Buddhist temple in the hills above Kyoto, Japan featured a standout performance from accordionist Julian Labro. It was McCaslin’s turn to shine on “Data Lords.”
The Philadelphia Experiment
Christian McBride was next on the Quad Stage but this time in a very different format than the big band he had appeared with the previous day. For the occasion, McBride reunited the Philadelphia Experiment for their fifth ever performance. As you might have guessed from their name, the trio includes, in addition to McBride, two other Philadelphians — Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson on drums, and pianist Uri Caine. DJ Logic was added to the group for the festival performance.
What followed was 75 minutes of funk and storytelling. McBride and Thompson were at Philadelphia’s High School of Creative and Performing Arts at the same time and the stories they shared were as amusing to them as they were to the audience. But in the end it’s all about music and in that regard, the augmented trio delivered in a big way. Tribute was paid to Sun Ra with a soaring take on the master’s “Call for all Demons,” and to Grover Washington with the tune “Grover,” which appeared on the trio’s only album to date. There was also a take on “IIe Ife” from the same album. I’m sure that everyone who was there walked away hoping that the Philadelphia Experiment will perform and record more often.
And then it was time for the Roots. I was as rested as I could be under the circumstances and ready to rock. I took my place in front of the Fort Stage early in order to optimize my view. And then, there they were. Led by Thompson, performing his second set of the day, and MC Tarik “Black Thought” Trotter, the Roots were electrifying from the start as they opened with War’s “Me and Baby Brother” before segueing into Eric B. and Rakim’s “I Know You Got Soul.” If there had been a roof on the old fort it would have blown off when guitarist “Captain” Kirk Douglas, bassist Mark Kelley, and sousaphonist Damon “Tuba Gooding, Jr.” Bryson began to pogo around the stage in unison. Other highlights of the set included the title track from the Roots 2006 album Game Theory, “Clones” from their third album Illadelph Halflife, and “Dynamite” from the Things Fall Apart album. The set wrapped up with a torrid version of Kool & the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie” and Douglas tearing it up on Guns ‘N Roses’ “Sweet Child of Mine.”
It was as impressive a Newport Jazz Festival as I can recall. Now in its 63rd year, the festival proved to be in good hands as McBride concluded his first year as artistic director. Although it is the oldest jazz festival in the world at this point there is nothing old or old-fashioned about the festival. The music that is presented continues to challenge and delight audiences as it has for generations. I’m already looking forward to next year.