Newport ‘23 notes
I was fortunate to be back at the Newport Jazz Festival for, I think, the eleventh time. (I may be off by one or two.) And, as I’ve been doing for the last few years, I took notes.
The festival opened this year with the Lauren Sevian Quartet, featuring Jonathan Blake on drums. I consider Lauren a friend, and she has worked with my students on multiple occasions, so I’ll say only that it was a fun, high energy post-bop set. And that Jonathan Blake is a national treasure, and we should treat him as such.
The next act up on the Quad (second largest) stage was alto phenomenon Immanuel Wilkins and his quartet. I only saw half the set, and now (see below) I wish I had stayed for the whole thing. One of the pleasures of the festival this year was seeing a few bands that are really bands, the kind that play 100+ dates a year, the kind that are much harder to sustain than they were in the days when Miles, Trane, Bill Evans, etc were constantly on tour. This band was to my ears the best of that excellent bunch- the music took these organic twists and turns through themes and metric modulations and shifts in mood. And Wilkens is just a monster saxophonist (see this recent video where he talks about practicing). He has ferocious, wailing energy, but it is never out of control.
I missed some of Immanuel’s set to see the other alto phenom of the day (unfortunately, as is too often the case, scheduled at the same time) Lakecia Benjamin, and her Phoenix quartet, featuring the great drummer E.J. Strickland and old friend (and badass) pianist Zachai Curtis. Her music combines a strong post-Coltrane energy (she did recently do a tribute album) with an instinct to play to the crowd- “on a whim”, she spun off a medley of “My Favorite Things”, Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints” and “Wade in the Water”. Benjamin has formidable chops, and projects a ferocious energy that reminds me of a strong Kenny Garrett set. But she also projects a kind of narcissism in her crowd banter that I found really off-putting- she talked at length about how she likes to see herself on the socials when she could’ve been playing. For me, it was a bad look.
Based on some streaming listening in preparation for the festival, I was very interested to hear clarinetist, composer and conceptual artist Angel Bat Dawid’s group. The recorded music was very interesting, and the critical plaudits are as long as my arm. After a very long sound check, the music I heard was hugely disappointing. A makeshift altar in the middle of the stage had two clarinets on it, but in the 20 minutes of the set I saw they sat unplayed. The music alternated between shrieking free chaos and two chord vamps. On a pause Dawid name checked Sun Ra, which made a lot of sense, but didn’t make it any better. She clearly has done some interesting and exciting work, but this set was a mess- very little shape or contour, and a whole lot of noise. There just wasn’t enough there there.
I took a walk across the way to Butcher Brown, which I’d describe as a soul-jam band with a really tight rhythm section. Again, clearly a band that plays a ton together, and knows the music inside out. The crowd seemed to really dig it. I thought it was fine.
After Dawid cleared, bassist Derick Hodge, best known for his work with Robert Glaspar, took over the Harbor stage. He unleashed a set of anthemic fusion- big grand accessible themes, with enough twists and turns to impress peers, and enough grooves and hooks to keep a big audience. The set ranged from the over the top- a cover of Wayne Shorter’s “Fall” where the last four bars of each chorus was a hurricane of sound, to the sublime- a tremendously sympathetic, lovely duet between Hodge and his guitarist. Overall, an interesting and satisfying set.
Again, across the way on the quad stage was Big Freedia, whose press described them as a queer performer doing new and interesting things at the line between New Orleans music and hip-hop. I hadn’t read this yet, so I walked in with no expectations whatsoever. And in the first minute, behind grungy guitars and a hard-edged backbeat, Big Freedia was telling me to, er, consume a delicate piece of human anatomy. The stage presentation felt like a Lizzo stage show with a more explicit LGBTQ slant*. I’m told there was also a crowd participation ass-shaking contest on stage later in the set after I bounced.
Look, I’m no prude- there were a couple of other F-bombs thrown at other sets that didn’t bother me- and I do think there needs to be more and better LGBTQ representation in spaces like Newport (see my end notes on programming). But I also think it’s a family show, and if I’d wandered into that set with my four year old kid, I’d be pissed, and I think rightfully so. This was vulgar, and I don’t think it was appropriate to the event. And moreover, to my ears it wasn’t very good- the music combined elements of the harder edges of P-Funk with the rock sensibility of Living Colour with some of the basest vernacular of current hip-hop. Maybe I didn’t listen carefully enough, but I missed the New Orleans part, and the innovative part. There wasn’t one memorable solo. Every year for the past four festivals or so there are one or two acts where I find myself saying “why the hell did they get booked” over ten bands I think are more deserving, and this year Big Freedia was at the top of that list, number one with a bullet. Moving on…
Soullive is a very good jam band, who jam very well. And were blown out of the water by some of the jam bands that followed them later Friday and then on Saturday. Branford Marsalis sat in, and played a memorable solo, which is more than I can say for everyone else.
Durand Jones is a sort of retro roots/rock singer in the vein of the late Amy Weinhouse or Eli “Paperboy” Reid. He combined that with a stage presence that was part Al Green, part Morris Day. It was very well done, just not my thing.
This was the second time I saw the young phenom duo of Domi and JD Beck. And they were better than the last time I saw them- the music was a technical whirlwind,, but also a little more mature, a little less bratty. Their talent reminds me of Jacob Collier, but without his deep respect for the music he is mining. The music still feels slick and empty, and the presentation is still pretty juvenile, complete with poop jokes. That said, they are still very young, they are incredibly talented, and I hope we see more interesting music from them- they are capable.
Branford Marsalis and his quartet were last minute replacements for Kamasi Washington, and I for one was delighted for the change- in addition to the fact that Branford is remarkable, I didn’t need one more ear-splitting set. Branford is also notoriously… ornery, and it felt to me like he had been listening to what was going on before he took the stage, and thought “enough BS, let’s go.” His quartet (with a sub bass player) came out firing with Joey Calderazzo’s “The Mighty Sword” and Keith Jarrett’s “Long as You Know You’re Living Yours”. The music was listener friendly enough to keep the crowd engaged, but virtuosic and interactive enough to delight all the jazz nerds and let Branford make his point. Calderazzo was particularly brilliant, and the ferocity and brilliance of drummer Justin Faulkner was reminiscent (in the best possible way) of Branford’s first force of nature drummer, Jeff “Tain” Watts.
Marsalis then presented, pretty much in the style of that day, the 30’s Tin Pan Alley number “There Ain’t No Man Worth the Salt of My Tears”. It was brilliantly executed, but brought up what I think is the most persistent fair criticism of Marsalis- he behaves as a musical chameleon, taking on the colors of whatever tune he’s playing. When he played with Soullive, he sounds like he was on the horn line of Chicago in the 70s. When he plays this tune, he sounds like a fusion of Coleman Hawkins and Illinois Jacquet. When he plays with Sting, he channels Wayne Shorter with Joni. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but here Wayne is the especially useful foil. No matter what context he was in, you knew it was Wayne. Forty years in, can we say that about Branford?
I left to hear what was hands down the best set of the day, Dave Holland’s “New Quartet” with pianist Kris Davis, saxophonist Jaleel Shaw and drummer Nasheet Waits. If you know Holland’s discography, you know how many amazing bands he’s had, how many great tunes those bands recorded, and the sympathy and ferocity with which they played. Even only a few months into their tenure together- this was their first American appearance after a lengthy European tour- this group holds up against any of Dave’s best bands. Davis was particuloarly exciting, playing with equal fluency “inside” and “outside”, often in the same tune. It’s clearly a new stimulus for Shaw and Holland, and prods Waits, no stranger to exploration with the likes of Jason Moran and Ralph Alessi, to drive the band around new corners. I hope this band records a double album tomorrow- we’ll all be better for hearing it.
The closer on the big stage was Almost Dead, a Grateful Dead tribute band with Branford sitting in. I’ve honestly never gotten the Deadhead phenomenon, but I also never looked that hard. Listening to a couple of tunes, I think I get it- the tunes I heard were accessible but a little bit twisty, the lyrics were wide-open enough that if I were stoned, I’d think “deep, man.” And the playing was top notch. It wasn't enough to make me go seek out Dead bootlegs, but I enjoyed it.
Saturday opened with two women known both for their playing and their singing, saxophonist Camille Thurman (best known for her work with Jazz at Lincoln Center) on one stage and trumpeter Jennifer Hartwick (best known for her work with Trey Anistasio) on another. Thurman performed a very straightahead set with her quintet (featuring longtime NY anchor Lonnie Plaxico and trumpeter Wallace Roney II), burning through the material on both her axes. Hartwick played in a more pop vein with guitarist Nick Cassarino, with the peak of her set being a cover of Radiohead’s “Creep”. Each has big broad sounds as both singers and instrumentalists, and both brought their house down.
Next up was saxophonist James Brandon Lewis, who came out of nowhere to dominate last year’s Downbeat’s Critics Poll. This band was not the one that won him the plaudits, but a trio with electric bass and drums, playing tunes that alternated between rubato rumination and indie-rock style grooves. Lewis has an amazing well-deep sound, and a couple of the rubato moments were really compelling, but overall I didn’t find a sense of direction that kept me engaged.
I moved on to trumpeter Keyon Harrold’s set. He brought a quintet featuring guitarists Nils Felder, who shined throughout. I’d describe the music as sort of anthemic fusion (that theme will return)- there was a hard hitting tune with a strong backbeat that melted into a lovely free piano solo, then a funk ballad with interesting harmonies and a less interesting melody, and it melted into Monk’s “Round Midnight”. Harrold is a brilliant, brash player, and I liked but didn’t love the set.
The surprise of the day that I did love was Superblue, a collaboration between guitarist Charlie Hunter, drummer Nate Smith and vocalist Kurt Elling. I expected one more meandering jam, but got instead a lot of inspired improvising. I missed them covering an 80s pop tune that I’d dismiss as cheese, but was apparently great. I arrived for a 70s soul groove (and good Lord did Smith and Hunter make it groove) that Elling was seemingly freestyling vocals over, with bebop-scat level melodies and cipher worthy lyrics. It was a sight to behold. Elling is remarkable- a brilliant technician who is universally appreciated as a pro’s pro. (His voice has a shrill edge to it, otherwise I think he’d be this generation’s Mel Torme. But if it means he does work like this, maybe it’s better that it is what it is) As I moved to the next stage, they were closing with a rousing rendition of The Roots’ “The Seed 2.0”. Is that a standard now?
Bobby Watson was next, playing some serious hard bop, as he’s been doing for as long as I can remember. (Eric Jackson, the late legendary Boston jazz DJ loved Watson, so he has an outsized space in my development as a player and listener.) The first tune, a slow blues, felt a little pro forma, but Watson came alive on the second tune, reaching beyond rote bop language into something exciting.
I caught fifteen minutes of the “Louis Armstrong at 125” set, with three of the featured trumpeters at the festival playing Armstrong material interspersed with audio clips of Louis himself, probably from the new center opened as part of the Armstrong House in Queens. I’m more excited to visit Queens than I was about the music- it was fine, but not compelling.
I walked by The War and the Treaty, a husband and wife singing duo. The gentleman was doing a really lowball Armstrong imitation, and then broke into a rubato “Autumn Leaves”. I kept walking.
I walked to Charles Lloyd, with his longstanding quartet featuring Jason Moran and Eric Harland. I will admit that Lloyd is one of those musicians who I’ve never liked as much as I think I’m supposed to- I often find him sort of Coltrane light. But the cast of characters who have and do play with him is a Hall of Fame cast, and they seem to think otherwise, so I keep listening. Today I was rewarded- everyone, including Lloyd, sounded fantastic, the ensemble interplay was beautiful, and the music was really moving. That Lloyd can still do this at age 85 makes it that much more special. And Jason Moran is a national treasure, and we should treat him as such.
I caught a bit of Colbert bandleader Louis Cato next. It was catchy sort of soul singer/songwriter stuff. Very good, but not my thing. So I wandered back to the main stage for Christian McBride’s “Jam Jawn”, his semi-organized jam session, this year featuring Ravi Coltrane and Nate Smith. Last year’s jawn was one of the surprise gems of the festival, this year, it was just a jam session. Not bad, but not memorable. Except, the guest of honor was pianist Bob James, who I think of as a “smooth jazz” guy, but in actuality has done just about everything in the business- McBride pointed out that his first appearance at NJF was forty years ago with Sarah Vaughn. He sounded incredible. Vocalist Cenise (sp?) joined them for “Hound Dog”, featuring the Big Ma Thorton lyrics. That made me think, Nate Smith could play anything and it would be amazing…
Next up was the Julian Lage trio, featuring old friend Jorge Rodear and drummer Dave King. For many of my jazz nerd friends this was the highlight of the festival- the band is smart and virtuosic and listen to each other with intense sympathy. The tunes varied in moods and grooves, and everyone played great.
I pulled myself away to hear “Love in Exile”, the collaboration between pianist Vijay Iyer, vocalist Arook Aftab and bassist Shazad Ismaily. Described clinically, the music was a series of vamps and drones, which Iyer and Ismaily augmenting their axes with various electronic sounds, which Aftab sang over with a handful of Urdu lyrics whose context I admit I don’t know (I only know it’s Urdu because I googled it). This has been a polarizing album among critics- in Downbeat’s four critic “Hotbox” one praised it for its patience and layered atmosphere, another panned it as boring and redundant. Listening to it I see both sides of the argument. I found it occasionally hypnotic, but more often not that compelling. (Full disclosure- I played a gig a long time ago with Shazad that bore uncanny resemblances to this music, only it was a wedding band. That was quite a Saturday…)
As I walked back to the mainstage, I passed a few dozen campers from the Newport Jazz Camp taking a group photo at the designated selfie spot. After the photo, most of them then sprinted- and I mean sprinted- back to the main stage to hear bassist Thundercat. I sauntered behind them to a set that I’d describe as power fusion- tons of notes from all members of his trio, most of them very loud. The second tune started fast and then rushed. Maybe 16 year old me would have liked it, but 40-something year old me got bored quickly and moved on.
I moved to my last set of the day, with pianist Orrin Evans and his quintet, featuring Ingrid Jensen on trumpet, Gary Thomas on saxophone and flute, Luques Curtis on bass and Mark Whitfield II on drums. From the opening note the band was on fire- there was a lot of collective improvisation and intense band interaction that would melt into a star turn by Jensen, Thomas or Evans (though 30 years in, I still haven’t warmed to Gary’s playing). Whitfield was playing with so much groove and fire that until Orrin introduced him, I thought it might be Nate Smith. On the fourth tune, a slow blues, Ingrid gave a clinic on how to play with a plunger, and Evans seemed to be playing with the insides of the beat like he had it in the lab under a microscope. (for more context, Ethan Iverson talked about this as “micro-swing”, and attributes it to Kenny Kirkland.) It was a fantastic set.
Due to some other stuff I had going I didn’t see the closing set by Jon Batiste, but I did hear chunks of it on my bike ride home, closing with his song “Freedom” as I locked my bike. It sounded like the crowd was really digging it.
I missed most of Sunday’s opening acts, but caught the tail end of Matthew Whitaker’s set. He is the blind pianist/organist who was featured on a series of Apple ads last year. I actually saw him at a high school competition when he was 15 or so- he was blowing the roof off then, and has since gained broader attention, even more chops and better stage presence. The closer had serious Stevie Wonder vibes, ending with a medley that included “What’s Going On”. (see coda)
Next was Melvis Santa, a Cuban-American pianist, percussionist and vocalist who I’d seen here before with Jane Bunnett’s Macaca. This set was all her music, a combination of chants, songs and tunes touching on all sorts of modern improvisational styles, but very grounded in Cuban music. The guitarist (whose name I missed) was brilliant, with serious Pat Metheny vibes, and trumpeter Josh Evans also shined. A highlight was Santa reciting a poem dedicated to Abbey Lincoln called “My Music is Mine”, starting over a wild freebop texture, evolving into something much more controlled. It was very compelling music.
Equally compelling, somewhat to my surprise, was saxophonist Charles McPherson. McPherson is one of the last working saxophonists whose work ties directly back to Charlie Parker, and the music, mostly his originals along with the gauntlet piece “Cherokee”, was unapologetically bebop. Bebop is now the backbone of playing and teaching jazz, and if you’re not careful, like so much else in music education it can feel more like an exercise than a work of art. And while his sidemen, all great players, sounded good, but an inside baseball, “I love jazz” kind of good. McPherson sounded completely free. The language was Charlie Parker, but also so much more (he has a crazy altissimo range), and more than a little bit wild. It was a work of art.
I caught the tail end of bassist/singer/songwriter Adi Oasis’ set. The first thing I noticed when I looked at the stage was that she is very pregnant- she said this was her last gig of the year, and I wish her all good things with her expanding family. As for the music- pretty generic “Quiet Storm” R&B. One of the choruses revolved around the line “I want to see you naked.” No comment. The last tune had a processed bassline a la Rufus, and alternated between 10 and 11 beat phrases. That was kind of cool. But the set left me with another “why are they booked over fifteen other artists?” vibe.
The Bill Charlap trio, with Peter and Kenny Washington, played a strong straightahead set, with “Caravan” at the center. It’s not my thing, but they sounded great doing it, and many of my peers who I admire came away raving. So too did a pretty large audience. (See coda)
I bounced briefly to Cuban star Cimefunk, who was playing a set of what I’d call Cuban funk party music. I didn’t stay, but friends who did said they grooved like crazy, and everyone had a great time.
Maybe I should have stayed, but instead I went to see Scary Goldings, a collaboration between organist Larry Goldings and LA funk band Scary Pockets, featuring Ted Poor on drums and the John Scofield. They played loose but well organized tunes, with space for everyone to blow. Now look, Goldings is amazing, Ted Poor is fantastic, and Sco is a living legend. But this was the sixth or seventh jam set of the festival, and it would have to be a Herculean level of compelling to hold my interest. And it wasn’t all that compelling. This is as much a consequence of the programming as it is of the band. (again, skip to the coda)
I bounced to the set of Cuban-American percussionist Pedrito Martinez and his band, which was pretty straightforward Afro-Latin music. It grooved like crazy, and I loved it. My only quibble- about halfway through the set the pianist started to play accents on a synth with a terrible 80s patch. I thought it got in the way of the groove. Everything else about it was fantastic.
Marcus Miller and his band, featuring trumpeter Russell Gunn, played a set of funky smooth jazz that would’ve felt right at home at the festival in 1993. Miller is an amazing virtuoso, but this set was boring.
Festival producer Christian McBride typically plays two sets on the festival, his “Jam Jawn” (see above) and one of his bands. This year he instead played with the now legendary Joshua Redman quartet, featuring Redman, McBride, Brad Mehldau and Brian Blade. Redman said this was their only gig as a unit this calendar year, and they certainly played like it, savoring every minute- everyone sounded great, and the band interplay was beautiful. Brian Blade is a national treasure, and we should treat him as such.
Last year Samara Joy was an up and comer who took the festival by storm. This year she is a two-time Grammy winner, so the expectations were perhaps a little higher. She came out with an ambitious set- after her first tune she talked about her recent trip to Brazil before launching into “No More Blues”, using both the Portugese and (far inferior) English lyrics. The rest of the set included “Stardust”, a new lyric to the insanely twisty Mingus tune “Reincarnation of a Lovebird”, and what is fast becoming her staple “Guess Who I Saw Today”. Her band is another “band”- they’ve probably played 100+ gigs together this year, and it sounds like it.
One of the pleasures of Joy’s first two records was her understatement- she has a rich low and middle range, and can project whole worlds without getting very loud. But in this set, she favored a showier approach, living much more at the top of her pitch and dynamic range, which set the crowd afire. It was still an enjoyable set, but lacked some of the nuance that attracted me to her initiallhy. (again, see coda)
I popped in on the band Cautious Clay, a recent Blue Note signing. It was a conventional rock band formation, only the lead singer also played saxophone and flute. After a false start, they opened with a tune with the lead singer playing a sax solo… that the mic didn’t pick up. They shifted to a second tune that felt pretty generic indie rock, so I left. A friend arrived later in their set, and enjoyed it. Apparently there was some flute salad…
I popped across to the Quad stage to hear the Soul Rebels, a brass band from New Orleans, return customers from last year, and this year featuring hip-hop legends Rakim and Talib Kweli. From minute one they brought the funk, and it was so much fun. They set up a party vibe, then several members of the band rapped (well). Then they brought Rakim, who performed some of his seminal hits- “I Ain’t No Joke”, “Don’t Sweat the Technique” to a brass band accompaniment. It was tremendous fun, and the crowd ate it up. I was bummed to miss Kweli, but I didn’t want to miss a moment of the festival closer.
Herbie Hancock, at age 83, did not disappoint. He led an all-star band, featuring bassist James Genus, guitarist Lionel Louke, drummer Justin Tyson, and trumpeter Terrence Blanchard. The set was what I think is now a stock Herbie set- long pieces that mash up hits from his catalog- “Rock It”, “Butterfly”- with discursive and virtuosic improvisations from the band. At one point Herbie played a long vocorder improvisation pleading for peace, so we can tell AI the right way to do things. (Yikes). At another, James Genus created a looped solo bass piece that landed eventually in “Actual Proof”. The set closed with Herbie playing keytar on his warhorse “Chameleon”, which should have been hoary, but wasn’t. It was a clinic on how to create grooves together, and while Herbie occasionally drifted into showy licks, more often he mined the seemingly fallow ground for exciting ideas, and the band brought the same level of creativity to this old mare. It was a fantastic close to the festival.
CODA- big picture notes on the festival.
Small but important quibble- especially on the Harbor and Quad stages the sound mixes were rough for way too long into various sets on multiple days. Several lead horn players (Sevian, Wilkens, Thurman) were inaudible for their first one or two tunes, backup singers were louder than lead singers, etc. In the two years I was helping with high school performers at the festival I found the sound people to be absolutely top notch, so I don’t know what happened this year, but it was pretty awful.
Every working musician, hell every human in the first world, knows that social media has become a critically important piece of a musical career. Certain artists have been booked at Newport based on how they built a following on social, and then parlayed it into real world success. (Last year it was Emmet Cohen, who I respect enormously; this year I’m sure at least one of the acts I reviewed above was there because of Instagram, I just don’t know which) But as I watched especially some of the younger acts- Samara Joy, Lekecia Benjamin, Matthew Whiaker, Domi and Beck- I worried that the intense pressure that social media creates may be stunting their growth as artists. I feel like each of them spent time in their set either trying to manufacture a viral moment or begging for followers, at the expense of the music. As one of my teaching colleagues said about something else awhile back, it’s not their fault, but it is their (and our) problem.
Last year I wrote that if Newport signified anything about the state of jazz (which honestly, I don’t think it does), it was that the backbeat ruled. This year, the programming heavily favored the jam and the jamband. (to that end, I’ve never smelled that much weed at the festival before. Rhode Island did just legalize recreational pot, but still.) Soullive, Almost Dead, Superblue, Jawn Jam, Big Gigantic (who I didn’t see), Cimafunk, the Soul Rebels… it was a lot. And judging by audience reaction (which I know is entirely subjective), it wasn’t like all the jam sets were ravenously received and all the more traditionally jazz stuff was meeting polite applause. People were absolutely going nuts for Bill Charlap, Samara Joy and Charles McPherson, for instance, and Soullive got polite but not overwhelming applause. My takeaway- people want to hear great jazz at a jazz festival. Please program accordingly.
To be clear,I liked some of the jammier stuff, but it was a lot, and a lot of one thing means something else gets left out. For instance, there wasn’t a single big band this year, or a single trad (20s/30s jazz) act, staples of a Wein booked festival. There was less from what roughly gets called the “avant garde”- no Mary Halverson, no William Parker or the like. And my distaste for Big Freedia was amplified by the absence of Meshell N’Degeocello, who not only was an out queer woman when it was a career impediment to be so, but who also just put a killing new record out! I love Newport, but if this is what the festival is going to look like moving forward, this might be the last time I write this- it won’t be worth my time and money.
*I use this comparison cognizant of the recent allegations against Lizzo and her company. I say that only about look and feel- colors of the set, costumes, the variety of size and shape of the performers- and not to make any insinuations about Big Freedia. I thought the visual presentation looked like it took inspiration from Lizzo’s SNL setup, that’s it.