The 62nd edition of “The Grandfather of All Jazz Festivals” in Newport, Rhode Island took place Friday through Sunday, 29-31 July 2016. Because of my schedule I was only able to attend Saturday’s events but all my efforts to get to Newport from New York City were rewarded with some brilliant performances and beautiful memories. The first day had brought cloudy skies that had delivered occasional torrential rain. Sunday was also a partly rainy day so I felt myself blessed to have such a perfect summer day in THE place on the planet for a jazz fan to be at this time of year. The incredible lineup of artists were more than capable of delivering what all festival-goers came for…jazz with great variety performed at the highest level.
Each day brought shows from 11 AM to 7 PM at the Fort Adams State Park with the added attraction of Friday night’s performances in town at the International Tennis Hall Of Fame by Chick Corea’s Trio with Christian McBride and Brian Blade and Gregory Porter. No rain was going to dampen the spirits of the festival attendees or the performers. Friday had brought shows featuring the likes of The Heath Brothers, the New Orleans band Galactic, saxophonists Donny McCaslin and Steve Coleman, the great vocalist Tierney Sutton, who hung out an extra day for an impromptu appearance with the band The Hot Sardines on Saturday, and one of the current sensations of modern jazz, Kamasi Washington who’d also perform a second time on Sunday.
There were many more filling the four stages in this beautiful setting on Sunday, the final day. Scheduled to perform were NEA Jazz Masters Kenny Barron and Charles Lloyd. There are always wonderful vocalists and on Sunday the lineup included Lizz Wright and Jose James. From the international side of things came Angelique Kidjo, Anat Cohen and Toshiko Akiyoshi. There were a number of representatives from the current generation of jazz stars including Robert Glasper, Christian Scott, Nels Cline and Ben Williams. And a feature of every Newport Jazz Festival is all-star bands, oftentimes put together for a one-off performance. This year the Sunday crowd was treated to a set by newly-named NEA Jazz Master Dave Holland alongside Chris Potter, Lionel Loueke and Eric Harland. You can’t go wrong by attending any one day of this 3-day event and I wasn’t happy about missing some of these shows but my Saturday would be filled with more than enough to fill my plate!
There is one thing I must warn you about should you decide to attend this festival…Newport is haunted! Sure, may run into one of the friends of The Great Gatsby from time to time but only if you’re touring the mansions on the cliffs overlooking the ocean. At Fort Adams State Park you only have to worry about running into the spirits of Miles Davis, Count Basie, Duke Ellington or Charlie Parker. Don’t worry, they won’t bother you, only serve to charge the atmosphere with great history and inspire each and every musician who plays here. I was invited by the festival to take the stages to introduce 5 of the artists/bands who’d perform on this grand, sunny Saturday and I have my own personal ghost to tend with.
I have produced and presented Jazz America, the only full-time jazz program heard on the U.S. Government service The Voice of America, since 1999. The may who preceded me, Willis Conover, produced jazz on VOA for 40 years, and in the beginning of the Newport Jazz Festival, which began in 1954, the performances were broadcast around the world via shortwave on VOA. Willis was on stage introducing many of the artists in his deliberate, thoughtful, historical manner in that deep, slow, resonant voice that taught many around the world to not only love jazz but to speak English. I certainly feel his presence each time I stand in front of the Newport crowds to bring on another brilliant artist or group. I considered myself a jazz presenter but a long distance runner on this day as I landed in Newport in the morning, got my credentials and marching orders from Carolyn McClair, the brilliant woman who takes care of all things press related for the festival and never stops working, and began a non-stop trek from stage to stage to do my job and take in as much music as I possibly could. Can you say Nirvana?
My first stop was to the largest stage at the festival, The Fort Stage, facing the ocean and the beautiful bridge to Newport off in the distance. There I took in some of the set by the brilliant 19-piece ensemble Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society led by the award-winning Canadian-born composer, arranger and conductor Darcy James Argue and including a cast of brilliant musicians including his fellow Canadian, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen. Darcy had been working for years on the piece titled Real Enemies, which they performed on this day, and he was obviously extremely proud of it. It is not only brilliant music but a commentary on politics and society in general that incorporates recorded spoken word pieces by famous figures of the past. Darcy is one of those artists who has redefined what “big band jazz” is for this century.
Edmar Castaneda & Gregoire Maret backstage at Newport 2016!
I hurried to the Quad Stage, the mid-sized stage set in the middle of the fort structures, to catch the last half of the performance by Venezuelan-born harpist Edmar Castaneda and his cast of international artists from places like Israel, Cuba, The USA and featuring the brilliant Swiss-born master of the harmonica, Gregorie Maret. I’d seen Edmar playing solo during this festival season at the Montreal Jazz Festival and he filled a huge hall with musical magic all by himself. This unique international blend was nothing short of astounding and a perfect example of how artists who play Newport go out of their way to present something extra special for the always, knowledgeable audience and with those aforementioned ghostly predecessors in mind. The rare blending of the harp and harmonica was especially appealing.
I remained at the Quad Stage as my first duty was to introduce the quartet led by two modern masters, guitarist John Scofield and saxophonist Joe Lovano. I’d run into Joe and his talented wife, vocalist Judi Silvano, earlier in the day and spoke with Joe about his new release Classic, which was recorded live at Newport in 2005 with a band that included legendary pianist Hank Jones. Judi, who has a new recording coming soon that features a two-guitar lineup, is also a painter. She created the cover for Joe’s newest work inspired by the sights surrounding Newport. Joe and John, old friends since their college days at Berklee in Boston, swung and grooved in their unique way to the delight of the audience.
Old school chums Joe Lovano & John Scofield getting together again to play Newport 2016!
I could only stay for a portion of their set as my next job called, to introduce another one-of-a-kind performance by that one-of-a-kind piano trio of Ethan Iverson, Reid Anderson and Dave King, AKA The Bad Plus, on the Fort Stage. They chose to perform Ornette Coleman’s classic work Science Fiction with the help of a trio of horn players including saxophonist Tim Berne and Ron Miles on cornet. I spoke with Reid and Dave after the performance and they told me how this album had inspired them to begin to play jazz. They played an inspired set, without a doubt, and the portion of the audience who were able to take in and process this deep, free and intricate piece were maybe not dancing and screaming on the outside but instead exuberant on the inside.
I’d seen the Chick Corea Trio with Christian McBride and Brian Blade play a beautiful set of mostly jazz standards, including a couple of Chick’s classics, at the Montreal Jazz Festival a month before and caught up with Chick before this Newport performance to see what we’d hear on this day. He told me he didn’t remember what they’d played in Montreal and we’d all be surprised with what this set would bring. Talk about an artist with abundant of riches from which to choose! This group would once again thrill the crowd with every note as the yearlong celebration of Chick’s 75th birthday continued in Newport. He had just announced the reformation of his Electric Band and we should all stay tuned to discover what else this brilliant master has to offer. The band was brought on stage by an official of the Newport Jazz Festival Board to announce that Christian McBride had just been chosen as the new director of the festival. They could not have chosen a more able and appropriate man to follow in the footsteps of the great George Wein.
Stefon Harris still looking like a kid and playing like a master at Newport 2016!
I had three more stops to make on my marathon journey of stage introductions with the next stop being back at the Quad Stage to bring on another wonderful fusion of various styles blended in a unique way just for the Newport audience, this time by New Orleans piano legend Henry Butler, New York trumpet master Steven Bernstein of Sex Mob fame and their Hot 9. This band had thrilled jazz followers with their modern take on music by the likes of Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Waller with the project Viper’s Drag. They started the set with a bit of that just to get the party started but followed with a 21st century treatment of Duke Ellington’s Far East Suite, which was inspired by Duke’s tour of middle eastern countries like Iran and Iraq in the 1960’s. This was a set that you could only hear if you were at the 2016 Newport Jazz Festival on this wonderful Saturday!
I made the short walk in the direction of the Newport Harbor to the Harbor Stage to introduce an uplifting performance by the brilliant Stefon Harris, one of the reigning kings of vibes in modern jazz. This ageless wonder always seems to be a kid with his youthful exuberance and ever-changing style. He may be in his 40’s now but he’s got two young boys, who cheered on their father from the front row. Stefon told me before the show that he’d be leading his new band of young bloods that perform under the name of Sonic Creed. He chose these young players to “kick his butt” but I know for certain that these young cats felt a boost from playing with him as well. It was another wonderful set of new material by Mr. Harris with a new project that will no doubt continue the development of his legend and an already marvelous career.
My final stop was back at the Quad Stage to bring on the man from Kingston, Jamaica, the brilliant pianist Monty Alexander once again leading his Harlem-Kingston Express band through a set that perfectly blends the traditions of jazz that Monty has embraced since coming to New York years ago, and the rhythm and spirit of the music of his native land where he is rightly considered a national treasure. If the music of Monty Alexander and friends don’t make you smile, bring a nod to your head and a tap to your foot then I suggest you have someone check your pulse. I saw no medical personnel in the audience and nothing but smiling, nodding and tapping going on so Monty’s mission was certainly accomplished with a grand display of what many these days call “World Jazz!”
I sadly made my way to transportation to leave the festival grounds and on to New York City, taking with me wonderful impressions of the great music and rare and wonderful atmosphere of this unique and magical place on this sunny, summer Saturday in Newport. The two other days of this year’s festival may have been marked by some inclement weather but I know that neither rain, nor whatever may come, will dampen the strong spirit of this marvelous event and the fans of this timeless music. See you next year!
Russ Davis produces and presents the only jazz program – “Jazz America” – for the U.S. Government Service, Voice of America. He also programs and presents the online modern jazz channel MOJA Radio, a subscription service. You can hear a number of free programs, including the latest Jazz America show, by visiting www.mojaradio.com, MOJA Radio’s website.