2017 Newport Jazz Festival forges new path
Written by Bridget Arnwine
Long celebrated for its commitment to showcasing the very best in jazz, the Newport Jazz Festival rang in its summer season this past weekend with performances by some of the biggest names in music. Started by Elaine and Louis Lorillard in 1954, the Newport Jazz Festival (as it was back then) needed something more in order to give the Festival some traction. That something more came in the form of George Wein, a jazz loving club owner from Boston. With Wein at the helm, the Lorillards willingly relegated their own roles to that of Festival sponsors in order to give Wein the free range they believed was necessary in order to make the Festival a success. Sixty-three years later, it was Wein’s turn to seek out new ways to propel the Festival forward. There’s nothing wrong with the direction the Festival has taken—it is the country’s longest running jazz festival, after all—but the success of the 2016 Festival (due in part to vocalist Norah Jones' impact on the Festival's record-breaking ticket sales) had to spark a new conversation. A conversation that called for the addition of more diverse performers and, hopefully, a more diverse audience. Who or what could bridge that sort of gap? Enter multi-award winning bassist and Philadelphia native Christian McBride.
McBride, who is respected in most jazz circles for his ability to see as much value in tradition as he does in exploring inter-genre relationships, took over the artistic director reins from the 91-year-old Wein. Under his charge, what would be his vision and which artists would he choose to help bring that vision to life? For anyone who followed closely over the course of the Festival’s three-day schedule, there seemed to be three recurring themes: respect for tradition and diversity, making a joyful noise, and the Philly sound.
Respect for tradition and diversity
Geri Allen was a giant of an artist. The Michigan native and 2008 Guggenheim Fellow, who was one of the most celebrated female-voices in jazz, died at the age of sixty on June 27, 2017. Her trio with Esperanza Spalding and Terri Lyne Carrington was on the schedule to perform on Saturday afternoon, but her sudden passing left Festival organizers scrambling to find pianists talented enough to try to fill her shoes. Instead of seeking out a female replacement, Christian Sands, Vijay Iyer, and Jason Moran, pianists who were already slated to perform during the Festival, stepped up to the challenge. What resulted was Flying Towards the Sound, a tribute performance that gave a nod to Allen’s 2010 Motema Records release Flying Towards the Sound.
The Quad Stage tent was packed. Fans, musicians, photographers, and journalists converged to pay respect to the life and music of Allen but also to commune with those who were there to tell her musical story. As Spalding and Carrington played on with Spalding occasionally punctuating the air with wordless vocals, Sands, Iyer, and Moran took turns making their mark on work that Allen would have surely dazzled. From the set opener “Feed the Fire” (which featured a technically brilliant yet incredibly beautiful performance from Sands) that Allen performed in a trio with Ron Carter and Tony Williams on the album Twenty One (Blue Note) to the poignant set closer “A Beautiful Friendship,” the tribute offered heartfelt performances that radiated love. Thank you, Ms. Allen, for your legacy and thank you to Esperanza Spalding and Terri Lyne Carrington for keeping the music flowing.
Other performances worth noting include the Branford Marsalis Quartet; Bokante; Amir El Saffar’s Rivers of Sound Orchestra; and Jazz 101 featuring Danilo Perez, Chris Potter, Avishai Cohen, Josh Roseman, Roman Diaz, Ben Street, and Adam Cruz.
Making a joyful noise
Arguably, one of the most dance-evoking moments of the three-day Festival occurred when the Jason Moran Fats Waller Dance Party band performed “Jingo/Jingo-Lo-Ba.” Vocalist Lisa E. Harris twirled around the stage seemingly hypnotized by the song’s propulsive rhythms while band members followed suit, stealing moments to dance along as they played. Moran, who conceived of the Fats Waller tribute thanks in part to an artistic commission for the Harlem Stage, led the charge as the band performed an eclectic mix of tunes. Moran donned a large papier-mache mask after performing a revamped version of Waller’s hit “Ain’t Misbehavin’” taking on Waller’s persona sharing with the crowd the song’s ignoble inspiration. The set took off from there. Though the set list was traditional in nature, Moran’s approach to the music was not. Peppering each selection with a fusion of styles, the Fats Waller Dance Party was bold in its commitment to the celebration. Jazz music deserves it.
Other notable performances include Trombone Shorty and Snarky Puppy.
That Philly sound
The Philly sound has roots. The roots are soul and funk planted deep into an earth that yielded rich musical fruit. Once that fruit ripened, Philadelphia experienced its own version of the creation story. And, instead of Cain and Abel, hip hop was born.
The Legendary Roots Crew, as the “Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” band is respectfully referred to in hip-hop circles, closed out the Festival early Sunday evening before a near capacity crowd. The first hip hop band to grace the Newport Jazz Festival stage didn’t disappoint. The band delved straight into an intro led by the head ginger in charge, DJ Jeremy Ellis, on the MPC Finger Drum machine giving the group’s founders and most recognizable members, drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and emcee Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter, the time and space to make their way to the stage.
Once there, Questlove and Thought were serenaded by a thunderous ovation by the young people who were now at the front of the audience clapping, dancing, and head nodding along in anticipation. And what’s a Roots show without lively characters? As the members of the band opened with a medley of War’s “Me and Baby Brother,” and Eric B and Rakim’s “I Know You Got Soul,” this author’s new favorite member of the band, Damon “Tuba Gooding, Jr” Bryson, four-cornered and two stepped his way across the stage, weaving his way between Black Thought, bassist Mark Kelley, and the bands horn section.
It was no surprise that The Roots put on a lively show, but what seemed to surprise some was the way the band fit the instrumentation and lyricism into the jazz setting. Whether they were playing straight-ahead hip-hop like “Next Movement,” or rock favorites like Guns n Roses classic “Sweet Child of Mine,” the Roots kept the groove going.
Until we meet again, Newport.
Other notable performances include the Philadelphia Experiment featuring Christian McBride, Uri Caine, Questlove, and DJ Logic.