Newport, Rhode Island hosted its infamous Jazz Festival during the first weekend of August. Newport Jazz Festival has presented such musical luminaries as Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Dave Brubeck, Ray Charles, Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Louis Armstrong. The list goes on and on. The festival, presented by Natixis Investment Managers, continued to produce historical performances in 2018 by today’s contemporary artists.
Christian McBride, the festival’s artistic director, has retained the “jazz” soul of the festival. Mr. McBride has succeeded in featuring other forms of improvisational music which may not fit the festival’s previous mold. Although veteran festival attendees may question the credibility of some of the acts, the increase in attendance of a younger demographic has guaranteed the continual success of the festival.
The weekend was filled with memorable performances; including the weather. Below are a sprinkling of the high points of an extraordinary weekend.
Up until this weekend I had never been an enormous fan of jazz vocalist. In retrospect I had never witnessed incredible live jazz singers until the weekend festival. Three jazz soloists which made lasting impressions were Alicia Olatja, Jazzmeia Horn, and Andra Day.
Vocalist Alicia Olatuja was has worked with Christian McBride in the past and was personally introduced by the festival’s artistic director. Olatuja was joined onstage by pianist Jon Cowherd, guitarist David Rosenthal, electric bassist Ben Williams and drummer Ulysses Owens Jr. The singer’s regal presence on stage and uplifting gospel-infused style enthralled the audience. A mix of originals and covers including Michael Jackson’s Human Nature, Joni Mitchell’s “Cherokee Louise”, Djavan’s “Serrado” and Bernard Ighner’s composition “Everything Must Change”. The best was left for last with “Amazing Grace”. The song began traditionally with Olatuja unaccompanied center stage. After completing the first verse the band joined in and laid down an incredible slinky soul vibe. Each member of her band was given a solo opportunity including her two backup singers. Who knew that this Christian hymn written by an English clergyman could be packed with so much soul?
The next dazzling vocalist was Jazzmeia Horn. Horn undoubtedly is one of today’s most astonishing young jazz vocalist. The twenty seven year old Dallas native displayed her influences including Betty Carter, Sarah Vaughn, and Abbey Lincoln. Accompanied by her three piece band Horn dazzled the audience with her vocal range. Besides performing the lead track “Tight” and the socially conscious ”People Make The World Go Round” from her debut album A Social Call, Horn covered the classic “Have You Met Miss Jones”. The extensive scatting during the song pushed the song to its limit.
Finally there was Andra Day. Due to illness the soul singer was forced to cancel last year’s festival’s performance. Day, dressed in an aqua green ruffled pants and midriff exposing blouse made up for last year’s absence. Day delivered one of Saturday’s most powerful performances with her compelling stage presence. She was able to silence the crowd during Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam”. Horn reminded the audience of the songs relevance today concerning the violence against unarmed young black men. The highlight of the set was the Grammy nominated “Rise Up” during which the sun broke the clouds for the first time on a VERY rainy Saturday afternoon.
Newport Jazz Festival honored Charles Lloyd eightieth birthday by anointing him with the artist in residence title. Lloyd performed each day of the festival. I was privileged to attend performance of Sangam and Charles Lloyd and Friends. In Sangam Lloyd was accompanied by drummer Eric Harland and tablas player Zakir Hussain. This world jazz performance witnessed Lloyd rotating between piano, drums, flute, and saxophone. Creativity flowed from the trio with a strong mystical Indian influenced rhythm. Lloyd’s Friends Sunday performance was joined by New Orleans singer/songwriter Lucinda Williams. During this set with Williams, Lloyd played and acted like a man half his age. Strutting his stuff amongst his friends. Williams entered the stage dressed in black played a number of blues standards with the band. The highlight was William’s vocals on her own “Ventura” a story about longing for the sea which was recounted by the duo on the their album Vanished Gardens.
Throughout the weekend there was a belly full of highlights. Corey Henry and The Funk Apostles laid down the funk of The Bee Gees “Stayin’ Alive.” The James Carter Organ Trio reinterpreted Django Reinhardt using Bill Withers’ “Use Me.” Tony Allen, Fela Kuti’s former drummer walked the tightrope between jazz and world afro beat rhythms. Jon Batiste shared the story of his introduction to Thelonious Monk and his disappointment that over fifty years ago Monk had already accomplished what Batiste had been trying to figure out.
In the end the ultimate highlight of the festival was Laurie Anderson’s performance. Anderson is one of jazz’s most renowned avant-garde pioneers. Her live shows have included visual and theatre productions along with spoken work pieces. For this performance Anderson would be accompanied by Christian McBride on bass and Rubin Kodheli on cello. Midway through a number of open ended compositions Anderson reminded the crowd of Yoko Ono’s “bloody death scream” occurring after the 2016 election and asked everyone to let out the their own 10 second scream in unison. The scream felt like a resistance and cleansing of the recent political news cycle. Perhaps the most surreal incident of the entire festival occurred during Anderson’s explanation/interpretation of Aristophanes “The Birds”. The Greek story from 414 B.C. tells of two men trying to convince the birds to build a wall limiting access between the earth and the sky. During one moment while Anderson was assailing the audience with her violin a number of noisy seagulls flew past the stage reminding the crowd of who owned the sky. Anderson broke into a large smile as she continued to explain the tale. The performance, brimming with improvisation displayed the core of jazz.
Once again Christian McBride and the Newport Jazz Festival continued its dedication to musical innovation and exploration. Performances by today’s innovators were dispersed with works of tried and true marquee acts. The 2018 festival can easily claim to be North America’s premier outdoor jazz festival.
Diva Jazz Orchestra
James Carter Organ Trio