Having attended the Newport Jazz Festival in 2019, we approached this scaled-back, 60% of capacity, down-to-two-stages, COVID- protocols-in-place completely sold-out 2021 version with a mix of excitement and cautious curiosity. The lineup. of course, was beyond enticing. Many called it the “best in years.” The performances were exhilarating. The atmosphere couldn’t be better in terms of audience, staff, and volunteers.
Friday – Day 1
Once the music got underway on Friday with R&B singer Avery Sunshine on the Quad Stage, it was immediately evident that the musicians and the audience were just so overjoyed to experience the return of live music. It was not coincidental that her first song was “Hello Sunshine”, and Catherine Russell began her set with “Let’s Be Happy” and proceeded through her signature vintage material, closing with the crowd pleaser “Aged and Mellow.” The vibe was set well before noon. On the Lawn Stage Arturo O’Farrill (Arturo O’Farrill Quintet) turned to the crowd, gazing out to the sun-kissed bay full of all kinds of vessels, “This is so beautiful. This is a gift to be back together with you.” He proved more than right. This writer caught at least a bit of most of the acts, but those hard choices are part of what makes this festival so special. For those few acts one misses, the others often deliver stunning surprises. This festival boasts an incredibly diverse audience from young to elderly as parents danced with their children and when not listening at a stage, could be found lounging by the bay or seeking shade along the cooling stone walls of Fort Adams.
The festival’s Artistic Director Christian McBride often introduced the acts in his animated style and performed twice with two different groups. He brought the funk with A Christian McBride Situation, attired in his Brother Mister jersey, playing both acoustic and standup bass in a band that featured keyboardist James Francies playing with McBride for the first time, vocalist Alyson Williams, tenor saxophonist Ron Blake and two turntablists – Jahi Sundance and DJ Logic laying down beats and more. On the Quad Stage Makaya McCraven delivered a tight, varied, and at times soulful set that included selections from his reimagining of Gil Scott Heron’s final album We’re New Again featuring vocals from bassist Junius Paul, scintillating guitar from Matt Gold, and sublime trumpet from Marquis Hill, not to mention the deft, nimble, and precise drumming from the leader. Robert Glasper, Artist in Residence, had a different band each day and on Friday his acoustic trio was augmented by Jahi Sundance, with bassist Burniss Travis and drummer Justin Tyson delivered a mellow, highly satisfying sublime set.
It almost seemed to this writer that the Lawn Stage schedule was mainly designed to appeal to the younger audiences and with Yola’s inspiring danceable fare, (the only artist to play both the Folk and Jazz festivals this year) the smooth and highly energetic horn-slathered Cory Wong big band, and the jamming, genre-defying trio from Texas, Khruangbin, those younger audiences were shaking and grooving to funk, R&B, and rock for well over three hours. Khruangbin, at first seemed awed to playing Newport but were invigorated by the crowds, even returning to the stage for a rare encore.
The clear highlight of Friday was Kamasi Washington leading his eleven-piece band through a rousing set of music that rather unbelievably spotlighted every member of the band. Having seen Kamasi twice, this was by far his most aggressive, intense set, digging deep and reaching stratospheric heights on his sax from the opening number and continuing through the entire set which had the audience on their feet several times.
Saturday – Day 2
Saturday’s weather was as exceptional as the killer lineup. Opener Danielle Ponder, a public defender by day, is giving that up to pursue music full-time as well she should with her powerhouse R&B performance presaging quite a future. Her songs about social justice were so moving that the audience gave her a standing ovation mid-set NEA Jazz Master Terri Lyne Carrington and Social Science, a sextet, covered an astounding range of sounds from traditional jazz to opera with strong contributions from vocalist Debo Ray, pianist Aaron Parks, guitarist Matt Stevens, saxophonist bassist Morgan Guerin, and DJ/MC Kassa Overall. Kenny Garrett, playing tunes from his new album, Sounds from Our Ancestors, blew the roof off the Quad stage with a performance that rivaled Kamasi’s, and at times exceeded the energy level based on the feverish audience response.
Staying with the Quad lineup, Robert Glasper invited Kamasi Washington as his special guest for “Dinner Party”. Kamasi, of course, blew some incendiary solos aside altoist/keyboardist Terrace Martin. The album, Dinner Party, was issued two years ago with this being the first time it was performed live. The set was brought to a climax when they were joined by Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, launching into “Restless Warrior,” from the latest R+R=NOW album. The afternoon at Quad closed with Ledisi singing a beautiful tribute to Nina Simone, seemingly effortlessly although she did mention being nervous a couple of times. Keep in mind that many of these performers hadn’t played in front of an audience in 15-18 months. You could feel their joy, see the radiant smiles of the band members, and feel such a huge uplift for the return of live music.
Saturday’s Lawn Stage lineup was remarkably just as impressive as the Quad, beginning with a terrific set from altoist Immanuel Wilkins and his quartet who dazzled with musicianship and strong compositions. The charismatic Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah with his angled trumpet and reverse flugelhorn, brought his sextet and delivered engaging material from his most recent live album Axiom, spotlighting pianist Lawrence Fields, flautist Elena Pinderhughes and world-renowned percussionist Weedie Braimah. Highlights included “Diaspora” for Pinderhughes and “Guinnevere,” a nod to Miles Davis.
Chris Potter’s Circuits Trio delivered a riveted set, drawn mostly from their recent Sunrise Reprise, with impressive turns from keyboardist James Francies and drummer Eric Harland. Legendary octogenarian Mavis Staples was clearly a crowd favorite with old vintage and few newer tunes. Staples was introduced by her old friend, 95-year-old George Wein, the legendary NJF producer, who although unable to be there in person, phoned via Festival Executive Producer Jay Sweet adorned in a baseball jersey lettered “Mavis,” who shared Wein’s message live with the crowd. Saturday closed with the trademark NOLA dance, jazz, and rock grooves from Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue, who at a young age have already earned a reputation as one of this generation’s most captivating live acts. They did not disappoint nor did any of the performers in Saturday’s “to die for” lineup.
Photos by Mary Hynes