2022 Newport Jazz Festival Blends Tradition With Modern Jazz Via Norah Jones, Jazz Is Dead, Sons of Kemet, Christian McBride & More (FESTIVAL REVIEW/PHOTOS)

Following a memorable Newport Folk Festival, the weekend prior that saw the return of Joni Mitchell and Paul Simo, Fort Adams State Park certainly was playing host to many a memorable gig during Summer 2022. Yet the Newport Jazz Festival itself holds its own iconic history as it was originally billed as The First American Jazz Festival back in 1954. Since then Newport Jazz has welcomed to the stage the likes of Mingus, Miles, Zappa, Ray, Duke, and Blakey amongst all jazz and its various improvisational leaders.

For this 2022 edition that took place from July 29-31, 2022; the goal was to draw a younger audience, and with the booking of Norah Jones, MonoNeon, Nubya Garcia, Soul Rebels, Celisse, and Sons Of Kemet on board- that apparently worked. It is impossible to cover three stages with 18 acts per day each, 54 for the three days and this brother/sister team managed to see very few full sets as we went for breadth vs. depth.  Often the strongest and most memorable performances came from artists/bands that few would have predicted. 

Friday – Day 1

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In a slightly offbeat move, although jazz and dance are intertwined, one of the world’s premier tap dancers, Michela Marino Lerman delighted, dancing to the music of her trio, on the Harbor Stage. The main stage (Fort Stage) began with a robust performance, albeit on the “too short” side, from The Mingus Big Band led by musical director and bassist Boris Kozlov and featuring the vocals of trombonist Frank Lacy, notably on “Weird Nightmare” and the classic “Fables of Faubus.” Stirring solos in the 45-minute set included baritone saxophonist Scott Robinson, pianist Helen Sung, Kozlov, altoist Brandon Wright, and tenorist Wayne Escoffery.  Guitarist/vocalist Celisse, who has also appeared the prior week at Newport Folk, brought her brand of blues-rock on the Quad Stage before Nate Smith and Kinfolk with special guest Joel Ross, kept the beats rocking on the Fort Stage. Aside from Ross, altoist Jaleel Shaw, guitarist Brad Allen Williams, and vocalist Amma Whatt had strong turns as did apparently guest Vernon Reid who we did not witness.  

Nicholas Payton & Ben Williams

Bassist and bandleader Carlos Henriquez, a longtime member of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, performed his Grammy-nominated project South Bronx Story, a fusion of jazz and Latin jazz (inexplicably the only “Latin” act), heating up the otherwise breezy Harbor Stage. Meanwhile, the Nicholas Payton Trio with drummer Bill Stewart and bassist Ben Williams delivered a varied set leaving attendees in awe of Payton’s immense talents on trumpet and both the acoustic and electric piano, all of which he employed on most tunes, often playing the trumpet while comping on the keys simultaneously. On the Harbor Stage Grammy-nominated vocalist and loop artist Thana Alexa brought the audience to their feet with her Ona project powered in part by her husband and multiple Grammy winner, drummer Antonio Sanchez and bassist Matt Brewer along with guitarist Jordan Peters and keyboardist Maya Kronfeld, a powerful lineup that more than lived up to Alexa’s equally powerful messaging about female empowerment.

Chris Potter, Christian McBride, Mike Stern

As it turns out, the Harbor Stage, the smallest of the three stages, was the clear winner on Friday, considering the performances of Henriquez, Alexa, and, if not the Festival’s, certainly Friday’s most potent, by four-time Grammy nominated The Baylor Project, a fusion of jazz, gospel, and legacy, featuring the incomparable blend of nuance and power from vocalist Jean Baylor, especially on the audience-instantly-on-their-feet ovation for the goosebump-inducing piano-vocal duet “Hallelujah.”  Husband and drummer Marcus Baylor along with tenorist Keith Loftis and trumpeter Freddie Hendrix contributed to what this writer’s friend described as “one of the top four live performances” he had ever seen, mentioned in the same breath as Stevie Wonder and Prince. 

The festival’s Artistic Director Christian McBride often introduced the acts in his animated style and by what is now a tradition put together his eclectic jam session, dubbed this year as the “Newport Jawn.” McBride played both acoustic and electric bass in a band that featured some members playing with the bassist for the first time, including avant-garde pianist Vijay Iver, harpist Brandee Younger, drummer Makaya McCraven, electric fusion guitarist Mike Stern and more frequent collaborator tenor saxophonist Chris Potter. Not surprisingly, given the top-tier musicianship of these disparate parts, it worked well, especially on the opening Coltrane piece, “Africa.” McCraven and McBride were steady throughout in support of the jam’s two strongest soloists, Potter and rather unpredictably, Stern. 

Michela Marino Lerman

As the day wound down, we saw a peaceful solo performance from Shabaka Hutchings who charmed the audience by playing mostly flute and wooden flutes, the antithesis of the power he brings to the bands he leads or co-leads– Sons of Kemet, The Comet Is Coming, and Shabaka and the Ancestors. Terence Blanchard and the E-Collective with The Turtle Island String Quartet delivered music from their acclaimed Absence, focusing on music inspired by Wayne Shorter including “The Elders” and the album’s title track, a similar set to that performed at Exit Zero Jazz Festival in Fall of 2021 which we covered here. 

The closing act was Norah Jones, leading a quartet that included drummer Brian Blade, bassist Chris Morrissey and guitarist/pedal steel player Dan Iead performing mostly songs from her 2002 breakout Come Away with Me, which was just reissued as the twentieth-anniversary edition. As such we heard the hit single “Don’t Know Why,” the desperation of “Say No More” the stark piano-and-pedal-steel arrangement of “Travelin’ On,” the hard-edged “Little Broken Hearts” (on which Jones played guitar) and others. Jones can easily win over any audience with her warm voice but after listening to mostly jazz throughout the day, for this writer, it was a bit difficult to adjust to her fusion of jazz, country, and blues. 

Note – We were privileged to attend the outdoor screening on the film Hargrove, focusing on the last year of the great trumpeter’s life, presented by Newport Films on Thursday night. Be on the lookout for it this Fall as it gets wider distribution. 

Thana Alexa Ona

Saturday Day 2

Saturday featured four of the music’s leading or emerging female vocalists, beginning with Melanie Charles, whose arrangement of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” was a crowd pleaser, among others. Meanwhile, Jazzmeia Horn opened the Fort Stage with a quartet, as she sang and scatted through her original compositions, including “Free Your Mind.” Interestingly, tenorist Craig Jackson, a recent graduate of Berklee, impressed as did bassist Eric Wheeler who was the lone accompanist on one selection. The third vocalist, 23-year-old Samara Joy is already being billed as “The Next Ella” performed late that afternoon, accompanied by Pasquale Grasso (guitar), Ben Paterson (piano), David Wong (double bass), and Kenny Washington (drums).  Joy, with her amazing vocal range and the perfect pitch seems intent on being the torchbearer of tradition with such fare as “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “Star Dust,” and “The Trouble with Me is You.” The audience embraced her immediately. 

As if that wasn’t enough, Cecile McLorin Salvant, a perennial Newport favorite, backed by pianist Sullivan Fortner and guitarist Marvin Sewell, among others, presented her newer approach that combines spoken word with vocals. Her repertoire included her own “Obligation,” Kurt Weill’s “Barber Song,” and selections from Gregory Porter and Dianne Reeves “Mista,” which featured bluesy resonator guitar of Sewell.

Giveton Gelin and Patrick Bartley

Saturday’s surprise highlight was the set from young Bahamian trumpeter Giveton Gelin at noon no less. He and his quintet with killer altoist Patrick Bartley and acclaimed pianist Micah Thomas, came out on fire with the front-line evoking Booker Little and Eric Dolphy. They never let up in a blistering set that had the crowd on their feet from the very first number. Makaya McCraven, appearing in all three years of this team’s attendance, brought out his frequent Chicago-based collaborators along with Brandee Younger.  The combination of her harp, Joel Ross’ vibraphone, and Matt Gold’s guitar created the most interesting harmonics heard at the fest. Altoist Greg Ward and trumpeter Marquis Hill shined in their solo spots while McCraven and regular bassist Junius Paul kept it moving through tempo and dynamic changes. Another leading drummer, Antonio Sanchez, led his band, Bad Hombre, featuring the vocals of Thana Alexa in an entertaining, creative set at the Quad Stage. Later, yet another drumming bandleader, Yussef Dayes from southeast London, authored an impressive jazz fusion set on the same stage.

Sons of Kemet, who raised the roof in 2019 and have announced that they are calling it quits after this tour, created a mosh pit/London dance club scene in front of the Fort Stage as saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings and tuba player Theon Cross, each of whom also had solo sets at the fest, sparred and burned to the beats of twin drummers Tom Skinner and Eddie Hick. playing at near-peak intensity for an hour, saving a brief wooden flute interlude from Hutchings. Cross and Hutchings would often face each other, melody to counterpoint and back, soaring, throbbing, and churning. At times Cross made his tuba sound like an electric bass. It was a full-on dance party with all age groups participating.

Antonio Sanchez

While Cory Wong led his own big band and was part of the closing act, The Fearless Flyers with Nate Smith drumming, this team was mostly elsewhere covering three other interesting acts: Esperanza Spalding leading her trio through a combination of vocals and jazz, the Maria Schneider Orchestra, and Joe Lovano’s Trio Tapestry These three acts proved to set up the biggest time conflict for our team and sadly Esperanza got less time than the other two although in a highlight of her set Shabaka Hutchings joined for a clarinet solo. 

Maria Schneider Orchestra

Schneider led her 17-piece band through selections from her Grammy-winning Data Lords featuring an amazing array of textures, the incomparable drumming of Johnathan Blake and poignant solo spots from Scott Robinson (baritone sax), Dave Pietro (alto sax), and Ryan Keberle (trombone), among others.  Lovano’s trio was one of the few edgier groups (wish there had been more of them) performing from their ECM Trio Tapestry featuring creative pianist Marilyn Crispell and drummer Carmen Castaldi. Unlike much of the music at the fest, theirs is purposely quiet, lyrical, and delicate. The interplay is at a highly advanced level whether Lovano is on tenor, soprano, or sopranino sax. Crispell’s solos are so highly creative, it makes one wonder why she does not get more recognition. 

So, with a menu filled with vocalists, all of whom stepped up nicely, it was Gelin, McCraven, Schneider, Lovano, and The Sons of Kemet who all shined brightly as well.

Sunday – Day 3

Arguably, Sunday with its New Orleans bent, hip-hop focus, cultural diversity, legends, and the George Wein tribute proved to be the most dynamic programming of the three days.  New Orleans’ acoustic Tuba Skinny got folks into an energetic mood, kicking it off on the Quad Stage although most attention was at The Fort Stage for the most recorded bassist in history, the living legend Ron Carter and his quartet. Judging by the numbers of those standing in front of the stage, one would think it was a mid to late-afternoon act. After a bit of a delay the quartet of pianist Renee Rosnes, tenorist Jimmy Greene and drummer Payton Crossley jumped into the ever familiar “Seven Steps of Heaven,” and later in the set, “All Blues.” It was a short set but Carter’s rich, robust tones filled the air, and many were overheard, saying, “Wow! He’s still got it at 85.”  Next at the Fort came a huge blast of New Orleans brass with The Soul Rebels who had throngs rhythmically clapping and dancing to “504.” By now the party was well underway.  We got a quick peek at a dynamic set from Japanese trumpeter and fusion artist Takuya Kuroda and his quintet at Harbor, but he was unfortunately up against Jazz is Dead.

Ron Carter

Jazz Is Dead, making their Newport debut, delivered one of the top three performances of the fest, building their set with captivating, smooth grooves to a mind-blowing crescendo. Backed by the L.A. band Katalyst, who performed for the full set, co-leaders Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, switching off on keys/synths and bass, brought out their guests. Legendary bassist Henry Franklin was first, staying for a couple of tunes followed by iconic B3 organist Doug Carn who fit in beautifully with the sound. When 82-year-old altoist Gary Bartz hit the stage, the audience was in an uproar and for this writer, it was one of the most magical moments of the three days. Bartz sang his classic, inspired by Langston Hughes “I’ve Known Rivers” from 1974, one that did not even appear on his collaboration with Younge and Muhammad Jazz Is Dead 006. Following an instrumental Carn and Franklin reappeared with the full ensemble doing a hybrid rap number, leaving us wanting so much more.

We briefly caught Jason Moran & Bandwagon, a trio delivering a funky set while Melissa Aldana and her quintet were soothing and harmonically inventive at Harbor. We did not want to miss the colorfully inventive MonoNeon (Dwayne Thomas Jr.), formerly the bassist for Prince, whose quintet just burned down the Quad stage, true to the lyrics in one of their tunes, “Today we’ll burn this place down.” Drummer Mike Mitchell exerted more power than seemed humanly possible while the twin guitarists from Ghost Note and the keyboardist played wildly to lyrics like “long walk in your favorite ghetto.” It was loud, funky, creative, and easily the most exhausting hour of the three days.  The Quad Stage was going for three in row with Jazz Is Dead, MonoNeon, and Nubya Garcia, saxophonist from London making her Newport debut. Her set got off to a bit of a shaky start, but keyboardist Greg Spero kept it together and once Nubya got in the groove, it moved nicely. 

Jason Moran

In interviews prior to the fest, Christian McBride enthusiastically touted Angelique Kidjo. Performing Talking Heads’ Remain in Light’, she had folks of all ages dancing, swaying, and clapping to the African rhythms and her overwhelmingly charismatic performance of singing and dancing. The antidote of sorts for the immense energy created by these afternoon performers was the imaginative, edgy set by pianist Vijay Iyer and his trio featuring bassist Linda May Han Oh and in place of drummer Tyshawn Sorey, Jeremy Dutton at Harbor. These audiences respect and know great music when they hear it and rewarded the trio with a well-deserved standing ovation.

To cap the event. Christian McBride led a slew of guests in tribute to the late George Wein, founder of both the Newport Folk and Newport Jazz Festivals. The tribute began with a group that often played with Wein in the George Wein Allstars – trumpeters Randy Brecker and Jon Faddis, tenorist Lew Tabackin, clarinetist Anat Cohen, pianist Christian Sands, and drummer Lewis Nash.  As the set progressed bassist Jay Leonhart, vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant, and the explosive pianist Hiromi followed. Faddis, Leonhart, Nash, and Hiromi combined for a sublime take on “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” setting it up for deep, bluesy, soulful takes on two of New Orleans’ best-known tunes – “Sunny Side of the Street” and “St. James Infirmary” led by Trombone Shorty, who sang and played trumpet on the former and trombone on the latter. The knee-deep grit, especially in McBride’s acoustic basslines was riveting and captivating. Cohen then soared on her solo as did the front-line of Tabackin and Brecker before all rejoined for an Ellington-sounding grand finale, with Giveton Gelin popping in for a turn.

Surprisingly strong performances are often found with non-headliners on the smaller stages, Harbor and Quad, as was true this year again.  Yet, if one were to camp down at just one stage for the entire day, the “A-game” performances would inevitably leave that listener highly satisfied. As mentioned, the goal was to skew younger and the festival had that appearance, relative to what we recall from the past two festivals. Newcomers to the festival remarked on the consistently strong production and sound quality throughout. Additionally, it’s the respectful nature of the audiences and the communal goodwill that cuts across fans, volunteers, and even security – a hassle-free vibe that defines the Newport Jazz experience. 

MonoNeon

Photos by Mary P. Hynes

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4 Responses

  1. I attended Saturday and Sunday. Your article described it just as it happened.
    My favorites were also Sons of Kemet and Jazz is Dead. But seeing the Ron Carter Quartet, Sampa the Great and Vijay Iyer’s Trio made Sunday one of the best lineups ever presented.

    The Folk and Jazz Fests need to do a better job in promoting lesser known acts. And they should bring back printed programs and provide more musicians, CD/Albums for sale at the artists tent.

  2. Your reviewer lifted more than a few sentences in the bottom two paragraphs from my previously published review on Offbeat.com. It makes me wonder how much more of this lengthy piece was “borrowed” from other reviewers. The journalism fraternity calls this plagiarism.

    1. Hi Ken – thank you for bringing this to our attention. We were unaware of this but shocked to see it. We have removed the paragraph in question and will speak with the writer. We sincerely apologize for this happening.

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