Thursday, August 09, 2018

Newport Jazz Festival 2018 - Soaking in the Jazz

by Ken Laster

Friday at International Tennis Hall of Fame

This is the first year I attended the special gala event at the historic International Tennis Hall of Fame; the original site of the Newport Jazz Festival starting in 1954. This affair is part Jazz concert and part "high society" event. Many attendees are in formal attire, and it is the place to be seen in social circles in Newport.

The music was as cool as the historic setting. Pat Metheny took the stage first with his 44 string instrument to create a sound as large as an orchestra and transitioned into his electric quartet set. Linda May Han Oh laid down the bass lines, Antonio Sanchez hit the skins and Gwilym Simcock played keys. The set was comprised of Metheny's work from past and present with new interpretations on his old favorites. After a 45 minute set, Pat came back on stage for an ovation of solo acoustic guitar. It was a bit annoying that the audience began chatting and wandering towards the concessions while Metheny poured his heart and soul into his acoustic performance. Perhaps it is a reflection of a not so seasoned jazz audience.
After a brief intermission it was Jose James turn to take the stage. His latest project is the music of Bill Withers. This was an R&B, soul and funk affair. With the bassist Ben Williams, and drummer Nate Smith, both with serious jazz and funk chops, the music took on more than an R&B swoon fest. Jose James has taken on a new look as well. When I had seen him previously doing the music of Billy Holliday, he had slicked back hair and a three piece suit. Now he sports a 70’s Afro, bell bottoms and a jacket and scarf you would expect on Prince. But above all Jose James has the pipes to expertly deliver songs of any genre. After classics like Use Me Up, Lean On Me, Ain’t No Sunshine and others he finished his set with a rousing version of Lovely Day that had much of the audience dancing in front of the stage and in the isles.

The Saturday Soaking

Sadly, Saturday was punctuated by torrential rain and floods. As you can imagine these conditions are not compatible with an outdoor jazz festival with three stages spread out over the expansive Fort Adams State Park! The acts that were of greatest interest to me were all situated at the Fort Stage. This is the largest of the venues, and also the most exposed to the elements. The great trumpeter Roy Hargrove was the first to take stage and after a couple tunes, the rains came. We sat through that getting fairly wet. Then Pat Metheny was next up. He began a great set of music that varied from the previous night’s play list, but the rain and wind intensified. At one point everyone’s cell phones were ringing with National Weather Service warnings.

Roy Hargrove

Pat Metheny
We were fortunate to have access to the media tent where we ducked for cover. Even that gave us only temporary relief, and the tent itself began to flood. We then escaped to a room in the bricked Fort. While that provided some dry comfort, by this time we were soaked from head to toe, right down to our undergarments. With no end in sight, we left the festival to dry off in our accommodations in Newport.

Glorious Sunday

Ahhh! A warm sun and gentle breezes greeted us at the Festival Sunday morning, and continued throughout the day. The music was just as fine.

After we claimed our little bit of real estate in front of the Fort Stage, and put down our soggy blanket and chairs, we headed right to the Storyville Stage. This indoor venue has limited seating and creates the most intimate performance space within the festival. There we witnessed an incredible duet performance from pianist Helen Sung and tap dancer Mechela Marino Lerman. Their interplay was precise and exquisite. Most impressive was the wide range of styles played. From stride piano, to the quirkiness of Monk to a classical play on Chick Corea’s Aramando’s Rhumba, this duet took solos and “traded fours” like you would expect to hear on any jazz combo.

It was back to the Fort Stage next to hear Herlin Riley’s group play his modern jazz set that had a subtle New Orleans tinge as you might expect from this NOLA native. An expert drummer often heard with Marsalis’ Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, he shined in his role as a leader of this quintet. Marcus Strickland was particularly impressive playing tenor and bass clarinet.

Renee Rosnes, Melissa Aldana, Anat Cohen

We stayed put at the Fort Stage to see an all-star ensemble of women who are top shelf in today’s jazz scene. Led by pianist Renee Rosnes, the group also features Melissa Aldana and Anat Cohen on reeds, Ingrid Jensen trumpet, Allison Miller drums and vocalist extraordinaire Cecile McLorin Salvant. They romped through standards and originals. The highlight of the set for me was a Rosnes/Salvant duet of Stevie Wonder’s Magic.
Next I switched venues to the smaller tent covered Harbor Stage to see drummer Nate Smith’s Kinfolk ensemble. There he put on a funk laced set with great playing by Jaleel Shaw on sax and John Coward on keys along with a rockin’ guitar. A soulful singer joined in at one point, that moved the set in a smooth R&B direction.

Charles Lloyd
Then back to the Fort Stage where Charles Lloyd was unexpectedly rockin’ out. His regular quartet of Jason Moran p, Rueben Rogers b, Eric Harland d, was joined by a rock guitarist, slide guitar and second drummer. I’ve seen Lloyd in several settings, but none quite like this, and make no mistake, Lloyd can rock out. Singer Lucinda Williams joined in and the set took a turn towards country roots rock that I couldn't appreciate as much.

Time to move to the large tent covered Quad Stage. This for me was the creative highpoint of the day with trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire. This hard-to-define set had a string quartet, poet/rapper Kool A.D., and jazz cats Sam Harris p, Marcus Gilmore d. I’ll just say that this was the most original and creative set I saw during the festival. His compositions and the string arrangement with the integration of spoken word was unique and showed how you can take jazz music to new directions.
Sam Harris, Ambrose Akinmusire, Kool A.D.
Gregory Porter
Several other great shows filled the afternoon. Gregory Porter put in a jazzy, R&B and gospel set No one today can match his deep rich vocal tones. I caught Jennifer Hartswick on the Storyville Stage with guitarist Nick Cassarino and joined by Christian McBride on bass. Ms. Hartswick was once introduced to me as “sings like Aretha and plays trumpet like Hubbard”; that's a winning combination. My wife caught Jazzmia Horn’s vocal set and said that was outstanding, particularly her singing of “The Peacocks”. Sorry I missed that one as well as several others. With three stages playing continuous music of such high quality throughout the day, it is a challenge to get to all the acts you wish to hear. We finished the festival with Black Arts Jazz Collective, a septet featuring Jeremy Pelt, Wayne Escoffery, Jonathan Blake and more. It was a straight ahead swing-fest and a great way to end this year's festival.

Check out the complete photo gallery here.

Photo credits: Ken Laster