For this writer, the quintessential moment of the 2018 Newport Jazz Festival came in transit. A quick stroll on Saturday afternoon took me from the main stage, where Laurie Anderson was wrapping up a set of luminous, exploratory string-trio free improv, to one of the smaller tents, where octogenarian Memphis piano master Harold Mabern, saxophonist Eric Alexander & Co. were busy muscling through a set of exquisite old-school hardbop. The transition was disorienting in the best way possible — an illustration of just how broad this legendary fest’s concept of jazz still is.
Thanks to its upscale beach-town setting, the Rhode Island festival might still have an air of old-money gentility. But on the ground, the event feels populist and homegrown, thanks to hand-painted welcome signs (“We’re all here together and it’s festival time!”), a sea of lawn chairs and coolers, and of course the legendary main-stage view of the water, where a whole other audience can be seen taking in the sounds from their boats. Aesthetically too, Newport is wide open: In the spirit laid out by fest co-founder and former producer George Wein — who, at 92, was still shuttling around the grounds this year in his chartered golf cart — Newport’s current artistic director Christian McBride (who gamely joined Anderson in the aforementioned improv set) includes glorious throwbacks, representatives from the genre’s challenging new frontiers and everything in between, while making room for handpicked guests from the worlds of pop and rock.
So it was possible, over the course of three jam-packed days, to hear urgent Indian-inspired fusion from Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Indo-Pak Coalition, deeply funky Bill Withers covers from José James, vocoder-accented post-hip-hop bliss-outs from supergroup R+R=Now, analog electronica from GoGo Penguin, James Carter’s fiery organ-trio goodness, and dynamic Afro-Cuban hybrids courtesy bands led by pianist Harold López-Nussa and drummer Herlin Riley, alongside the straight-ahead excellence of Black Art Jazz Collective, the moody excursions of Matthew Shipp and so much more. Since many of the sets overlap, the challenge for the curious listener was figuring out how to take it all in.
With more than 50 acts appearing on four stages — each with uniformly excellent sound and good sight lines, even when crowded — there was far too much brilliance on display at the 64th Newport Jazz Festival to recognize it all. Here are some personal highlights.
Charles Lloyd’s Wild Man Dance
Like the great Thelonious Monk, Charles Lloyd loves to dance onstage. His moves aren’t choreographed; they’re simply a bodily response to the music in the moment. (“I come from a tradition of wild yogis,” he said in 2015, explaining the concept behind his 2015 Blue Note LP Wild Man Dance.) And he had plenty to respond to during a Saturday main-stage performance by his New Quartet, the second of three magical sets he played at Newport 2018 in celebration of his 80th birthday earlier this year. In between his solos, as pianist Jason Moran and drummer Eric Harland played, the tall, lithe saxophonist-flutist boogied over to each musician in turn, throwing out his elbows in time with the music and grimacing with relish. What he was responding to, clearly, was the ability of Moran, Harland and bassist Reuben Rogers to flow seamlessly from lyrical swing to turbulent expressionism. (On Sunday’s “and Friends” set, which added guest guitarists Marvin Sewell and Stuart Mathis to the ensemble, Lloyd picked up where he left off, shimmying in encouragement as Sewell peeled off searing, slide-abetted blues runs.) Lloyd has nearly four decades on each of his collaborators, but at Newport, he was still every bit their match, playing passionate, gorgeously sculpted lines in a tone that harks back to two of his primary influences: John Coltrane and Lester Young.
Andra Day Updates a Billie Holiday Masterpiece
Andra Day had already taken the Newport crowd on an emotional roller-coaster ride by the time she covered the harrowing Billie Holiday anti-lynching ballad “Strange Fruit” near the end of her Saturday headlining set. The singer — a stunning performer with Prince-caliber command of the stage — and her superb band moved from heartbreak ballads (“Rearview”/”Red Flags”) to funky dance anthems (“Rise Up”) and a righteously pissed-off version of Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam.” But her “Strange Fruit” reached new heights of intensity: Performing to a pin-drop-silent crowd, she started making small but meaningful tweaks to Abel Meeropol’s lyrics right from the start (singing “Blood on the streets” instead of “Blood on the leaves”) and drove home the intensity of the song’s “Here is a strange and bitter fruit” refrain by pointing at her own body. Crucially, instead of ending on the song’s somber final line (“Here is a strange and bitter crop”), she tacked on the line “such a strong and resilient crop.” Her meaning was already perfectly clear, but she held up a raised fist to drive it home.
Pat Metheny Triumphs in a Rainstorm
“I do want to leave but I don’t,” a fellow festgoer told me on Saturday afternoon, as we stood right up against the main stage watching Pat Metheny while getting absolutely drenched with rain. “I’d look back and regret it.” Dozens more clearly agreed, as a torrential storm didn’t thin the crowd one bit for the guitarist’s set. He’d played a more buttoned-up seated show at Newport’s International Tennis Hall of Fame on Friday, but his Saturday set showed why he remains a true rock star of jazz, eliciting countless whoops and hollers and inspiring fans to bob ecstatically and mouth out his exceedingly catchy themes. His current band, with pianist Gwilym Simcock, bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Antonio Sanchez (of Birdman fame), is a lean, virtuosic unit that allows him to tour his catalog with ease; Saturday’s set featured classic tracks like “Bright Size Life” and “James,” along with newer pieces, all played with Metheny’s contagious enthusiasm. His ebullient, action-packed style of jazz is now a genre unto itself and his improvising remains some of the most impassioned and engaging on the planet. No one who was near the front on Saturday would have dreamed of missing a moment.
Laurie Anderson Leads the Crowd in a Bloody Death Scream
One of Christian McBride’s most inspired programming decisions was inviting Laurie Anderson to perform with him during a prime-time Saturday main-stage set. Along with Rubin Kodheli, a cellist who was every bit their match, they played a series of deeply sympathetic improvisations, open-ended yet informed by each player’s impeccable ears and willingness to play a supporting role when needed. The highlight, though, came during a break in the music, when Anderson reminded the crowd of Yoko Ono’s now-famous “bloody death scream” after the 2016 election, and asked everyone present to let out their own 10-second shriek in unison, using as inspiration “yesterday’s tweet about LeBron,” or “school shootings” or any number of other current tragedies and travesties. Anderson counted down, and the whole crowd complied — it was a glorious moment of collective rage amid the fest’s idyllic surroundings.
Cécile McLorin Salvant Earns Her Postcard Moment
One of Sunday’s clear highlights was a set by the supergroup Artemis, a collective whose seven members — pianist Renee Rosnes, vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant, saxophonist Melissa Aldana, clarinetist Anat Cohen, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, bassist Noriko Ueda and drummer Allison Miller — can all regularly be heard leading their own bands. Their set played like an expertly crafted mixtape, moving from a knotty version of Thelonious Monk’s “Brilliant Corners” to a surprisingly dramatic arrangement of the Beatles’ “Fool on the Hill.” The set peaked when Rosnes and Salvant dueted on Stevie Wonder’s yearning Songs in the Key of Life plea “If It’s Magic.” As on her earlier rendition of Billie Holiday’s “Fine and Mellow,” Salvant’s delivery was deceptively understated yet disarmingly poignant; as the video screens showed Salvant in silhouette, with boats going by on the water, the whole lawn seemed to bask in her wisdom and warmth.
Lucinda Williams Brings Newport Onto Her Wavelength
Lucinda Williams strolled onto the main stage Sunday afternoon looking like a fish out of water. She greeted the blazing sun dressed head-to-toe in black, sporting a T-shirt that read “Berlin” in white script and a belt buckle emblazoned with the phrase “Get Right With God.” Charles Lloyd and his New Quartet, along with guest guitarists Marvin Sewell and Stuart Mathis (Williams’ regular accompanist), had already warmed up the crowd with a mini set of luminous, hard-grooving roots-jazz, but the response to the singer’s entry seemed somewhat subdued. After a couple numbers, including the blues standard “Nobody’s Fault but Mine,” the band kicked into “Ventura,” a 2003 Williams original about longing to see the sea that she and Lloyd reinterpret on their excellent new album, Vanished Gardens. The song seemed to instantly captivate the crowd, and by the time the band reached the sublime chorus the second time (“I wanna watch the ocean bend / The edges of the sun then / I wanna get swallowed up / In an ocean of love”), waves of supportive shouts and applause greeted them.
Nicole Mitchell and Others Usher in the Year of the Flute
Ron Burgundy’s now-legendary “ham and eggs” shtick didn’t do a whole lot for the public image of flute jazz, but in set after set at Newport 2018, savvy players reminded audiences of the woodwind’s immense potential. On Sunday, during a set of delicate yet danceable pieces by her Dusty Wings ensemble, flutist Nicole Mitchell repeatedly expanded the boundaries of the instrument with flutters, trills and ear-catching vocal and breath effects that complemented the similarly adventurous techniques of cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum and vocalist Fay Victor. On Friday, during a set with the trio Sangam, Charles Lloyd’s warbling lines meshed beautifully with the poise and precision of Zakir Hussain’s Indian percussion, and Eric Harland’s on-the-fly prepared piano. And earlier that day, BadBadNotGood multi-instrumentalist Leland Whitty blew heavily reverbed flute melodies over his band’s chill-out grooves, adding an air of sample-like trippiness. Anna Webber, soloing over a throbbing funk-rock rhythm by the Louis Cole Big Band Blowout, and Jane Bunnett, trading phrases with vocalist Melvis Santa during a set by her vibrant Cuban-inspired band Maqueque, also waved the flag for a new wave of flute jazz.
Living Colour Playfully Roast the Newport Crowd
Despite the heavy-duty jazz bona fides of several of its members, Living Colour were outliers on the 2018 Newport lineup, and they seemed intent on transferring a little bit of that discomfort back on the crowd. “Still not jazz,” vocalist Corey Glover quipped, following a freeform coda on their newly relevant 1993 track “Wall.” After their slamming cover of Biggie’s “Who Shot Ya,” guitarist Vernon Reid couldn’t resist taking a good-natured jab at the fest’s idyllic setting: “Keeping it real street, Newport, with the yachts behind you,” he told the crowd. But any ambivalence about the setting disappeared whenever the still-breathtaking band kicked into one of its furious funk-metal workouts, including a snarling “Ignorance Is Bliss,” a driving “Type” and a boldly abstracted “Open Letter (to a Landlord),” where Glover explored his entire register, from screech to growl, and the band showed that yes, there is plenty of jazz in its DNA, thank you very much.
DIVA Jazz Orchestra Update the Big-Band Legacy
As in jazz as a whole, big bands once reigned at Newport; now, they’re in the extreme minority. Drummer Sherrie Maricle’s long-running all-female 15-piece band, which opened the main stage on Friday, harks back to the golden era of the large ensemble but with an admirable emphasis on original material. Their set, which focused on pieces from their 2017 album 25th Anniversary Project, was a tight, bravura blast, with highlights including clarinetist Janelle Reichman’s Latin-meets-klezmer concerto “Middleground” and Roxy Coss’ impressively agile tenor sax solo over whitewater arrangements on trombonist Sara Jacovino’s “Darkness of the Matter.” Maricle played a mostly supportive role, but her thunderous old-school drum breaks heightened the overall vibe of timeless craft and showmanship.
“Congregational” Crowd Participation Sends a Message of Unity
Crowd participation is a way of life at Newport. During many sets, the artists recruited the fans for auxiliary singing, clapping or even (see above) impromptu primal-screaming. A few artists took the concept further, adding on a meaningful message. On Saturday, the deeply engaging vocalist Charenee Wade treated one intimate tent audience to a set of what she called “congregational” music, featuring some of the Gil Scott-Heron covers heard on her 2017 album Offering. At one point, she put her unity-forward concept into practice, urging the crowd to echo her joyous wordless syllables, but not before reminding the listeners of a time when we “couldn’t all sit in the same room.” Stephen Colbert bandleader Jon Batiste echoed her point in a nearby set, a soulful, conversational solo performance at which he was flanked onstage by young participants in Montclair, New Jersey’s Jazz House Kids program. “There’s a lot of division in the world,” he said, before asking the crowd to clap along with him on a rollicking boogie-woogie. “Music is one of those things we can all agree on no matter what we believe.” On Sunday, during a set highlighted by warm, virtuosic standards, singer Jazzmeia Horn had the crowd back her by clapping a clave rhythm (“Y’all know what a clave is?”), then led them in chants of self-empowerment (“I love my skin / The skin I’m in,” “When I love myself / I can love someone else”). Later that day, on the main stage, after an extraordinary set of soul-meets-jazz uplift and preacherly pleas for compassion, Gregory Porter invited the crowd to join him — “… at the end of the song; don’t get in my way until then,” he chided — in a chant of “There will be no love dying here.”
Ambrose Akinmusire and Mary Halvorson Rethink Vocal Jazz
As one might expect of a jazz fest, many of the vocal pieces heard during the weekend were standards and covers. That emphasis on the familiar only highlighted the rich strangeness of sets by trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire’s Origami Harvest and guitarist Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl, each of which featured a vocalist performing all-original material. Akinmusire framed the incisive monologues of rapper Kool A.D. with spacey beats and elegant strings courtesy of contemporary-classical group Mivos Quartet, resulting in an ingenious, brain-bending hybrid. The trumpeter also appeared with Code Girl, in which Halvorson (full disclosure: an old friend) paired cryptic, evocative lyrics, sung by the classically trained Amirtha Kidambi, with a bracing blend of intricate jazz and spiky art-rock.
Tony Allen Puts on a Groove Clinic
You’ll never watch a more stoic drummer than Tony Allen, who famously powered Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat juggernaut back in the day. During a Friday afternoon set, the 77-year-old sat behind the kit, wearing his ever-present fedora, shades and slight grin, looking like he’d attained some kind of higher-order inner peace. But there’s kind of sorcery at work in his tantalizingly laid-back, craftily syncopated beats, which compel you to move like few others on the planet. At Newport, he and his small combo of sax, trumpet, bass and keys moved between loping jazz — like the sort heard on his recent Blue Note releases The Source and A Tribute to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers — and classic-sounding Afrobeat that felt, thanks in large part to Allen, like pure poetry in motion.
Still Dreaming Pay Tribute to a Tribute
In the Seventies and Eighties, the late, great saxophonist Dewey Redman was one fourth of Old and New Dreams, a band of Ornette Coleman collaborators that preserved and advanced the spirit of Coleman’s gamechanging piano-free acoustic quartets. Now, with Still Dreaming, Redman’s son Joshua is doing the same for Old and New Dreams itself. At Newport, the group’s originals (heard on the new album Still Dreaming) blended seamlessly with pieces by Dewey Redman and Don Cherry, capturing the buoyant lift and scampering energy of the Ornette school. But where they really took off was in their thrillingly spontaneous improvisations. Redman, cornetist Ron Miles, drummer Scott Colley and drummer Brian Blade seemed intent on following through on every last tangent, such as when Redman and Blade began adding punchy, elephant-walk accents to a Colley bass solo, or when one piece dissolved into pure throaty texture from Redman and Miles.
George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic Crank Up the Funk
Much of Newport 2018 was about nuance, but the final act was pure party-starting mayhem, and the crowd completely ate it up. Funk lord Clinton and his gigantic band — around 15 people could be seen swarming the stage at any given time —blasted through classics like “Super Stupid” and “Flashlight” at a volume that seemed twice as loud as any other act at the fest. Shirtless handstands from Sir Nose and a pink-dreadlocked guitarist shredding on a Flying V in his underwear added to the insanity. In the midst of the full-lawn dance party, one woman in the crowd who had clearly seen her fair share of old-school P-Funk blowouts smiled and asked me, “You weren’t there the first time, were you?”