During the festival-opening set by Mwenso & the Shakes, Michael Mwenso described his mission: “We’re trying to play the whole history of the music in a way that’s free and spiritual.” As it turns out, he was introducing the whole weekend. This year marked the 65th anniversary of the Newport Jazz Festival and along the way it has been called many things: legendary, stalwart, venerable. But don’t let its historic significance fool you—Newport is anything but a museum piece. Instead, the festival manages the tricky task of celebrating the music’s aging heroes while paving the way for its rising stars, filling in the edges with the weird and wonderful.
Jazz fans can be a finicky lot, hard to please in part because of the genre’s expansiveness. But in advance of the festival, the phrase I heard again and again was: “you can’t beat that lineup!” From fellow parents at the local playground to “new music” academics to worship-at-the-throne-of-Coltrane jazz students, everyone found a reason to come to Fort Adams and revel in the best that jazz has to offer.
Anchoring this heavy lineup was none other than Herbie Hancock, maybe the ultimate hero for big-tent jazz. Two glorious contrasting sets allowed everyone to have a bit of their favorite Herbie. His first, closing out Friday on the main stage to a raucous crowd, showed him in Headhunters mode. Hancock kept the focus on the irresistibly propulsive sound of his band, more in sound-curator mode than solo star. In the classics-driven set he carved out plenty of space for younger musicians, including Terrace Martin of “To Pimp a Butterfly” fame and the vocalist/flutist Elena Pinderhughes. The crispness of the band belied the density of the sound they produced—an impressive ensemble that Hancock seemed to genuinely enjoy leading. That feeling was contagious and hit a high note when he brought out his keytar for his set-closing “Chameleon”. Not a shred of cool reserve was left in the audience.
On Saturday afternoon, Hancock was joined by his longtime collaborator, drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and Newport’s artistic director, bassist Christian McBride. Though each a star in their own right, the trio settled in with a spirit of ensemble craftsmanship, stretching deeply into the corners of classics like “Footprints,” “Finger Painting,” and “Maiden Voyage”. Playing like a trio that has lived on the bandstand together, the three men indulged each other with their focus, scooping the whole audience into the hang. At times they brought the music in so close that it was lost to those of us crammed in at the back of the tent, but the ride was enthralling nonetheless. This was a group with nothing to prove, skills right at their fingertips. Hancock played nearly the entire set at the piano, but at the close he hinted at the blend between the two Herbies, turning to his synth and getting an immediate whoop of appreciation from the audience. His residency perfectly distilled the weekend’s broader appeal: classic and expansive, irreverent yet committed.
Self-described “internet weirdos” DOMi and JD Beck offered up the most startlingly fresh sounds of the festival. With a sizeable YouTube following and plenty of buzz, the duo has been building a reputation as a smash-to-be. 16-year-old drummer JD Beck’s sound crackles with crisp subdivisions while keyboardist Domitille Degalle drenches the sonic field at the synths. It’s an extreme contrast that coheres through the duo’s rhythmic approach. Like two points on a rubber band, they continuously bend the groove with a gleeful virtuosity. They almost make it look too easy. With a setlist that included “Giant Steps” and something announced as “a Jason Palmer tune that we kinda fucked up,” they indicate their lineage while their sound points very much to the future. Watch these ones.
Mornings can be drowsy around the festival grounds but the irrepressible Mwenso & the Shakes hit the stage with a jolt of energy that started the day off right. The nine-member band careened through genres, shifting grooves with whiplash frequency. Everything was fair game, from ’50s rock triplets to hip hop breaks, and sometimes both within the span of thirty seconds. Fronted by the charismatic vocalist Michael Mwenso, the band let loose in a funky, thick brew more focused on drive than mastery. Highlights included Vuyo Sotashe’s controlled vocals, with diphthongs drawn out to their breaking point, and a carnivalesque stride-styled duet between pianist Mathis Picard and tap dancer Michela Marino Lerman. The musical chops among The Shakes are serious, but that’s not the point. Instead they combine the strange bedfellows of showmanship and sincerity for a spirit-lifting romp through “the whole history of the music.”
Vibraphonist Joel Ross might be the most buzzed-about artist at Newport and if you’ve been paying attention in New York for the past three years you’ve already heard from him. His five-piece band Good Vibes gained widespread acclaim with their 2019 Blue Note release KingMaker. But success hasn’t brought any slack to this unit. With almost no talking and a steady climb in energy, they built their architectural set with a measured hunger. Throughout, pianist Jeremy Corren and drummer Jeremy Dutton listened with an evident intensity, anchored by the deep, round sound from bassist Kanoa Mendenhall. With long lyrical lines hanging above a dense middle, Ross and altoist Immanuel Wilkins colored the melee with a curious sweetness. Almost nothing about Good Vibes feels predictable. Familiar, yes. But just when you start to recognize your surroundings, they turn a corner and gravity shifts, Escher-like. Joel Ross has set a new standard for jazz vibraphone playing, but Good Vibes shows that his invention goes far beyond his instrument.
By Sunday morning, the air at the festival hung heavy with news of mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton. Such is the state of our dystopia that many of our artists have at hand a topical response to another tragic day. Sam Miller and The Congregation brought escapist silliness, attempting healing through quasi-Vaudevillian levity. Later in the day, Camila Meza stood defiant with a stirring rendition of “This is Not America” that hit the hearts of all present. In a vulnerable and informal set, Matana Roberts worked obliquely on the tragedy in what she called “a fellowship centered around the healing power of sound.” Disarmingly alternating between speaking and playing, Roberts directed the audience to hold our applause and to join her in a shared humming; “When we sing together we connect together. There’s something about our humanity that begins to shine.” In the intimate indoor Storyville venue, the humming, stories, and meandering saxophone solos resonated against each other. For this listener, at least, it was just what the weight of the day called for.
Cécile McLorin Salvant has her own healing to do, having recently gone through the sudden death of her long-time collaborator, Lawrence Leathers. Salvant is a once-in-a-generation voice, treasured for her wit and zinging timbral play. Her Newport set, though, was woven through with bittersweet elegy in the form of a centuries-old Irish ballad “Raggle Taggle Gypsy”. Between flawlessly delivered numbers like “Devil May Care” and “Just Come Back to Me” her band paused and Salvant’s unaccompanied voice bathed the fort’s interior with the haunting verses of the ballad. This lilting refrain tinged the whole set with melancholy—even the feather-light swing of her band couldn’t shake off the shadow of loss. Salvant has a way of playing with time—a delayed final note toying with her listeners’ expectations, for example—but in this set she seemed to stop it altogether.
But not all tributes are laments. Christian Sands arranged a rollicking three piano celebration of the late, great Erroll Garner. Each of the three pianists—Sands, Helen Sung, and Tadataka Unno—took on a Garner classic tune, their own varied styles showcasing a different side of his legacy. Unno’s “My Kick” was the highlight, locking into Savannah Harris’s drums in the single hardest-swinging moment of the weekend. For the last piece, all three pianists took to their keyboards for a sprawling rendition of “Gemini” in a tribute to another late, great pianist: Geri Allen. Three pianos means a whole lot of keys and not all of it worked, but skill and whimsy kept the boat afloat.
All these words and I haven’t yet mentioned Sheila Jordan’s legendary voice, Billy Hart showing all the young drummers how to drive a band, or the just-shy-of-saccharine perfection of the Ron Carter trio’s “My Funny Valentine”. Or Ghost-Note’s funky virtuosity. Or Thundercat’s exhilarating chaos. I haven’t described half of what I saw, and I didn’t see nearly half of what there was to see. The beauty of Newport is that you get to choose your path and it takes genuine effort to find something less than thrilling. Youth is evident everywhere, from audience to performers, as is the fresh perspective that comes with generational turnover. Jazz has mastered a new trick: playing all the history of the music in a way that honors its legacy while freeing us from purism. If the festival reflects the state of jazz (and I think it’s fair to say that it does) then folks: we’re good.