THROUGH THE LENS: Reflections on the 2021 Newport Jazz Festival
Wycliffe Gordon - Newport Jazz Festival 2021 - Photo by Jim Brock
This week is a first for the column: coverage of the venerable Newport Jazz Festival. Established in 1954, the fest remains one of the most prestigious jazz festivals in the world. It has been the site of quite a few significant moments in jazz, many live recordings, and a superb film of the 1958 fest, Jazz on a Summer’s Day.
As with his dispatch from the Newport Folk Festival that was featured in this column two weeks ago, Jim Brock was there. Bringing his experience of these sights and sounds to ND readers is extremely timely. As evidenced both by record sales and attendance at clubs across the country, there has been a pronounced resurgence of the genre. As a longtime jazz fan I am extremely happy to see it.
Here is Jim’s report, with photos in the the gallery below.
The 2021 Newport Jazz Festival
That Newport Jazz happened at all is a feat in itself. As with “Folk On” (Newport Folk Fest 2021), adjustments reduced the number of stages from four to two, the Lawn and the Quad, and capacity from 10,000 to 6,000. But there were no concessions to this year’s lineup and the music that emanated from from those stages.
With 30 performances over three days, here are some of my higher-relief reflections.
Get there early and you will be rewarded. Arturo O’Farrill on Friday, Immanuel Wilkins on Saturday, and the Vibes Summit on Sunday all started at noon or earlier. O’Farrill and his quintet, including sons Zack on drums and Adam on trumpet, immediately got my blood pumping. While I missed vocalist Danielle Ponder, who kicked off Saturday on the Quad, word had it that the former legal public defender’s performance was a knockout. Saxophonist Wilkins’ quartet was intensely thoughtful and resonating on the Lawn Stage. And the Sunday morning Vibes Summit featuring the flying mallets of Warren Wolf, Joel Ross, and Sasha Berliner were just getting at it. Harpist Brandee Younger making her Newport debut is more than worthy of a mention.
Kenny Garrett, Charles Lloyd, Kenny Barron, and Dave Holland. Seeing these legends all in one weekend would be enough for any jazz fan. They were vibrating on all frequencies. Garrett on Saturday launched from the first note. Lloyd, with Gerald Clayton on piano and Eric Harland on drums going where Lloyd led them, was extra special, as was the straight-to-the-heart sound of the the Barron-Holland trio with Jonathan Blake, both on Sunday.
Wow, just wow. Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah dropped the needle on a volcanic eruption and never let up. Furious flurries and solos from everyone, but especially the band leader, and percussionist Weedie Braimah, mirrored the urgency of this moment we’re living through. Perhaps the most vital and original force in jazz today, Kamasi Washington’s closing set on Friday at the Quad was transportive in his return to the festival.
Robert Glasper three ways. Glasper, this year’s resident artist, did three sets. The standout was “Dinner Party” on Saturday that had Kamasi Washington and Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah sitting in with a band that also included Terrace Martin. As Glasper plays plugged in most of the time, fusing all kinds of street and hip-hop influences, Friday’s acoustic trio set was a revelatory departure. Sunday’s set, billed as “Black Radio,” was head swimming with electric keyboards, bass, drums, guitar, and beats by DJ Jahi Sundance.
Go big. Snarky Puppy alum Cory Wong and his guitar-driven funkestra were completely infectious and Steely Dan-tight on Saturday. Not to be outdone was the Bogie Band on Sunday, led by saxophonist Stuart Bogie, who has toured with Joe Russo’s Almost Dead. The band rolled out eight horns of stomp with Russo on drums. Yes, please, may I have another.
Newport, we have a Situation here. The Christian McBride Situation hit the Lawn Stage on Friday with beats and scratches and grooves that built and hustled, with McBride swapping his upright for an electric Fender throughout the set. As the fest’s artistic director and emcee, McBride was everywhere, introducing performances throughout the three days with straight up admiration and joy. On Sunday he held down one of those only-at-Newport collaborations, a jam-based set with John Scofield, Joe Russo, Marco Benevento, and harpist Mikaela Davis dubbed “Jam Jawn.”
Mavis Staples, Ledisi, and Andra Day. Staples is what the world needs now. Jay Sweet, executive producer of the fest, wearing a custom Mavis baseball jersey for her introduction said it all. Ledisi and Day are incredibly moving voices. May they (and we) be blessed with careers of the length and vitality of Ms. Staples’.
The festival comes to George. Christian McBride brought Newport Jazz to 95-year-old founder George Wein via a FaceTime phone call that was heard ’round the Fort before Sunday’s closing set.
Jay Sweet, the Newport staff and crew. None of this could have happened without the resilience and determination of Jay Sweet and the committed and professional staff and crew who return year after year to make the Newport Jazz Fest hum. Especially in a year when all of it was in doubt.
In toto, what a weekend, an experience for the ages.
Now, the photos. Click on any photo below to view the gallery as a full-size slide show.