Top 10 Moments of the 2018 Newport Jazz Festival

From bent bop to old-school blues to pulse and skronk, this year’s fest had a lot going for it


Still Dreaming's Brian Blade at the 2018 Newport Jazz Festival (photo: Marek Lazarski)

Wandering the grounds of Fort Adams during the Newport Jazz Festival is like cruising through a mixtape that a perceptive pal made for you. The selections are inspired, the change-ups come fast, and surprises await. This year’s three-day event, sponsored by Natixis Investment Managers (shout-out to any entity that dumps loot into the laps of improvisers), was no different. It boasted an array of talent and a wealth of perspectives. Executive producer Jay Sweet, artistic director Christian McBride, and festival founder George Wein pride themselves on covering lots of ground, and for the last two years, their curation chops have been strong. There are four stages on site at this late date, ranging from Storyville’s intimate indoor confines to the open expanse of the majestic Fort setting, whose vistas open west to the island of Jamestown and north up Narragansett Bay. The weather was radiant—except for Saturday’s near-apocalyptic downpour. Here’s a JazzTimes 10’s worth of impressive snapshots from a weekend rich with invention.

Joshua Redman at the 2018 Newport Jazz Festival
Still Dreaming’s Joshua Redman at the 2018 Newport Jazz Festival (photo: Marek Lazarski)

Aesthetic repertory, trickle-down style. The newish ensemble of Josh Redman, Brian Blade, Ron Miles, and Scott Colley genuflect to Old and New Dreams, who during the ’80s you’ll recall genuflected to Team Ornette. The foursome’s bent-bop was rigorous and genial—always a sweet combo when delivered with the kind of authority they brought to bear on the Quad stage. Precision has its fruits, and during Don Cherry’s “Guinea” each twist and turn picked up more and more emotional clout thanks to the group’s deep unison work. Politics found a place, too, as Redman annotated the title of his father Dewey’s “Walls – Bridges” with the remark that these days we find ourselves having to decide whether “we’re going to build more of one or the other.”

Nicole Mitchell at the 2018 Newport Jazz Festival
Nicole Mitchell at the 2018 Newport Jazz Festival (photo: Marek Lazarski)

Agility was everywhere in the music that flutist Mitchell presented at the cozy Harbor Stage on Sunday. Her group included vocalist Fay Victor, cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum, drummer Shirazette Tinnin, and bassist Rashaan Carter, and their ever-morphing forward motion repeatedly bet the farm on poise. It was an ensemble approach that made all their gambits—and some were quite tricky—seem blithe. Tinnin’s brush work was key to establishing a pivot point during one piece, and Victor’s extended techniques created a flurry of nuanced lingo that was wonderfully aligned with the leader’s airy flourishes and Bynum’s muted murmurs.

George Clinton at the 2018 Newport Jazz Festival
George Clinton at the 2018 Newport Jazz Festival (photo: Marek Lazarski)

It’s helpful that, at age 77, George Clinton has a bit of belly. When you’re sporting a T-shirt that features your key album covers, and those key albums stack up to double digits, you can use some extra real estate. Uncle Jam announced his retirement earlier this year, so go ahead and deem these final tour dates a victory lap for a sage R&B architect and funk icon whose vision has brought the world some of its most irresistible grooves. Those grooves were in full effect during the fest’s closing set, where Clinton and crew cranked the volume and brokered a splash of next-level elation from the crowd. The stage was filled with 15+ musicians, and those numbers more than doubled when a bevy of audience members were invited up to keep the party going. The leader was beaming, his many accomplishments—from sustaining a band for a half-century to dispensing tumultuous joy on the reg—playing out before his eyes.

Old-school blues is waning a bit as jazz continues to evolve. That doesn’t mean its value is diminished, and in the hands of the mighty 88-year-old pianist, it certainly doesn’t mean its impact is lacking. The Memphis native has a way of bumping the heft of his solos without forsaking their grace; he can be the most tasteful bulldozer around. With the fleet hard-bop runs of saxophonist Alexander leading the way, their band illustrated just how engaging the pleasures of swing can be.

More politics, and participatory at that. During a steady Saturday drizzle, Anderson began with a hat-tip to Yoko Ono, who recorded and tweeted a primal scream of frustration and fear the day after the 2016 presidential election. The soaked Newport crowd was encouraged to do the same, complying vibrantly. From there Anderson went on to paraphrase Aristophanes’ “The Birds” (which tells of constructing a barrier between earth and sky) while conjuring some of the day’s most luminous sounds. The unusual lineup was fascinating: McBride’s bass, Rubin Kodheli’s cello, Anderson’s violin. Drones and echoes, pulse and skronk—the improv, enhanced by the leader’s electronics, was layered into abstractions that boasted their own steely lyricism. At one point, the collective buzzing of flash-flood alerts coming from audience cell phones only enhanced the details of a quiet passage. Digital music at an analog fest, and an outlier booking that worked wonderfully.

Jazzmeia Horn at the 2018 Newport Jazz Festival
Jazzmeia Horn at the 2018 Newport Jazz Festival (photo: Marek Lazarski)

Those who have already fallen for the impressive vocalist won’t be shocked to learn that her whirlwind through “Willow Weep for Me” was the show-stopper it was intended to be. She’d just come out of a voice/piano duet on “The Peacocks” with enough intimacy that it seemed natural for her to provide a “bless you” to an audience member who’d sneezed (take that, Keith Jarrett). And when she and her trio rolled into “Willow” with a three-note scream/scat exclamation, you knew it was pregnant with contemporary resonance, not just boo-hoo heartache. She lit the fuse, the band handled the liftoff, and suddenly, jazz was a one-woman Amen Corner. “No more pain, no more blood, no more tears, no more brothers shot down in the street.” The lyrics became a mantra, the mantra became a battle cry, and the standing ovation was fully deserved.

Ambrose Akinmusire at the 2018 Newport Jazz Festival
Ambrose Akinmusire at the 2018 Newport Jazz Festival (photo: Marek Lazarski)

With a string quartet and an MC in tow, the trumpeter’s new outfit is an unusual configuration that perhaps is still finding its balance. But flashes of brilliance continually blasted through their Sunday presentation, and many of them had to do with the variety of sounds created by his instrument as well as the textures that emerged when he, pianist Sam Harris, and drummer Marcus Gilmore swooped through and played off the hefty counterpoints scripted for the Mivos Quartet. Akinmusire flaunts a poet’s heart and dodges the obvious at all costs, so Kool A.D.’s narrations weren’t always rap bars in the trad sense, but vivid sketches of modern predicaments and uncomfortable truths that warranted an artistic sorting-out. You know, lives being lived in the here and now.

Charles Lloyd at the 2018 Newport Jazz Festival
Charles Lloyd at the 2018 Newport Jazz Festival (photo: Marek Lazarski)

The saxophone legend turned 80 in March, so the fest celebrated by designating him “Artist in Residence,” and opened the doors to three distinct performances whose only through-line was the birthday boy’s propulsive personality. Lloyd’s provocative flute playing marked Friday’s Sangam show. Tabla master Zakir Hussain, trap drummer Eric Harland, and Lloyd have worked their trio magic for more than a decade now and their chemistry is enviable. Prayer-like rambles were driven by sublime interplay, and even the more furious moments carried a sense of calm. On Saturday, Lloyd’s New Quartet made a case for being the most vital mainstream jazz outfit operating today. Hard swing, dreamy expeditions, gripping abstraction—pianist Jason Moran, bassist Reuben Rogers, and Harland helped their boss dig deep while keeping transcendence in the cross-hairs. Their curlicue bop frolic blended the freight-train kick of Bud Powell with the warmth of a Santa Barbara night breeze. Sunday, it was roadhouse time. Lloyd’s version of bar band blues, occasionally enhanced by Lucinda Williams’ gnarled vocals and arcadian sentiment, gave the audience a dose of rock ’n’ roll it willingly accepted, pinpointing the essence of everything from broadsides to Blind Willie Johnson.

It’s kind of neck and neck for the best moment in the veteran threesome’s gig. Bassist Reggie Workman, Andrew Cyrille, and Oliver Lake had just sliced their way through a tranquil passage that allowed silence to be their fourth band member, and some Lake sopranino chatter was messing with the negative space as the bassist began explaining the theatre background to his next piece. As he began accelerating his spin on Othellotexts, his acting became increasingly animated, and when it came time to reference Desdemona’s soft tears, he threw the Bard an editor’s note: “Lighten up, Willie.” Perfect. When the next tune began, Cyrille was pummeling every tom in site, illustrating how he earned his rep as a master percussionist, and applying enough momentum to make it feel like we were rolling on the Acela to Boston. At its final stop-beat, the 78-year-old smacked the snare dramatically and leapt to a standing position, à la the D.C. hardcore band Bad Brains’ drummer H.R. flying into the rafters of a club back in the punk rock days. Turns out his fluid uproar was a tribute to Art Blakey.

If there was ever a one-song microcosm of a group’s approach within a set, it showed its face when trumpeter Hill’s crack outfit snuggled into Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage.” Michael King set a fully inviting mood with his opening excursion on acoustic piano: tender, cagey, adroit. It was a feature with lots of responsibility on its head. If it didn’t seduce wholly, the vibe for the rest of the tune might be lacking. But King was full of polish, offering an amalgam of textures that moved from somber to stately. When the full group transitioned in, it too had a hush. King turned to electric keys, Hill and saxophonist Braxton Cook cooed through the august melody, and there was a mild CTI spirit in the summer air. I grabbed my notebook and scribbled quickly: “first goosebumps of the fest.”

For more JazzTimes coverage of the 2018 Newport Jazz Festival, go here.