Newport Jazz Festival 2019: 10 Artists Make Their Picks

Tia Fuller, Makaya McCraven, Camila Meza, Darcy James Argue, and more reveal which artists they're looking forward to seeing most this year

Darcy James Argue's Secret Society at Newport Jazz Festival (photo by Ken Franckling)
Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society at the 2017 Newport Jazz Festival (photo by Ken Franckling)

Summer is all business for jazz musicians. Airports, hotels, club stints, camp gigs —the road delivers the perks of building new audiences and visiting far-flung locales, but it’s also a draining whirl that often bars rest, family, and friends. That’s why festivals are so special. Arguably, the Newport Jazz Festival is the most special of them all, giving players a chance to tap the brakes a bit, absorb the splendor of Narragansett Bay, and socialize in the rambling recesses of Fort Adams. It’s also an opportunity for musicians to become audience members themselves, watching other performers on the three-day program. With four discrete stages of varying size and more than 60 acts on the bill, the options are many. We polled 10 artists who are on the road this summer, asking them to choose a colleague whose Newport set they’d like to catch if they had time. To a one, they were overwhelmed by the choices in front of them, but eager to explain their decisions. The responses were as fervent as they were fun. 

Darcy James Argue

I usually try to stay for the entire weekend at Newport. A lot of people stick around, more than any other festival situation I’ve been at. It’s a whole tradition: the artist meal tent, the backstage area, upstairs above the main stage—it’s set up well. A lot of reunions happen, and there’s a lot of first-time meetings too. Newport is a fest that means something to musicians, and that comes through in the way that people act. Everyone’s cool. 

I’m looking forward to catching up with my longtime friend Matana Roberts—she’s always doing something interesting. And I’d like to see what Dayna Stephens’ group is up to lately. But the person I chose is Camila Meza. She’s someone who’s been on my radar for a long time because she’s a core part of one of my co-conspirators’ groups, Ryan Keberle’s Catharsis. That’s where I first heard her. I’ve followed her development and evolution to a degree, but I’ve never seen her lead her own band. I watched her headline Jazzmeia Horn’s band, which was a very strange situation that occurred last year at the Angrajazz Fest [in the Azores]. Jazzmeia had to cancel, so they scrambled and found Camila and flew her in at the last minute. She rehearsed with Jazzmeia’s rhythm section and did the show, and it was an incredible performance. She had the audience in the palm of her hand. She’s such a great communicator, her sincerity really comes through. But I still haven’t heard her with her own band, so I’m excited. At Newport I believe she’s bringing the string quartet from the new record, Ámbar, and those arrangements are just great. The texture of the strings with her voice and guitar is special; Noam Weisenberg did all the arrangements. So I’m psyched to have the opportunity to see her in an environment that she chose.

Carmen Staaf

I want to catch Dafnis Prieto’s Big Band for a few reasons. First off, he’s a mind-blowing drummer. Just unreal. I got a chance to hear him do a master class, and he was demonstrating singing the clavé with slightly different polyrhythms and stretching the time in one limb and rushing with another limb and having it all land perfectly. I was like, “I don’t understand how a human being can do that.” So that’s the first part. The second reason is that I taught with him at this school in India, so I got to know him a bit. The school brings over jazz musicians from New York and they have Indian classical musicians there; it’s a cool environment. Seeing Dafnis interact with the Indian percussionists was fantastic. I also remember being so impressed by his first album, About the Monks. And his Proverb Trio is one of my other favorite things. He showed us a video of them performing before the record came out. Dafnis’ music is groovy, it makes you want to dance, and yet it’s totally loose and free, unconstrained by anything, really. It’s a funny thing about drummers; I feel like they’re some of the most melodic writers. That’s part of his work, too. The grooves are obviously there, but the melodies are catchy, super-strong. It will be cool to see how his writing has expanded. 

Matana Roberts

If I had to pick only one band to see from what really is an incredible festival lineup, I’d have to pick the Sun Ra Arkestra, hands down. Every time I have seen them live, time stops, and my imagination soars for days on end … My father was a huge fan of Sun Ra. I grew up constantly hearing about the amazing “Ra.” Ra this, Ra that, Ra all the time—sandwiched between the Art Ensemble, David Murray, and the later recordings of John and Alice Coltrane. A favorite story of his was when he took his prom date to the Jazz Showcase in Chicago. There were strict curfew laws at that time, but the Arkestra just kept playing even after the proprietor turned off the lights and the power. The tradition of that band has always been about a certain kind of presence of experience, and honestly from what I can tell, not much has changed. I love them.

Allison Miller 

Seeing others at a fest is kind of like this little tailormade playlist for a day. We don’t always have a chance to run into our friends on the road, so the hang is great. I always go back to the idea of getting off our cellphones, and I feel that on festival days people do put their phones away and go around talking with people, usually where they’re serving food to the musicians. It’s 24 hours of a pre-smartphone world.

I’d love to see Makaya McCraven. I don’t know him personally, but I know people who are friends of his, and I really like his records. I want to see what he does live. I also like Tomeka Reid, and she hangs with Joel Ross, who was one of my students at the New School. I’m interested in hearing him, too. I had him playing piano [as a student], and I love his piano playing; I’m interested to see what he’s doing with his music now that he’s out there, getting some support. And I want to see Vinnie Colaiuta. I’m a huge fan. I saw him two summers ago, on tour with Herbie [Hancock] in Europe, and got a chance to bend his ear and hang and hear him a bunch. I mean, who doesn’t love Vinnie? He’s amazing. And I don’t want to forget Ralph Peterson. Those are the three drummers I want to see so bad. 

Tia Fuller

My first choice is the Bad Plus, simply because I haven’t heard the configuration with Orrin Evans. He was one of the first people to give me gigs when I moved to New York. I played with his big band. He’s worked in my band. I’m curious about the flair he’s going to bring to the table. He and I are Aries, a fire sign. I know that whatever situation he’s in, he’s going to be authentic, full-spirited, and very real. Orrin is like a brother of mine. Even though he’s around my age, he’s been on the scene and played with a lot of the masters, and he’s taught me the ins and out of being a bandleader. Things that have stuck with me. To me, he’s a master.

I also want to see Dianne Reeves. Every time I hear her play … man … she just commands the stage with her voice, her musicianship. The sound and the control. I was on tour with her with Terri Lyne Carrington and the Mosaic Project. Hands down, whenever I’m seeing Dianne, I’m learning something. On top of that, we’re both from Colorado. She’s always been a household name, a local legend, and it was a dream come true to have her on my last album. And seeing a black woman who has sustained her career over decades and stayed on top—that’s something I’m really looking at these days. Because it’s not easy. 

Joel Ross

Definitely want to see Herbie, he’s my favorite living jazz musician, and one of my favorite artists ever. He’s long been an inspiration, especially being from Chicago. I think Herbie transcends genre and style. I’m big on not being stuck in any one sound, and he successfully blended a traditional jazz sound plus funk and hip-hop. He does it all. It’s something that me and Immanuel Wilkins talk about a lot. He and I come from a church background. We’re trying to integrate that sound, but I don’t want it to be like I’m playing gospel music that has jazz elements or jazz with gospel elements; I want to play a music that maybe can’t be defined because it doesn’t lean too far any one way. Herbie absolutely did that. Like “Maiden Voyage” to “Cantaloupe Island.” It’s funky, but … the grooves Tony [Williams] would play, they were swinging; they weren’t necessarily tipping, it wasn’t four on the floor, but it was all there.

Newport’s also interesting because there’s lots of people that I’ve played with or know—my friends. I also want to see James Francies. He’s one of my best friends, but since moving to New York I never get to see him or play with him much because we’re busy. I played on his album, so I’d be going to hear what it sounds like without me. I’m curious. He’s been growing in so many ways. He’s such a strong technical musician, he can do anything on the piano, and I know he’s been doing some bass-less things and I haven’t seen that, so if it’s that, I’d really try to get there. I’ve never been in Newport before. We all talked about playing these kinds of major gigs a long time ago, so it’s kind of surreal that it’s coming to fruition. 

Marika Hughes

I’m loving this list [of 2019 Newport performers] because there are so many women and so many performers I’ve never heard of. Of course, I think I might fall into that category for many people, like, “Who the hell is she?” My first choice is very personal because my cousin Patrice Quinn is a singer with Kamasi Washington, and I love it when our schedules overlap on the road, which they have a few times over the years. The last time was when I was with Nels Cline at Newport a few summers ago. It’s always a joy to bump into her. And because of the Tiny Desk Concert, I want to see Tank & the Bangas; I’m dying to see that energy onstage. The other person I chose is Buika. I’ve seen her live, and she does something to me that’s absolutely beautiful. I want to catch her set and see what she’s up to right now. Like a lot of people, I discovered her in that Almodóvar film (La piel que habito [The Skin I Live In]). She had an up-close performance with a pianist, and it blew my mind. Her voice and the way she uses it touches something deep inside of me, and I was captivated … it’s like a dream, like she’s sharing something from the depths of her soul. It’s raspy, kind of imperfect in a way, at least in terms of jazz or operatic voices. But she touches me in a way very few have, maybe the way Abbey Lincoln does. 

Camila Meza 

We have so many incredible options at Newport this year, it was hard to choose. I realized I haven’t seen some configurations, for instance Herbie Hancock with Christian McBride and Vinnie Colaiuta. I’ve been in New York, the mecca, for 10 years now, but you never get to see everybody. The duo of Ravi Coltrane and David Virelles must be interesting too. But I’m going to pick Cécile McLorin Salvant. I’ve seen her once, and she’s one of the few artists who has gotten me to experience the full spectrum of human emotion, you know? At one point I had introspective, sad, nostalgic, and reflective moments, and five minutes later I was cracking up. Her stage presence is incredible, and she takes you down all these possible roads. It felt like I’d been to a therapy session—I rinsed myself of so much. The emotional aspect of her performance was unmistakable, but musically it was incredible to be in the presence of such an amazing vocalist. As a singer I’m aware of the technical capabilities, what she hears, how she interprets songs, and how much she’s able to embody every story. Even if she’s singing a 1920s song, she’s able to bring it to the current time and make it her own.

Dave King 

I’m going to say Ralph Peterson. He was a real source of inspiration for me coming up, when I first heard the Fo’tet music in the ’80s—those records on Blue Note. I saw him once back then when I was 18, and it completely changed my molecular structure. It was like coming face to face with someone who possessed this first-circle relationship to swing, but at the same time played with an avant-garde quality and a punk-rock forcefulness. Outside stuff, abstract divisionism, the whole thing was like, whoa. I was a devotee and sort of student of Eric Gravatt when I was in high school, and I studied every move and saw him play in a club in Minneapolis every week, and he had that presence and a deep relationship to swinging. And when I saw Ralph for the first time, I thought he was a continuation of a certain type of tradition that I hadn’t seen in a while. I loved the avant garde, and I also loved a lot of the neo-jazz movements of the ’80s, the Wynton bands, the Branford bands. But Ralph brought this dangerous element to that whole thing. Then I saw him with Bill Frisell and Don Byron when they did that Tuskegee Experiments album at the Walker Arts Center, and it’s one of those things I’ll never forget.

I finally had a chance to meet Ralph about a year ago when he came to see the Bad Plus in Boston, and I talked to him for a sec and was able to intimate just how important he was for me. The whole trajectory of Ralph Peterson—he makes great records, leads great bands, puts together great music. He’s a sizable force on the instrument and it’s important to acknowledge that he’s still out there crushing it. Having a vibraphone in the band, the odd instrumentation, that Ornettology record. I always check in on him for my own good. Obviously it’s not a huge revelation that people should be checking in on Ralph Peterson, but when I saw that he was playing at Newport I was excited. [If this Newport band is his Art Blakey tribute project] it makes sense, because talk about someone who’s a bridge to all that: a bandleader with a sizable personality who plays with a huge presence and a deep sense of swing. If Ralph’s set up next to you, well … hahahaha … I don’t know anyone that’s gonna hang on that level.

Makaya McCraven

There’s a variety of my friends on the program. Christian Sands, who we’ve been bumping into a lot on this tour, is there. I’ve known Christian since he was 13 or 14 years old when we did a program together. I was a little older and I was driving him around, looking out for him. He was this virtuoso young musician, and it’s been great to see him grow. I caught a bit of his set the other day and it was beautiful. Great band sound with strong interaction—wonderfully interactive, yet rooted in the jazz vocabulary. Also he can switch and play Cuban music with ease, with references to R&B and hip-hop. He’s really killing it out here. That’s what I’ve always been attracted to as a leader: well-studied musicians who like drawing from the world around them, regardless of where it takes them. Go deep into the music without creating a wall [to other styles].

One other one. Herbie Hancock is a little bit of an obvious answer, but I haven’t seen him play live in my lifetime and that would be amazing to check him out. Every time I look, someone else is taking a picture with Herbie Hancock and it’s like, “C’mon, man, what about me?” He’s always been someone who interacts with contemporary music while still being a master of his own spaces, know what I mean? Love that about him. No matter what’s going on, he has his ear to the ground and wants to get with young players. The music of Joni Mitchell or funk in the ’70s or drum machines—he’s really fluent, always on the cutting edge without compromising his sound. That’s why there’s hope in my heart that maybe I’ll someday get a chance to work with him from the producer’s standpoint. It’s modern music, you know, the way I make my tracks and stuff. I’d love to meet him, play with him, talk to him, interact with him—any of those things. He’s super-inspiring. 

Check out more of JazzTimes‘ special Newport Jazz Festival coverage.

Jim Macnie

Jim Macnie is a music writer who contributes to DownBeat and blogs at Lament For a Straight Line. He’s been working in digital media since since 2000, initially as VH1.com’s Managing Editor and, currently, as a Senior Producer and Editor at Vevo. He enjoys Little Jimmie Dickens, Big Joe Turner and Medium Medium.