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Newport Jazz 2021: Day 1

The iconic event, slightly modified, returns to Fort Adams

Catherine Russell at the 2021 Newport Jazz Festival
Catherine Russell at the 2021 Newport Jazz Festival (photo: Joseph Allen)

Two years ago around this time, they had a jazz festival in Newport, R.I., the same way they have for decades. One year ago, as we all know … not so much. And although it was sweet indeed to see and hear the return of Newport Jazz to Fort Adams on July 30—an absolutely gorgeous summer day of sun, salty breezes, countless sails aloft in the harbor, and outstanding musical performances—reminders of what we’ve been through over the past year and a half weren’t hard to find.

The gauntlet that festival attendees must run to make it past the gates had gotten longer; there was now a prescreening line before you reached the security and ticket scanners. COVID rapid-test machines were nearly as abundant as water-refill stations. No one would be admitted without supplying proof of vaccination or negative test results from within the past 72 hours. Beyond that basic restriction, signs suggesting the wearing of masks had been posted in all especially high-traffic and/or enclosed areas. The festival was operating at 50% capacity, with only two stages instead of the usual four, and both of those stages were stripped down to some extent: At the Quad stage inside the nearly 200-year-old fort, the shaded area with chairs had been significantly reduced from its 2019 size, while the Lawn stage that faces the Pell Bridge across Narragansett Bay no longer had an upper deck for VIPs.

Still, as the day wore on and the crowd grew, these changes in layout gradually ceased to register and in fact—at least in this writer’s opinion—began to feel almost like improvements. The two-stage format was much easier to navigate; there was far less chance of completely missing anyone’s set. Looking past the deathly serious reasons for the lower attendance, the whole affair seemed cozier, more comfortable than before. And there was certainly no cause for complaint with the music on offer.

The first set at the Quad stage was by neo-soul singer/keyboardist Avery*Sunshine, whose sparkplug stage demeanor made for a perfect festival kickoff. She introduced the gently forceful bossa “Like This” by noting that the song’s original recording features the sound of pork chops frying; I’ll have to go back and check that one. Later on, a staged disagreement with her top-notch band about whether they were playing an Al Green-type vamp or a James Brown-style one triggered additional brief segues into Prince (“Kiss”) and Sly Stone (“Thank You Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin”). Over at the Lawn stage, the Arturo O’Farrill Quintet opened the proceedings with Latin funk grooves that frequently ended up somewhere west of Alpha Centauri, thanks to O’Farrill’s own virtuosic piano playing and the outstanding trumpet work of his son Adam.

Adam O'Farrill at the 2021 Newport Jazz Festival
Adam O’Farrill at the 2021 Newport Jazz Festival (photo: Joseph Allen)

Dressed in a sparkly black ensemble and matching hat with neon yellow feathers, singer Catherine Russell delighted the Quad audience with renditions of “I Want to Be Happy” and “You’re Not the Only Oyster in the Stew,” relishing the lyrics that Fats Waller made his own on the latter. Russell’s a consummate entertainer; during “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby,” she flirted shamelessly with one of the Newport staff photographers, adding for the crowd’s benefit, “Hmmm, he’s nice and young too.” But she also excels at getting to the emotional core of a song, as she did with the set’s highlight, the almost desperately devotional “When Did You Leave Heaven?”—which, I’ll confess, left me misty-eyed.

Newport artistic director Christian McBride made his first appearance of the weekend fronting his own all-star crew A Christian McBride Situation on the Lawn stage. Starting out on electric bass, McBride traded head-snapping fusillades with keyboardist James Francies, triggering memories of Stanley Clarke and the late great Chick Corea in Return to Forever. Then he switched to upright for a hip-hoppish take on “A Night in Tunisia.” At one point, tenor saxophonist Ron Blake cleverly articulated his notes to mimic the timing of the dub-like echo on the groove that sonic magicians DJ Logic and DJ Jahi Sundance were conjuring at the back of the stage. “It’s great to be back, but be careful,” McBride said between tunes. “Delta’s here and Delta ain’t playin’. So have fun but use your noodle, so we can be back here at full capacity next year and wild out like we usually do.”

Back at the Quad, drummer Makaya McCraven led an intricate conversation with guitarist Matt Gold, trumpeter Marquis Hill, and bassist Junius Paul. The latter made it sound even more like a conversation, as he vocalized while playing. This had its good and not-so-good points; Paul’s singing frequently seemed to be in search of an alternate tonal center, but the open microphone also endearingly showed how many times McCraven’s surprising fills and beat-shifting made his rhythm-section companion chuckle. Meanwhile, Nashville-based Brit singer/guitarist Yola, who’d already made an impression at Newport performing at the previous week’s Folk Festival, took the Lawn stage with a multi-genre roots-music blend that couldn’t be called jazz—but given her majestic, gospel-rich voice, we weren’t complaining, and it didn’t look like anyone else was either. By this time there had been a significant uptick in crowd numbers, and lots of young people were up front grooving to “If I Had to Do It All Again” and others. One standout was a cover of Jill Scott’s “A Long Walk,” which Yola announced was her first public performance of a song by one of her heroes. She perfectly nailed the tune’s loose, improvisatory, almost-scat singing style, and the audience ate it up.

Yola at the 2021 Newport Jazz Festival
Yola at the 2021 Newport Jazz Festival (photo: Joseph Allen)

Pianist, composer, producer, and raconteur Robert Glasper was this year’s Newport artist-in-residence, performing three very different sets, one for each festival day. The first was billed as an acoustic trio, but although that billing was technically correct, there was a fourth, more electronically oriented member too: DJ Jahi Sundance, making a reappearance with his gear at Glasper’s left. The leader’s introduction of an old standard established the overall tone. “We kinda fucked it up and it may not be starlight and her name may not be Stella anymore,” Glasper cracked. “It might be ‘Stacy by the Stairs’ now. We hope you don’t mind.” The music that followed interpolated Monk’s “Epistrophy,” “Sleigh Ride,” “The Look of Love” (Bacharach/David, not ABC), and a reharmonized “Happy Birthday,” among others. Clever and enjoyable, but in the end it amounted to little more than messing around. As Glasper himself acknowledged, “We’re just having some fun.”

My stroll over to the Lawn stage in the middle of the opening tune by guitarist Cory Wong and his 10-piece band (including six horns) brought the first real revelation of the festival. Before I could actually see any of the performers, I thought I’d stumbled into a Prince gig circa 1988: super-tight funk at a crazy tempo with hot solos and turn-on-a-dime full-band breaks. The tune’s title, “Welcome 2 Minneapolis,” couldn’t have been more apt. The rest of the set was equally dynamic, with rewarding detours into blues and soul. Between numbers, Wong mentioned that this was the first time at Newport for everyone in the band and that playing here had been on all their bucket lists; truth be told, you could kinda guess that right from the start, based on their overwhelming enthusiasm.

Cory Wong at the 2021 Newport Jazz Festival
Cory Wong at the 2021 Newport Jazz Festival (photo: Joseph Allen)

Speaking of overwhelming, I thought for a moment that tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington, the Quad stage headliner for Day 1, had blown out his microphone on his very first solo. The problem turned out to be just a bad cable, but still … phew. More than ever, Washington seems to be evolving into a younger generation’s version of Pharoah Sanders, from the overall grace and largesse of his demeanor to the sense of spirituality and Black consciousness that pours forth from his music to, yes, his sheer intensity as a performer. You can never say he doesn’t bring it. Last time Washington played Newport, two years ago, it didn’t feel like his band quite matched that power; this time, with slightly different membership (including Ben Williams on acoustic bass), they were far less laid-back, frequently and pleasurably edging into total-assault territory. “Sun Kissed Child” was a moving highlight, with solo spots for Washington’s father Rickey on flute, DJ Battlecat on turntables, and Tony Austin, one of two drummers and two percussionists on stage.

For the last set of the day, the Texas trio Khruangbin, makers of Southeast Asia-influenced mostly instrumental surf/funk/dub, occupied the Lawn stage. Bassist Laura Lee clearly has a sizable fan club, based on the contingent of hipsters who were down front cheering her every slinky move. The music she and her male colleagues (guitarist Mark Speer and drummer DJ Johnson Jr.) played was perhaps a tad too hip to engage our interest completely, but it certainly made a nice sound for the post-meridian, sending us back over Newport Harbor on a cloud of reverb.

Kamasi Washington at the 2021 Newport Jazz Festival
Kamasi Washington at the 2021 Newport Jazz Festival (photo: Joseph Allen)

Newport Jazz 2021: Day 2
Newport Jazz 2021: Day 3

Mac Randall

Mac Randall

Mac Randall has been the editor of JazzTimes since May 2018. Prior to that, he wrote regularly for the magazine. He has written about numerous genres of music for a wide variety of publications over the past 30 years, including Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Vanity Fair, The New York Observer, Mojo, and Guitar Aficionado, and he has worked on the editorial staffs of Musician, LAUNCH (now Yahoo! Music), Guitar One, Teaching Music, Music Alive!, and In Tune Monthly. He is the author of two books, Exit Music: The Radiohead Story and 101 Great Playlists. He lives in New York City.