The weather gods must have been in favor of Newport Jazz’s 2021 return. A superb first day of the festival was followed by an even better second day, with clear skies and slightly cooler temperatures, making it easier to absorb some of the subthemes that ran through the three-day event, cropping up again and again from set to set.
Danielle Ponder, who started things off at the Quad stage, encapsulated the most prominent of those subthemes: 1) the political and cultural fallout from George Floyd’s murder in 2020 and 2) female singers with mammoth voices. Ponder offered the Newport crowd old-school R&B with modern messages. “Darker than Blue,” a ballad with a hushed, spiritual feel that tipped an obvious hat to Curtis Mayfield via its title, was dedicated to all Black Lives Matter protesters and demonstrators. Gradually the song’s momentum began to build, and soon Ponder had brought the audience to its feet with her emotionally charged, preacher-style delivery. “My freedom is dependent on your freedom and your freedom is dependent on my freedom,” she declared to loud cheers. “Black people have been in this country for 400 years, and our black bodies are here to stay.”
Over at the Lawn stage, saxophonist/composer Immanuel Wilkins didn’t have quite as much to say. “How y’all feelin’?” he offered during a lull in the set. “We just played some music, and now we’re gonna play some more music.” A lot of music—Wilkins, pianist Micah Thomas, bassist Daryl Johns, and phenomenal drummer Kweku Sumbry were all consulting lengthy, intricate charts throughout the performance, some for pieces from the leader’s 2020 debut album Omega, others still to be recorded and/or released. There was tremendous drama in them all, as Wilkins’ pure alto sound and plaintive, deceptively simple long-tone melodies were surrounded by unsettled accompaniment, with sudden piano and drum eruptions. During his solos, he would frequently let out James Brown-esque “Unh”s with longer breaths, then, still seemingly in flow, pause to direct his bandmates through the song form. During others’ solos, he might pop back over to the mic to double some quick hits that seemed random but must not have been. The seamless combination of micro-management and big-picture thinking was impressive.
Believe it or not, Terri Lyne Carrington had never appeared at Newport as a bandleader before this year. And if she hadn’t mentioned this at the end of her protest-space-fusion group Social Science’s Quad performance, you probably never would have guessed. The long standing ovation she received following that remark indicated that the first time was a charm. But even though Social Science is Carrington’s band and she laid down ultra-solid drum grooves as always, this music’s main focus was elsewhere: on the tasty keyboard and guitar work of Aaron Parks and Matt Stevens, and especially on the impassioned vocals of Debo Ray and Kokayi (subbing for Kassa Overall as MC and DJ), which maintained the topicality and the intensity of Danielle Ponder’s earlier set.
For bassist Russell Hall, Newport Jazz 2021 also marked a first: his first gig with trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah. Talk about baptism by fire! But the Kingston, Jamaica native acquitted himself admirably as part of a band that also included flutist Elena Pinderhughes, pianist Lawrence Fields, drummer Joe Dyson, and djembe specialist Weedie Braimah. Scott was in superb form as he eased into a cover of David Crosby’s “Guinnevere” (via Miles Davis). Delay and phasing effects on his trumpet took us to a very psychedelic place, where the vapor trails following his lines began to resemble the roar of 747s coming in for a landing. After each crystal-clear note, Scott snapped back from the microphone like a suddenly uncoiled spring.
The mood only got more celebratory as saxophonist Kenny Garrett launched into a crowd-friendly set including selections from his latest album Sounds from the Ancestors. Garrett works an audience on a master level, reveling in numerous rounds of vocal call and response; he plays a mean tambourine too. As for his main instrument—well, the fact that Immanuel Wilkins, Robert Glasper, and Kamasi Washington were all watching him intently from the side of the stage pretty much summarizes his performance. Garrett simply floated over the changes with ease, no matter how frisky the tempo. A long cadenza was freewheeling and contagious in its playfulness, with bits of “A Love Supreme” and “Now’s the Time” falling out like errant presents from Santa’s airborne sleigh. A couple of people near me yelled out, “Play that horn!” When the band started back up again, Garrett responded with his own exhortations: “Work it out! Work it out! Come on! Come on!”
Fellow saxophonist Chris Potter’s Circuits Trio with keyboardist James Francies and drummer Eric Harland (sporting a Richie Havens-size beard) can best be described as a musical high-wire act performed with many knowing grins. All three musicians are up for anything, never shirk from risk, and aren’t afraid to show off the bone-dry wit they share. “Nowhere, Now Here” was a case in point; the wry smile that stayed on Potter’s face for most of the time that he wasn’t playing transferred itself directly to his tenor tone when he was. For “Suite,” which combined aspects of Stravinsky’s Firebird and Parker’s “Yardbird,” the leader clicked on a harmonizer pedal, turning him into a one-man sax section and taking his lines even further out.
Artist-in-residence Robert Glasper’s second of three Newport Jazz 2021 sets spotlighted his Dinner Party project with Kamasi Washington, Terrace Martin, and 9th Wonder. (Justin Tyson joined them on drums, among several other guests.) The slick adult-contemporary R&B feel of their self-titled 2020 EP was still present live, and Martin’s use of a vocoder lent the sound a none-more-retro vibe. But Glasper made sure to throw in some sneaky-smart piano bits too, and when Martin picked up his alto sax to face off with Washington, the music became less about chilling and more about yearning.
It was now time for the day’s true undisputed headliner on the Lawn stage: Mavis Staples, the last surviving member of gospel/soul greats the Staple Singers, who first performed at Newport in 1964 for the Folk Festival. Appropriately, Staples was the only artist this year who received an introduction from founding Newport impresario George Wein. Sadly, it was given remotely rather than in person; Wein is now 95 and this year, for the first time in the festivals’ history, he opted to stay home in Manhattan rather than travel to Rhode Island. (The days of his zipping around Fort Adams’ grounds in a golf cart labeled with the sign “The Lean Green Wein Machine” are likely over.)
The good feelings engendered by Wein’s fond intro carried over into the performance. Mavis, to put it simply, radiates pure joy, and gets it right back from those who listen to her. Her low, raspy voice was strong and sure, as was the set list, from Talking Heads’ “Slippery People” (a perfect cover choice) to “Wade in the Water,” “Respect Yourself,” and of course “I’ll Take You There” to close. Occasionally, the 82-year-old Staples had to sit down and take a short breather, but whenever she was at the microphone her energy remained undimmed. This was the one Newport set I watched from beginning to end, right up front next to my 14-year-old daughter. At the end, I turned to her and said, “You just saw a legend, my dear.”
It would be hard for anyone to follow such a show, but the day’s two remaining performers did their best. On the Quad stage, Ledisi paid tribute to Nina Simone; her voice doesn’t have the depth of Simone’s, but she does have a similar theatrical sense and strength of personality, as well as gravitas of a different sort. This was made plain at the end of “Baltimore,” when the volume went way down and her singing ventured into the heights of operatic soprano land—a pin-drop moment. As for Trombone Shorty, who closed down the Lawn stage backed by neo-funkateers Orleans Avenue, he was on the whole definitely working more of the frontman aspects of his persona and fewer of the trombone-playing aspects. Call him Funk-Rock Shorty. That said, when he did choose to break out the ‘bone, he quickly reminded all present that he’s no slouch.