Traditionalists would probably have considered the third and final day of Newport Jazz 2021 its “jazziest”—more swinging, more traditional instruments, fewer straight-four beats, less stylistic hybridization (as if jazz itself isn’t the quintessential hybrid … but that’s an argument for another time). Even so, eclecticism remained on the festival menu, and provided some of the day’s biggest surprises.
First came the Quad stage’s “Vibes Summit” featuring Warren Wolf, Joel Ross, and Sasha Berliner—kind of like an old-fashioned cutting session, but with three vibraphones. Of course they began with a 12-bar; Wolf’s solo was about virtuosity, Berliner’s about angularity, and Ross’ about the power of repetition. Emmet Cohen played up a storm on piano too. From there, the vibraphonists took turns in the spotlight. Wolf, noting that this year marks the 100th anniversary of the vibes’ invention, went on scintillating runs through Dizzy Gillespie’s “Bebop” and Roy Ayers’ “In the Sunshine,” adding a charming vocal on the latter. Then Berliner took over with a remarkable solo four-mallet arrangement of “My Funny Valentine” that conjured rippling surf, with the notes of the melody splashing into it like thrown pebbles. Ross chose John Coltrane’s “Cousin Mary,” filling the air with big resonating chords that brilliantly showed off the unique character of his instrument. I’d call it a draw.
Around the corner at the Lawn stage, harpist Brandee Younger held forth with bassist Dezron Douglas and drummer Allan Mednard, who was just finishing an ear-grabbing solo when I arrived. After that number was over, Younger quipped, “I ain’t gonna lie—in the car last night Allan said, ‘No drum solos, please, I don’t want to do any!’” So much for resolutions, luckily. Most notable during this set was the seemingly effortless interplay between Douglas and Younger. On tunes like “Tickled Pink” from her upcoming album Something Different and “Toilet Paper Romance” from their 2020 duet collection Force Majeure, his lines offered such perfect counterpoint to her solos that at times they almost seemed like one simultaneous harp/bass solo.
That sense of well-coordinated group improv continued back at Quad, as bassist Dave Holland, pianist Kenny Barron, and drummer Johnathan Blake turned Thelonious Monk’s “Worry Now” from a samba into a waltz and then back. On Barron’s “Speed Trap,” the pianist answered Holland’s furious walking and giant glissandos with bemused plinks. This brought to mind a pet peeve of mine about acoustic bassists: not being able to hear them well enough, either live or on record. I usually blame the soundman or my aging ears when this happens, blame that could be well placed. And yet whenever I hear Holland—or Dezron Douglas or Christian McBride or any of several other big-time jazz bassists—I can always clearly make out every note. Maybe it’s that they’re sticklers for tone, maybe it’s the way they attack their instrument, but in any case it sure is welcome.
No upright bassists were available for praise or blame in the following set, but that’s because David Ostwald’s Louis Armstrong Eternity Band is led by a tuba player. It also happens to be a hot little trad outfit with an easy and often amusing crowd rapport. Ostwald introduced one tune, “Tears,” by saying that the band’s guiding light Louis Armstrong only recorded it once, with King Oliver in 1923, and that they were thinking of removing such an obscurity from their repertoire. “Should we keep it in the book?” he asked. “We’ll do an informal survey afterwards.” One joyously rollicking rendition later, it got a big thumbs-up from Newport’s attendees. Wycliffe Gordon took the mic for another number closely associated with Armstrong, “Black and Blue,” and added a greasy trombone solo; the warmth of his delivery almost but not quite obscured the sad fact that the relevance of the song’s lyrics continue to be up-to-the-minute.
Meanwhile, the Quad stage was filling up with first-call players, doing business for the next hour as the Jazz Gallery All-Stars: saxophonists Jaleel Shaw and Melissa Aldana, pianist Gerald Clayton, laser-toned guitarist Charles Altura, vibesman Joel Ross returning for another visit, plus bassist Ben Williams and drummer Marcus Gilmore. Vocalist Renee Neufville flitted on and off stage, stoking up the crowd every time she reappeared. Clayton pulled a similar trick when he lit into the opening vamp of Roy Hargrove’s infectious “Strasbourg/St. Denis” to squeals of recognition. Neufville cleverly found the connection between the late trumpeter’s tune and the Spinners’ 1972 hit “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love” (they share a chord progression), then got the audience involved in making that link more explicit—the men sang “Could it be I’m falling in love” and the ladies answered “With you, baby.”
Clayton stuck around for the next Quad set, joined by guitarist Marvin Sewell, bassist Harish Raghavan, drummer Eric Harland, and the venerable Charles Lloyd, who received a similarly adoring crowd response whether releasing the proverbial Kraken on tenor sax or floating off into a free mist on flute. Sewell’s rip-roaring slide playing provided a particularly excellent and earthy foil for the veteran leader’s mystical musings.
The 10-piece ensemble that was arrayed on the Lawn stage at the same time included only a few faces I recognized: trumpeter Michael Leonhart, percussionist Mauro Refosco, drummer Joe Russo. None of them was the leader; that position was reserved for saxophonist Stuart Bogie. The group called itself simply the Bogie Band, and it was simply incredible. Mesmerizing waves of harmony and rhythm overlapped each other, like a mashup of Fela Kuti, Sun Ra, and King Crimson—with (more) tuba! And (sometimes) multiple flutes! An energized frontman, Bogie went from conducting the band to conducting its listeners, repeatedly waving at them to yell “Hey!” in key spots during the pulsating “Take Them On.” As he put it between selections, “There’s lots of hand-waving up here, but it’s all for fun.” Fun indeed. I highly recommend you check out the Bogie Band.
By this point, clouds had gathered over Fort Adams and the sky was darkening, a signal that our three-day idyll was coming to a close. But there were still three sets to go. First, a valedictory “Jam Jawn” on the Lawn featuring Russo, keyboardist Marco Benevento, harpist Michaela Davis (the second harpist of the day!), resident bigwig Christian McBride, and one John Scofield. Toward the end of the hour, they were joined by Bogie, Wycliffe Gordon, and various other members of the Ostwald band. The most enjoyable of their several loose jams was conducted over the changes of “Hey Joe.” Davis’ harp was festooned with cool effects, though it unfortunately got a bit hidden in the mix when everyone else cranked up. Scofield’s solo climaxed in high violent bends, each one inching toward notes that were technically not in key. He’s not a man who minds moving things out. There were also numerous cracks about “taking it to the bridge” à la James Brown, followed by actual taking it to the bridge.
Artist-in-residence Robert Glasper’s final set of the festival was billed as the “Black Radio” set (after the title of his 2012 album). But to these admittedly biased ears, the most exciting bits sounded like they could have been taken from a Jan Hammer Band session circa 1976—not all that Black necessarily, but plenty of fun. Lawn stage headliner Andra Day has been to Newport before, but this year her profile was higher, thanks to an award-winning performance in the lead role of The United States vs. Billie Holiday (the lead role not being that of the United States, of course; Day’s Golden Globe was well deserved, too bad about the rest of the movie). Under the circumstances, it was almost obligatory that she sing “Strange Fruit,” and she did it justice in a chilly, almost avant-garde setting. But it was the canny way she segued from there into the more gospel-tinged “Say a Prayer for Me” that really showed Day has charisma and chops to spare.
And so ended the latest iteration of the Newport Jazz Festival. Given the cataclysmic events that have shaken our country and world over the past year and a half, I have little doubt that everyone in attendance felt immense relief and gratitude just to be there. Personally, I felt more conscious than ever of how borderline absurd it is to spend three days in beautiful surroundings watching premier musicians do what they do best and have it be considered part of my job. Let’s keep this crazy luck going, shall we? Here’s to next year in Newport.