The 2022 Newport Jazz Festival’s three days of sunshine were bracketed, more or less, by a pair of all-star ensemble jams that included Christian McBride. The second of them celebrated the man whom McBride succeeded as the festival’s artistic director, George Wein.
It was the festival’s first edition since Wein’s passing last September at 95. But he seemed present nonetheless, from the “Wein Machine” golf cart displayed in tribute throughout to the star-studded set that wrapped up the music on Sunday.
McBride’s initial jam, the Newport Jawn, didn’t come up until late Friday afternoon, the penultimate Fort Stage performance of the day (before headliner Norah Jones). The one-off ensemble included Chris Potter on tenor sax, Mike Stern on guitar, Vijay Iyer on piano, Brandee Younger on harp, Makaya McCraven on drums, and McBride on bass. Ranging in age from McCraven’s 38 to Stern’s 69, they played one of the day’s best sets, convincingly demonstrating that experience can trump youth, even where progressive jazz is concerned.
“What an honor,” McCraven would say of the experience the next day. “Brandee being there was like a lifeline, because we’re homies. We’re friends and we play together. Everyone else was … legends, an older generation. I mean, Mike Stern: That was really cool, playing with Mike Stern. The sweetest cat ever.”
Friday’s morning and early-afternoon highlights on the three stages, for those not stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic en route to festival parking, included the Mingus Big Band, Theon Cross, Nate Smith + Kinfolk, and Carlos Henriquez. The Nicholas Payton Trio, with Ben Williams on bass and Bill Stewart on drums, played an impressive set at the medium-sized Quad Stage, Payton at some points playing his trumpet with his right hand while comping on keyboards with his left. Thana Alexa went on at the smaller Harbor Stage as the Payton Trio ended, playing music from her Grammy-nominated Ona album, which she told the audience had been inspired by her having attended the 2017 Women’s March on Washington. Her husband, Antonio Sánchez, backed her on drums; the next day she would return the favor, singing with his Bad Hombre group in another politically inspired set on the same stage.
The progressive young band from Canada BadBadNotGood performed on the Fort Stage in mid-afternoon, earning a warm reception from a sizable crowd, followed by the Newport Jawn. There was just enough time to slip over to the Harbor Stage to catch a bit of Shabaka Hutchings and Terence Blanchard and the E-Collective, joined by the Turtle Island String Quartet, at the Quad Stage before Norah Jones was fully underway. Hutchings played music from his recent solo project, Afrikan Culture, unaccompanied on an array of wood flutes and clarinet—considerably more quiet and meditative stuff than the supercharged set he and his band Sons of Kemet would play on the Fort Stage the next day. Blanchard’s beefed-up ensemble performed music from their recent Wayne Shorter tribute album for Wayne Shorter, Absence, with Blanchard and guitarist Charles Altura playing especially resplendent solos.
Jones’ closing set on Friday was a crowd-pleaser, the star backing her unmistakable voice on piano primarily (though she switched to electric guitar for one tune) through songs including “Something Is Calling You” (which she described as a Jesse Harris piece that was left off her 2002 debut album Come Away With Me but that she likes so much she keeps playing it in concert), “Say No More,” and “To Live.” Whether she got around to any of the Harris pieces that did make it onto her breakout album is known only by those willing to stick around for the whole set and risk getting caught in traffic afterward.
Saturday, too, was full of highlights. Melanie Charles and Jazzmeia Horn opened the Quad and Fort stages, respectively, and trumpeter Giveton Gelin (a recent ASCAP Foundation Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Award winner) went on just past noon on the Harbor Stage.
Makaya McCraven led a stellar ensemble—himself on drums, Brandee Younger on harp, Joel Ross on vibraphone, Marquis Hill on trumpet, Greg Ward on sax, Matt Gold on guitar, and Junius Paul on bass—through a brilliant Fort Stage set comprising music from his recent remix of classics from the Blue Note vault, Deciphering the Message (the one he named from the stage was Hank Mobley’s “A Slice from the Top”), and two extended pieces from his forthcoming album In These Times, due out in late September.
Sons of Kemet followed McCraven onto the Fort Stage and delivered a ferocious program, with Theon Cross dancing onstage every moment that he wasn’t blowing his tuba. Kemet leader Shabaka Hutchings later sat in on clarinet for one piece with Esperanza Spalding and her keyboard accompanist Leo Genovese. Spalding’s set skewed more avant-garde than most of the Fort Stage fare, as she played upright bass and made several passes at wordlessly singing along to the tricky melody of Genovese’s “A Minor Complex,” from his 2013 album Seeds. For the most part, it came across as an unusually casual master class in creativity, which Spalding’s star power and ebullient personality managed to make palatable to the audience. She and Genovese did include at least one more pop-oriented piece, “Cinnamon Tree,” from Spalding’s 2012 album Radio Music Society.
The Fort sets on either side of Spalding’s featured guitarist Cory Wong, both his own and that of the day’s final act, Fearless Flyers—whose ranks also included Nate Smith on drums. There was excellent music to be found on the smaller stages as well. Around the corner from Spalding’s performance, her onetime employer and Berklee College of Music professor Joe Lovano led his Trio Tapestry unit with pianist Marilyn Crispell and drummer Carmen Castaldi in a contemplative set at the Harbor Stage. Earlier standouts there included the heralded young vocalist Samara Joy and pianist Sullivan Fortner.
Fortner also was in the band backing Cécile McLorin Salvant for her enthralling Quad Stage set. She was preceded there by a rare performance of the Maria Schneider Orchestra. McBride, in introducing her, called Schneider “a natural treasure,” and she and the orchestra went on to prove it. Her set began with a piece from her debut album of 30 years ago, Evanescence, followed by two others from her most recent one, Data Lords: the dystopian title track and “Sputnik.” Schneider wryly observed that these days it’s corporations, rather than countries, that are competing to colonize outer space.
Yussef Dayes substituted for the Jack DeJohnette Quartet set scheduled for the Quad Stage, leading to speculation in the press tent about whether DeJohnette or someone in his band had tested positive for COVID. Similarly, a Saturday tweet by Vijay Iyer announcing that “circumstances [being] what they are in 2022,” Tyshawn Sorey would be replaced on drums at Iyer’s trio set on Sunday by Jeremy Dutton seemed to insinuate that the coronavirus was involved.
Iyer’s trio, also featuring Linda May Han Oh on bass, nonetheless played a strong Harbor Stage set on Sunday, as did both Melissa Aldana’s group and the Emmet Cohen Trio. At the Quad Stage, rising British sax star Nubya Garcia made her Newport debut; bassist Daniel Casimir and drummer Sam Jones from her debut album Source backed her up, with Greg Spero subbing admirably for Joe Armon-Jones on keyboards. They played a mix of songs from the album and new material, Garcia chatting up the appreciative audience between tunes and dancing during bandmates’ solos.
The Ron Carter Quartet was a half-hour late opening the Fort Stage that morning, leading to a shortened performance. Likewise, the group billed as Jazz Is Dead—which included Gary Bartz—was still fumbling through its Quad Stage soundcheck 20 minutes past its posted start time, presumably causing that set to be truncated as well.
Some of us gave up waiting to find out when Bartz and JID would start and scurried to the Fort Stage to catch Jason Moran & the Bandwagon instead. That proved a good choice, as the Moran set proved to be a high point of the festival. He, bassist Tarus Mateen, and drummer Nasheet Waits roared through some of their own material and covers of Geri Allen (“Feed the Fire”), Wes Montgomery (“Four on Six”), Fats Waller (“Sheik of Araby”), and Thelonious Monk (“Thelonious”). “For us it’s all a family,” Moran told the audience during a break. Later came several pieces by James Reese Europe, described by Moran as “the big bang of everything that’s happening here.” He went on to sketch out for the audience why Europe is of such critical importance to both the music and civil rights. He added that the trio, now entering its third decade together, will be recording an album of Europe’s music next month for release in 2023.
Moran ended his set by leading the audience in a sing-along. That sort of interaction was prominent with the other Fort Stage groups that day as well, with the Soul Rebels, Digable Planets, and Angélique Kidjo in particular getting the crowd up and dancing.
But the biggest crowd-pleaser of all was the closing tribute to Wein, the festival’s longtime driving force. The set featured both previously announced and surprise all-stars. It began with a jam featuring Randy Brecker and Jon Faddis on trumpet, Lew Tabackin on tenor sax, Anat Cohen on clarinet, Christian Sands on piano, McBride on bass, and Lewis Nash on drums.
Cécile McLorin Salvant emerged from the wings afterward to sing a number, with Jay Leonhart now on bass. Piano virtuoso Hiromi came out to play a dazzling solo piece, mugging at the audience occasionally while blazing through phenomenally difficult passages. She and Faddis then played a gorgeous “Over the Rainbow” together. Trombone Shorty sang and played “On the Sunny Side of the Street” and “St. James Infirmary,” the former blowing trumpet rather than his namesake instrument. Cohen came out afterward for a version of “Jitterbug Waltz.”
Wein, who had championed these artists (and these songs) through the years, would have loved all of it.