Esperanza Spalding, Maceo Parker & 5 Other Best Moments From the 2017 Newport Jazz Festival
"I like jazz with a little grease on it," said bassist, bandleader, and now Newport Jazz Festival artistic director Christian McBride by way of introducing a George Duke tune called "Black Messiah (Part Two)" during his Saturday set. Though certainly intended for comic effect, his mid-set riff on "that dirty f-word" ("funk," but said to induce giggles) effectively outlined his programming philosophy for the storied annual jazz fete.
The festival, which took place Aug. 4 to Aug. 6 this year, has brought a wide swath of the jazz scene to the elite, monied enclave of Newport, Rhode Island for 63 years now -- a period of time that’s seen the genre transform many times over, as well as endless debates about how legitimate those transformations were or weren’t. Newport is one venue for that evergreen old vs. new face-off, which McBride made clear with a dig at jazz he deemed "gluten-free" (probably translatable as "not rooted in the blues").
His guidance, though -- if this year’s edition is any indication -- should equal smooth sailing for the world’s oldest jazz festival, where audiences may be aficionados ($20 student tickets mean hordes of jazz-loving conservatory and college students) or just accustomed to the annual variant in their sunbathing routine (many bring camp chairs and coolers for a full-on jazz tailgate). The one thing that wide range of spectators can agree on is performances to which you can’t help but say, "Wow" (or "Awesome," as one wide-eyed listener characterized a tabla solo during Amir ElSaffar’s Rivers of Sound set).
McBride's lineup brought that kind of heat, full of Newport veterans who knew how to sate the crowd’s hunger for jaw-dropping, gut-wrenching solos and simmering on-stage chemistry -- playing that inspires the kind of hoots and whistles and screaming you hear on the many, many albums recorded live at the festival. The music leaned into tradition (or more accurately, traditions) which, after all, is what Newport is all about.
Here are seven of the weekend’s best performances, show-stopping enough to get the crowd on their feet, and creative enough to affirm the festival’s commitment to the most exciting music the jazz world has to offer.
Vijay Iyer Sextet
It's hard to go wrong with Iyer, a pianist whose projects are reliably among the jazz world’s most critically acclaimed. What the Newport audience got a taste of with this ensemble, though, was his fun side. Alongside what is essentially a contemporary jazz supergroup -- saxophonist Steve Lehman and drummer Tyshawn Sorey are also critical darlings -- Iyer was fluid, dynamic, and most importantly, funky. It was a happy marriage of one-chord grooves and improvisation straight out of jazz’s front edge, like if the best musicians you’ve ever met started a jam band. When Sorey sunk into an unshakeable backbeat, there was an audible gasp throughout the crowd; then, dancing (or maybe that was just me).
Jazz 100: The Music of Dizzy, Mongo and Monk
In 2017, jazz has been obliged to spend a longer than usual amount of time looking back -- not only is it the centennial of what's conventionally accepted as the first jazz record, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Ella Fitzgerald and Mongo Santamaría were all born in 1917. An all-star band led by pianist Danilo Pérez (who played with Diz) paid tribute to three of those artists, whose music conventionally flows together quite easily. High points came with saxophonist Chris Potter and Perez’s bare, evocative duo rendition of Monk’s "Off Minor," and with Roman Diaz’s inimitable percussion on the timeless "Afro Blue."
Vocal jazz is as popular as ever, and as critically underrated as ever -- no surprise, given that the majority of its practitioners are women. With her Friday afternoon set, McLorin-Salvant showed once again how foolish that divide is with a truly exceptional rendition of Duke Ellington’s "Sophisticated Lady" -- an interpretation that somehow shed new light on a standard performed at the festival since its inception. On Big Bill Broonzy’s "Black, Brown and White" and folk song "John Henry," she used her gift for theatricality as a tool to make the audience look inward, presenting each line with clarity and feeling but without compromise. It was a master class in entertainment as confrontation: impossible to turn away from her captivating performance, which made it impossible to ignore the enduring relevance of each song’s straightforward indictment of American society.
Parker has been putting on shows for half a century, and he wasn't about to stop at Newport -- the funk maestro appeared ageless as he danced around the stage to classics from various stages of his career, and some from others (a Ray Charles impression appeared somewhere along the way). Most thrilling was the moment he dusted off James Brown’s "Cold Sweat" -- otherwise known as the birthplace of the phrase "give the drummer some," as well as one of Maceo’s most memorable solos. But when he said it, it wasn’t to the late Clyde Stubblefield, Brown’s storied drummer; it was to Nikki Glaspie, a woman who spent a significant portion of her career behind the kit for Beyoncé -- making the funk, R&B and jazz world a little bit smaller.
Jason Moran: Fats Waller Dance Party
You wouldn’t necessarily expect Jason Moran, one of modern jazz’s most respected pianists, to engage in what essentially amounts to jazz LARPing -- he sports a custom-made Fats Waller mask while performing some of Waller’s most memorable tunes. But he turns what could be a cock-eyed tribute into an irresistible exercise of jazz's populist side. Moran and his band make songs like "Ain’t Misbehavin" and "Two Sleepy People" timeless with a fearless blend of hip-hop, funk, R&B and jazz, flowing together to bring back the party-ready feeling -- if not the exact, swinging aesthetic -- of Waller’s biggest hits. Those not daunted by the heat danced accordingly, especially when Moran brought in a house beat-driven rendition of Ornette Coleman's "Lonely Woman" or in his words, what he imagined happened when Ornette and Fats met; the best kind of musical fan fiction.
DJ Logic’s Project Logic
Turntablism in jazz was well represented at this year’s festival -- not only was DJ Logic on the bill two times, but the Roots brought their own big band hip-hop into the mix as well. Logic’s band, though stunted by an unfortunate late arrival, quickly fell into a deep groove thanks to both Logic and drummer Marcus Gilmore. The gradual layering of bass and piano licks created a solid backbone for master soloists Jaleel Shaw (saxophone) and Keyon Harrold (trumpet) -- when the group found a riff they all liked, it was passed around the band in staggered repetitions: a real-time remix.
Flying Toward the Sound: For Geri, With Love
"There’s really no words," Esperanza Spalding said towards the beginning of her set at the festival’s Quad stage. Geri Allen was supposed to play at Newport, and then she was supposed to do a run of shows at the Village Vanguard, reuniting with her frequent collaborators Spalding and Terri Lyne Carrington. But Allen passed away suddenly at the end of June, and so her scheduled performances tragically turned into tributes -- ones that were likely difficult for the artists, given how little time had passed. The results, though, were stunning: Spalding and Carrington have incomparable rhythmic chemistry, forming probably the best support any pianist could ask for. They had some of the best pianists on hand to complete the trio (though somewhat puzzlingly, none were women -- an omission that glosses over Allen’s status as a pioneer), with Christian Sands, Vijay Iyer and Jason Moran cycling through. The music was generous and lyrical, with Moran offering what came closest to a requiem on "Lucky To Be Me." It began quiet, sparse and heartfelt, swelling and then gradually decelerating, ending not with a bang but with an exhale.