“The granddaddy of all jazz festivals” kicked off Friday, July 31, at Newport, R.I.’s Fort Adams State Park, the stony fortress transformed by the echoes from three lively stages of music. The sounds ranged from the bluesy-rock of Lucky Peterson to swinging conservatory big bands and the thoughtful contemporary jazz of artists like Steve Lehman and Matana Roberts.
In its 61st year, the Newport Jazz Festival remains one of the preeminent places to survey all corners of the jazz scene, just as it was first imagined by legendary jazz promoter George Wein. At 89 years old, Wein can still be spotted checking out the acts all over the festival.
Read on for a play-by-play of some of the jazz fest’s most memorable moments from Day 1.
11:27 a.m.: Festival-goers, descending from water taxis and shuttle buses on the sunny park, were greeted by brassy swing from the University of Rhode Island-Newport big band as they played crowd-pleasing tunes like “Come Fly With Me” and “Night and Day.”
12:03 p.m.: The vibe was cool at the Quad Stage, where Ambrose Akinmusire kicked things off with his sunglass-clad quartet (drummer Justin Brown kept things even more low-key, tearing up the kick drum and hi-hat in socks). The trumpeter’s set of lush, evocative compositions included “Rollcall For Those Absent” (his tribute to the many recent victims of police brutality) and stunning ballad “Regret (No More),” which left the already large crowd speechless.
12:52 p.m.: Drummer Tyshawn Sorey tore up the stage on his tom-less set, turning saxophonist and bandleader Steve Lehman’s asymmetrical melodies into grooves worthy of a rock show (or maybe the basis for Kendrick Lamar‘s next jazz-infused outing). The octet (there was even a tuba) dug into songs off Lehman’s critically-acclaimed 2014 album, Mise en Abime, including “13 Colors” and “Segregated and Sequential.”
1:21 p.m.: Twin tenors Chris Potter and Mark Turner kept things grooving at the Fort Stage with sultry, heartfelt renditions of classics like “All Across The City” by Jim Hall and Cedar Walton’s “Firm Roots.” The pair, fronting drummer Jonathan Blake’s breezily flawless quartet, had a playfully contentious rapport, upping the improvisational ante with each solo — all to the benefit of the delighted crowd. “This is one of my favorite places to play,” Blake told the crowd.
1:54 p.m.: Trumpeter and vocalist Bria Skonberg lent her rich scatting to thoughtful rendition of standard “Tea For Two” at the Harbor Stage, recalling the 1958 performance of a Newport legend Anita O’Day.
2:15 p.m.: Pianist Gerald Clayton‘s quintet (which included Akinmusire and Kneebody saxophonist Ben Wendel) was so hyped, it inspired a mini mosh-pit of jazz students (identifiable by their bright, institution-specific T-shirts). Fittingly, the performance got off to a rollicking start with an urgent performance of Clayton’s “A Light.”
2:39 p.m.: It’s hard to imagine a more idyllic scene than being brushed by the winds of Newport Harbor as Clayton gave life to the tired phrase “tickling the ivorys” with a gentle, thoughtful solo spin on the house Steinway.
3:12 p.m.: Bluesman Lucky Peterson had the crowd on its feet as he wrapped up his set with jubilant singalong to “Proud Mary” alongside his wife, vocalist Tamara Tramell Peterson — even the security guards were dancing.
3:43 p.m.: A saucy rendition of Lee Morgan classic “Sidewinder” echoed through the Harbor Stage, courtesy of former Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra drummer Herlin Riley’s quintet.
4:10 p.m.:”The purpose is just to jam,” Grammy-winning cross-genre quintet Kneebody told the crowd of their raison d’etre. They made good on that proclamation during their set, filled with off-center funk and even a choop and screwed “Cha Cha.”
4:59 p.m.: Virtuosic bassist Christian McBride, looking dapper in a grey suit, served up classic tunes ranging from Wes Montgomery‘s “Fried Pies” to Rose Royce‘s “Car Wash” (really!) at a rapid fire pace, swinging with competitive ferocity alongside pianist Christian Sands and drummer Ulysses Owens.
5:30 p.m.: Snarky Puppy closed out the day with a full-on funk dance party — a climbing flugelhorn solo matched the rising sweet smoke of a nearby toker, as the festival vibes took over. “How you doing Newport?” asked frontman Mike League (“their George Clinton,” according to a nearby radio DJ) during a full keyboard breakdown. Dancing in the sun, overlooking the shining, sailboat-filled harbor, the answer could only be “Great” — and ready for another two days of music.