Real music lovers can find the melody in everything. From the park to the concert hall, our friend Nelson Brill is always on the hunt for great sound. In this blog, Nelson takes us to the Newport Jazz Festival. At this year’s festival, Nelson was struck by the talent of the many female artists headlining this year and takes us through some of his favorite women-led performances.
NEWPORT JAZZ FESTIVAL 2022: SATURDAY’S EDITION CELEBRATES WOMEN VOCALISTS AND VENTURING BANDS
By Nelson Brill | September 5, 2022
A capacity audience, diverse and buzzing, gathered in the sunshine to hear live jazz at “the grandfather of all jazz festivals” – the Newport Jazz Festival (“Newport Jazz”) – taking place from June 29th-31st at Fort Adams State Park in Newport, Rhode Island. This was the first time since its founding in 1954 that Newport Jazz was held without its founding impresario, George Wein, who passed-on last September at age 95.
Newport Jazz’s current Artistic Director, bassist extraordinaire Christian McBride, made sure that Wein’s indelible spirit for musical adventure continued to inspire this year’s festival. On Saturday, (the day I attended), McBride was present on the festival’s three stages introducing artists with his enthusiastic booming voice: “Are you ready for healing music?” “Let’s hear it! We know you want it!” McBride’s exuberance reflected the irresistible energy that rippled through the sold-out audiences at Newport Jazz this year as music lovers basked in the joys of hearing live jazz.
I looked forward to this year’s Saturday edition of Newport Jazz for its stellar line-up of women jazz vocalists fronting promising bands. First to perform- early Saturday morning – was the talented Haitian vocalist Melanie Charles. Charles and her band delivered a magnetic set celebrating the music of many of Charles’ women-in-jazz idols and focusing on songs from her powerful debut recording, Ya’ll Don’t [Really] Care About Black Women [Verve].
Charles’ stage presence was pure confidence and joy. She danced, twirled and tapped her high-heels as she explored her Haitian roots in French songs with sweet litheness, floating on her expressive smooth-sailing vocals. Her version of Abbey Lincoln’s “Music Is The Magic!” was a rocking treat that pulsated in Charles’ glowing wordless phrasing nestled in her brother’s bursting saxophone lines and kinetic bass and drum accents. Her creative version of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” was a passionate, uplifting meditation. It was taken at a walking-blues pace, with Charles singing passionately in clarion phrasing, great focus (with scant vibrato) the song’s arching melody animated in her tender highest reaches. This classic anthem culminated in Charles’ repeatedly singing its positive chorus- “We are Stardust!”- in her bright-hued vocal range as the crowd sang along in gleeful sway.
Another wonderful performance on Saturday morning was a concert performed at the Fort Stage by the brilliant and zestful vocalist Jazzmeia Horn and her sparkling band. From the moment she took the stage, Jazzmeia was inspired with a sunny sense of adventure as she and her band dove into her rich songbook with verve. Her glistening vocal play was supremely assured. Her sweet and sassy gallops through her flexible vocal range was stunning- bold, sly and healing. One great example was Jazzmeia’s performance of her uplifting tune, “Free Your Mind!” (taken from her superb 2019 recording, Love And Liberation [Concord Jazz].
On this tune, Jazzmeia dashed (quick-as-a-hummingbird), through a spray of notes and sounds up and down the invisible register of her imagined horn that she laid out in front of her. Ecstatic ovations from the crowd encouraged her to sing to a highest sustained note, (held as a joyful squeal), after which she descended (comically with a broad grin) to explore nimble baritone short phrases – all for the joy of it. Her stellar band followed her locomotive phrases and audacious improvisations with ease: piano and sax flinging notes in crisp interplay riding the slipstream of Jazzmeia’s ever-adventurous and expressive vocal freedom.
The sound quality at the Fort Stage captured all the sparkle and airy-swept beauty of Jazzmeia’s vocal performance and you could hear quite well all the tactile details of her band’s instruments even in such a large open-aired space. This was the sense I had of the good sound quality at all three of the festival’s stages on Saturday. The only issue for the audiophile listener was sometimes not hearing the softer instruments in the overall mix on the festival’s largest stages, such as not being able to hear clearly the gorgeous harp of Brandee Younger or the swooping vibes of Joel Ross during their performance with Makaya McCraven, also held at the large Fort Stage.
Vivacious young vocalist Samara Joy was also a brilliant performer at her debut at Newport Jazz on Saturday, lighting up the Harbor Stage before her overflowing audience Samara presented a mesmerizing vocal style that combined both a command of the vocal styles of legendary women vocalists who have come before her (for instance, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald- two legends that McBride mentioned in his animated introduction of Samara) and her own fresh talent with vocal color, phrasing and her natural love of swing. She sang with an egoless bravura spirit, effortlessly mining a knock-out version of a Nat King Cole tune and the razzle-dazzle of a Thelonious Monk creation. Her great instincts for color and phrasing glittered her re-invention of the lightly-swinging “Everything Happens To Me” and a spunky “It’s Easy To See The Trouble With Me Is You”. Her velvety vibrato and perfect pitch lent burnished glow to several beautiful ballads. On all these delectable tunes, her band swung playfully behind her. Guitarist Pasquale Grasso was a special treat to hear. His dialogues with Samara were always sweet and searching with Grasso’s resonant guitar conversing in breezy chords and fastidious runs. The crowd could not hold back numerous ecstatic ovations, clearly enamored with the soulful charm of this talented young singer.
Samara Joy’s superb self-titled debut recording on Whirlwind Recordings is a great introduction to her art. This audiophile gem captures Samara and her band in an airy and layered acoustic and places the listener front and center to all the sparkling action and joyful swing. Keep an ear out for the blossoming talent of Samara Joy in concert. For locals to Boston, she and her band play at Scullers Jazz Club in Cambridge, MA. on 9/16 (see www.scullersjazz.com).
The celebration of female vocal talent at Saturday’s edition of Newport Jazz continued with the appearance of Lady Blackbird (LA-based singer, Marley Munroe) making her debut with her band on the festival’s Harbor Stage. Lady Blackbird immediately grabbed the attention of the capacity audience with her startling outfit and her songs sung in her earthy questing voice- poignant, riveting and soulful. The band focused on songs culled from their new recording, Black Acid Soul [BMG], a recording that offers a beautifully breathing and plushly layered soundstage.
Lady Blackbird’s music is an inviting and earthy combination of slow-brewing soul grooves with warm balladry. At her Newport Jazz debut, her performance of the original ballad, “Five Feet Tall” and her the slow-brewing anthem, “Fix It”, were spellbinding. The overflowing audience was reduced to a hushed whisper listening-in to Lady Blackbird’s lustrous delivery lending emotional verve to each of these sultry numbers, kissed by soft piano, softly spinning guitar lines and undulating bass and drum. With her light vibrato and a touch of silky husk to her highest reaches, Lady Blackbird’s voice invites the listener into her soulful world and builds a direct conduit to the heart. I only wished at this concert (and on her recording -which keeps consistently to a slow-brewing pace), that Lady Blackbird and her stellar band would also explore more up-tempo songs in their creative arsenal to give Lady Blackbird’s smoky, compelling voice a chance to unfurl its glories in these more varied tempos and settings.
Another female vocalist who cast a mesmerizing spell at Newport Jazz was the singular Cecile McLorin Salvant and her luminous band, who performed on Saturday afternoon at the Quad Stage. Performing before her overflowing adoring audience, Salvant and her partners explored songs from Salvant’s newest recording, Ghost Song [Nonesuch Records]. Here is another audiophile gem teeming with crisp and natural imagery and a layering of acoustic space – particularly in capturing the layered voices of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus on the powerful title cut of the album.
From the moment Salvant entered the stage at Newport Jazz (in her sparkling green dress), she held the audience in the palm of her hand. Her vocal quality and range is wonderfully realized. She possesses pitch-perfect flow and flutter through her expressive range (which can include surprising turns into quick and soulful inflections or deep purple plunges); her diction is clarion and clear and she possesses this life-affirming joy that bubbles over in her mining the narratives of every song she explores with her dramatic focus. One of my favorite moments from Salvant’s Newport Jazz concert was her and her band’s performance of the beautiful Gregory Porter tune, “No Love Dying” (taken from Porter’s brilliant album, Liquid Spirit [Blue Note]. This sweet anthem (which also appears on her Ghost Song recording) was performed at this concert with dazzling lightness and directness of spirit as Salvant’s winsome vocals nestled in Sullivan Fortner’s sprite piano and Keita Ogawa’s soft-hued percussion. Another memorable moment came when Salvant fixed the audience with her fierce and comic glance to convey the drama and boldness of her quick-spoken piece, “Obligation”, and then, without hesitation, sported a wide grin and raised her arms to signal the start of a new song with a shimmying groove (with the audience swaying along immediately), as she sang playfully and light next to shuffling grooves from Marvin Sewell’s guitar and Alexa Tarantino’s shining flute. Salvant’s positive stage presence and resplendent vocal energy also flowed forth in a bold song with the repeated chorus: “Not Too Late To Change Your Life!” with Savant repeating this chorus in urgent calls and clarity – determined to hit home this positive message – while her band played bracingly behind her in waves of uplifting colors.
Savant’s sunny and impeccable band at Newport Jazz highlighted how this Saturday edition was also a great occasion to hear superlative musicianship and fresh instrumental voices. A shining example was young trumpeter Giveton Gelin leading a ferociously tight band at the Harbor Stage. At this volcanic performance, each trumpet, sax and piano solo leapt into the air with great energy and breakneck dialogue. Gelin’s trumpet inventions were an adventurous treat. He sent piercing runs to the stratosphere of his instrument and held the audience transfixed with his creative pell-mell note selections, always keeping the bebop beat in perfect stride.
The dynamic band Sons of Kemet offered another instrumental treat at the Fort Stage with their unique combination of sounds from tuba, twin drummers and saxophone. They took off at warp speed to pump and flow their African, Middle Eastern and New Orleans street band funk into a heady cauldron of sounds highlighted by volcanic solos from saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings and tuba player Theon Cross. At one point, Cross soloed extensively, his tuba a spectacular vehicle of high pumping belches, deep hurls and thunderous runs that ignited a huge dance party in front of the Fort Stage.
Another fresh instrumental feast was the concert at the Quad Stage performed by gifted drummer Antonio Sanchez and his rollicking Bad Hombre Band. Sanchez’s band included his spouse, the wondrous vocalist Thana Alexa, who spangled many tunes with her luminous and inventive vocal play nestled in electronic effects. On Sanchez’s expansive original, “I’m Waiting”, concussive waves of electronic keyboard, computer loops and crackling sounds cascaded around Sanchez’s teeming drums and Alexa’s airborne vocals. Watching Sanchez at his drum kit was a special treat: he would deaden his snare with one hand to create a crackling hollow rock beat and then he flourished his cymbals with a frenetic combination of hands and sticks to create a billowing shimmer of silvery sounds – like a cloud of coins tossed in the air.
Instrumental glory at this Saturday’s edition of Newport Jazz could not end without some big band frolic and such a gift was provided- in joyful measure- by composer and conductor extraordinaire, Maria Schneider, leading her superlative Maria Schneider Orchestra (“MSO”) in selections from their award-winning recording, Data Lords [ArtistShare] (an album voted “Best Large Ensemble Recording” in this year’s DownBeat Annual Critics Poll [www.downbeat.com]. One of the many memorable moments from this MSO concert was the performance of a new Schneider composition, “The Great Potoo”, Schneider’s musical tribute to an unusual nocturnal bird found in Central and South America. The large-bodied Potoo was musically introduced by a deep marching theme in the MSO brass section, accented by Gary Versace’s twinkling piano solo and Johnathan Blake’s brisk percussive urgency.
This unfolding drama led into a forest of fantastical solos, culminating in tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin’s inventive creation in which he blew breathy squalls of deep sounds (with bold split-tone effects and angular belches) and then leapt – honking and quaking- to his instrument’s highest range with a swirl of glittering runs and comic flight. The piece ended with a rising chorus from the MSO’s shining brass section – deep, regal and uplifting – offering jazz’s power of promise and restoration at another glorious day at Newport Jazz.
*Many thanks to Jim Brock (www.eyeonthemusic.com) for sharing his stellar photography! *
You can read more of Nelson’s concert reviews at www.bostonconcertreviews.com.