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, we welcome the return of the Newport Jazz Festival. Nelson was there in order to share the performances with you, from time-honored veterans to fresh voices of the festival.
NEWPORT JAZZ FESTIVAL 2021 – A HAVEN FOR FRESH SOUNDS AND RESILIENT SPIRIT
By Nelson Brill September 1, 2021
America’s music, Jazz, is on the move again. The joys of hearing live jazz continued this summer with the return, (after a one-year hiatus), of the 67th Edition of The Newport Jazz Festival (“Newport Jazz”) (www.newportjazz.org) held at Fort Adams State Park in Newport, Rhode Island from July 30th-August 1st. Newport Jazz, directed by the singular impresario George Wein for over sixty years and now captained by its Artistic Director, Christian McBride, continues to be a fertile ground for music of experimentation and verve reflecting the diversity of today’s America and its political and social movements. At the Saturday session, the sold-out crowd was teeming with young people, Black and White mingling together, clearly demonstrating that McBride and his staff have succeeded in advancing Wein’s legacy in presenting jazz that continues to be a unifying force and an inspiration for all ages.
The 95-year old Wein, (on a video call from New York City) welcomed to the Newport Jazz Lawn Stage one of his contemporaries, the singular Mavis Staples, who performed her magnetic “down home” Chicago blues and gospel-tinged songs before her dancing, adorning audience. After Wein’s introduction, the indomitable Mavis grabbed her microphone, punched her fists into the air and launched into the classic Staples Singers’ tune, “I’ll Take You There!” dancing alongside her tight-knit band: guitarist Rick Holmstrom, bassist Jeff Trumes, drummer Stephen Hodges and singers Donny Gerrard and Vicki Randle.
The band dug deep into several songs taken from their superb live recording, Live In London [Anti Records; www.ANTI.com]. They hunkered down on the deep grooves of the bristling “Who Told You That?” and rocked away on a spunky version of the Talking Head’s classic, “Slippery People”. Their pulsating “Can You Get To That” rode on Trumes’ thundering bass, Holmstrom’s melodic pulses and Mavis’ reveling vocals, accented by deep bass plunges from singer Donny Gerrard.
Holmstrom and Mavis made for a particularly joyful musical partnership. Mavis would lovingly clap the dapper Holmstrom on his back for his animated guitar solos that teemed with stinging notes and crisp rhythm-guitar sparks. Mavis’ voice was in fine form. Her voice still packs emotional power with its dusky low calls or gospel-rich leaps. Her bracing voice propelled the rollicking classic, “Respect Yourself!” and mined poignantly the soulful depths of the gospel gem, “Wade In The Water”. During this song, Mavis preached to the crowd about keeping up the fight against injustices and hatred (repeating in soaring calls, “My soul is anchored!).
Mavis and her band’s joyful performance at Newport Jazz was a perfect segue to hearing a fresh voice on the R&B and jazz scene, Ledisi Anibade Young, (known simply as “Ledisi”), whose music is also greatly influenced by down-home blues and gospel power. Ledisi swept onto the Quad Stage and took the audience by storm with her commanding voice– warm, lustrous and expressive – in intrepid exploration of the songbook of one of her heroes, the legendary Nina Simone. Accompanied by her sterling and nimble band, Ledisi launched into Simone’s “Do I Move You?” with deliberate stride, her silvery fluid voice capturing the power and sensual glow of this song’s slow-burning zeal.
If you are a vinyl fan, find at your local record store an original pressing, (or refer to the online catalogue of Analogue Productions (www.acousticsounds.com] for their excellent re-master) of the seminal blues recording, Nina Simone Sings The Blues [RCA LSP-3789]. On this brilliant recording, Simone entwines “Do I Move You?” with singular vocal power. This entire album is a treat (one of my favorite blues albums) and when it is heard on a reference high quality audio system, (in my room, FM Acoustics 123 phono preamplifier; Holborne turntable with Fuuga cartridge feeding Goldmund Telos 590 Next Gen. II Integrated Amplifier and Seidenton loudspeakers – see “Nelson’s System” for full details and reviews), Simone appears at her dynamic piano with reach-out and-touch tactile presence and natural imaging, as only vinyl can deliver. Her song, “My Man’s Gone Now” is a luminescent stunner and her “Backlash Blues” a searing indictment of institutional racism.
Back at Newport Jazz, Ledisi’s interpretation of Simone’s funky “Be My Husband” was all sass and inventive vocal flourishes. Another highlight from her concert was the band’s combination of Randy Newman’s powerful anthem “Baltimore” (sung by Simone on her 1978 album of the same name) transformed here into a bold statement. This powerful tune segued into Ledisi’s original song, “Shot Down”, a scathing portrayal of recent police murders led by thunderous big bass, drum thrusts and Ledisi’s glowing charge to the top of her expansive register. (Some of these passionate high flourishes, unfortunately, were marred by the shrill high volume of the sound mix at the Quad Stage for this performance).
Ledisi has just released her Ledisi Sings Nina [BMG Label; www.bmg.com] and this should be a treat to hear judging from her inventive and powerful interpretations of these songs at Newport Jazz. I have also enjoyed exploring Ledisi’s 2020 CD release, The Wild Card [BMG Label] a superb collection of both her originals and covers that teems with her adventurous spirit.
Highlights include the opening ”Anything For You”, (with Ledisi’s voice frolicking high and lithe); the uplifting “Stone” (gospel strong and regal), the swaying bluesy pulse of “Next Time” and the brimming sass of the swinging “What Kind of Love Is That”. Ledisi’s commanding voice flows warmly, earthy and creatively forceful on all of her great R & B and soul-infused adventures.
That same warm R&B flow -that feel for the sinuous groove or funky powerful blast – shares kindred space with the music of two other gifted artists who also appeared at the Saturday edition of Newport Jazz 2021: keyboardist and intrepid composer Robert Glasper (whose colorful “Now or Never” is covered in fine grooving form by Ledisi on her Wild Card) and bold trumpeter and composer, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah.
One of the many formations that the inventive Glasper has lassoed over the years is his “R+R=N” (“Reflect + Respond = Now”) group, consisting (at its core) of Glasper on keyboards, Derrick Hodge on bass, Terrace Martin and Taylor Mcferrin on synthesizers and vocoder and Justin Tyson on drums. R+R=N’s 2018 recording, Collagically Speaking [Blue Note; www.bluenote.com], is an excellent introduction to this alighting music with its shifting rhythms, layered drum and bass textures and inventive spoken-word directness to the power of love and resilience. Listen to the ever-adventurous Derrick Hodge on his sinuous bass (for example, his warm plucky solo introducing the powerful tune, “Her=Now”) or get dancing to R+R=N’s grooving “Resting Warrior”, riding on Adjuah’s streaking trumpet and Martin and McFerrin’s keyboard and synthesizer windswept grooves.
At their Saturday performance, this core group (aided by talented guests saxophonist Kamasi Washington and vocalist Phoelix), plied their adoring audience with their funky “jazztronica” brew- diverse in its sounds, colors and dance. The group’s performance of “Freeze Tag” added ripples of spoken-word and poetry to their creative mix with Martin’s sax hitting hard in the warm groove propelled by Glasper’s repeating patterns on his lithe keyboard.
Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, making a guest appearance with Glasper on Saturday, also appeared with his own spirited band at the Lawn Stage at Newport Jazz, exploring his “Stretch Music”- spanning the globe with influences from bebop to lithe African rhythms. The band’s questing spirit at their Newport Jazz performance included the welcomed addition of flautist Elena Pinderhughes, who plied her sprite instrument with bluesy trills and high, dancing flourishes. Her sparkling flute, combined with Adjuah’s dynamic trumpet, made for a radiant partnership. Her articulate flute dipped and danced with Adjuah’s trumpet- from his highest rapid-fire piercing runs to his tranquil moments (squeezing short breathy bleats from his horn)- all in the service of questing passion and expression. Keyboardist Lawrence Fields, always an intrepid force, added his own twinkling voice to the band’s charisma and invention. His twinkling piano solo on the ballad, “Guinevere” (a David Crosby nugget) glowed with lithe charm. His careening solo on the band’s rollicking version of Herbie Hancock’s “Eye Of The Hurricane” (ranging to every octave of his piano) propelled Hancock’s feast delivered in bold colors and intensity by this consummate, gregarious band.
Another source of open-eared music at Newport Jazz at this Saturday session – one that combined a mercurial jazz band, impassioned vocals, (spoken-word and poetry) with snippets of pre-recorded speeches and nimble DJ action- was the striking music performed by drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and her Social Science, with pianist Aaron Parks, guitarist Matthew Stevens, saxophonist and bassist Morgan Guenin, vocalist Debo Ray and MC, DJ Kassa Overall. Social Science explored original material from their bold 2020 album, Waiting Game [Motema Music; www.motema.com], a quality recording that captures the tactile heat and synergy of these convivial musicians thriving on their songs of deep groove and spoken-word power.
Every tune on the album is driven by the singular Carrington on her stalwart drum kit. She reliably drives the music’s foundation with inventive, fluid propulsion that sparkles and shines or startles – with her dynamic deep eruptions hitting with audacious power – as the music requires.
At Social Science’s Newport Jazz performance, their”If Not Now” was a funky, grooving power glide with the band laying down mercurial, potent colors. The song ended with the crowd singing along with vocalist Debo Ray on the tune’s swaying and dancing “By-yah, By–yah” choruses. Ray also sang with operatic power (in to her highest silvery register) on the band’s powerful “Anthem”, a song that salutes the resiliency and power of women everywhere. On the band’s shimmering version of Joni Mitchell’s “Love,” Ray’s voice nestled tender in Steven’s guitar washes and Guenin’s spinning warm bass slides. Kassa Overall’s limber percussive effects and snippets of recordings (from women held as political prisoners in recent history) generated the power of “No Justice For Political Prisoners”, a magnetic piece that blazed on Guenin’s muscular sax solo, Steven’s layered guitar hurls and seismic hits from Carrington’s drums. All of this swirling energy empowered the recorded statements by these political prisoners calling for an end to racism and injustices suffered in their own legal cases (and for the advancement of prisoner’s rights everywhere). This was a moving, boundless performance by Social Science, highlighting the transformative power of music in the service of political and personal change.
The feast of exuberant music at Newport Jazz at this Saturday edition concluded with two performances teeming with joyful soar and upbeat possibilities. First up was an explosive performance by venturing saxophonist Kenny Garrett, soaring on his instrument with irresistible groove and power. Garrett delivered geysers of sounds and colors from his gleaming sax – lean and nimble in their quick bursts – throwing back his head to ignite his rapid-fired high calls. His music was a global feast, roughhousing from blues to Cuban rumba with a joyful sense of discovery. Garrett’s trusted bandmates added carousing piano colors, lithe bass lines and big swathes of drum and conga heat to Garrett’s full-bore attack. The apex of this knockout performance occurred when Garrett took off on an extended solo flight on his sax that teemed with breathless runs, blazing trills, deep bleats and swaggering R & B swing ending with a journey into the stratosphere of his register, urged on by a raucous audience riveted to his every blistering run. Garrett’s new album, Sounds From the Ancestors [Mack Avenue Records, www.mackavenue.com], is due out soon and should be a thrill to explore, given his shining, global-inspired performance at Newport Jazz.
Saturday’s Newport Jazz edition concluded monumentally with a joyful, rollicking performance by Troy Andrews (aka. Trombone Shorty; “Shorty”) and his big band, Orleans Avenue, barnstorming Newport’s Lawn Stage with their kinetic grooves. The energy of this show was irresistible – from the first blares of punctual brass to the appearance of Shorty and his gleaming trombone (lifted to the sky) to deliver his instrument’s breathy, powerful pulses of dance.
The tight-knit Orleans Avenue concentrated on a number of cuts from their terrific 2017 Blue Note label recording, Parking Lot Symphony, a recording that captures this frolicking band in all its tactile, layered heat within the airy confines of the legendary Esplanade Studio in New Orleans, the same studio where Newvelle Records recently recorded their fabulous New Orleans Collection of artists on their impeccable LPs (see my earlier review and www.newvelle-records.com for all information).
The high-wattage fun at Shorty and Orleans Avenue‘s Newport Jazz performance had the capacity crowd dancing from start to finish. The dashing instrumental, “Tripped Out Slim” sent the dancing ablaze with its pumping foundation by baritone saxman BK Jackson and the rest of the band’s tight grooves. “Dirty Water” pranced on the slink of Pete Murano’s electric guitar and on “It Ain’t No Use”, Shorty’s molasses-smooth vocals sashayed alongside the shimmy of brass choruses. On the irresistible anthem, “Where It At?”, Shorty’s gushing and vital trombone led the “Second Line” carouse with its deep pulses and flair while the crowd danced and sung along to the rousing chorus: “I just want my heart back – Where it At?” Here was Newport Jazz at its most funky and playful – a carefree abandon in rejoicing music of resiliency.
*Many thanks to my friend and colleague, Jim Brock [www.eyeonthemusic.com], for his superb photos from all the great action at Newport Jazz this year!
You can read more of Nelson’s concert reviews at www.bostonconcertreviews.com.