Newport Jazz Festival 2021 Highlights Day One and Two
The 2021 Newport Jazz Festival was like no other. Due to the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, attendance was limited to 6000 patrons and half of the stages were eliminated. The Harbor Stage became a food truck/eating area and the Storyville indoor stage was eliminated altogether. No matter, the lineup of the 2021 Newport Jazz Festival was one of the best in years. The list of performers included something for everyone. The cast consisted of legends, their modern contemporaries, and newcomers to the scene who have the potential to become legends. Artists such as Robert Glasper, Arturo O’Farrill, Christian McBride, Cory Wong, Chris Potter, Kenny Garrett, Ledisi, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah and others performed outstanding sets.
During the first two days of the festival, blues/jazz/R&B vocalists shined. Avery Sunshine and Grammy award winning, Cathrine Russell impressed their audiences. Rochester, New York native Danielle Ponder, who is practically unknown outside of her native city, left the audience speechless after her opening number. The former public defender, admittedly nervous, changed up the setlist and covered Radiohead’s “Creep.” At the end of her set, which had multiple standing ovations, the singer announced to the crowd she had just signed onto a record deal.
Another standout performance came from Kamasi Washington. I have seen Kamasi Washington close to a dozen times. The bandleader continues to grow and expand the band’s boundaries. This eleven piece ensemble, which highlighted every member, is like no other. The horn heavy band blasted for over an hour. Highlights included “Sun Drenched Child,” recently written after he had become a father, and the call to action song, “Fists of Fury.
Each year there is some bleed over from the Newport Folk Festival. This year was no exception. At the 2019 Newport Folk Festival Yola debuted to rave reviews. She sat in with various other musicians, including the Highwomen, making her a fan favorite. The Newport Foundation scheduled Yola to play the Folk and Jazz Festivals in 2021. While in Newport, Yola debuted material off her latest release Stand For Myself, recorded a club show, and promoted her new album, which was released Friday, the date of her performance at the Jazz Festival. While she is well known in the Folk circle she is lesser known to the Jazz Festival audience. Yola’s audience was much smaller at the Jazz Festival and she looked tired from a week’s worth of promotion and performances. Yola showed off many sides of her voice on the title track of her new album. Yola possesses a powerful soulful voice which can be compared to Aretha Franklin or Jennifer Hudson. She did not allow theatrics to take over her performance. Instead Yola let her voice win over the audience.
Another band that has performed at the Newport Folk Festival was Khruangbin. The genre bashing, Houston, Texas based trio blended rock, soul, surf, dub, jazz, world, and Eastern rhythms into their Friday closing performance. The instrumental band’s driven guitar and tight rhythm section had the crowd grooving from the first selection, “August Twelve” until it’s finale, “People Everywhere”(Still Alive)”. The crowd demanded and received an encore, “Evan Finds The Third Room”, something that is a rare event at this festival.
Mavis Staples…….Mavis Staples……….MAVIS STAPLES!!!!! The eighty two year old was introduced to the audience by 95 year old George Wein. Unable to attend in person, the legendary festival producer phoned in his introduction. Current Executive Producer, Jay Sweet, wearing a Mavis Staples jersey, shared Wein’s phone call live with the crowd. The rhythm and blues, gospel singer and civil rights activist’s rapport with the crowd was seamless The legendary singer’s setlist drew on her repertoire of Staples classics such as “Respect Yourself” and “Are You Sure” but did not shy away from more recently released material including the Jeff Tweedy penned “You Are Not Alone.” Staples, is one of a few performers whose voice sounds as moving and strong today as it did decades ago. The set concluded with “I’ll Take You There” which got the audience in the groove for the day’s final performance.
The trademark NOLA dance, jazz, and rock grooves from Troy Andrews, Trombone Shorty and New Orleans Avenue, who at a young age had already earned a reputation as one of this generation’s most captivating live acts, ended the day. For ninety minutes Newport was transported into a New Orleans street parade of nonstop energy. Band members were running all over the stage, dancing, soloing and hyping up the crowd. Most notably guitarist Pete Murano raised the crowd’s enthusiasm and singers Chrishira Perrier and Tracy Lee were each given the opportunity to let the spotlight shine on their vocals. Andrews has become a solidified band leader working hard to pump up the crowd but this did take away from his personal playing time. When Andrews did take up the trumpet or trombone he did so masterfully.
And so ended my last day at the festival. I’m eternally grateful for the measures the festival’s management put into place to make it such a safe place to congregate and hear live music. Hopefully by next year the festival and life itself will return to some form of normalcy.