Newport Jazz Festival 2023
Once again the Newport Jazz Festival returned to Fort Adams State Park in Rhode Island for three days of music. Jazz icons, up and coming acts, and genre defying artists performed on three stages each jam packed day. Artistic director Christian McBride booked a distinct lineup in which any music fan would find satisfying. Much like the Newport Folk Festival the Jazz Festival books acts which challenge the audience. Each day of the festival’s 69th year contained highlights fans will reminisce about for years to come.
Friday, day one of the festival, has recently drawn a much younger crowd. One of the many highlights included Soulive. The New York based trio laid down a funk heavy set. Eric Krasno’s blues based riffs had the crowd dangling from each note. An act I was most looking forward to was Durand Jones. Jones has taken a break from his bandmates The Indications and released the solo album, Wait Till I Get Over. Durand’s song selection was much more personal, but continued to blend soul, gospel, and jazz. By the end of his set the size of his audience had ballooned and the whole tent was dancing. The only other act of the day which brought the crowd to a dancing frenzy was DJ Pee .Wee (Anderson .Paak) All Vinyl Set. The singer, songwriter, and rapper, Anderson .Paak came to the stage with a drum set, New Orleans native Maurice Brown on trumpet, and a box of vinyl. For sixty minutes he played a medley of songs which mixed tracks from Missy Elliot, Grandmaster Flash, Micheal Jackson, and Human League with “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” by Whitney Houston. The largest crowd of the day was dancing and singing in unison to old school grooves. By far the most exciting set of the day, and possibly the entire weekend. On a totally separate musical spectrum Joe Russo’s Almost Dead accompanied by Branford Marsalis played covers of the Grateful Dead to close out the day. Marsalis, who played with the Grateful Dead multiple times, blended effortlessly into the mix. Highlights included the jazz infused “King Solomon’s Marbles”, an intensely jammed “Let It Grow,” the fan favorite “Terrapin Station” and the set closing “Brokedown Palace.” Branford’s stirring soprano saxophone solo was an ideal conclusion to a stand out set.
Day two hosted my most surprising highlight of the weekend, the Newport debut of Superblue: Kurt Elling & Charlie Hunter with Nate Smith. Although Elling is a baritone vocalist, commands a four octave range, and is an established composer and performer, I had never taken him seriously. In my eyes he portrayed a stereotypical lounge act jazz singer, a caricature of the genre. As the band’s set progressed I realized how terribly misinformed I was. Superblue takes on a funkier side of Kurt Elling and is anchored by the six string bass of Charlie Hunter and Nate Smith on drums. The set was relaxed and brought together spoken word style vocals with Ellings vocal swagger. The bands in the pocket groove blended effortlessly with Ellings vocal flow. It was obvious the band was enjoying themselves. Smiles and playful banter between bandmates filled the set. I look forward to future performances of this band. Another highlight, The War and Treaty, the duo of Michael Trotter and Tanya Blount-Trotter, was full of high energy and infectious joy. Throughout the set the couple commanded the stage. Their style of soul and blues mixed with some good old country style was spiritual. My words are unable to capture the experience. They must be seen.
Saturday’s finale was Jon Batiste. The previous weekend Batiste performed an abbreviated, and may I say, slightly disappointing set, at the Newport Folk Festival. Batiste most certainly redeemed himself. Batiste led an eleven piece brass band, reunited with Stephen Colbert bandmates Louis Cato and Jon Lampley, and led a second line which paraded throughout Fort Adams. Highlights included “Freedom,” “I Need You,” and “Tell The Truth.” Seeing Batiste commune with the audience was the perfect ending to a fun filled day.
The final day of the festival was not short of memorable moments. Pianist/organist Mathew Whittaker took control of the stage early in the day. The twenty two year old’s set mixed jazz standards with seventies soul and R&B. The playful spirit in his compositions kept the audience on their toes and their feet during his set. Regrettably, Diana Krall’s set overlapped with Samara Joy. I chose Joy’s set and have not regretted my choice. Last year Joy played on the smallest stage at the festival. She played an early set and many were unfamiliar with the up and coming jazz vocalist. At the conclusion of her jaw dropping set the audience was forced not to forget. Since then, Joy who is only twenty three, has been named best new artist by Jazz Times, Awarded a Grammy for Best New Artist, and her second album, Linger Awhile won a Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album. This year Joy played the second largest stage and was given thunderous applause during her set. “Stardust” left the audience in awe. The Bronx native conducted a jazz vocal clinic claiming her place next to vocal greats such as Ellas Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. Samara Joy has proven she needs to perform on the festival’s largest stage. I concluded my time in Newport with the Soul Rebels featuring Rakim and Talib Kewli. The New Orleans brass band invited the audience to leave their seats and press against the stage. The band began their set with traditional Second Line horn arrangements and some call-and-response with the audience. It felt like pure New Orleans. The band then invited rapper Rakim onto the stage. The Rebels horns and snappy snare drums provided the back up track to “Sweat The Technique.” Next, Kalib Kweli, one half of Mos Def, arrived on stage. The urgency of “Get By” was accented by the Soul Rebels.
The space does not allow me to review every highlight of the festival. But, the sets of Endea Owens, Imanuel Wilkens, Derrick Hodge, Big Freedia, Dave Holland, Bobby Watson, Charles Lloyd, Julian Lage, Thundercat, Christian McBride, Adi Oasis, Cimafunk, Pedrito Martinez, Marcus Miller, and especially Herbie Hancock must be mentioned. The outstanding talent and diverse nature of the performers represented at the festival made it a resounding success. I am already looking forward to next year’s lineup announcement.
The 2024 Newport Jazz Festival will take place August 2-4 2024.
Enjoy last year’s coverage here: Show Review: Newport Jazz Festival 2022