The 2021 Newport Jazz Festival – A Fabulous Return!

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                              Newport Jazz Festival Fans enjoying the show © Kevin R. Mason

Although there were downpours in Newport, RI the night before the Newport Jazz Festival (NJF), on Friday, July 30, the sun rose brilliantly for the return of the NJF, after a year off due to the pandemic. With careful protocols in place, people came in droves this year to Newport, making the three days a sold-out event! Although the stages were reduced from the usual four to two, there was still a marvelous lineup of well-established stars and up-and-coming musicians.

Tribute to George Wein

George Wein © Kevin R. Mason

On September 13, 2021, jazz impresario, pianist, and philanthropist George Wein died peacefully at 95 years old. In 1954, Wein joined Elaine and Louis Lorillard to create the Newport Jazz Festival, one of the oldest and most esteemed jazz festivals in the world. Over the years, NJF has presented the biggest names in jazz. Known as “The Grandaddy of Jazz Festivals,” it was the template for many festivals that followed. NJF launched and revitalized numerous careers and was the site of the documentary Jazz on a Summer’s Day and several notable recordings. In 1959, Wein co-founded of the Newport Folk Festival, and he went on to create other festivals internationally. Early in his career, he had a nightclub and a record label, both named Storyville. He worked closely with lifelong friend and longtime NJF Public Relations Director, Charles Bourgeois, from 1951 until Bourgeois’ death in 2014. George collaborated with music critic Nate Chinen on his autobiography, Myself Among Others: A Life in Music, which recounted his extraordinary life, and included this quote about NJF. “No matter what I’ve done, I feel best about the festival. The festival is me.” Wein was supported in his ventures by his devoted wife, Joyce Alexander Wein, before her death in 2005. They funded scholarships and artistic endeavors, and in 2014, The George and Joyce Wein Jazz & Heritage Center opened in New Orleans, because of their founding and patronage of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.

              George Wein and Christian McBride                      © Kevin R. Mason

Even as he got older, George’s passion for music never waned. In recent years, he was often seen riding around NJF in a cart dubbed “The Wein Machine.” In 2019, Wein played a wonderful concert at NJF titled “One More Once,” joined by Jon Faddis and Christian McBride. Wein’s honors include NEA Jazz Master, Grammy Honorary Trustee, Montréal Jazz Festival’s Bruce Lundvall Award, France’s Légion d’honneur, and Lifetime Honorary Trustee of Carnegie Hall. Wein’s influence on the development of jazz festivals is immeasurable. He leaves behind a huge and enduring legacy.

Friday

Arturo O’Farrill Quintet

Arturo O’Farrill © Kevin R. Mason

Even before NJF officially started, while the sun was warming the crowd, pianist Arturo O’Farrill gave off equally warm vibes during his sound check, which was like a mini-concert. Before the show, Arturo joked about an excellent NYC Cuban-Chinese restaurant he often patronized. “The waiters used to correct my Spanish! But I loved that place.” Arturo was superbly backed by his sons, trumpeter Adam O’Farrill and drummer Zack O’Farrill, along with percussionist Victor Pablo Garcia Gaetan and bassist Bam Bam Rodriquez. Zack’s composition, “Gonky Gonky,” was inspired by a humorous family anecdote. Early in their marriage, Arturo’s wife, Alison Deane, had to adjust to his different gigs. A classical pianist, she wasn’t that familiar with jazz, and asked if he had one of those “Gonky Gonky” gigs, imitating Latin Jazz. Arturo’s composition, “Compay Doug” was about Doug Rice, “a dangerous friend, but one you can trust with your life.” The song went from quiet to exciting and percussive, no doubt reflecting Doug’s personality. Arturo acknowledged the 85th birthday of pianist/composer Carla Bley. He said one of his greatest achievements was starting his career with her, as introduction to Bley’s “Blue Palestine,” written for his Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra. Arturo’s father, the late, great composer/arranger/conductor, Chico O’Farrill was another incredible influence, and in this 100th anniversary of Chico’s birth, Arturo dedicated Chico’s song, “Pure Emotion” to his wife. O’Farrill called trombonist Papo Vázquez “an unsung hero,” and impeccably performed Vázquez’s “Not Now, Right Now.” “Fandango at the Wall” was first performed by the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra in 2018 at the U.S.-Mexico border, with musicians on both sides to proclaim unity. The finale “El Maquech” had the crowd enraptured. Arturo said, “It has been a huge privilege to serve you. That’s what musicians do, serve the audience. You cannot keep a gift. When you give music away, the giver becomes the receiver!”

A Christian McBride Situation

    DJ Logic, Christian McBride and DJ Jahi             Sundance © Kevin R. Mason

The set started with drumming, followed by the other instruments chiming in, along with spoken word, soulful singing by vocalist Alyson Williams, and an impressive bass solo by Christian McBride. It was a cool meditation on the intersection between funk and jazz. Then, Newport Artistic Director Christian McBride said, “Newport, we’re back! Are you ready to get down?” Of the next song, McBride said, “You’re gonna know this.” Indeed, the audience did know “A Night in Tunisia,” which the group played like there was no tomorrow! The expression “They left it all on the stage” comes to mind. Alyson Williams’ wonderfully down and dirty scatting and McBride’s bass riffs were enthralling, and the mood was like a speakeasy during this compelling version of this Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie classic. Christian then said, “I can’t tell you how grateful we are to be back, and to see you all here.” He encouraged the crowd to be careful, “because Delta is here, and Delta is not playing! Alpha, Beta, and Gamma are all right, but I don’t know about Delta.” Although he adopted a light tone, you could tell McBride was serious, and stated if people are careful enough, they can come back to Newport at full capacity next year. The group included tenor saxophonist Ron Blake, keyboardist James Francies, DJ Jahi Sundance, and DJ Logic. The next song featured mesmerizing Middle Eastern overtones, with outstanding moments from Francies and Blake. “In a Sentimental Mood” was meltingly romantic, with Alyson Williams’ superb a cappella scatting. McBride said, “We’re gonna put some funk on Duke. We’re gonna keep it Duke but make it funky!” on a sensuous “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).” Once again, the musicians made an all-out effort in reinterpreting Duke Ellington’s iconic song.

Yola

 Yola © Kevin R. Mason

British-born vocalist/guitarist/composer Yola was the only musician to play both the Newport Folk Festival and the Newport Jazz Festival. She was joined by keyboardist Ryan Connors, bassist Zachariah Witcher, guitarist Andy Stack, keyboardist Ray Jacildo, and drummer Megan Coleman, who did great back-up duty. Yola said, “Hey, hey, Newport! This is my first time at Newport, and I’m here for it!” Most of the songs were from her latest CD, Stand For Myself that was released that very day. She packed a lot into her concert, starting with “Barely Alive.” With her strong, warm voice, and absolute assurance on stage, she’s a natural-born performer, and Yola had the audience in the palm of her hand. “Hold On” displayed Yola’s deeply personal storytelling style. “Dancing Away In Tears” was an interesting contradiction, with lyrics about a sad breakup, while the major-key and upbeat tempo served as counterpoints. On “Now You’re Here,” Yola accompanied herself on guitar, and “If I Had to Do It All Again,” was an intimate love story told via a mélange of jazz, dance music, and soul. Yola did a song by a hero of hers, Jill Scott’s “A Long Walk.” Although she’d never performed this song before, Jill would certainly be flattered. Yola’s composition “Be My Friend,” was another genre-defying number performed with confidence and vitality. “Whatever You Want” was an energetic, country-influenced rant about a man who doesn’t let you have fun. “Break The Bough” was a tribute to Yola’s late mother and their complicated relationship, and she started composing it en route to her mother’s funeral. Her captivating set closed with the title song from her album, “Stand For Myself,” a rock-infused anthem for self-empowerment. Yola might be a new name to some people, but that won’t last long!

Khruangbin

Khruangbin © Kevin R. Mason

The genre-crossing trio Khruangbin consists of bassist/vocalist Laura Lee, guitarist/vocalist Mark Speer, and drummer/vocalist Donald Ray “DJ” Johnson Jr., and is known for blending global music influences. They have a big sound, a lot bigger than you’d expect from a trio, and it’s sometimes ethereal and otherworldly, while other times percussive and forceful. The group’s on-stage dynamic is interesting. Laura Lee and Mark Speer did a funny little dip towards each other, then slowly criss-crossed the stage like ships that pass in the night multiple times. Khruangbin’s chameleon-like versatility was akin to hearing several different bands. They seamlessly flowed from one song to the next, which included “The Number 4,” “So We Won’t Forget,” “Maria También,” “People Everywhere (Still Alive),” and a medley of old-school gems. It was like a live mix tape! You rarely see a trio with a bass guitar, lead guitar, and drums, but Khruangbin really makes it work. Mark Speer thanked the audience for coming, saying it was like a dream, and he kept thinking he was going to wake up! Well, the show was a wonderfully surreal and dream-like experience for the crowd, who danced to the end of this unexpected and charming show. There’s usually a segment of the audience who leaves a little early during the closing group’s set to beat the rush. However, such was the draw of Khruangbin, that most of the audience stayed, and they clamored for an encore, which the group cheerfully obliged. This was an unforgettable end to the first day!

Saturday

The second day of the NJF was fortunate once again with glorious weather, which added so much enjoyment to the festivities.

Danielle Ponder

Danielle Ponder © Kevin R. Mason

Chanteuse Danielle Ponder, who started singing, writing, and performing with her family’s group “Black August” at sixteen, cast a spell with her rich and compelling voice. Danielle was joined by keyboardist/ Musical Director Avis Reese, Tony Gallicchio, also on keyboards, drummer Levi Bennett, bassist Daric Bennett, and guitarist Jonathan Sheffer, who offered excellent support. “The Only Way Out” was a song for everyone who’s had their heart broken. Danielle sang quite passionately and had great interaction with the crowd, while relating her songs’ backstories. “We’re going to continue down Heartbreak Lane,” Ponder said, and sang a powerful lament about lost love. Danielle performed like she’s experienced heartache more than once, and truly sold the emotional aspect. Next came an expressive ballad, “Darker Than Blue.” She composed “By Any Means Necessary” while in Australia in 2019, during the forest fires, and she thought it was the worst thing that could happen. Then came 2020! Whatever Danielle Ponder sings about, she feels deeply, and her audience feels it, too.

Kenny Garrett

      Kenny Garrett                      © Kevin R. Mason

Christian McBride reminisced about iconic saxophonist Kenny Garrett, when they toured with Chick Corea, and stated how much he loves Kenny. McBride also joked that although they live only six blocks apart in New Jersey, he has never seen Kenny in the neighborhood. “I haven’t seen him in Whole Foods; I haven’t seen him in the post office. He’s probably practicing! Ladies and gentlemen, the great Kenny Garrett!” Garrett, looking dapper in a dark suit and a skullcap, moved around the stage with impressive energy. His band, pianist Vernell Brown Jr., bassist Corcoran Holt, drummer Ronald Bruner Jr., and percussionist Rudy Bird, communicated extremely well. Corcoran Holt matched Garrett’s enthusiasm on a fine extended bass solo, and the pulsating beat really grabbed the crowd. Kenny is not shy about soliciting approval from the audience, both for himself and his bandmates, and at the end of the number, he kept encouraging everyone to continue clapping. Not that the listeners needed much encouragement; they were already fired up by the group’s incendiary performance. Each player had their moment in the spotlight, and they all rose to the occasion. Garrett did some impromptu scatting and got the crowd to repeat after him. It went well at first, but then Kenny did a scat so complex, the audience could only laugh when he pointed at them to repeat it! Then came some bebop that put the band’s virtuosity front and center. Garrett did a solo so exciting, that the crowd gave a spontaneous standing ovation – no need for any prompting. It was a sensational set.

Mavis Staples

         Mavis Staples and Rick Holmstrom                © Kevin R. Mason

Legendary singer Mavis Staples gave the penultimate show of the day. Festival founder George Wein was not at NJF this year, but from New York he called Christian McBride’s cell phone, which Christian held up to the crowd. Wein remembered “Pop” Staples coming to Newport years ago, bringing The Staples Singers with a very young Mavis. Wein also told the crowd not to worry about the future of NJF; it’s in the good hands of people like Jay Sweet and Christian McBride. Then George introduced the inimitable Mavis Staples with effusive praise.

Mavis came out wearing bright tie-dye and said, “Good afternoon, Y’all! Newport! Newport Jazz! We have come this afternoon to bring you some joy and positive vibrations. We’ve been away from each other for too long…We’re so happy to see you!” She started with the powerful protest song, “Change.” Staples’ voice has ripened like fine wine, and her signature rasp remains. They continued with another socially conscious song, “Build a Bridge.” Mavis brought the soulful vibe she’s famous for, and was charming and relaxed, engaging the audience with funny banter. “You’re Not Alone” was an emotional cry for unity, and Staples got the crowd going with “Respect Yourself.” “Wade in the Water” was spiritually stirring, really taking the audience to church! “Are You Sure” encouraged listeners to help one another. Mavis said, “We’re gonna take you down memory lane, 1970, 1971. Some of you weren’t even here, but we’re gonna take you anyway!” The group played “I’ll Take You There” for all it was worth! Folks had been calling for this song, and Mavis delivered! She got the crowd into a call-and response, which the audience did with fervor. Staples’ band was longtime guitarist Rick Holmstrom, bassist Gregory Boaz, drummer Steve Mugalian. Singer Donny Gerrard offered great back-up vocals, and the group had wonderful on-stage chemistry. This was one of the most anticipated shows of the Festival, and it more than lived up to expectations.

Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue

        Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue                © Kevin R. Mason

Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue hit the stage without an introduction. However, since they’ve become household names in recent years, most of the crowd knew them. They brought their customary energy, and on “I Just want My Heart Back” Trombone Shorty did double duty, singing and playing an electrifying trombone solo. He said, “Are you ready to party? I’m going to take you down to the great city of New Orleans!” Next came a lush “It Ain’t No Use,” where the band melded like they were born playing together, and they were so hot, they could have set the stage on fire! The group included drummer Joey Peeples, guitarist Pete Murano, bassist Brandon Butler, and powerhouse singers Tracy Lee and Nell Simmons. Trombone Shorty said, “You know I’m here to party! Don’t be afraid to dance.” “On Your Way Down,” was a funk-filled  warning about the importance of treating people well. Once again, Trombone Shorty exhorted the crowd to dance. “We need you to shake what your mama gave you. I want to see you jamming out!…I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling good tonight. It feels so good to be back in front of people.” Shorty sat in on the drums for a scintillating drum duet with Joey Peeples. Next came a soulful song about young love, “Long Weekend,” that had an old-school shout-out to Kool and the Gang’s “Get Down On It.” Singers Nell Simmons and Tracy Lee’s extended solo spots were impressive. Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue ended the day’s festivities in a big way, and rightly received a thunderous ovation!

Sunday

Sunday was another beautiful, sunny day, so weatherwise, the 2021 NJF was blessed! Although it became overcast later in the day, the rain stayed away.

Vibes Summit

 Vibes Summit © Kevin R. Mason

Christian McBride welcomed the crowd. “We’re back! We did it!” He gave a brief history of the vibraphone in jazz and said, “And now, Vibes Summit, exclusive to Newport!” You don’t see a vibraphone combo every day, and it was refreshingly different. The vibraphonists were backed by the Emmet Cohen Trio, with Emmet Cohen on piano, drummer Joe Saylor, and bassist Yasushi Nakamura, and the crowd was quite excited at their appearance.

 

There was more enthusiastic applause for vibraphonists Warren Wolf, Joel Ross, and Sasha Berliner, and their musical expertise shone clearly as they traded excellent solo runs. Warren Wolf asked, “Y’all mind if I sing one?” Despite adding that he’s not a singer and not to judge him too harshly, Warren actually sang rather well.

Emmet Cohen © Kevin R. Mason

While the vibraphone was front and center, Emmet Cohen, Yasushi Nakamura, and Joe Saylor did not get short shrift, and had some fabulous solos of their own. Sasha Berliner praised the Festival staff, then brilliantly performed a sweetly romantic version of “My Funny Valentine.” Joel Ross played a minor-key, eerily lovely song. Ross brought Berliner and Wolf back, and the trio wowed the audience with Thelonious Monk’s “Evidence.” This new generation of vibraphonists went from ballads to bebop, and from percussive songs to numbers of exquisite delicacy. It was a not-to-be-missed set.

 

 

The Jam Jawn

 

        John Scofield of Jam Jawn          © Kevin R. Mason

Christian McBride’s group, The Jam Jawn exemplified a theme that ran through the 2021 NJF –groups with multiple influences. Although The Jam Jawn’s music was rooted in jazz, they played blues, rock, and country, all put together in a wonderfully distinctive and improvisational way. The word “Jawn” is Philadelphia slang that can literally mean anything in different contexts, so loosely, the group’s title means “The Jam Thing,” and it was indeed a jam session extraordinaire. Bassist McBride was accompanied by harpist Mikaela Davis, guitarist John Scofield, keyboardist Marco Benevento, drummer Joe Russo, trumpeter Joseph Boga, David Ostwald on tuba, clarinetist/saxophonist Dan Block, multi-instrumentalist Stuart Bogie, and trombonist Wycliffe Gordon. Each musician had their own moment in the limelight, and they played extremely well as a group. It was a surprising, fun-filled set. Although there are many differences of opinion about the inclusion of other genres at jazz festivals, at this year’s NJF, a lot of people were there for it!

Charles Lloyd

              Charles Lloyd                    © Kevin R. Mason

Multi-instrumentalist and NEA Jazz Master Charles Lloyd looked sharp in a gray and white jacket and a stylish hat. Lloyd was joined by pianist Gerald Clayton, drummer Eric Harland, bassist Harish Raghavan, and guitarist Marvin Sewell. Lloyd first appeared at NJF in 1961 with Chico Hamilton, so he dedicated a song to Hamilton, a gorgeously mournful, minor-key number with a striking guitar solo by Marvin Sewell and an intense sax solo by Charles. They continued with reflective music that seemed designed to reach the deepest part of each listener’s soul. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” had a stirring crescendo that was especially moving to the audience. Lloyd switched between the saxophone and the flute with equal expertise, and one of Lloyd’s flute solos had a particularly hypnotic feeling. The music was so expressive, that a man shouted out, “Yes!” He spoke for many people in the crowd, since this group’s music really touched the listeners. This dynamic concert displayed the players at the top of their game.

 

 

The Jazz Gallery All-Stars

The Jazz Gallery All-Stars © Kevin R. Mason

This group blended like a delicious bowl of gumbo – all the right ingredients were there, and the mixture was marvelous. Vibraphonist Joel Ross, alto saxophonist Jaleel Shaw, tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana, guitarist Charles Altura, pianist Gerald Clayton, bassist Ben Williams, drummer Marcus Gilmore, and guest vocalist Renée Neufville made up the group, and they really put on a show! The set included Joel Ross’ “Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder.”

 Renée Neufville © Kevin R. Mason

Then, Renée Neufville introduced a tribute to Roy Hargrove. She spoke lovingly about the late artist and his legacy, and how all the musicians on stage were connected through Roy. Her lovely rendition of a song about memories was a beautiful remembrance of Hargrove. Neufville did fine vocals on a couple of other songs and got the crowd to chime in on “Could it Be I’m Falling in Love” with men singing one part, and women singing another. By this point, near the end of the Festival, people’s hearts were full from the whole experience – the fellowship, great food, the overall vibe, and of course, the music. This was another wonderful experience at the 2021 NJF.

Robert Glasper

Robert Glasper © Kevin R. Mason

Multi-genre pianist, producer, songwriter, and multiple Grammy winner, Robert Glasper, was the artist-in-residence all three days at NJF. His interactions with the audience and many quips created a relaxed and enjoyable atmosphere. Glasper’s first serving was with his acoustic trio: bassist Vicente Archer, drummer Justin Tyson, and DJ Jahi Sundance. Glasper said his daughter Lola turned one that day, and he played her a loving “Happy Birthday.” The set included “Stella By Starlight,” spoken word, and nice solo improvisational mixes.

          Robert Glasper (Dinner Party)                    © Kevin R. Mason

Glasper’s “Dinner Party” second set featured music from his EP of the same name, a  collaboration including saxophonist/bandleader Kamasi Washington, multi-instrumentalist Terrace Martin, and DJ/producer 9th Wonder. Glasper said this was the first live performance of the music. The set was a mix of genres and themes, including contemporary jazz. The party included trumpeter/composer Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, who was in Newport for his own show, Kamasi Washington on tenor sax, DJ Jahi Sundance, Terrace Martin on vocals, alto sax, and keyboard, drummer Justin Tyson, and Phoelix, who’s on the EP, added vocals.

      Robert Glasper and Ledisi (Black Radio)        © Kevin R. Mason

Glasper’s third “Black Radio” set was an engaging, thoughtful, funk-filled, jazzy party. The awesome reinterpretation of Radiohead’s “Packt Like Sardines In A Crushd Tin Box,” got everyone’s attention, especially the moving ending with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s voice saying, “Stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth.”  After a beautiful “Afro Blue,” Glasper introduced longtime friend and collaborator, Ledisi. She sang a Glasper collaboration, “Wake Up,” from her album The Wild Card, then followed with the Grammy-nominated hit she sang on Glasper’s Black Radio album, “Gonna Be Alright (F.T.B).” These were three entertaining sets with something appealing for many old and probably some new Robert Glasper fans.

 

 

Andra Day

Andra Day & Singers © Kevin R. Mason

For the closing set of NJF, Christian McBride said, “I cannot believe that this marks the end of this year’s Festival!” Christian spoke to George Wein on the phone, and Wein said it was wonderful to see everyone. McBride remarked that Andra Day had been at NJF two or three years ago. “It was a joy then and it’s a joy now. We first got to know Andra as a singer, but since then, she has become a titan of the screen. Have you all seen The United States vs. Billie Holiday?” The crowd roared, “Yes!” Andra came out and expressed how great it was to bring back live music. She started with Billie Holiday’s classic “Strange Fruit,” which segued into a passionate “Tigress and Tweed.” The song “Gold” was about life lessons that often need to be learned more than once. Her group included keyboardist/vocalist Charles Jones, and Day and her band worked together brilliantly. She continued with “Don’t Hold My Hand” and an upbeat “Phone Dies.” Andra gives homage to her predecessors, and she sang a jazzy rendition of Nina Simone’s powerful protest song “Mississippi Goddam” that was markedly different from Simone’s, yet paid respect to the original. Then came another Billie Holiday masterpiece, “God Bless the Child.” Day noted that although Billie’s record company often took advantage of her, Holiday took the lead in her career with her songwriting. Andra’s ability to put across a song’s backstory was displayed on “Heavy On My Mind.” Next was “City Burns,” about the experiences that prepare you for life, which she considers blessings. Day is so committed to her craft that she stopped so the sound person could fix the reverb. At the end of this splendid concert, Andra said, “Thanks to Chris (McBride) and everyone who put the Festival together.” She also thanked the audience, stating, “It’s not just a performance, it’s an exchange, an experience that we are sharing. So, this song is dedicated to you.” Her voice soared on her hit “Rise Up” and she said, “Thank you for fueling us and feeding us. You are amazing, and I love you all so much!”

Short Takes

Terri Lyne Carrington + Social Science

Terri Lyne Carrington + Social Science               © Kevin R. Mason

Drummer, composer, producer, Grammy winner, and NEA Jazz Master, Terri Lyne Carrington, welcomed the audience and noted it was her first time at NJF as a leader. She had great support from her red-hot group Social Science: guitarist Matthew Stevens, vocalist Debo Ray, pianist Aaron Parks, DJ Kokayi, and multi-instrumentalist Morgan Guerin. Debo Ray captivated the crowd with her multi-octave singing, while Terri Lyne’s impeccable drumming kept the backbeat going. The concert included lovely ballads, spoken word, and songs of protest. She thanked the crowd for their appreciation of the songs they performed, despite some heavy subjects and praised them for accompanying them on this musical journey.

 

 

 

Cory Wong

Cory Wong © Kevin R. Mason

Guitarist/bassist/composer Cory Wong’s high-energy show was so exciting! The group was like a cross between Earth, Wind, and Fire and a jazz big band, and included bassist Sonny T., percussionist Nêgah Santos, and keyboardist Kevin Gastonguay. Cory said, “I want to extend my sincerest gratitude to Newport Jazz Festival and Christian McBride for having us. This is our first time here!” When Wong first informed the band about this gig, each said NJF was on their bucket list! Cory didn’t talk much, and didn’t announce any song titles, but they played with such gusto, the crowd didn’t mind. The set included both jazz and funk, and you never knew what was next in this unpredictable and exhilarating show.

Immanuel Wilkins

         Immanuel Wilkins                  © Kevin R. Mason

Christian McBride praised his hometown, Philadelphia, PA, and said saxophonist/composer Immanuel Wilkins was “one of the coolest cats to come out of that town!” Wilkins’ bandmates were pianist Micah Thomas, bassist Darryl Johns, and drummer Kweku Sumbry. They played songs from their Blue Note recording, Omega (produced by Jason Moran) and moved from somber ballads to straight-ahead jazz to avant-garde with the greatest of ease. Their playing was tight, their solos were exquisite, and the music created a blissful atmosphere. This set was a quintessential example of the best of a festival, with people enjoying excellent live music on a glorious day.

Avery*Sunshine

    Avery*Sunshine & Dana             Johnson © Kevin R. Mason

Avery*Sunshine, a friend of Christian McBride, from Chester, PA, was once choir director at Martin Luther King Jr.’s famed Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, GA. Her vibrant show started with an upbeat song about sunshine, and she encouraged audience participation. From her self-titled album, she performed “Pinin’.” Avery’s husband, guitarist Dana Johnson, was part of her excellent band. She had great audience rapport, telling several amusing stories. Sunshine dedicated “Daydreaming” to the late Aretha Franklin, who once asked Avery to open for her. This songstress’ talent made it abundantly clear why she was picked by Aretha!

Catherine Russell

 Catherine Russell © Kevin R. Mason

Grammy Award-winning vocalist Catherine Russell has ageless energy, and she performed a swinging set filled with emotion, starting with “I Want to Be Happy” and segueing into “Real Pretty Mama Blues.” Catherine continued with “You’re Not the Only Oyster in the Stew” and “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby,” and she received a standing ovation for “When Did You Leave Heaven?” Some of these gems were from her 2019 Grammy-nominated album, Alone Together. Russell was expertly accompanied by her Musical Director, guitarist Matt Munisteri, pianist Mark Shane, bassist Tal Ronen, and drummer Mark McLean.

       Makaya McCraven                    © Kevin R. Mason

Makaya McCraven

Drummer Makaya McCraven loves experimenting with beats, using overdubbing, sampling, and various techniques. He’s been surrounded by music all his life with his father, drummer Stephen McCraven, and his mother Hungarian singer Ágnes Zsigmondi. At Newport, he was joined by trumpeter Marquis Hill, guitarist Matt Gold, and bassist Junius Paul. Makaya is a generous leader, encouraging expressive improvisations throughout the musical conversations, including unusual tempos. The set included “In These Times,” and brilliant versions of “Three Fifths a Man” and “This Place, That Place.” The band covered drummer Tony Williams’ “There Comes a Time,” and performed “I’m New Here” from the album Gil Scott-Heron We’re New Again: A Reimagining by Makaya McCraven.

Brandee Younger

Brandee Younger © Kevin R. Mason

Harpist Brandee Younger moves fluidly through multiple genres. Younger was magnificently supported by bassist Dezron Douglas and drummer Allan Mednard. After a genial “Good afternoon, Newport,”

Mikaela Davis © Kevin R. Mason

Brandee commented how good it was to be out and feeling somewhat normal. She started with “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise,” then played “Reclamation” and “Love & Struggle” from her album Somewhere Different. Younger acknowledged the important legacies of harpists Dorothy Ashby and Alice Coltrane. Brandee then introduced harpist Mikaela Davis, who superbly performed “Action Line” from Dorothy Ashby’s 1968 album Afro-Harping. This beautiful set was a rare opportunity to see two virtuoso harpists in a jazz ensemble.

 

 

Kamasi Washington

Kamasi Washington Band © Kevin R. Mason

When Wynton Marsalis’ appearance was unexpectedly cancelled, saxophonist Kamasi Washington stepped in. This allowed Washington to lead his own band on Friday and join Robert Glasper’s Saturday “Dinner Party.” Christian McBride introduced Kamasi Washington as a “hurricane of vibe, and style, and music.” Washington had a stirring solo on “Drive,” where he was joined by his father, multi-instrumentalist Ricky Washington. About “Announcement,” Kamasi said, “I was blessed to be a part of a special film [Becoming], showcasing the life of an amazing woman, Michelle Obama,” and the song was in his film score. Expressing love for his new-born daughter, Washington played “Sun Kissed Child.” The song “Truth” is from Kamasi’s 2017 Harmony of Difference album. The set also included Freddie Hubbard’s post-bop “Hub-Tones,” and “Fists of Fury” from Washington’s 2018 release Heaven and Earth.

 

Ledisi

  Ledisi © Kevin R. Mason

Ledisi’s launch into “Feeling Good,” was the start of a dynamic concert, backed by her band’s tight harmony. She weaved personal anecdotes into her Nina Simone songbook tribute, describing “Trouble in Mind” as bringing her out of depression and awakening her interest in Simone’s life. She segued into a bluesy and sensual “Do I Move You?” that featured a standout guitar solo from Xavier Lynn. Her set also included a beautiful version of the ballad “Ne Me Quitte Pas (Don’t Leave Me).” Snippets of songs highlighted Ledisi’s powerful vocals, and her storytelling and stage presence made this a cool set.

Kenny Barron/Dave Holland Trio Featuring Johnathan Blake

      Kenny Barron, Dave Holland, &                      Johnathan Blake © Kevin R. Mason

NEA Jazz Master, pianist Kenny Barron, and Grammy winner and NEA Jazz Master, double bassist Dave Holland, were joined by Grammy-nominated drummer Johnathan Blake. Christian McBride said, “This group is full of icons. I’m so, so glad they could be here!” They played some beautiful Latin-infused jazz that held the audience spellbound. Then came two songs from their album, Without Deception: Kenny Barron’s bossa nova “Porto Alegre,” and Dave Holland’s “Pass It On.”  They followed with “In Your Arms” from their recording The Art of Conversation, where Johnathan Blake showed off the drumming skills that got him his seat at the table. They also performed Barron’s “Speed Trap” and Thelonious Monk’s “Worry Later.” It wasn’t surprising that the audience loved this trio’s every note.

In Conclusion

            Newport Welcomes Back Jazz Fans!                    © Kevin R. Mason

Newport Jazz Festival’s 2021 return was a triumph over the adversity of the pandemic, and it was welcomed wholeheartedly as a sign of better times. This year’s sponsors included Steinway & Sons, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Newport Craft Brewing & Distilling Co., Cox Business, Angry Orchard Hard Cider, Samuel Adams, Truly Hard Seltzer, and Ninety Plus Cellars. For more information about NJF, go to www.newportjazz.org.