Newport Jazz Festival Begins a New Era, With History as a Guide
By GIOVANNI RUSSONELLOAUG. 7, 2017
Christian McBride, artistic director of the Newport Jazz Festival, brought kindred sounds to the event, and performed with his own big band. Steve Benoit/Boston Concert Photography
NEWPORT, R.I. — Christian McBride’s big band had just finished a bustling rendition of “The Shade of the Cedar Tree” on the main stage of the Newport Jazz Festival here on Saturday afternoon when the bandleader felt compelled to speak.
“I’m partial to jazz with a little bit of grease in it,” Mr. McBride told the audience in his affable baritone, as the applause died down. “Sometimes we get a little too into this gluten-free lifestyle.”
In March 2016, Mr. McBride became artistic director of the now 63-year-old festival — taking the reins directly from its 91-year-old co-founder, George Wein — so his metaphors matter. Mr. McBride, the 45-year-old bassist, is one of jazz’s uncontainable talents, able and eager to play almost anything, but he’s also one if its traditionalist standard-bearers. When he talks about grease, or carbs, he’s talking about the blues.
Lots of comparable festivals across the United States book pop acts as headliners, using jazz for its credibility and paramusical value. But Newport hasn’t stretched its rope very far, relying on its identity as the pre-eminent presenter of improvised music, and enjoying a reliable audience.
Mr. McBride wants to talk about how that role can be used. He’s sensitive about jazz becoming a marketing device, but also about the idea that it might be seen as a broad-brush label for experimentalism in American music. To him, jazz means something more like blues tradition, boldly extrapolated. Speaking backstage after the end of his set, Mr. McBride explained that he thinks a jazz festival in 2017 ought to include some kindred sounds from around the way.
“Henry Threadgill or Naturally 7 or One For All or DJ Logic, whoever it is — there’s some sort of a spiritual, unspoken, musical bond there with all of it,” he said, naming an avant-garde pioneer, a gospel-tinged a cappella group, a straight-ahead jazz sextet and a turntablist, all of whom were on the bill at this year’s festival.
The Roots — not likely to have been booked by Mr. Wein — closed the festival on Sunday afternoon, charging from Herbie Hancock acid-funk (“Actual Proof”) to a hard-bitten original (“Get Busy”) to a rollicking “Jungle Boogie.” More than in years past, the main stage featured music to move to. The pianist Jason Moran brought his Fats Waller Dance Party, making a ricocheting funk jam out of old repertoire and allowing the vocalist Lisa Harris to reinhabit the classic self-possession anthem “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do,” paring down the lyrics, letting her sighs and her body movements communicate her pride.
And the saxophonist Maceo Parker reprised a handful of tunes from the James Brown songbook, playing whiplash funk with an eight-piece group that was locked like lattice.
Maceo Parker performed with an eight-piece group at the Newport Jazz Festival. Steve Benoit/Boston Concert Photography
Mr. McBride’s choices made other arguments too. He elevated a number of musicians from his native Philadelphia, where jazz’s inheritance machinery is especially strong; the music there retains an intergenerational coherence without passing through the filter of the academy.
The pianist Orrin Evans, a Philadelphia native, made his first appearance as a band leader at Newport. (That fact should astonish you; he’s been worthy for about 20 years.) He finished a set of characteristically chunky and waggish solo piano at the sole indoor stage with a tender reading of Trudy Pitts’s “Blessed Ones the Eternal Truth,” a plea for sanctified fellowship; Mr. Evans sang guilelessly, drawing up chords from the keys in a simple, quarter-note rhythm. As the song progressed, more treble and sunlight crept in; by the end the room was silent and rapt around him.
On Sunday afternoon, Mr. McBride reassembled the Philadelphia Experiment, a trio of cross-pollinated talent, featuring Questlove, the Roots’ drummer, and Uri Caine, the keyboardist. (DJ Logic joined on turntables as a special guest.) The group dug a trench of groove and hardly ever emerged, though it switched the feel and redialed the intensity level often.
A spilling crowd showed up for this show, though it overlapped with both Mr. Moran’s set and one from the young soul-jazz trumpeter Theo Croker. The Experiment’s audience was remarkably young, reflecting Newport’s recent emphasis on selling discounted tickets to students. All told, there were more student buyers than in any recent year, organizers said. The festival drew upward of 9,000 total attendees on Saturday, slightly fewer on Sunday and roughly 4,000 on Friday. No stage ever lacked a quorum.
The festival is held each year at Fort Adams State Park, a Civil War citadel on a bluff in the Narragansett Bay.It’s exposed to the elements, but after some early rain on Saturday cleared up, the weekend became bucolic. The setting is a draw, but the festival — with four stages across the fort, and a total runtime of over 20 hours — doesn’t fit as a simple line item on a vacation itinerary.
Since the 1950s, it has offered a reliable read on the spinal center of jazz. Considering that, the slightly younger (and, to a lesser degree, more racially mixed) faces this year felt like a part of a broader trend in jazz — and therefore, even more auspicious. It also made the hunger for fresh talent onstage — long a trope of jazz consumerism — seem more apt, less despairing. Amir ElSaffar, the Iraqi trumpeter and santur player, has played Newport before, but never with his Rivers of Sound orchestra, an intercontinental group with improvisations wafting up from loping, odd-meter melodies.
And the pianist Christian Sands, 28, a habitual McBride sideman, led his own slashing quartet, delivering airtight compositions and punctilious improvising. His instrumentation of piano, electric guitar, acoustic bass and drums gives Mr. Sands’s music — groove-drenched, gospelly and smartly plotted — a balance of physical body and electric charge. The band opened its Friday afternoon set with “Song of the Rainbow People” and “Pointing West,” both originals, leaving enough on the field to sidestep the accusation of flawlessness (yes, Mr. Sands is that kind of player).
On Saturday afternoon, the bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding and the drummer Terri Lyne Carrington brought together Mr. Sands, Mr. Moran and Vijay Iyer for a tribute to the influential pianist Geri Allen, who died this year, and who had been their trio-mate. The three pianists took turns; on Allen’s “Unconditional Love,” Mr. Sands’s quick runs and sharply articulated arpeggios cut a stark contrast with Ms. Spalding, whose playing and singing were like two flushes of wind.
Esperanza Spalding performed at the Newport Jazz Festival on Sunday as part of a tribute to the pianist Geri Allen. Eva Hambach/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
She sang a solo in her distinctive style, a kind of vowel-dominant scatting, all open, airy sounds; for punctuation, she uses a hard “e,” not a “p” or a “k.” There’s something childlike and dreamy about it,not bratty or teasing or seductive, like jazz singing is often meant to be. That she’s doing all this while accompanying herself on bass is almost unreasonable.
Ms. Carrington’s unceasing lift on the ride cymbal can be seen as a constant homage to Allen, whose playing was effortlessly propulsive. But it wasn’t until Mr. Moran took the piano chair that Allen’s spirit seemed to almost re-enter the park. On the ballad “Lucky to Be Me” and a mid-tempo reading of “Nothing Like You,” his left hand painted in misty watercolor, and the band fell into a dream state, past and future entwined.
Correction: August 7, 2017
An earlier version of this story misstated the day the Geri Allen tribute was performed. It was Saturday afternoon, not Sunday.