One aspect of Newport I treasure is that it shows me, every time, how much I don’t know.
By Milo Miles
A Newport Jazz Festival visit is not complete without at least a glimpse of visionary founder George Wein, introducing performers years ago or, more recently, putting along in his own motorized golf cart labeled “The Lean Green Wein Machine.” This year we saw Wein on the road, but now being chauffeured in a Mercedes-Benz. An appropriate evolution.
One aspect of Newport I treasure is that it shows me, every time, how much I don’t know. The fundamental news this time is how much Christian McBride — bassist, bandleader and since 2016 Artistic Director of the Newport Jazz Festival — has kept the lineups feisty and flowing since he began selections in 2017. You didn’t have to settle for a single dull performance.
Next thing I didn’t know was who this group Sangam was (on the Quad stage Friday, August 3). A quick Google and — D’OH! — I knew veteran multi-instrumentalist master Charles Lloyd was going to perform every day and Sangam is his group with tabla ace Zakir Hussain (wait, is this Newport or Montreal?) and Lloyd’s frequent drummer Eric Harland. Hussain did more vocalizing than he did in Canada and the routine was that Lloyd and Harland switched around from keyboards to drums to flute. Here’s a sample. My commandment is to pick up their 2006 album.
Still Dreaming is a quartet — saxophonist Josh Redman, trumpeter Ron Miles, bassist Scot Colley and drummer Brian Blade (wait, is this Newport or Montreal?) — designed to honor and extend the legacy of Redman’s father Dewey’s group, Old and New Dreams. First time I saw this group was clobbered by how little I knew about Ron Miles and remedied my paucity of his work. This set I was thrilled to sense how much Miles reincarnated as well as reinvented trumpeter Don Cherry, one of the most open-hearted and humanistic free-jazzers. Redman himself was in high spirits and energy, kicking and twirling through solos and reminding the crowd that Newport demands all-out performances from participants. Which, to the Festivals’ credit, they tend to deliver.
What I did not know about Living Colour — not for lack of trying over the years — is that they are flaming spirits in concert. Especially Corey Glover, whose up-down-around stage dynamics and expressive acting chops popped your eyes and ears even on the slow numbers. Two outstanding moments of blunt and hilarious rhetoric stick as well. Bassist Doug Wimbish “tested his vocal mike” by rattling off a faux-radio plug for a Deep South preacher “Reverend T.A.C.K.,” who could cure whatever ails you. Later in the set, Glover announced they were going to do some numbers off their recent Shade album, but responded to the usual crowd response by growling “Don’t clap! Don’t cheer! You didn’t buy it!” He then suggested that everybody get on their phones and put in an order for Shade after the next couple numbers.
The major star on Saturday, August 5 was rainfall — performed for more than six hours. Overheard one attendee say this was nothing compared to five years ago, which had been like a hurricane, but the drench potential did push you more toward tent shows and away from open air. One of the dry concerts was by guitarist and composer Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl, which highlights the limber vocals of Amirtha Kidambi (although I did not hear it, I’m sure they performed their tune “Storm Cloud”). Halvorson’s led or been part of about 14 albums this year so far, so it does not matter much that Code Girl is one of the more minor projects. The treat at the festival came when Halvorson announced that Newport Jazz had commissioned her to do a special number for the festival and it was called “A Nearing.” She added, “This may be our last number. We don’t know how long it will go on because we’ve never played it before.” This was a satisfying workout, more relaxed than most Code Girl numbers, and another permanent Newport memory.
The downpours of the day came in the next couple of hours. Then the drops stopped abruptly and it was possible to risk a look at the open-air Fort stage after I recognized a soaring flute solo from Charles Lloyd with his New Quartet. Right after, though, the rain returned and indoors we went. The following Fort performance by Laurie Anderson and Christian McBride was a Newport 2018 essential.
Here is a boatload of information about the members of the “Improvisations” trio. Must note that by the end of the one-hour set, Rubin Kodheli was the most worked-up player on stage, swinging and surging, in danger of shredded his bowstrings. Every account of the Festival will include Anderson’s cathartic, whole-audience scream-along-with-Yoko Ono, so I’ll just add that the trio’s live show proved she remains a profound Performance Artist — her contribution alone is reason enough to watch the filmed version of Newport 2018. The ecstatic moment that ranks up there with when I heard Ornette Coleman play “Lonely Woman” from that same stage came with the rendition of Anderson’s “The Beginning of Memory.” This tour de force involves the wall between US and Mexico, Aristophanes’s The Birds, and a headlong climax of simultaneous string interactions that can only be called an exorcism. Like the current Newport Jazz Festival it delivered supreme sounds beyond any category.
Milo Miles has reviewed world-music and American-roots music for “Fresh Air with Terry Gross” since 1989. He is a former music editor of The Boston Phoenix. Milo is a contributing writer for Rolling Stone magazine, and he also written about music for The Village Voice and The New York Times. His blog about pop culture and more is Miles To Go.
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