Festival Review: 2022 Newport Jazz Festival — A Relaxed Musical Vibe, Communal and Diverse
By Paul Robicheau
To some degree, everything fit under the resilient umbrella that the late George Wein raised at the edge of Newport Harbor.
Sunday’s finale of the 2022 Newport Jazz Festival included an all-star rollout of Trombone Shorty, vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant, pianist Hiromi, trumpeters Jon Faddis and Randy Brecker, clarinetist Anat Cohen, saxophonist Lew Tabackin, and bassist/musical director Christian McBride. They were all paying tribute to George Wein, the founder of both the city’s folk and jazz fests, who died last fall at age 95.
Their celebrity wattage was certainly more modest than the previous weekend’s folk-fest revelations of Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon. Yet that seemed in keeping with the relaxed vibe of Newport Jazz, which filled Fort Adams State Park with three more days of communal spirit and diverse music befitting Wein’s legacy.
Each day had its strengths. Friday featured trumpeters Terence Blanchard (with strings by the Turtle Island Quartet) and Nicholas Payton, jammers like the funky Lettuce and an acoustic reunion of the Marco Benevento/Joe Russo duo, a potent McBride-led “Newport Jawn” with guitarist Mike Stern and saxman Chris Potter, plus headliner Norah Jones. Sunday was notably graced by Angelique Kidjo’s Afro-pop take on songs from Talking Heads’ Remain in Light album and sophisticated trio sets by pianists Jason Moran (including a tribute to early jazz pioneer James Reese Europe) and Vijay Iyer. But the weekend found its central bearing in a solid, consistent Saturday lineup, despite a late cancellation by iconic drummer Jack DeJohnette’s quartet, whose bassist Matthew Garrison tested positive for Covid.
Other drummer/bandleaders helped pick up the slack on Saturday with genre-bending results, from the crisp percussive attack of the UK’s Yussef Dayes to the sculptural drive of Makaya McCraven (whose band included returning Newport upstarts Joel Ross on vibes and Brandee Younger on harp) to former Pat Metheny associate Antonio Sanchez, manning his kit like a table of rhythms. Sanchez’s Bad Hombre rode a buzz of electronics, while his wife Thana Alexa deftly vocalized “Suspended Animation,” recorded with New Zealand pop singer Kimbra.
On its last string of dates before splitting up, London’s Sons of Kemet stormed the main stage like a polyrhythmic Godzilla, delivering Saturday’s most powerful set. Tenor sax force Shabaka Hutchings and tuba monster Theon Cross, who earned solo slots on Friday, locked in battle over the Afro-Caribbean undertow of two drummers (including Tom Skinner, who now rocks for Radiohead offshoot the Smile). Waves of seemingly chaotic skronk belied Sons of Kemet’s tightly woven interplay, evoking Ornette Coleman’s best Prime Time ensembles.
But Saturday truly belonged to female jazz vocalists, also of recent generation. Esperanza Spalding played it loose on the main stage, opening a cappella and prompting fans to sing to a wordless take on Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour” before sticking to a duo format with her on acoustic bass and steady associate Leo Genovese on piano (plus Hutchings making cameos via woodwinds).
Cecile McLorin Salvant, on the other hand, was wound up and ready to fly in her Saturday showcase with a sharp backing quartet that included guitar ace Marvin Sewell and her usual piano accompanist Sullivan Fortner, who led his own fine combo earlier that day. With her exaggerated facial expressions and gesticulations, the virtuoso Salvant inhabited songs with actress-like precision. But as she wove from her own “Obligation” (“Promises lead to expectations, which lead to resentment,” she intoned) to Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera “Barbara Song,” she — much like Spalding — expanded her stylistic form to the point of losing fans in abstraction.
Traditional jazz icons Betty Carter and Sarah Vaughan informed the statuesque, scat-savvy Jazzmeia Horn and demure 22-year-old Samara Joy, who won a 2019 international jazz vocal competition in Vaughan’s name and tapped that influence in the rich “Can’t Get Out of That Mood” from a Verve Records debut out Friday. The also-fresh-faced Melanie Charles presented a bright voice with a modern touch, using a sampler to punctuate her delivery, yet the white-maned Lady Blackbird came off as a mere curiosity with vocals that were more theatrically than musically moving. The former alt-rock singer made quite a misstep in opening with “Summertime,” a version that paled next to Joni Mitchell’s the week before.
Instrumentalists weren’t lost either. Composer/conductor Maria Schneider had plenty to pick from in her 18-piece orchestra, which retains saxophonists Scott Robinson and Donny McCaslin, keyboardist Gary Versace, guitarist Ben Monder, and drummer Johnathan Blake. Schneider benefited from the more intimate Quad stage for impressionistic pieces from her 1994 debut Evanescence to recent Pulitzer finalist Data Lords (inspired by the evils of technology), plus a friskily reimagined “Giant Steps” rife with modulations and meter changes.
Other players made the best of their spots, from tenor-sax veteran Joe Lovano (his trio graced by pianist Marilyn Crispell), 22-year-old Bahamian trumpeter Giveton Gelin with his tart post-bop, and saxman Eric Wurzelbacher, whose trio had the unfortunate task of replacing DeJohnette’s group but held its own with subtly complex rhythm changes around his hearty tenor turns. The day’s real wild card was pianist Holly Bowling, who made her mark with solo interpretations of Phish and Grateful Dead songs and dipped into abstract space, plucking the strings inside her instrument during a drawn-out “Stella Blue.”
At the other end of the jazz-light spectrum were the crowd-pleasing antics of Cory Wong, who swung his guitar around the stage with rhythmic chops to cue a flashy band capped by a five-man horn section. Wong brought the main stage to fever pitch with a stomping “Dean Town” pushed by the effect-filtered funk of Vulfpeck bassist Joe Dart, invited onstage as a supposed ordinary audience member. Dart later returned with Wong and Snarky Puppy guitarist Mark Lettieri to trade licks over the sparse, cutting groove of drum beatmeister Nate Smith in a headlining set as the Fearless Flyers. At least part of the crowd didn’t mind at all.
Likewise, Sunday tried to reach out to hip-hop fans with Sampa the Great and a reunited Digable Planets, though jazz’s old guard was also represented with (an unfortunately late-running) bassist Ron Carter. But, to some degree, everything fit under the resilient umbrella that George Wein raised at the edge of Newport Harbor. When pianist Hiromi lifted Sunday’s finale with “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” one could imagine Wein looking down at what he had created with a smile.
Paul Robicheau served more than 20 years as contributing editor for music at the Improper Bostonian in addition to writing and photography for the Boston Globe, Rolling Stone, and many other publications. He was also the founding arts editor of Boston Metro.