Jazz Concert Review: Newport Jazz Fest 2023 — Changing Parameters
By Paul Robicheau
Sunday arguably offered the jazz festival’s most impressive lineup. The star of the day turned out to be singer Samara Joy.
The parameters of jazz are always changing, and that held true over the weekend at the Newport Jazz Festival, which presented diverse styles from newcomers and elders alike in splendid weather at Rhode Island’s bayside Fort Adams State Park.
Friday’s opening day drew a younger crowd than usual for such odd occurrences as twerking with New Orleans bounce queen Big Freedia, a DJ set by pop star Anderson.Paak, and Grateful jams from Joe Russo’s Almost Dead and sax guest Branford Marsalis (who played with the actual Dead and covered for a Kamasi Washington cancellation), peaking in a 17-minute “Terrapin Station” with an abstract middle.
Saturday hit more collaborative heights with bassist and festival artistic director Christian McBride’s Jam Jawn with sax scion Ravi Coltrane, Soulive guitarist Eric Krasno, vocal/guitar powerhouse Celisse, ace drummer Nate Smith and smooth-jazz pianist Bob James (!) as well as Jon Batiste’s blend of jazz and pop, including a reunion with his former late-night show bandmates Louis Cato and Joe Saylor.
But Sunday arguably offered the jazz festival’s most impressive lineup, headlined by 83-year-old icon Herbie Hancock and ranging from Cuban dance music to hip-hop, from Miles Davis-inspired funk fusion to traditional vocal jazz, highlighted by fast-ascending star Samara Joy, who’s only 23. The day included veteran piano-trio leader Bill Charlap (who played homages to Duke Ellington and Tony Bennett) and exciting multi-keyboard savant Matthew Whitaker, a year younger than Joy. And with his own quintet, Charles Mingus alumnus Charles McPherson still sounded great on the alto sax at 84.
Cimafunk represented Cuba on the middle Quad stage with the slinky syncopation of his frenetic nine-piece band including horn player/vocalists — plus a percolating congas cameo from Pedrito Martinez, a tease to see his own hard-driving band on the smaller Harbor stage. And New Orleans brass band the Soul Rebels practically stole the show at the Quad, prompting fans to leave their seats and dance up front to the group’s stomping, clapping, booty-shaking blend of horns and party shouts. Beyond the brass-band tradition, the Soul Rebels also shared generational love and facility for hip-hop, with trumpeters Marcus Hubbard and Julian Gosin delivering punchy, fluid raps even before they brought out revered guest emcees Rakim (who proclaimed “I love jazz music, I love hip-hop!”) and Talib Kweli.
Several singers graced the fest’s three primary stages, including the coolly subdued pianist Diana Krall, electric bassist Adi Oasis (her very pregnant bare belly showing why Newport was her last show this year), and indie-R&B act Cautious Clay, who juggled multiple instruments in pursuing more of a jazz sound for a new album.
But the star of the day was Samara Joy. Last year, on the cusp of her debut album, the Bronx native was a doe-eyed ingenue with a sweet voice on the Harbor stage. Then she won two Grammy Awards, including Best New Artist. “This is beyond anything I could ever have dreamed or imagined,” Joy said to a huge Quad crowd that gave her a thundering ovation rarely afforded a traditional jazz singer in the vein of Sarah Vaughan and Betty Carter. In a voice already matured for her years, Joy glided from the Carlos Antonio Jobim bossa nova “Chega de Saudade” to the standard “Stardust,” floating into a startling high register on the edge of scat with dreamy curls at the end. Then she let out a girlish laugh in response to applause, showing her age. Expect to see Samara Joy on the main Fort stage next time.
Another stellar set came from the all-star reunion of saxophonist Joshua Redman, pianist Brad Mehldau, drummer Brian Blade, and bassist McBride, their only date of the year, celebrating their first gig as a quartet 30 years ago at the same festival. Well, after a Philly club that didn’t count, Redman teased Philly native McBride. Redman stood out with punctuating statements and a sweetness to his tone on both tenor and soprano, while Mehldau and Blade created an unusual sense of space on piano and drums in “Disco Ears,” able to shift or pause in mid-phrase yet hit necessary strokes to maintain taut momentum within their own bending.
Likewise on the main stage, Scary Goldings — another star-studded collective, named after organist Larry Goldings – found guest guitarist John Scofield in his element, sounding more playful and edgy than usual within the group’s loose, funky grooves. In addition to Goldings’ buoyant organ, the group featured Ryan Lerman on rhythm guitar and Jack Conte (co-founder/CEO of artist subscription service Patreon) on electric piano. And they had a secret weapon in bassist Tal Wilkenfeld, who had lots of experience supporting a lead guitarist — the late Jeff Beck — with her oozing ballast. The band’s irreverence was echoed in song titles like “Professor Vicarious” (supposedly a Miles Davis nickname for Scofield) and “Tacobell’s Canon.” And speaking of Miles, his also-major collaborator Marcus Miller led his own band at the Quad, showcasing his tautly thumbed bass style.
But when it comes to surviving Miles alumni, it’s hard to find one more broadly recognized than Herbie Hancock, who played piano in Davis’ second great quintet in the ’60s and later embraced pop, funk, hip-hop, and electronic music as well as jazz. He drew on much of that at Newport, serving an arrangement (by his trumpeter Terence Blanchard) of friend and recently departed Miles bandmate Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints” that was, unfortunately, marred by a bass-heavy mix. Hancock gave plenty of space to his band, from Blanchard’s trumpet to Lionel Loueke’s kalimba-like guitar textures, James Genus’ spidery solos, and young drummer Justin Tyson’s power flurries. But the bandleader also dabbled in vocoder effects with his synthesizer mainly to comic effect, then strapped on his cumbersome old keytar to step out with the sticky funk riffs of “Chameleon.” By then, many in the sold-out Newport crowd were headed out to beat the traffic but appreciative of the riches they had found.
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.