For all its groundbreaking tradition and memorable performances, the prestigious 2021 Newport Jazz Festival was both bolder and more accessible than ever, more a laboratory than a museum. With the weekend weather fully cooperating, providing warm sunny days with occasional cloud cover relief, thirty different acts - ten per day, from noon to 7 p.m. - provided consummate listening and visual bliss.
Artistic director and seven-time Grammy Award-winner, bassist Christian McBride, vowed to “Just make it fun” and attractive to new and younger music lovers. Indeed, the sold out audiences of 5,000 per day (half of the usual capacity) were an even mix of youth and elders. I can’t imagine anyone, regardless of their age or jazz preferences, departed disappointed.
Contemporary Jazz, presented here in all its countless fusions - blues, funk, soul, hip hop, bop, gospel, rock, classical, for starters - is in supremely capable hands. The music was breathtaking, foot-stomping, romantic, meditative, arresting and inspiring, not to mention mind - and heart - opening; most notably, some of the incendiary protest raps from Teri Lynne Carrington’s (TLC, y’all) Social Science vocalists. Tearing up, I could feel their raw emotion and pain. Their set was a revelation.
The genre’s young lions, like serene saxophonist Kamasi Washington (in full regalia) - that is, serene until he starts blowing; blinged out trumpet sensation Christian Scott a Tunde Adjuah, the anti-Miles with his crowd-connecting brilliance; the unbridled brass-blasting Trombone Shorty and the virtuosic versatile Robert Glasper, who was featured all three days, are just a few of the luminous progeny who wowed the assembled the sun-soaked gatherings. They are torchbearers, revitalizing and expanding this most American of art forms.
Across the spectrum, sets by universally-respected veteran pillars like the sublime Kenny Barron with the distinguished Dave Holland, glorious, bass-thumping, Christian McBride with guitar maestro John Scofield, the ever unpredictable iconoclast Charles Lloyd, puckish Kenny Garrett, a small man with a big bright sound, and Chris Potter, multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire, were masterful, a privilege to hear, no less.
You could see these established stars and legendary bandleaders nodding and smiling in proud awe, appreciating the solos and vocal prowess of their younger charges, each propelling the other with fresh insights.
Lest we forget the magnificent young ladies, not necessarily jazzers, per se, who pumped up the party with sass and strut and self-assurance. How about the heralded Ledisi singing Nina Simone, enchanting Yola levitating the crowd, and dynamic festival closer Andra Day vibrating the spirit of Billie Holiday, who inspired her stage name, but is a force all her own!
Their elders but not their lessers, the delightful Catherine Russell, endowed with ‘the gift’ and who can sing it all, and marvelous Mavis Staples, who brings you to your knees and raises you up with your arms stretched to the sky, shone with command performances.
David Ostwald’s Louis Armstrong Eternity Band, a bad rad trad aggregation, including tuba, trombone and banjo, evoked a century-old sound with a here today refreshing vivacity. Russo’s Bogie Band, a joyous juggernaut of booming brass and drums with two trombones, two trumpets, two saxes, a flute and a tuba, was a riotous romp and stomp as two lines of musicians faced off five meters across from each other honking orgiastically.
What further delighted me, partly because I didn’t expect to see them, was the wide variety of instruments performed on. Of course, the tubas and trombones, with their unique shapes and sounds, are always a treat. However, the NJF ‘21 offered Vibes Summit, featuring three vibraphones performing simultaneously in one band, Brandee Younger and Mikaela Davis on full-size harps a la Alice Coltrane, turntables for scratching, banjoes, bongos and djembes, too. Not to mention, just about every keyboard imaginable.
Speaking of keyboards, the spirit and echoes of Stevie Wonder were hovering about the atmosphere all weekend. Maybe, just maybe, the music world has finally caught up to the estimable composer.
The wise scheduling of the acts allowed the energetic and curious to cruise back and forth between the two stages (reduced from the usual three) to see each act for at least half an hour. The distance between them is about a five- to ten-minute stroll, much of it with a panoramic view of the sailboats in the adjacent ocean, which frames much of the venue, historic Fort Adams State Park. On the way, people could detour for a variety of food and drink.
Furthermore, really enthusiastic fans could even slither through the gaps in the crowd to the very front of the main stage at any time of a performance. Thousands, though, simply plunked down their chairs, blankets and coolers for a relaxing sedentary solace and views of, not only the distant stage, but also the now customary giant video screens bookending the stages.
Leave it to the ever-optimistic Mavis Staples to aptly sum up the unspoken but embraced ethos of NJF 2021: “We’ve come too far to get lost. Something’s gotta give.” Well, Newport gave abundantly. “Shake it off. Keep on getting up and going on. If you let yourself loose, you gonna feel good.” Amen, Mavis. We did!
Newport 2022 can’t come soon enough.
P.S. Because many of today’s opening acts are tomorrow’s headliners, let me recognize The Arturo O’Farrill Quintet, Avery Sunshine, Brandee Younger, Danielle Ponder, Immanuel Wilkins and Makaya McCraven for their excellent sets.