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Louis Armstrong once famously said, and I paraphrase, that all music is folk music because all music is made by folk. The 2018 Newport Jazz Festival, presented by Natixis Investment Managers, apparently set out to determine whether all music is jazz too. The weekend’s offerings as chosen by Artistic Director Christian McBride were wildly diverse and wildly successful in blurring lines that separate musical genres.
Before I begin I must offer the usual disclaimer about how it’s impossible to see all the acts over the course of the three-day festival. I saw what I could and my failure to mention any artist in particular is not a commentary on their performance. Friends tell me that I managed to miss some great stuff. But that’s alright because I heard some great stuff too.
Let’s begin at the beginning, on Friday. Attending Nate Chinen’s presentation on the 1958 film Jazz on a Summer’s Day, much of which was shot at that year’s Newport Jazz Festival, was both interesting and informative and proved to be a nice way to ease into the weekend.
It didn’t take long for it to become apparent that this year’s festival was going to push the boundaries of jazz. Two of the acts I saw on Friday afternoon had no bass player but they did have tabla players. Rudresh Mahanthappa, who turned in a scorching set of Charlie Parker-inspired “Bird Calls” at the festival a few years ago was back with his Indo-Pak Coalition. Mahanthappa featured on alto sax in a group that also included a guitar player and the aforementioned tabla player. The music they made was clearly influenced by the sounds of Indian and other near Eastern music. As always, the Newport crowd proved not only accepting but appreciative of music that was outside of the mainstream.
Charles Lloyd is celebrating his 80th birthday this year and the celebration included three sets, with three different groups, on the three days of the festival. On Friday, Lloyd was featured with his group Sangam. He started the set on piano, moved over the drums, and eventually picked up his saxophone and flute for another set that was very much influenced by world music and once again featured the sounds of the tabla as played by Zakir Hussain. Eric Hartland provided solid support on drums.
In between the two world music sets was a crowd-pleasing solo piano set from Michel Camilo. The pianist delighted the audience with his fiery take on Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” and a lovely rendition of his own “Sandra’s Serenade” which he dedicated to his wife.
The day ended for me with Living Colour on the main stage. Living Colour you say? Yes indeed. Remember what I said about pushing the boundaries. The hard rock band played nothing that you would normally think of as jazz, and I’m sure that some of the more conservative festival-goers were a bit taken aback, but for the most part, the succeeded admirably in winning the crowd over. The band was something of a fish out of water but we were reminded of where we were by lead singer Cory Glover’s exclamation — “Jazz!” — at the end of several pounding rock songs.
The Friday night concert at the International Tennis Hall of Fame is always an interesting affair. I could be wrong but it seems that very few people who come to the tennis stadium on Friday night come to Fort Adams for the daytime shows and vice-versa. That’s a shame because people are missing some great music. This year, the Friday night show featured a scintillating set of guitar music from Pat Metheny. As great as Metheny’s band is, I was most taken with his solo acoustic work.
José James has made several appearances at the festival in recent years. His set has always included a delightful Bill Withers medley. This year James took it to another level with an entire set of Withers covers and it was thrilling. All of the hits you would want to hear were there including thrilling takes on “Grandma’s Hands,” and “Who Is He (and What is He to You).” James is a hugely talented young performer and I look forward to following his career, including his Don Was-produced album of Withers covers that will come out in the fall, going forward.
On Saturday there was a deluge. What was acceptable to me in terms of weather during the Woodstock era was not so acceptable today. I can tell you that the show went on without me and included both Metheny and James reprising their Friday night sets as well as performances from Roy Hargrove, Charles Lloyd’s New Quartet, Laurie Anderson & Christian McBride, Andra Day, and Jon Batiste.
Thankfully, Sunday’s weather was more clement, if a bit warm. It was a fine day to close out this year’s festival and I was there early to catch the Harold Lopez-Nussa Trio on the Quad stage. Lopez is based in Havana and his group includes his younger brother Ruy López-Nussa on drums. The trio, with Lopez leading on piano, played a scorching set of Afro-Cuban jazz that had the audience leaping to their feet in appreciation.
Acclaimed drummer Nate Smith had accompanied José James on Friday night and Saturday afternoon and he returned with his own group, Kinfolk, on Sunday. Naturally, the drummer-led group focused on rhythm but there was more than enough melody to go around too. Kinfolk strong improvisational skills from all of its players and together with the solid rhythmic basis that Smith laid down it added up to a powerful set of music.
Charles Lloyd’s final appearance of the weekend took place on the main stage on Sunday and was billed as Charles Lloyd & Friends. The friends included Lucinda Williams who may have seemed like an unlikely choice to many but proved to be a great one as she shined on songs like “Dust” and “Ventura” that the pair had recorded together for the Vanished Gardens album.
Gregory Porter is another artist who has made several festival appearances in recent years. Porter always brings his smooth as silk delivery to the proceedings but this year he took it up a notch by adding some fire to the mix. He is simply one of the finest singers we have these days and his powerful Newport set included splendid renditions of “Liquid Spirit,” and “Musical Genocide.”
Before I knew it, the weekend was nearly over but there was one last act to play out on the main stage and it was an act that I looked forward to indeed. As you might expect if you’ve ever had the chance to see them live, George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic did not disappoint. Clinton, who has announced that this is his final tour, performed like he could go on another 20 years. Gone was the multi-colored hair but still there were hits like “Flashlight” and beloved characters like Sir Nose d’Voidoffunk. The tradition of scorching guitar work as established by players like Eddie Hazel, Garry Shider, and Glen Goins continues in the person of DeWayne “Blackbyrd” McKnight. There is no indication that Clinton’s retirement means the end of P-Funk. Long may they run.
And there you have it, my Newport Jazz Festival 2018. Prior to the festival, it was announced by the RI Governor Gina Raimondo and festival impresario George Wein that the festival will remain at its current location (which is a state park) for 40 more years. Good news indeed. I’m already looking forward to next year.