The Newport Jazz Festival has a deep history, and you can feel it as you walk through the Rhode Island music festival. The event started in 1954 with performances by the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Billie Holiday. Miles Davis performed there the next year. So when you watch sets by rising stars like Kamasi Washington, Christian Scott, or Donny McCaslin, you can sense that they’re just as happy to be there as you are.
That vibe transcends into every nook and cranny of Fort Adams park throughout the course of the Newport Jazz Festival (and presumably the acclaimed Folk Festival that took place the weekend prior). Everyone is excited to be there from the staff to the patrons, many stage of which are wearing NJF shirts from years prior proudly. The weather couldn’t have cooperated better either, with only a bit of rain early on Friday and perfect conditions thereafter: sunny skies with clouds to give you a break from the heat, and a priceless breeze off the ocean.
While the rain kept many away from the festival grounds until the afternoon, the weather cleared up nicely by about 1pm, just in time for Kneebody’s set on the main stage. The jazz-rock quintet livened up the audience with tracks from each of the band members before Kamasi Washington made his Newport debut.
Washington, of course, has sort of put jazz on the map again in the eyes of the mainstream recently, earning spots not just at this festival, but also places like Coachella and Pitchfork Festival, where jazz would be looked as objectively un-cool. But everything about Kamasi’s music and demeanor proves otherwise for the state of the music in ’16: he’s tied to the coolest rapper in the game with Kendrick Lamar, an influential electronic beat producer in Flying Lotus, and his band members have played along Snoop Dogg. It bodes pretty well for Washington, as he and his band continue to pick up steam with their frantic brand of spiritual jazz that is rooted with a phenomenal rhythm section of double-drummers and a double-bassist.
Meanwhile Donny McCaslin picked things up at the Quad Stage. Located with seats under a large tent, the stage was packed all weekend due to its shade and stellar programming. Along with Jason Lindner and Mark Guiliana, the band played tribute to David Bowie as they brought their ‘stadium jazz’ sound to Fort Adams. Galactic ended things with a bang in a way that only a New Orleans band could. They had the crowd dancing up a storm as they blasted through funky grooves and seasoned chops.
The sold-out crowd on Saturday should have been a sign for us to get there super early, but we waited until about noon and traffic kept us out of the park until about 2pm, meaning we started our day with Chick Corea’s Trilogy band, which features Brian Blade on drums and Christian McBride on bass. Despite laying down a pretty short set, the group displayed a lesser-seen side of Chick atop of two of the best at their craft. The trio has a really nice sound: expansive in vocabulary, but familiar in instrumentation, and therefore general sound. They played Miles Davis’ “All Blues” and other covers, which was a neat way to begin an incredible day of music.
Dave Liebman’s Expansions group packed a big-band sound into the tiny Harbor Stage to much awe, and Norah Jones stunned the audience with bluesy, folksy, soulful and jazzy cuts, including “Come Away With Me” and “Don’t Know Why,” which were met with big cheers from the sold-out Fort Adams. Gregory Porter followed up an extremely impressive Jones’ set by unleashing his signature croon into the Narragansett Bay with tracks off his latest Blue Note LP Take Me To The Alley.
The lineup on Sunday featured the most in up-and-coming, modern jazz. Kamasi Washington came back for an encore set, and along with sets by Ben Williams, Christian Scott, Jose James, Nels Cline, and Robert Glasper, was a part of monumental programming by Newport Jazz Festival.
Nels Cline started things with the live debut of Lovers, his forthcoming Blue Note LP comprised of big band love songs. It was a delightful way to spend the morning, with cloudy skies keeping the heat away and his ~15-piece band laying down a romantic soundtrack that everyone could enjoy. That LP drops this Friday, by the way.
Ben Williams slam-packed the Harbor Stage with his take on this classic music. He covered N.E.R.D. and debuted a new piece as well, one commissioned to convey the feelings of the current misfortune taking place in our country. Kamasi Washington did a totally different set from his Friday main stage performance, this time packing out the Quad Stage to the largest audience it would see all weekend. We ended our day with the phenom that is Christian Scott. He’s a charismatic trumpet player whose stage banter is only matched by his extraordinary playing. He plays with serious intensity, passion, and emotion, and did so by going over his allotted stage time 30 minutes as he was the last set on the stage for the festival.