Newport Jazz Festival 2017: A Maiden Voyage

Legendary saxophonist Benny Golson performs at the 2017 Newport Jazz Festival. His bandmates are (from left) Mike LeDonne on piano, Buster Williams on bass and Carl Allen on drums. (Timothy Cox)

NEWPORT, R.I. — Three full days and nights of splendid jazz were expected by this first-time attendee while covering the recent Newport Jazz Festival (NJF) — and it didn’t disappoint.

The legendary Rhode Island-based event, held annually on the first weekend in August since 1954, maintains its status as the world’s first and foremost jazz festival, with more than 20,000 people converging on the site to take in this year’s show.

The Aug. 4-6 presentation, sponsored by Natixis Global Asset Management firm, featured an array of acts on four separate stages at the vintage outdoor venue simply known as Fort Adams — a Civil War-era locale that features a gift shop selling antebellum-style knickknacks, T-shirts and more.

How a jazz festival eventually settled on a Civil War campground is a mystery, but fortunately it happened and still evokes iconic images of folks like Louis Armstrong and “Lady Day” Billie Holliday wiping sweat from their brows on the main stage while sailboats and upscale yachts dock in ports along the Atlantic.

For first-timers, be ready to cover the campgrounds to capture as many acts as possible. Organizers said more than 40 acts performed in a 20-hour period, with nonstop musicality on four different stages. In the future, I’ll be better prepared.

The diverse lineup was led by bassist Christian McBride, who has assumed NJF art director duties from its cofounder, legendary promoter and jazz producer George Wein.

Wein, 91, could be seen riding in golf carts between venues — probably the most effective way to see all the performances.

Though McBride still represents authentic improvisational music, the lineup offered an eclectic mix of styles, from hip-hop flavorings of The Roots and DJ Logic to the fusion rock of drummer Jack DeJounette and guitarist John Scofield.

On the first night, Trombone Shorty rocked the International Tennis Hall of Fame stage with a funk-pop rendition of his original soul, borrowing a bit from the Bruno Mars playbook.

Saxophonists Maceo Parker and Branford Marsalis led uniquely different types of blues-tinged jazz on the popular Fort Stage on Friday and Saturday, respectively. But it was tenor saxman Benny Golson who overshadowed all acts with his Philly-based, traditional style that epitomized the festival’s essence. At age 88, Golson looked 60, and sounded just as fresh.

Having shared stages with Lee Morgan as a part of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Golson’s banter between songs hit the spot with an overflow crowd, as folks held onto his every word, particularly the tales about legend John Coltrane.

Baltimore native Cyrus Chestnut was another traditional jazz artist that made an impact with his moving, easy approach to the acoustic piano. Chestnut effectively blends his gospel with real jazz.

Rhiannon Giddens, a breakout Greensboro, N.C.-bred vocalist/fiddle/banjo player, rocked audiences Friday night as the opening act for Trombone Shorty, in addition to a solo set a day later. Pittsburgh-based trumpeter Sean Jones received rave reviews with his quintet, as did Philly-born organist Joey Defrancesco and The People. Joey D’s attraction is based on his proclivity to follow in the footsteps of organ masters such as Jimmy Smith, Richard “Groove” Holmes, Shirley Scott and Charles Earland.

On Saturday afternoon, bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington paid homage to pianist Geri Allen, who died in June. She was part of their trio and also headed the Jazz Studies Department at the University of Pittsburgh, following the recent retirement of longtime director Nathan Davis.

Credit event organizers for effectively blending current artists with traditional acts.
Groups such as Bela Fleck & The Flecktones, Snarky Puppy and guitarist Vernon Reid helped attract younger patrons. And based on the crowd reaction for final night’s closing act, The Roots with drummer Questlove, Newport’s future is in great hands.

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