Is This Jazz?: Newport Jazz Fest ’18 Review

Although we may be weeks past this year’s Newport Jazz Festival, there is still plenty to reflect on. This year had an amazing variety of music and an explosion of new and returning talent, and featured some of the best performances that I have seen at Newport in my many years of attending. Since there was so much killer music happening at all times over the three days I didn’t get to see every moment of every set, but I tried my hardest to spread out and catch as much as possible.

The festival began on Friday with first timers Sonnymoon, who played an interesting mix of beat-driven, ambient-textured music with tinges of jazz flavoring, all of which I enjoyed, but I was hoping for a bit more improvisation. Next I headed over to the Fort stage to catch The Diva Orchestra, who were ripping through some fiery original compositions, then on to Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Indo-Pak Coalition for another intense set of rhythmic and melodic brilliance. I only caught a few minutes of Cory Henry & The Funk Apostles, but really enjoyed the groove, and saw a brief bit of Michel Camilo’s solo piano set who was virtuosic as always. I stayed by the Quad to watch Sangham, which was by far the set of the day. The interplay between drummer Eric Harland, tabla master Zakir Hussain and Charles Lloyd was exquisite, but it was the brain-melting performance of Hussain that held the stage in amazement. I wasn’t able to see a lot of the Marquis Hill Blacktet, but what I saw has incited me to seek out more. I ended the day by watching a good chunk of Still Dreaming, who were having an awesome set, but left them to watch R+R=NOW who didn’t leave me very impressed.

Saturday was a day of downpours, but I managed to catch a few good sets between showers. I had the fortune to catch a chunk of Roy Hargrove and his killer band blow through some incredible music first thing in the morning, then went to the Storyville stage for the Isaiah J. Thompson Trio, who played one of the best sets of the day, if not the whole festival. I enjoyed a few tunes from Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl, an excellent and creatively rich ensemble, before escaping under a tent to avoid the torrential rain. Though I remained relatively soaked for the rest of the day, the Louis Cole Big Band Blowout was exactly the set I needed to not only reenergize but be reminded me of how fun this festival could be. I watched a bit of the excellent Charles Lloyd New Quartet before ending day two with a beautiful solo piano set from John Batiste.

On Sunday, I tried to make up the sets lost to rain by running to as many sets as humanly possibly. First I saw the immensely talented Harold López-Nussa Trio and then ran to watch a couple from the terrific Herlin Riley New York-Havana Connection, both ensembles playing with Cuban rhythms and styles that were resonating beautifully throughout the festival. Then it was over to the Harbor to watch a bit of the brilliant Nicole Mitchell’s Dusty Wings before going back to the Fort to watch Artemis, who had by far the greatest set of the entire festival. The ensemble was fantastic, and they hit every insane riff like they had been playing together for 30 years. Each solo was incredible…I honestly can’t say enough about how badass that set was. I thoroughly enjoyed the intense groove of Nate Smith + Kinfolk, the swirling beats of Gogo Penguin and the joy of Charles Lloyd & Friends. Ambrose Akinmusire’s Origami Harvest was good, the Jennifer Hartswick & Nick Cassarino Duo was a lot of fun, as was the James Carter Organ Trio, and of course, I had to end the day by funking out with George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic.

While I always wish I could’ve seen more, I am grateful to have witnessed such inspiring music played by so many magnificent artists over such a short period of time, all of it just enough to get me excited for next year’s edition of the Newport Jazz Festival.

Happening Around Town:

The John Allmark Jazz Orchestra; first Monday monthly @ The Met (Pawtucket)

Is This Jazz?; first Friday bimonthly @ AS220 (Providence)

Groove Merchants; Mondays @ Fifth Element (Newport)

Jazz Jam; Tuesdays @ Ten Rocks (Pawtucket)

Groove E Tuesday; Tuesdays @ Murphy’s Law (Pawtucket)

Jazz At The Parlour; Sundays (jam held every third Sunday) @ The Parlour (Providence)

Modern Sound Series; last Sunday monthly @ Tea In Sahara (Providence)

Leland Baker Quartet; Wednesdays @ Acacia Club (Providence)

To add your listing email isthisjazzri@gmail.comBen Shaw is a local composer and performer. Find him at

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