Is This Jazz? Newport Jazz Festival ’17



Cecile McLorin Salvant, credit: Norman Grant

Cecile McLorin Salvant, credit: Norman Grant

The jazz world descended upon Newport to see some of the music’s legends as well as many of its rising stars. As is always the case with such events, the hardest part of the weekend was catching a significant portion of each great set before running full speed to another stage to try and catch the next historic moment that could be unfolding. It was tough to get it all in, but here are some of the highlights.

The festival kicked off Friday with a stellar set from the Jimmy Greene Quartet on the Fort stage. Greene — the saxophonist and band leader — took his quartet through a set of terrific originals, including the flowing groove of “Second Breakfast” off his latest release Flowers. Later on, Cecile McLorin Salvant and the Aaron Diehl Trio took the stage and shattered minds with their beautiful and complex arrangements, including her profound version of “Wives And Lovers.” Having a soft spot for the New Orleans clarinet style, Evan Christopher’s Clarinet Road & New Orleans Brass was a much-appreciated addition to the Quad stage with a killer band, locked-in swing and loose group improvisations. The day closed out with Joey DeFrancesco + The People, who were by far the funkiest, most swinging band of the day. DeFrancesco is a monster organ player who demonstrated why he has redefined how the instrument is approached. After leaving the Fort I headed over to watch Rhiannon Giddens and Trombone Shorty each play very different, but equally excellent sets at the Tennis Hall of Fame.

Saturday started with “Jazz 100: The Music Of Dizzy, Mongo and Monk,” an all-star salute to some of the pioneers of jazz. The titanic group of Danilo Perez, Chris Potter, Avishai Cohen, Josh Roseman, Roman Diaz, Ben Street and Adam Cruz ran through some of the most incredible small ensemble arrangements I have ever witnessed, with each musician playing not only to the peak of their individual abilities but also masterfully blending as an ensemble. Later, on the small confines of the Storyville Stage, trumpeter Peter Evans performed his solo composition “Lifeblood” that stretched the limits of what is possible on the trumpet and quite honestly, totally changed my concept of what a solo horn performance could be. One of the most moving sets to witness was “Flying Toward The Sound: For Geri, With Love.” The love and reverence that Esperanza Spalding and Terri Lyne Carrington have for Geri Allen was in the air and the addition of Christian Sands, Vijay Iyer, and Jason Moran filling in on piano and paying their respects added to the feeling. Not only was the performance amazing, but the spirit was moving heavily throughout the Quad. The day ended split between Henry Threadgill Zooid’s intense, dynamic compositions and Snarky Puppy’s groove-infested arrangements.

Even though it was the final day of the festival, Sunday had some of the most memorable performances. The Maria Schneider Orchestra began the day with a mesmerizing and incredibly inspiring set of some of the finest large ensemble jazz ever composed, played by some of the best musicians around. Moving over to the Harbor Stage, Tim Berne’s Snakeoil locked in and burned through some of the most exciting, entrancing group improvisation that you could ever hope to hear. Jason Moran brought his wildly entertaining and musically vibrant “Fats Waller Dance Party” to the Fort Stage, inviting the audience to dance and revel in celebration of one of jazz’s late greats. The Philadelphia Experiment — the trio of Questlove, Christian McBride, and Uri Caine — held down the Quad Stage with a tight pocket and deep groove, with special guest DJ Logic joining in on turntables. Closing out the Storyville Stage was the Newport Jazz Assembly Band, a group of young musicians that was formed to support the Festival Foundation’s mission of bringing jazz into local schools, with a killer set of standards and originals that showcased every member’s immense talent and deep love for this music. The final performance of the festival went to The Roots who proved their status as the world’s baddest band by showcasing both their jazz chops and high energy stage presence.

While the lineups for the past couple of years have been great, this was one of the strongest, most diverse sets of artists I have ever seen at the festival, and it made for a fantastic three days. Be sure to get your ticket for next year and I’ll see you at the Fort!

Happening Around Town:

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

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

Allary At Arias; Sundays @ Arias Lounge (Providence)

Groove Merchants; Mondays @ Fifth Element (Newport)

Jazz JamTuesdays @ Ten Rocks (Pawtucket)

Groove E TuesdayTuesdays @ Murphy’s Law (Pawtucket)

Parlour Jazz Jam; third Sunday each month @ The Parlour (Providence)

Jeff Platz Quartet’s Modern Sound Series; last Sunday each month @ Tea In Sahara (Providence)

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Ben Shaw is a local composer and performer. Find him at or on Twitter @ahueofshaw.

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