The time is upon us for yet another edition of the historic Newport Jazz Festival. This year for a change of pace from past guides, I’m going to focus on artists or collaborations that may not garner the same recognition as some of the bigger names on the poster. Here are three picks for each day that I think should be considered as part of your festival watching schedule.
Endea Owens and The Cookout – You may have seen her playing upright bass in The Late Show with Stephen Colbert house band or heard her on Jon Batiste’s album “We Are” but she can certainly stand out on her own as a player and bandleader as evidenced on her fantastic NPR Tiny Desk concert.
Lakecia Benjamin and Phoenix – I first saw Lakecia playing with Gregory Porter a few years back at another NJF and when I tell you I still think about her solos to this day, you can see why I was so excited to see her given her own set. She plays with a precision and explosiveness that few other alto saxophonists can match so definitely make sure you’re there to watch her and her band soar.
Domi & JD Beck – Although they have a big following in certain crowds I can imagine there’s a lot of people out there still sleeping on this duo. Comprised of just keyboard and drums, these two phenoms are able to pull off some of the most mind warping, brain disintegrating music you’ll hear all weekend.
Louis Cato – Another member of the Late Show band, except this one plays about twenty different instruments, all with a singular voice that emanates from a deep and powerful soul. To get a taste of his genius be sure to look up his #catocovers series on Instagram and settle in for a deep dive.
Superblue: Kurt Elling & Charlie Hunter – Take a generationally talented singer and pair him with an instrument redefining guitarist and you can see why this set is so exciting. Sure, both are well respected and known musicians but this collaboration may be overlooked on the day compared to some other acts on Saturday’s bill. Don’t catch yourself missing this incredible chance to see these two play together. And even better, Nate Smith will be accompanying on drums.
Armstrong Now: Louis at Newport – Jazz is both about moving the music forward into ever expanding sounds and also looking back with reverence at the pioneers and sages of the past. Armstrong Now, a program from the Louis Armstrong House Museum, is “dedicated to featuring world-class artists responding creatively to the Armstrong Archives through a contemporary Black lens.” While I’m not sure what this set will be, reading this mission statement has me excited for the potential of it being one of the outstanding performances of the day.
Matthew Whitaker – As is standard in 2023 I first saw the pianist/organist on TikTok where he can be seen playing some of the most immaculate and moving music with proficiency and soul. Some have deemed him the next Stevie Wonder which if that doesn’t entice you enough who knows what will.
Cautious Clay – Although I am unfamiliar with this singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist I have it on good authority from a few fellow musicians whose taste I value highly that he is an artist to watch out for. Floating around the worlds of Contemporary R&B, Indie pop, and Soul, he has worked with some major names including John Legend and John Mayer, as well as had his song sampled by Rhode Island’s visiting Pop empress Taylor Swift for her song “London Boy”.
Pedrito Martinez – This world-class percussionist is in a class all his own. Besides being a “consummate master of Afro-Cuban folkloric music and the batá drum” according to his website, he has also recorded or performed with Wynton Marsalis, Paquito D’Rivera, Eddie Palmieri, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, and Elton John, to name a few. Be sure to check out his group’s Tiny Desk concert for a preview of what’s to come.
Of course this is all just a quick primer to get you ready but make sure to wander off, watch sets of people you haven’t heard of, and trust your personal taste because it will undoubtedly lead you to your best festival experience. Lastly, please remember to bring sunscreen, a water bottle, and good walking shoes so you can fully enjoy what this year has to offer. For more information please visit newportjazz.org, where you will also find links to schedules, vendor lists, and more. See you all at the Fort!
Ben Shaw is a local composer, performer, and writer. Find him at benjaminshawmusic.com and on instagram at @benjaminshawmusic.