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Day 3 at Newport Jazz Festival: Hearing the Future and Honoring the History

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Sunday, the fest's final day, was glorious, with perfect weather and large, enthusiastic crowds. Friday and Saturday had killer lineups, but the festival arguably saved the best for last. There were a total of 17 acts. This included young emerging stars such as Samara Joy and Matthew Whitaker. My festival experience was bookended by two octogenarians, Charles McPherson and Herbie Hancock. Both were in peak form and among the day's highlights. At age 84, McPherson was making his first appearance at Newport as a band leader. He first appeared at the festival with Charles Mingus in 1971. The alto saxophonist was accompanied by an excellent group featuring trumpeter Terell Stafford, pianist Jeb Patton, bassist David Wong, and drummer Billy Drummond. The quintet has played together for some time and was a finely tuned ensemble. Stafford and McPherson, in particular, were an outstanding front line.

Christian McBride introduced the Bill Charlap Trio as one of the greatest trios in jazz history. The Trio, which included Peter Washington on bass and Kenny Washington on drums, lived up to that billing. Regrettably, I only caught 15 minutes of their set. However, the consensus among my friends was that their performance was among the festival highlights. Scary Goldings is a collaboration between jazz organist Larry Goldings and the contemporary funk group Scary Pockets, featuring guitarist and keyboardist Jack Conte. Scary Goldings has released five albums to date. On this occasion, guitarist John Scofield and bass guitarist Tal Wilkenfeld (best known for her work with Jeff Beck) joined them to form a jazz-funk supergroup. Goldings has played with Scofield off since the early 90s, and they have a great rapport. The group laid down deep grooves and had ample opportunity to stretch out playing original material. They were received enthusiastically by a large crowd.

I had high expectations for Joshua Redman's MoodSwing Reunion performance, and they were emphatically met. The group features pianist Brad Mehldau, bassist Christian McBride, and drummer Brian Blade. They first performed together for Redman's critically acclaimed MoodSwing album and played their second-ever gig at the 1994 Newport Jazz Festival. The musicians were all young, up-and-coming talent. Fast forward nearly 30 years, and these musicians have become leading figures in jazz. Jazz is often considered a deeply intellectual form of music, primarily appreciated by fellow musicians or jazz connoisseurs. Redman's goal was to produce accessible music without compromise. This was clearly articulated in his liner notes to the first album. Great jazz, like all great music, attains its value not through intellectual complexity but through emotional expressivity. And later, "Jazz is about feeling, communication, honesty, and soul." This goal was fully realized in the excellent compositions on both of their studio albums, MoodSwing and Gone Again, and in live performance at Newport delivered by some of the best musicians on the planet. The musicians and the music have evolved over 30 years, but the musicians share a common language, vision, and aesthetic. In a word, magnificent!

I first saw Samara Joy in the summer of 2022 at a small Brooklyn club, Bar Bayeux, in front of about ten people for the second set. In the subsequent year, Joy won a Grammy and garnered numerous awards and accolades. She filled the Quad Stage tent at Newport to capacity, with an additional ten rows of eager spectators straining to hear and catch a glimpse of her performance. Joy wowed the large crowd with her extraordinary voice and unique renditions of classics such as "Stardust" . In an in-pictures feature at AAJ, Samara Joy at the Newport Jazz Festival 2023, my colleague, Stephanie Bernaba, stated it perfectly "Joy exudes the presence of an old soul, coupled with a voice that draws in jazz newcomers while simultaneously stirring the souls of those who grew up on standards." She was accompanied by an excellent band, including a most impressive young pianist, Luther Allison.

At age 83, Herbie Hancock is one of the elder statesmen of jazz. He has had an extraordinary and highly varied 60-year career marked by an insane number of accolades and awards. Yet Hancock remains at the top of his game, one of the most captivating performers in the world of jazz, and continues to draw a younger audience with his enduring popularity. He first performed at Newport in 1965 with the Miles Davis Quintet. Longtime bandmates guitarist Lionel Loueke and bass guitarist James Genus accompanied Hancock. They were joined by a young and most impressive drummer, Jaylen Petinaud.

Trumpeter Terence Blanchard is one of the most distinguished and busiest musicians in jazz, with his band the E-Collective, his work on movie soundtracks, and more recently, the composer of an opera, Fire Shut Up in My Bones. He has toured with Hancock over the past 15 or so years when his schedule permits. Blanchard brings a completely distinct and transformative sonic dimension to the band. Loueke can also coax these otherworldly sounds from his guitar to great effect. The Quintet played a moving tribute to Wayne Shorter by reinventing his iconic Footprints with a Blanchard arrangement. The set ended with extended versions of two Headhunters' classics, "Actual Proof" and "Chameleon." Hancock pulled out all the stops, first singing into the vocoder, which electronically transforms his voice, and then playing the keytar, which is always a crowd favorite. Herbie was absolutely elated, and the experience electrified the audience.

This is my third and final report from Newport, which brings closure to my journey. I wanted to pay homage to the artists not included in the writeups. These include the very expressive Durand Jones & The Indications, who weaves together old and new school soul, the funk-jazz trio Soulive, who performed a fiercely rocking set on Friday, and two masterful bass guitarists, Derrick Hodge and Marcus Miller who showcased remarkable virtuosity while leading stellar group performances. Orrin Evans led a formidable band that featured trumpeter Ingrid Jensen and tenor saxophonist Gary Thomas. I thoroughly enjoyed catching at least a glimpse of Louis Cato, Adi Oasis, Pedrito Martinez, and the Soul Rebels. Attending the Newport Jazz Festival was a profound musical journey and a treasured accomplishment, marking off a significant event from my bucket list.
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