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Newport Jazz Festival 2019

Doug Hall By

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After Batiste took the audience through a version of "America the Beautiful" on solo piano, he took his band Stay Human on a ride through a medley of "Kindergarten" from recent release and then Monk's "Green Chimneys," finishing with Louis Armstrong's "Sweet Georgia Brown." A tribute to Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington followed with a rendition of "Take the A Train." The first set also featured a beautiful and elegant original piano composition by Ethan Iverson titled "Showdown." Baptiste introduced a new song, "Creative," just released on Anatomy of Angels—Live at the Village Vanguard (Verve, 2019).

Taking to the stage next with ELEW, both pianists seemed to be in synch as they challenged each other to a competitive duet (on matching Steinways), of complete improvisation, running 10 minutes as they launched from the Darth Vader theme from "Star Wars" to "My Favorite Things" from "Sound of Music" to Stravinsky and possibly the soundtrack for "Beverly Hills Cop." An amazing show of dexterity and command of the piano as instrument and vehicle for experimentation. A standing ovation from the audience followed.

The 2nd set boasted performances by Corinne Bailey Rae, from England, Grammy-award winning singer, songwriter and musician and PJ Morton, New Orleans-based musician (keyboards), singer and songwriter (current band member of Maroon 5) and record producer. The evening's audience were held in a spell by the stage presence and beautiful vocals of Ms. Bailey Rae and the superb musicianship of PJ Morton.

Jon Batiste's message of friendship and togetherness that night between all these gifted musicians on stage with him, carried a much higher meaning about a larger world better unified then divided.

If there was an overall theme for this year's festival, as suggested by Artistic Director Christian McBride, it would be vocalists, " Whether or not you're a jazz fan, almost everyone connects with a vocalist. And this year we're stacked with some of the greatest singers on the planet Earth."

A selection of highlighted vocal performances

  • Kandace Springs: Fresh on the heels of critically acclaimed release Indigo (Blue Note, 2018), crossing genres (covering her hero Norah Jones, Prince and Nina Simone), Springs brought the expectant NJF crowd a soulful and classy vocal sound. Springs took to the stage with her own jazzy interpretations of Roberta Flack's "First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," and Stevie Wonder's "The World is a Ghetto," which were both crowd pleasers. Changing genre, Springs powered into Oscar Peterson's "Chicago Blues" and showed off her piano chops. Several other piano and voice-based songs rounded-out a full range for her exceptional, passionate vocals.

  • Corinne Bailey Rae: A British singer and songwriter from England, Bailey Rae has won several Grammy awards including Album of the Year (2008). Her release of The Heart Speaks in Whispers (Virgin, 2016) rose to #2 on Billboards R&B chart. Taking the main stage, Bailey Rae started her set with "Trouble Sleeping" harking back to her self-titled release. Gifted with a naturally rich, gorgeous voice, reminiscent in range and sensuous tone to Diana Ross, there was an authenticity to the emotion she delivered. Her band, Steve Brown (keyboards), Johnny McCallum (guitar) and Myke Wilson (drums) carried a full groove and driving rhythm, accompanying her heartfelt songs.

  • Concha Buika: Daughter of African parents, and growing-up in Spain, Buika immersed herself in the multi-culturalism of music without boundaries in the Mediterranean. The New York Post stated recently, "A singer like Buika comes around only once in a generation." With a husky, layered and imperious voice, "something like Nina Simone's but more flexible and virtuosic" (The New York Times), Buika astounded the audience at the main stage at the Newport Jazz Festival. She began with a vocal solo that was part individual poly-rhythm chant and then refrain with a deep powerful voice belting-out a totally emotional commitment. She owned the audience from that moment forward. Sharing further songs from her past releases, and improvisations of her own choosing as well as songs from her latest release, Vivir Sin Miedo (Warner Music, 2015), Buika garnered many new fans.

  • Dianne Reeves: Five-time Grammy winner and considered by fellow musicians and critics alike to be the pre-eminent jazz vocalist in the world. She receives accolades for her "breathtaking virtuosity, improvisational prowess, and unique jazz and R&B stylings." On the main stage, Reeves had an incredible, forceful presence, with an effortless strength and passion to her vocal interpretations. She covered Stevie Nicks' "Dreams" with particular emotional emphasis on the line "players only love you when they're playing" and then found the range for a soaring and impeccable version of Pat Metheny's composition "Minuano (Six Eight)" which was made famous by South American vocalist Pedro Aznar. Amongst other pieces performed, she made a particular song dedication to vocalist Buika, "I thought I would wake-up from a dream and sing like Buika-but that didn't happen—but here's my dedication anyway." With a natural rapport with the audience, Reeves was candid, funny and engaging along with delivering a knock-out performance.

  • Dee Dee Bridgewater and the Memphis Soulphony: Over the course of a multifaceted career spanning four decades, Grammy and Tony Award-winning Jazz giant Dee Dee Bridgewater has ascended to the upper echelon of vocalists, putting her unique spin on standards, as well as taking intrepid leaps of faith in re-envisioning jazz classics. Ever the fearless voyager, explorer, pioneer and keeper of tradition, the three-time Grammy-winner most recently won the Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album for Eleanora Fagan (1915-1959): To Billie With Love From Dee Dee (DDB Records, 2009), a tribute to Billie Holiday.
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