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Newport Jazz Festival 2019

Doug Hall By

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Boarding the main stage on a hot afternoon, Dee Dee Bridgewater's energy, vibe and smile brought the audience's attention, front and center. With a stompin' 8 piece band, Bridgewater talked to the crowd around the main stage like they were intimate friends, and then played a heartfelt version of R&B classic "Soul Finger" by the Bar-Kays from Stax Records, showing off her own style and swagger. Moving to blues, she took the tempo down a notch to re- interpret her own version of Howlin' Wolf's "Going Down Slow." And amongst other covers, soulfully rendered Gladys Knight and the Pips' "Giving Up." A classic demonstration of owning the stage and keeping it.

Emerging talents and new bands

The Newport Jazz Festival has always drawn top-drawer acts and acknowledged musicianship, but the festival's strength has also been to introduce emerging talent and to re-introduce hybrid bands that showcase again established talent that is coming at the audience in a different musical direction. Two performances, in that vein, stand-out in particular.

  • Joel Ross: Chicago native Joel Ross has performed with historic and seasoned artists—Herbie Hancock, Louis Hayes, Christian McBride, and Stefon Harris—as well as with cutting-edge contemporaries like Ambrose Akinmusire, Gerald Clayton, and Marquis Hill. Twice selected as a Thelonious Monk Institute National All-Star and a 2013 Young Arts Jazz Finalist—he's also had the opportunity to perform at the Brubeck, Monterey, Seattle, and Chicago Jazz Festivals—and-at internationally-celebrated venues like Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola in New York, SF JAZZ in San Francisco, and Club Vibrato in Los Angeles.

    With his debut performance at the Newport Jazz Festival, following-on much talked about sensational buzz around this 23 year old, Chicago-born, Brooklyn-based vibraphonist, Joel Ross brought his quintet fresh from a European tour. Taking time to work-in a soft jazz tempo piece which featured a solo from pianist Jeremy Corren, the audience settled into a listening mode that allowed a quieter set of instrumentation. Ross shared the title cut from a new recording Kingmaker (Blue Note, 2019), sounding both sly and mysterious, as each band member shared the musical sentiment back and forth. Saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins was especially noticed by listeners, as he played soft melodic tones during several interludes of songs. Ross, a formidable talent on vibraphone, later in the set demonstrated a beautiful resonance in a solo piece that brought some people out of their seats with applause. Clearly a bright future lies ahead for this musician and the often overlooked vibraphone in the current jazz scene.

  • Jenny Scheinman and Allison Miller's Parlour Game Quartet: In their latest endeavor Parlour Game, violinist Jenny Scheinman and drummer Allison Miller dig into the rootsier elements of jazz along with the formidable pianist Carmen Staaf and bassist Tony Scherr. The repertoire explores swing, gogo, backbeats and ballads. Scheinman and Miller are both artists with eclectic backgrounds having collaborated with such diverse musicians as Bill Frisell, Jason Moran, Lucinda Williams, Natalie Merchant, and Renee Rosnes. In Parlour Game they explore the classic format of the piano quartet and strive for excellence in simplicity—the perfect groove and a melody that sticks.

    With a decades-long musical bond between Scheinman and Miller, an exciting dynamic was immediately clear to the audience under the Harbor tent at NJF, with a give and take between drummer and electronic violinist that had vital chemistry for the set. With a newly formed quartet, Scheinman set a pace for the band to follow on stage with a Ponty-like soaring violin presence. Drumming sparks and timed emphasis came regularly from Miller, punctuating with loud exclamations. Several cuts from their recent release were introduced and a particularly surreal song by Scheinman, entitled "Sleep Rider" created a slow trance-like moan on her violin. To mix it up, Parlour Game showed they could do a little country romp, straight-up blues and jazz swing. A solid imaginative set re-introducing the electronic violin as a lead instrument, front and center, in very capable hands.

Closing Thoughts

Fortunately for jazz listeners and performers alike, both Wein and McBride are keeping their musical ears and eyes open, peering ahead to the horizon for new talent and artistry. As Wein warmly reaffirms his choice of successor, he says that McBride will serve "as the beacon for future Newport Jazz Festivals." Wein and McBride have delivered a stellar line-up again for this year's 2019 performances, but ultimately it is the audience that needs to keep this festival alive, to continue supporting the discovery and journey of jazz, making a lasting vision to the legacy started by Wein over 60 years ago.

Photo Credit: Richard Conde
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