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A Celebration of Excellence and Musical Diversity at Day one at the 2023 Newport Jazz Festival


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The Newport Jazz Festival is one of the planet's most fabled and celebrated jazz festivals and it has been towards the top of my bucket list for a very long time. I have attended jazz festivals for almost 40 years since my youth and finally made it to Newport on its 68th anniversary. It was magnificent—a peak lifetime musical experience. Over the festival's three-day span, I was an ecstatic whirlwind, photographing approximately 35 performances. I could only experience some shows in fleeting 10-minute bursts before rushing to the next, but I was also fortunate to immerse myself in several unforgettable sets fully.

Navigating between the festival's three stages required strategic planning; each stage could be up to a 15-minute walk apart (depending on crowds), especially challenging given the tightly packed schedule. I logged about 20 miles (~40,000 steps), which was exhausting but exhilarating. The curse of a jazz festival photographer is that you will miss many more great performances than you will see. Yet, it's a small quibble when you absorb a year's worth of exceptional music in three days. The festival was a smashing success, achieving sold-out status over the weekend and nearing capacity on Friday. The weather was nothing short of idyllic, contributing to a vibrant atmosphere radiating from the equally enthusiastic crowd. My goal wasn't to review the festival, but to share my thoughts, impressions, and images from this unforgettable experience, starting with the first day's highlights.

At just 26 years old, Blue Note recording artist Immanuel Wilkins has clearly transcended the "rising star" label, a fact solidified by his recent win in the Downbeat Critic's Poll for Best Alto Player. He kicked off the festival with a stellar performance featuring a quartet that included Micah Thomas on piano, Rick Rosato on bass, and Kweku Sumbry on drums. They set a high bar for a day filled with remarkable music. Piano prodigy Julius Rodriguez also made a striking Newport debut, showcasing his immense talent. Yet, Lakecia Benjamin indisputably stood as one of the day's most captivating performers. A virtuoso alto saxophonist with a broad musical range, Benjamin is also an accomplished composer and an incredibly engaging stage presence. Backed by an exceptional ensemble, Phoenix, that included E.J. Strickland on drums, Benjamin's performance spanned from hard funk to classics from the Coltrane canon. Her palpable excitement about being on the main stage resonated with a youthful, enthusiastic crowd, making her set one of the standout highlights of the festival's first day.

New Orleans hip-hop trailblazer Big Freedia delivered a high-octane funk set complete with a unique stage show that had the audience not just on their feet but dancing with infectious energy. The crowd's enthusiasm matched the high voltage of the performance, making it a memorable moment at the festival. As for the Branford Marsalis Quartet, they justified Nate Chinen's description of them as the best working group in jazz. The group played a high-energy set-in part propelled by the fierce drumming of Justin Faulkner. Marsalis displayed mastery over both the tenor and soprano saxophones, artfully alternating between nuanced restraint and impassioned exuberance as the musical context demanded. What struck me most was the breathtaking artistry of Joey Calderazzo on the piano. He skillfully balanced two roles: that of an impeccable ensemble pianist and a soloist capable of show-stopping performances.

I've been an ardent fan of Dave Holland for several decades. From the early '80s through around 2010, he led quartets, quintets, and sextets—plus a big band—that were arguably the finest working jazz ensembles, both in recorded and live performances. Since then, he has sustained that same high standard, venturing into even broader musical settings, albeit without the continuity of his earlier groups. Holland fronted an all-star ensemble at Newport, featuring Jaleel Shaw on saxophone, Kris Davis on piano, and Nasheet Waits on drums. The moniker "Dave Holland's New Quartet" hints at the possibility of a more stable line-up, although each of the accompanying musicians are flourishing in their own careers and have packed schedules. At 76, Holland remains a formidable presence on the bass. Each musician had ample opportunity to showcase their skills, none more so than alto saxophonist Jaleel Shaw, who was simply electrifying. The set included both classic and newer compositions, notably a stunning rendition of "New Day," which originally appeared on the Prism album. Will this exciting new quartet have a lasting future? It's hard to say, but their Newport performance was undoubtedly the highlight of an exceptional first day at the festival.

Concluding Day 1 with Drummer Joe Russo's Almost Dead—a Grateful Dead tribute act—might have seemed like an unconventional choice, but it was an inspired one. The band captivated the main stage for a stellar 90-minute set, attracting a sizable audience that included many fans specifically there to see them. The sextet was enhanced by a guest appearance from Branford Marsalis. Together, they masterfully navigated through selections from the Grateful Dead's repertoire, with "Terrapin Station" standing out as a personal highlight for me. Overall, it was a fitting and memorable conclusion to an outstanding opening day at the festival.
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