Last weekend, I drove down to Newport on a cloudy day. The traffic was unusually light and I arrived at Fort Adams State Park without much delay. Soon, I'd secured a spot by the main stage of the Newport Jazz Festival and then sauntered over to the Quad stage where clarinetist Anat Cohen and her Tentet has just begun to play. The group played in shifting ranges of jazz styles, including a nouveau take on New Orleans, a big band sound and much more. Cohen's clarinet lines soared about the weave of instruments which included accordion, a horn section and the bowed sounds of cello and upright bass. The group featured a worldwide cast from places such as Brazil, Israel and the US. Midway through the set, the clouds parted to reveal the sun, which stayed with us most of the day. Anat herself showed exuberance throughout from her spot at the center of the stage.
Newport has four stages, so one shuttles from one spot to the next depending upon what music or group of musicians strikes your fancy. Food tents are set up, so I ordered a Mediterranean plate and savored a mix of hummus, grape leaves, greek salad and delicious crusts of bread while perched on a rock overlooking the picturesque harbor. A while later, I sat on a hill by the Harbor stage and listened to hard bop and ballads played by Kenny Barron's trio. Barron said it was his first appearance at Newport in twenty years and I was glad he'd chosen to join us and listened with delight to his energetic mix of fast-paced right handed improvisation over punchy comps and a tight rhythm section.
On this day, the groups at the Quad stage generated the most anticipation. Around 3:00, crowds gathered under the tent and sprawled along the edges to hear one of the up and coming young jazz stars, Kamasi Washington. Kamasi is from LA and his father Kenny Washington is a well known LA musician. At center stage, Kamasi on tenor sax was joined by his trombone player and the music quickly moved into a Trane inflected groove, while a willowy singer Patrice Quinn, who wore a long pink gown that billowed in the breeze, alternated between high pitched vocals and floating dance movements. Kamasi is a large man with a very full saxophone sound; at times, the blast of sound was nearly overwhelming at my seat about 100 feet away. Kamasi's recent album The Epic has garnered rave reviews and the band played a variety of songs from it. Later, Kenny Washington joined the group and added soprano sax lines on a rendition of Cherokee which offered a counterpoint to the vibrato-tinged words of Patrice. Kamasi introduced a young pianist, Jamal Dean, as being one of the treasures of the LA jazz scene and Dean added nice colors to the fabric of the band's sound on several of their songs.
After Kamasi, a throng of people left, but others came to take their place. The next group at the Quad Stage was identified simply by their last names: Potter (Chris), Holland (Dave), Loueke (Lionel) and Harland (Eric). The group is a mix of generations -- Potter, Loueke (Lionel) and Harland (Eric) are fortyish and bassist Dave Holland is a jazz legend who first played Newport in the late Sixties. This is a group of four superstars, but they immediately got to work. Loueke laid out a funky set of licks on guitar synth which eventually segued into unison lines where he was joined by Potter's sax and Holland on the bottom from his upright bass. This is the first time I'd seen Loueke. He didn't remind me much of any other guitarists, but his right hand facility to slap, pluck and swipe his strings created a unique sound which applied some of the approaches Marcus Miller uses on electric bass. On the second song, Potter played lyrically on his soprano sax, but seemed dissatisfied with the sound and played tenor for the rest of the set. Dave Holland plays rock solid and still has a combination of remarkable facility and perfect intonation on his bass lines. When the rest of the group took flight, Holland always retained a grounded center, but also took part in the musical communication when the band played call and response lines.
Loueke and Potter were a good match for each other. Their exchanges on guitar and sax at times seemed telepathic. The band played about 7 - 8 pieces and ranged around the jazz universe from Trane to electric Miles and much more. Harland sprayed percussion throughout and fully interacted with all of the other musicians. Group jazz is supposed to be all about communication and these musicians played out on the edge while interacting with mastery and verve. And they clearly were having a great time doing it, as smiles were shared all around as if they too were enthralled by all of the cool interplay. This was the best jazz performance I'd seen in a long time and offered yet another validation that great music can happen in a festival setting.
The day wound up back at the main stage, where Angelique Kidjo danced and sang on the stage and got everybody up on their feet moving to the African rhythms of the band. Another very special day at the Newport Jazz Festival.