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Jazz Notes: What To Look Out For at This Year’s 63rd Annual Newport Jazz Festival

By Doug Hall, Contributing Writer, July 25, 2017

The Newport Jazz Festival celebrates its 63rd anniversary this summer, promising three full days of exceptional live musical performances across multiple stages at Fort Adams Park in Newport, Rhode Island from Friday, August 4 through Sunday, August 6. Under new artistic directorship from bassist and jazz statesman Christian McBride, and backing by legendary founder and producer George Wein, attendees will enjoy a diverse score of national and international talent (see ZEALnyc‘s feature Passing the Newport Jazz Festival Baton from Founder George Wein to New Artistic Director Christian McBride). From this enormous lineup of accomplished artists, ZEALnyc profiles ten performers and/or groups that are certain to be highlights of this year’s festival.


The Roots; courtesy of artists.

  • The Roots

Piloted by co-founders QuestLove (Ahmir Khalib Thompson) with his extraordinary percussion–driven beat and Black Thought (Tariq Luqmaan Trotter) as MC delivering rocket-fast multisyllabic rap, the 20-plus-year-old Roots Crew takes the stage Sunday, August 6. With backstreet Philadelphia origins, a hybrid hip-hop sound, the eight-piece stellar funk ensemble can go anywhere it wants—alternating between hard-hitting messaging and soulful rap. Since inception, with its first release Organix (1993) to its upcoming End Game, the Roots’ Grammy’s (plus 12 nominations) have included “Best R&B Album” for Wake Up! (2010); “Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance” for the tune “Hang in There” (with John Legend); “Best Group or Duo R&B Vocal Performance” for Shine; and a nomination for “Best Rap Album” for its 2011 release Undun. The Roots have morphed and grown into “one of the best known and most respected hip-hop acts in the business.” Get ready to get on your feet and move.


Snarky Puppy; courtesy of artists.

  • Snarky Puppy

Extraordinary jazz ensemble fusion-based jam band with fearless migrations and explorations from jazz to rock to funk, come alive on stage Saturday August 5. Led by composer, bassist and leader Michael League, and following an exhaustive decade-long touring schedule around the globe, Snarky Puppy has found itself on the cover of DownBeat and Jazz Times. It’s garnered Grammy awards and critical accolades, with Rolling Stone magazine calling them, “one of the most versatile bands on the planet.” A multidiverse member band with a changing rotation of about 40 musicians, Snarky Puppy covers the full range of instrumental fluency and seeks to collaborate and risk in all fusion directions. Connecting with Lalah Hathaway (Grammy-winning soul to jazz singer and pianist) on Family Dinner—Volume One earned the group its first Grammy for “Best R&B Performance” in 2014. That was followed by a second Grammy for “Best Contemporary Instrumental” in 2016 for Sylva, having collaborated with the Dutch Metropole Orchestra to push boundaries, from Miles to Debussy. Snarky Puppy teems with a dynamic well of talent, taking chances live where “musical sophistication meets gritty danger.”


Maria Schneider Orchestra at Newport Jazz Festival; photo: Ayano Hisa.

  • Maria Schneider Orchestra

Maria Schneider’s compositions have been hailed by critics as “evocative, majestic, magical, heart-stoppingly gorgeous and beyond categorization.” Along with having received many accolades as a musician, composer and visionary of interpretive jazz orchestra, she expresses an independent, unique and talented voice in stretching this genre—and also being an out-spoken music advocate for protective rights against digital piracy. Since 1992, she has fronted her orchestra around the world as conductor, composer and also musician (piano), blurring the lines between jazz and classical. She has been honored with Grammy awards in both areas: “Best Classical Contemporary Composition” in 2013 for Winter Morning Walks, featuring soprano Dawn Upshaw, and “Best Jazz Ensemble Album” in 2016 for The Thompson Fields that was reviewed as a “marriage of sound, words and images—ultimately breathtaking, a testament to the uplifting and sustainable powers of art.” Add a sublime and sophisticated treat for your ears as Schneider’s orchestra takes you on her latest journey, Sunday, August 6.


Christian Sands; photo: Anna Webber.

  • Christian Sands Quartet

Starting to take piano lessons at the age of 4, and later mentored by legendary pianist Billy Taylor, Christian Sands graduated from the Manhattan School of Music and then joined Inside Straight, one of bassist Christian McBride’s bands in 2012. Sands has now stepped forward into the jazz world with his own quartet. A Steinway Artist and five-time Grammy nominee, his latest release Reach (2017) manages to “craft a unique statement,” while nodding to Chick Corea and Bud Powell, but also knowing how to “groove in a rhythm section like mad while keeping everything soulful.” As the new artistic director of the Newport Jazz Festival McBride states: “Sands is only worried about being the best musician he can possibly be. He’s the ultimate professional.”  Catch the Christian Sands Quartet during the opening day of the festival, Friday, August 4.


Rhiannon Giddens; courtesy of artist.

  • Rhiannon Giddens

Rhiannon Giddens is singer and multi-instrumentalist (violinist and banjo) and also founding member of the country, blues and old-time music band Carolina Chocolate Drops. She delivers an inflective, soulful, powerful yearning reproach, stealing the show at the 2013 T-Bone Burnett-produced Another Day, Another Time concert, performing the Odetta classic “Waterboy.” As The New York Times put it, she exhibited “the fervor of a spiritual, the yips of a folk holler, and the sultry insinuation of the blues,” which brought the star-studded audience to their feet. She has numerous Grammy nominations and awards of her recent releases (“Best American Roots Performance” for Factory Girl, and Best Folk Album of the Year for Freedom Highway). This has helped to launch Gidden’s career and compositional statement, “whose turn is now.” Sit close and feel the intimacy of this prodigious voice and fierce spirit when she performs on both Friday evening, August 4 and during the day on Saturday, August 5.


(l. to r.) Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith; courtesy of artists.

  • Vijay Iyer & Wadada Leo Smith:

A dynamic experimentation partnership takes the stage as Vijay Iyer, multi-award winning improvisational jazz pianist (DownBeat’s Critics Poll Jazz Artist of the Year 2012, 2015 and 2016) has teamed with legendary avant-guard trumpeter, composer, music theorist (and cultural activist) Wadada Leo Smith, to engage, explore and “merge as a single wave, or a single voice.” Fresh from receiving multiple Best of 2017 DownBeat Critics Poll awards (Jazz Artist, Trumpet and Jazz Album for America’s National Parks), Wadada has found “arguably the most productive time in his career.” From playing extensively with Wadada in the trumpeter’s Golden Quartet, Iyer’s piano touch shares the mark of an extraordinary, individualist musician, evidenced as they both push boundaries with A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke (2016) that received accolades as a “comprehensive masterpiece by two exceptional musicians.” No seat will be unoccupied or hush broken when this compositional moment takes stage during the day on Friday, August 4.


The Original Bela Fleck & The Flecktones; courtesy of artists.

  • Béla Fleck and the Flecktones

Premier masterful banjo player, composer and bandleader Béla Fleck reunites with his original Grammy-award winning band, the Flecktones as they launch a U.S. tour—with all manners of genres coming into play, performing an “unclassifiable meld of jazz, progressive bluegrass, rock, classical, funk and world music traditions.” The reformed Flecktones and leader Fleck released Rocket Science in 2011, to critical acclaim, including All Music’s Thom Jurek’s rave review: “Rocket Science fires on all cylinders…a fresh and exciting reintroduction to a newly energized Flecktones.” The latest edition of the re-charged, re-fueled Flecktones quartet (including monster bassist Victor Wooten) and their fearless leader Béla return and bring their artistry to the festival during the day on Friday, August 4.


Christian McBride; photo: Ayano Hisa.

  • Christian McBride Big Band

Inheriting the mantel this year as artistic director of the Newport Jazz Festival from George Wein, the legendary founder and producer of the festival, McBride takes-on the line-up selection for this year’s performers and will alternate roles on stage and off. He is a remarkable, Julliard-trained jazz (bassist) student turned jazz bandleader, international touring musician, influential educator, media host and a five-time Grammy award winner. This year at Newport he will be performing with two bands, including the Christian McBride Big Band—a 17-piece ensemble that “fuses traditional Big Band with more modern post-Bop sound.” It won the “Best Large Ensemble Performance” Grammy in 2011 for The Good Feeling. For Act II, McBride will team up with The Roots leader QuestLove (drumming and DJing), and the brilliant jazz/classical pianist Uri Caine to form the trio Philadelphia Experiment. The three “masters of different flavors of funk” are guaranteed to get the crowd moving to the groove when they appear on Saturday, August 5.


Cécile McLorin Salvant; courtesy of artist.

  • Cécile McLorin Salvant

The 2010 Thelonious Monk Jazz Vocal Competition announced Cécile McLorin Salvant’s arrival. Her 2014 Newport Jazz Festival debut was welcomed by the crowds for her virtuosic “poise, elegance, soul, sensuality and power.” That performance came on the heals of her Grammy-nominated album WomanChild which was also recognized in the DownBeat Critics Poll Award as 2014 Best Jazz Album. Salvant quickly gets her audience under her spell, with an alternating soft-spoken emotional vocal reflective of Billie Holiday to evoking the powers of Sarah Vaughn or Ella Fitzgerald. Her 2016 Grammy Award-winning album, For One to Love, “may be the defining statement on romance, both American popular song idiom and distinctly personal expression.” Come hear the heartfelt emotion and be dazzled by her virtuoso range when she takes stage on Friday, August 4.


Theo Croker; courtesy of artist.

  • Theo Croker

As the grandson of the late trumpeter Doc Cheatham, Theo Croker was mentored by legendary jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd. Now he is rapidly making his own statement with his 2016 release Escape Velocity taking the #1 Jazz Album in the U.K. by Echoes Magazine, and building his own reputation “as an artist steeped in jazz tradition” who has an amazing range that is “well-versed in swing, bop and modal styles of acoustic jazz.” He began his well-deserved recognition working with multi Grammy-award winning jazz-diva vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater, who encouraged him to record, resulting in 2014’s Afro Physicist that champions his velvet-smooth horn and funk beat. This release, driven by strong reviews, reached #2 on the U.S. radio charts. Croker’s melodic and funky and ethereal highs will be delivered on Sunday, August 6.


For more information on the festival and to purchase tickets click here.


A view from the roof of the fort during the Newport Jazz Festival 2016 at Fort Adams State Park in Newport RI; photo: Douglas Mason.


Cover: Newport Jazz Festival 2016 (main stage overlooking the crowd/water); photo: Ayano Hisa.


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