Newport Jazz Festival Showcases Women Artists and Emerging Talents
By Doug Hall, Contributing Writer, August 10, 2018
This year’s Newport Jazz Festival highlighted an incredibly diverse selection of women performers and women ensemble groups. The festival’s founder George Wein, in his newsletter “Notes from the Wein Machine” (March, 2018), was very direct in his statement about the “sophisticated ladies” in jazz: “As I look back more than 70 years later, I am proud to see the gender gap has closed and the lineup for the 2018 Newport Jazz Festival most certainly reflects that change.”
Also, this year’s lineup emphasized emerging ranges of musical talent, exemplified by a variety of new acts that didn’t fit neatly into the category of jazz and pushed back at conventional boundaries. New acts allowed for an injection of retro R&B, programmed electronic pop with conducted orchestra, and funky rhythm backed by soulful singers with amazing “pipes” and individual phrasing.
A selection of highlighted performances follows:
• Louis Cole Big Band Blowout
A personality sensation on stage with his 12-piece orchestra and an in-your-face conducting style, Louis Cole is celebrated as one of the “world’s most future-sonic-funk drummers” (Newport Jazz Festival, 2018). He delivered an electronic-driven jazz-funk set, including two soulful dancers and his laptop programming the drum beat. Cole’s performance was part circus showmanship and part big-band dance-pop featuring a tight rhythm section with featured saxophone, bass and keyboard soloing. Cole, an L.A.-based self-made “creator” of independent electronic music, has found pay dirt and gained enormous success in releasing music online. This year, Louis’ viral music content “Weird Part of The Night,” “Bank Account,” “Blimp” and “Thinking” amassed millions of views and captured the attention of The Red Hot Chili Peppers who invited him to open their tour. Cole’s discography includes cornerstone albums from 2010-2012, his collaboration as KNOWER (with co-member vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Genevieve Artadi), a song for the Lego Ninjago Movie, Thundercat’s Bus in These Streets, and work with Seal and Janet Jackson. The audience witnessed a true paradigm shift, with a sound, performance and compositions that originally started as uploads to YouTube, and now—a momentous shift to a mainstream audience—translating at NJF live with a “three-ring” stage presence and solid “we can do anything” orchestral talent, with Cole at the helm, shouting to his audience occasionally, “This is the circus moment!”
• Andra Day
The retro soul singer arrived in force, fresh from her full-length debut Cheers to the Fall (Buskin Records/Warner Bros. Records) which garnered a 2016 Grammy Award nomination in the category of Best R&B Album. A discovery by Stevie Wonder, with beginnings in her church choir, and now soaring on her platinum lead single “Rise-Up,” Day delivered a powerful set. With a commanding stage presence rocking the first song, Day then “made it real” and created hushed attention when she spoke from her heart and in a song about anger over police shootings of un-armed African Americans in the U.S. and then paid homage to Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” (referencing the 1963 bombing of a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four young black girls). In a scorching emotional vocal venting, Day was accompanied by a blistering guitar, bass and drum exchange to heighten the message of outrage. With a natural poise on stage, Day then launched back into more soulful R&B selections like “Cheers to the Fall” and continued to wow the audience with her vocal pipes and driving funky band, scaring away the rain and winning a wider audience.
• Darcy James Argue conducting the Massachusetts Music Educators Association’s all-star band
If there was ever a doubt about the future talent and dedication to the study of jazz music, Darcy James Argue and the students of Massachusetts Music Educators All State Jazz Band showed that there was nothing to fear. Argue is an award-winning orchestral jazz arranger and composer, who has scored a Grammy nomination, been the winner of the Doris Duke Performing Artist Award in 2015 and awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship in Music Composition the same year. At Newport, Argue moved through rich, diverse jazz selections and interpretations, ranging from Radiohead’s “Where I End and You Begin” to Duke Ellington’s “Sepia Panorama.” Argue’s efforts to feature many instrumental solos paid off with stylistic and mature phrasing from these young (and future?) jazz musicians, already showing promise and passion. Showcased talent featured musicianship on trumpet, saxophone, trombone, guitar and keyboards (seek out schedule of upcoming performances at massmea.org). Argue closed with his own composition “Transit,” aptly written while he was a student commuting by bus from Boston to NYC while studying composition under legendary jazz teacher and trombonist Bob Brookmeyer at the New England Conservatory of Music. Closing the set, showing the sweat of their efforts, Argue had the student ensemble take a bow for a richly deserved standing ovation.
• Mary Halvorson
The avant-garde jazz guitarist, arranger and band leader, has been called “NYC’s least predictable improviser” and “the most forward-thinking guitarist working right now.” She topped four categories in the 2017 DownBeat Critics Poll. Halverson wasted no time in setting an experimental tone to her set, laying down guitar tracks with a delay and then running over them with frenzied scales and stinging single-string staccato. If the audience wanted to be comfortable, this wasn’t the place to be. The other band members followed suit with atonal interpretations, spinning off Halverson’s minimal direction in overdubbed guitar tracks. With synthesized trumpet, Ambrose Akinmusire, mentored under saxophonist Steve Coleman, blew scat sounds out of his horn while soaring, wailing, beat-like poetry and beautiful single notes came from vocalist Amirtha Kidambi, an established talent, improvisor and composer in her own right. Additional eclectic musicianship included bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara both weighing in with rhythm but also featuring their instruments individually. Halverson played some selections from her 2018 release Code Girl but let loose with experimental ranges, succeeding in not allowing the audience to find a reference point, but instead, forcing them to experience the moment. It was Halverson’s show, on stage, no fear, directing her own course, clearly on her own march, and establishing herself as one critic described: “one of today’s most formidable bandleaders.”
• Nicole Mitchell’s Dusty Wings
Flautist, composer and bandleader Nicole Mitchell won the 2018 DownBeat Critics Poll for Flute Rising Star, Jazz Group, along with accolades for her powerful and intense integration of African sounds and musical landscapes on her Black Earth Ensemble 2017 album Mandoria Awakening II: Emerging Worlds. Backed by Fay Victor on vocals, Taylor Ho Bynum on cornet, Rashaan Carter on bass and Shirazette Tinnin on drums, Mitchell evoked a tight quintet of channeled musicians, punctuated by her soaring and effortless range on the flute. There was no escaping an ethereal sense and meditation in sound with the soft melodic “Aqua Blue” to start the set. But Mitchell quickly moved into other territory that included some fine scat interpretations by Fay Victor with experimental high-pitched horn-vibe, reminiscent of Miles Davis, coming out of Bynum’s cornet. Mitchell also surprised the audience with spontaneity in composition, with “Intuition” which had been written for today’s performance, which featured her with light bursts of flautist soloing, following with experimental avant-garde exchanges and inter-mixing of instruments with the band members. The set characterized the “free jazz” of taking chances, not constructed, particularly with exchanges between Mitchell’s flute flurries and virtuoso vocalist Victor, whose use of the human voice was an expressive art form. “I definitely feel a connection between my voice and the flute,” as previously stated by Mitchell. “I have singers because I don’t feel comfortable singing things myself…there’s definitely a lot more to figure out.” If discovery is a process in all music, Mitchell’s set was way into that journey.
• Artemis featuring Cécile McLorin Salvant, Renee Rosnes, Anat Cohen, Melissa Aldana, Ingrid Jensen, Noriko Ueda and Allison Miller
An all-star lineup, comprised of “seven of the finest performers in jazz, gender irrelevant” (Newport Jazz Festival, 2018). With a big presence on the main stage, each musician delivered blistering chops against the extraordinary keyboard stride piano playing of Renee Rosnes (also the musical director of the band) allowing for incredible solo efforts by stellar horn players: Canadian multi-Juno-nominated jazz trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, who toured with Clark Terry, Bill Taylor and Maria Schneider’s orchestra; along with Chilean tenor saxophone player Melissa Aldana, who’s performed with Christian McBride, Jimmy Heath and Wynton Marsalis; and Israeli multi-Grammy nominated clarinetist Anat Cohen, coupled with Japanese bassist Noriko Ueda, member of the DIVA Jazz Orchestra and BMI award winner; and a relentless and punctuating drum beat by drummer and composer Allison Miller, who has toured with Dr. Lonnie Smith and Marty Ehrlich.
To top off the top-drawer lineup, special guest vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant—winner of the 2018 DownBeat Critics Poll as top Female Vocalist and top Jazz Album—delivered brilliant phrasings and vocal interpretations.
Each musician got their chance to steal the thunder. Rosnes, previously in Joe Henderson’s quartet (1986) and in Wayne Shorter’s band (1989), took the helm of the main stage. She launched the band into Monk’s “Brilliant Corners” which allowed all horn players great licks and additional flourishes from drummer Miller. Rosnes then led into a quieter piece of her own entitled “Galapagos” which took the mood of jazz to a serenade with her lovely keyboard melodic runs. Moving to a contemporary jazz interpretation of a pop song, Lennon and McCartney’s “Fool on the Hill,” gave way to shared versions from horn to horn and with a thumping standup bass solo by Ueda, and closed with blinding fast snare beats and a mini drum solo by Miller.
Salvant had several opportunities to show her vocal range, timbre control and texture of emotion, including a particularly moving composition and live version of her “All Through the Night”.
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Old faces and legendary jazz musicians were on stage as well with their special “magic,” including masters Roy Hargrove, Charles Lloyd and Harold Mabern but the contributions and injections of “new” blood and artistic expression held sway on many stages this weekend. Also, the sheer strength, instrumental mastery and unique interpretations of jazz and other styles by rising female talent, coupled with established superb female performers and ensembles, weighed in significantly. All signals pointed to a clear and positive direction for the future of jazz, with the Newport Jazz Festival remaining at the epicenter.
Cover: Artemis in performance on the Main Stage at Newport Jazz Festival; photo: Doug Hall / ZEALnyc.