The Newport Jazz Festival is perhaps the most respected and historic jazz gathering in the US today. Now in its sixty third year, this iconic festival has featured many of the greats that make up the legacy of this art form. Jazz icons like Ellington, Miles, Trane, Holliday, Brubeck and more have graced these stages making history at Newport. This year, the baton was passed from the festival founder George Wein to a new Artistic Director, Christian McBride. Still, the tradition continues with Grand Masters like 92 year old Benny Golson, to modern top shelf artist Branford Marsalis to a new generation of young lions such as Theo Croker, George Burton and Christian Sands.
This year many artists with deep roots in the Greater Hartford area had their opportunity to shine on the big stages of Newport RI. The Greater Hartford area has become a breeding ground for many great jazz artists on the scene today. With impressive jazz programs at the Artist Collective in Hartford, the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz at U of H, Wesleyan University and WestConn it is no surprise that this region has produced many of today’s most sought after jazz artists.
Kicking off the festival Friday morning at the Fort Stage was Bloomfield’s own Jimmy Greene. Jimmy has played Newport in past years supporting other artists as a backup player, but this was the first time as a leader playing his own compositions. The set featured several tunes off his latest album Flowers, A Beautiful Life. This is the second record dedicated to his daughter Ana, a victim of the Sandy Hook tragedy. His introspective and heartfelt saxophone playing have made Greene an important creative voice on the jazz scene today.
Hartford’s jazz professor and accomplished trombonist, Steve Davis graced the Quad Stage on Friday as part of the “Supergroup” One For All. This group has been playing for three decades and showed off their advanced chops, swinging rhythms and tight arrangements. Davis provided soulful harmonies and hot solos along with Eric Alexander’s muscular sax playing and Joe Farnsworth’s driving, acrobatic drum work. But that was not Stevie D’s only performance at Newport. The following day, Davis was on the Fort Stage holding down one of the 4 trombone seats in The Christian McBride Big Band.
Among my favorite performances at Newport was the Vijay Iyer Sextet under the Quad Stage tent. Iyer redefines the language of jazz by bridging improvisation, classical, funk and bop. It takes a creative approach to all these styles, to work within this context. Two musicians familiar to Hartford jazz fans were part of this sextet. Saxophonist Steve Lehman, a long time collaborator with Iyer was mentored by Jackie McLean at U of H, and Anthony Braxton at Weslyan studying jazz and improvised music. Drummer Tyshawn Sorey also studied under Braxton and was recently appointed to a professorship in improvised music and composition at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT. Tyshawn’s creative approach to Iyer’s music was a singular highlight of the festival for me.
Considering his young age, Luques Curtis has been on these stages many times over the years. Once again, Luques represented Hartford, expertly holding down the bass lines for two performances; the Rodriguez Brothers and trumpeter Sean Jones Quintet. Luques has become one of the most in demand bassists on the NYC jazz scene. He also has traveled the world playing with Latin jazz icon Eddie Palmieri.
A new generation of great musicians is on the rise. The Hartford area was well represented with one of several ensembles of young jazz players emerging on the scene. Recent graduates from the Jackie McLean Institute for jazz at University of Hartford were a major force in the Newport Jazz Assembly. Trumpeter Josh Bruneau, guitarist Tony Davis, bassist Alex Tremblay and drummer Mike Camacho hit the Storyville stage on the final day of the festival. These cats proved that there is plenty of talent making their way through the ranks. They can swing hard through the most demanding jazz standards as well as compose and arrange original compositions that will sustain this art form for many years.
Although I missed the performance, I have heard that Shenel Johns was simply amazing singing with Dominick Farinacci on the Harbor stage Saturday. Shenel is an uber talented singer, with not only a great voice, but fantastic stage presence. She captivates the audience when performing. Shenel grew up in Hartford and graduated from the Hart School of Music at U of H.
It brings a great sense of civic pride to those of us in this close-knit Hartford jazz community to see these musicians progress from young students to consummate professionals. We watch their talents grow and their stage presence mature, and ultimately make their mark on the international jazz scene. It’s a beautiful thing.
Newport Jazz Festival 2017 Highlights
Beyond our hometown heroes mentioned above, here are some of my other favorite performances at this year’s festival.
- Jazz 100: another “Supergroup” of Danilo Perez, Chris Potter, Avashai Cohen, Ben Street and Adam Cruise performed the music of Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk.
- Hudson – Master drummer Jack DeJohnette and guitarist John Scofield rocked out covering 60’s prog rock classics and jammin’ originals.
- Cyrille Aimee – mesmerized the audience with her extraordinary vocal set accompanied by two gypsy jazz guitarists.
- For Geri with Love – Scheduled to be Geri Allen’s trio with Esperanza Spaulding and Teri Lyne Carrington. Allen passed away suddenly in June, so this was a tribute with Christian Sands, Vijay Iyer and Jason Moran taking turns at the piano.
- Christian Sands – An expertly performed, often intense set from this New Haven born pianist was punctuated by some rockin’ guitar work by Gilead Heckselman.
- Theo Croker – My first exposure to this young talented trumpeter. Another intense performance with a killin’ rhythm section. Very modern compositions and arrangements. This is the future sound of serious jazz.
- Joey DeFrancesco + the People – Just swinging, happy Hammond B3 grooves. Big solos by Troy Roberts on sax and precision guitar work from Dan Wilson. Joey can sing and play trumpet too.
© Kenneth Laster 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission is strictly prohibited. email: jazz.beyond(a)gmail.com