Newport Jazz Festival Showcases Sonic Metamorphosis at Fort Adams (A Gallery)
Christian McBride and Celisse (photo: Dean Budnick)
Over the weekend, 2023’s Newport Jazz Festival hosted an array of performances resulting in a mellifluous collection of sound at the beautiful Fort Adams in Newport, R.I. The gathering made good on its promise of a sonic metamorphosis, beckoning a new wave of jazz enthusiasts to the iconic gathering. The resulting feelings from the move were that of innovation and a vibrant tribute to jazz’s ever-evolving essence – and one of the most youthful crowds in recent memory.
The opening day saw the Festival Creative Director Christian McBride’s vision realized almost immediately: the spirited and entertaining grooves of DJ Pee .Wee (Anderson .Paak), the infectious bombastic spirit of hip-hop sensation Big Freedia, and the awe-inspiring synergy of Domi & JD Beck led to unadulterated joy even for some of the most reserved aficionados.
Still, purists were treated to moments of traditional splendor throughout the day. A spirited awakening came from the award-winning baritone saxophonist Lauren Sevian, who serenaded the Harbor Stage. The boundaries of jazz were further pushed by young talents Julius Rodriguez and Endea Owens, who paid homage to Stevie Wonder. Additionally, the legendary Branford Marsalis sat in with Soulive and his quartet delivered a spellbinding performance before Marsalis joined forces with Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, culminating in a jazz-infused reverie of Grateful Dead covers.
Meanwhile, local artists performed on the Foundation stage: The festival organizers’ commendable efforts included featuring student ensembles like the URI Jazz Collective, the RI Music Educators Association Jazz All Stars, Newport Jazz Camp, and the hometown pride, the Chase Ceglie Quartet.
Similarly, Saturday was lush with standout performances. With Jon Batiste set to close out the day off on the main Fort Stage, performers over all three stages brought their A-game. The longstanding Charles Lloyd New Quartet–featuring Charles Lloyd, Reuben Rogers, Jason Moran and Eric Harland–showcased their enduring skill. Tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis, electric bassist Josh Werner and drummer Chad Taylor flowed into a spiritual groove upon the Harbor Stage, while Superblue, co-led by Kurt Elling and Charlie Hunter, commanded the Fort Stage. The ensemble was enriched by the talents of Julius Rodriguez on keys, Chris Ott on trombone, Dan White on saxophone, Jon Lampley on trumpet, and drummer Nate Smith.
Smith also commanded the drums on Christine McBride’s Jam Jawn, which saw a star-studded lineup comprised of percussionist Négah Santos, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, guitarist Eric Krasno, pianist Bob James, and vocalist Celisse. The set highlights ranged from the timeless “Afro Blue” to an unnamed Bob James classic, culminating in Celisse’s soulful rendition of Aretha Franklin’s “Baby, I Love You.”
Louis Cato, celebrated for his role leading the house band on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, performed at the Quad Stage. With a red suit and a resonant voice, Cato unveiled music from his upcoming album, Reflections. The Harbor Stage witnessed the Orrin Evans Quintet, blending acoustic and electric piano artistry by Evans, resonant trumpet solos by Ingrid Jensen, and tenor sax and flute interludes by Gary Thomas. A trio led by Arooj Aftab, accompanied by Vijay Iyer and Shahzad Ismaily, delivered an equally commanding performance.
Batiste then took the mainstage stage in a red suit–not unlike his The Late Show compatriot–along with a big band. The multiple Grammy-winning artist unleashed hits from his acclaimed album We Are, including crowd favorites “I Need You” and “Freedom.” Batiste’s showmanship transcended expectations and the stage as he led the largescale ensemble through the audience, melodica in hand, joined by Cato on cowbell.
The festival’s final day was a sunkissed Sunday that catered to every musical palate. The rhythmic cadence of The Soul Rebels brought funky vibes, while Grammy-winning vocalist Samara Joy transported attendees to an era of pristine throwback vocals that resonated with timeless allure. Adding a touch of Cuban-infused funk, Cimafunk infused the air with infectious rhythms that had the crowd swaying.
The festival’s grand finale echoed the seasoned brilliance of revered artists. Icons like Herbie Hancock, Dianna Krall, Charles McPherson, and Joshua Redman–leading his evocative “Moodswing” quartet–delivered compelling sets. The backdrop of flawless weather, delectable cuisine, and an atmosphere of family-friendly revelry made for a perfect final day.
The Newport Jazz Festival, alongside its Folk Festival counterpart, once again made Newport the epicenter of the global music scene for a vibrant stretch of the summer, and anticipation is already building for the 2024 festival, set to celebrate the former’s 70th anniversary.
Photographer Dean Budnick captured the action below.