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Jazz returns to Newport at last, and it’s something to celebrate

Ledisi performed a tribute to Nina Simone at the Newport Jazz Festival.
Ledisi performed a tribute to Nina Simone at the Newport Jazz Festival.Boston Concert Photography

NEWPORT, R.I. — While it wasn’t explicitly the theme, this year’s Newport Jazz Festival, judging by Saturday (the middle of the festival’s three days of performances), was much about gratitude and good feeling.

Last year’s festival was canceled due to COVID-19, and live music in general has only recently begun trickling back. Little wonder, then, that musicians seemed to be hugging one another even more effusively than usual, happy to be back at work and crossing paths with old friends for the first time since the lockdown.

There was less music than usual — two stages instead of what had become four in recent years — and a smaller audience to accommodate social distancing requirements. But there was still lots of it.


Terri Lyne Carrington & Social Science performed early Saturday afternoon on the Quad Stage, mixing first-rate music with social-justice messaging on an array of topics including the US prison industry, the ill treatment of Native Americans, and others. “Pray the Gay Away” was a highlight, opening with Morgan Guerin’s unaccompanied tenor sax soon joined by the other instrumentalists and eventually the vocalizing of Debo Ray and Kokayi. Ray also shined on the set-closing “Bells,” taking back up the lyrics protesting police killings after an instrumental break worked its way to a crowd-pleasing crescendo.

Terri Lyne Carrington (on drums) and her band Social Science perform a set at the Newport Jazz Festival.
Terri Lyne Carrington (on drums) and her band Social Science perform a set at the Newport Jazz Festival.Boston Concert Photography

Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah played a tight set on the Lawn Stage, with minimal political commentary and band introductions. It included a supercharged cover of Herbie Hancock’s “Eye of the Hurricane”; the slower “Guinnevere” (the David Crosby ballad that Scott discovered via the Miles Davis version); and the leader’s own “The Last Chieftain.”

This year’s festival artist-in-residence, Robert Glasper, performed different sets each day. On Saturday it was his Dinner Party project with Terrace Martin, a casual affair also featuring Kamasi Washington. The set started several minutes later than scheduled, and began with Glasper joking about festival artistic director Christian McBride having been the first person to take him out of the country when he was in college, thanking McBride for causing him to fail all his classes. Noting that this was the first time the group was playing the music from the “Dinner Party” album live, Glasper said, “What y’all just saw . . . that seven-minute [delay]? That was rehearsal.”


The music itself was an intriguing blend of jazz and other genres. It began with Martin introducing a cover of Herbie Hancock’s “Butterfly” on synthesizer and vocoder, which flowed into a laid-back Washington solo and reading of the song’s melody. The vocalist Phoelix sang a pair of songs from the album. Scott, who had been part of an earlier super band with Glasper and Martin, sat in with this one after his own set for a stretched-out instrumental piece on which everyone got solos, Martin taking his on alto sax.

Chris Potter dazzled on tenor saxophone with his Circuits Trio on the Lawn Stage, followed by the legendary Mavis Staples performing a set featuring familiar pieces like the Staple Singers classic “Respect Yourself” and the spiritual “Wade in the Water.”

Meanwhile, Ledisi’s riveting tribute to Staples’s late contemporary Nina Simone was getting underway at the Quad Stage. Ledisi spoke of having been depressed and suicidal one day years ago and being snapped out of it when the Simone song “Trouble in Mind” came on in the next room and saved her life. “I started to wiggle” to the music, she recalled. “After that, I listened to everything by Nina Simone.”


Ledisi’s song selection conjured a range of emotions to match her extraordinary vocal range, with highlights including the arresting combination of Simone’s “Baltimore” and her own “Shot Down,” and the mood-lifting closer “My Baby Just Cares for Me.” But every song achieved its intended effect. “They like to put us in boxes,” she told the audience. “I do what I want to do. Thanks to Nina Simone for paving the way for that.”

Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue closed out Saturday at the Lawn Stage with a set of nonstop energy, sending people home exhilarated and eager to keep dancing.

Bill Beuttler can be reached at bill@billbeuttler.com.


At Fort Adams State Park, Newport, R.I., Saturday