NEWPORT, R.I. — Jon Batiste was the talk of the ferry ride from the town’s main drag to Fort Adams State Park for the Newport Jazz Festival on Saturday. But there were numerous highlights at the event’s three stages en route to Batiste’s day-ending performance at the main Fort Stage.
The Charles Lloyd New Quartet may have topped the list. Despite the name, Lloyd’s band with Jason Moran, Reuben Rogers, and Eric Harland has been together on and off for well over a decade. But they haven’t let themselves get comfortable and begun coasting. Moran took an especially charged piano solo on “Zoltan,” accompanied solely by Harland’s drums, but the entire set was a highlight among highlights.
But newer ensembles were similarly impressive. Tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis was on early at the Harbor Stage backed by electric bassist Josh Werner and drummer Chad Taylor for a set that mixed spirituality and groove as it covered Mal Waldron’s “Left Alone,” Ornette Coleman’s “Broken Shadows,” and Lewis’s own “Even the Sparrow.”
Overlapping the Lewis set at the Fort Stage was Superblue, an ensemble co-led by Kurt Elling and Charlie Hunter that included piano phenom Julius Rodriguez on keys, trombonist Chris Ott, saxophonist Dan White, trumpeter Jon Lampley, and drummer Nate Smith. Elling’s singing and hipster patois playfulness between songs and Hunter’s sui generis guitar-playing (which supplanted any need for a bassist) held everything together.
Smith was also the drummer for Christian McBride’s Jam Jawn, where the festival’s artistic director was also joined by percussionist Négah Santos, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, guitarist Eric Krasno, pianist Bob James, and vocalist Celisse for a set that included “Afro Blue,” an unnamed Bob James classic, and Celisse singing the Aretha Franklin hit “Baby, I Love You.”
Meanwhile, Louis Cato’s Quad Stage set was underway. Cato, who took over leading the house band for “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” upon Batiste’s departure, was leading his own group at the festival for the first time. On Saturday, he sang and played guitar as he unveiled music for his album due out this Friday, “Reflections.”
Elsewhere, the Orrin Evans Quintet — Evans on acoustic and electric piano, Ingrid Jensen on trumpet, Gary Thomas on tenor sax and flute, Luques Curtis on bass, and Mark Whitfield Jr. on drums — played a stellar straight-ahead set at the Harbor Stage, Jensen taking a couple of especially fiery solos. Julian Lage had packed the same area with an overflow audience with his trio mates Jorge Roeder and Dave King just beforehand. Another trio — that of Arooj Aftab, Vijay Iyer, and Shahzad Ismaily — had overlapped some of Lage’s performance with a strong one of their own at Quad Stage.
After all that and more came Batiste, decked out in a red suit and backed by a stellar big band, his own longtime drummer Joe Saylor, and Santos. They roared through a set that included hits from the multiple Grammy-winning album “We Are” (“I Need You” and “Freedom,” Batiste chiding the audience into upping their dancing game for the latter by saying that in New Orleans, where he’s from, people move 10 times harder), a new Batiste composition for the big band played for the first time (“The Hawk”), and the single “Drink Water” from “World Music Radio.” Cato came out to do some scat singing on one song, Lampley emerged from the wings for a solo, and Santos and backing vocalist DesZ (aka Desiree Washington) were each prominently featured on one song. Late in the set, Batiste displayed some playful piano virtuosity unaccompanied.
And when all that was done, Batiste grabbed his melodica and showed that he hadn’t gotten too big to parade his entire crew, big band included, through the audience, making music, Cato up front beside him wielding a cowbell. The music was magnificent throughout, and the entertainment value was off the charts.
Ferry-goers lined up for the return trip as the day was ending could hear Batiste reading off the performers’ names from the stage one more time and repeating how much he loves Newport. Clearly, the feeling was mutual.