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Looking Back – Best of 2023: The Newport Jazz Festival

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                    The Charles Lloyd Quartet © Kevin R. Mason

The 2023 Newport Jazz Festival (NJF) was held from August 4 to 6 at Fort Adams State Park in Newport, Rhode Island. One of the best things about jazz festivals is how they unite people in the love of live music. NJF welcomed people of all ages, backgrounds, and ethnicities, all peacefully grooving to the music. Another beautiful part of jazz festivals is that you can experience various musical genres in addition to jazz, including blues, hip hop, R&B, funk, electronic, pop, alternative, Afrobeat, Latin, gospel, and folk. As always, NJF presented a wide variety of artists, from up-and-coming musicians to legendary performers, including Immanuel Wilkins, Domi & JD Beck, Dave Holland, Keyon Harrold, Julian Lage, URI Jazz Collective, Soulive, Thundercat, Bobby Watson, Charles McPherson, Pedrito Martinez, Orrin Evans, Marcus Miller, Samara Joy, and Vijay Iyer. There are three stages: Fort, Quad, and Harbor in operation, and occasionally a fourth venue, Storyville, is used. The packed line-up has overlapping sets, so there are many choices to be made throughout the day. The Festival app keeps fans aware of time and music happening on each of the stages.

Although NJF founder George Wein passed away in 2021, his presence is still very much felt at the Festival. After all, he was the beating heart of NJF for almost 70 years, and he will never be forgotten. There was a retrospective on the Jumbotron beside the main Fort Stage where Wein was very prominently featured through photos from previous Festivals.  About Wein, it said the following, “We are forever grateful to George Wein, our founder and North Star. George Wein, 1925 – 2021.” There was also a direct quote from George in 2020, “The Newport Festivals show America at its best.”

The Jumbotron also featured In Memoriam photographs of recently deceased musical greats, including Ramsey Lewis, Astrid Gilberto, Joey DeFrancesco, Wayne Shorter, Tina Turner, Ahmad Jamal, and Tony Bennett. The Jumbotron played all day between sets, giving attendees plenty of time to take in all the information.

Friday, August 4

Endea Owens & The Cookout

   Endea Owens & The Cookout                    © Kevin R. Mason

NJF always starts off with a strong player, and the first act of the day, Endea Owens, is one of the brightest young bassists on the scene. Esteemed bassist and NJF Artistic Director Christian McBride welcomed the crowd, extolled the virtues of Endea Owens in his introduction, and said, “Let’s get this party started!” Endea, dressed in a sparkly, feathered, bright yellow ensemble, was joined by drummer Jerome Jennings, pianist Keith Brown, trumpeter Kris Johnson, vocalists Shenel Johns, J. Hoard, and Ekep Nkwelle, and Louis Fouché on alto saxophone. The band started with a riff from Stevie Wonder’s “La La La La La” section in the song “Living For The City.” Endea began the next song with some electrifying bass notes, and her gifted band chimed in with some equally scintillating solos. The original, percussive “Feel Good” really impressed the crowd, and Owens said, “I want everyone in this space to feel good!”

They followed up with one of Endea’s favorite songs, “The Creator Has a Master Plan,” featuring Shenel Johns, whose powerful voice blew the audience away on this moving piece, with excellent vocal input added from J. Hoard and Ekep Nkwelle. All three vocalists shone in their moments in the spotlight. The song had a beautifully emotional feeling that was matched by the gorgeous weather. The forecast had been for thunderstorms, but fortunately, the sun came out full force.

          Endea Owens                         © Kevin R. Mason

Next, Owens played a riveting bass solo at the start of “Moanin’,” then the band rocketed into this swinging piece with gusto. This set was a real party, with the audience on their feet for most of the concert, and later spontaneously breaking into line dancing in the areas near the stage and in the aisles. Endea said that she and the group realize that the music represents “something greater than us.” She wants the listeners to experience the spirit of love and fellowship from the performance. “For the People” was a fine, straight-ahead jazz number with some gospel and funk overtones, with a superb sax interlude by Louis Fouché, and a section from “Lift Every Voice and Sing” that the vocal trio sang in powerful harmony. Their encore was a passionate  rendition of “Before I Let Go,” played to a standing ovation that was quite well-deserved. At one point Owens shouted, “Give the drummer some!” and encouraged the crowd to chant along while the piece ended on a great crescendo. This was the way to start the 2023 NJF!

Lakecia Benjamin – Phoenix

   Lakecia Benjamin and Ivan Taylor         © Kevin R. Mason

Christian McBride introduced Lakecia Benjamin, saying, “She has a hot new album and a hot band!” Decked out in a gold pantsuit, rising saxophonist Benjamin welcomed the crowd and said, “We’re here to celebrate joy!” She was backed by pianist Zaccai Curtis, trumpeter Greg Glassman, bassist Ivan Taylor, and drummer E.J. Strickland, and they started with Lakecia’s “Trane,” a tribute to John and Alice Coltrane. The concert also included songs from her newest CD, Phoenix, which is dedicated to jazz luminaries like Dianne Reeves, Patrice Rushen, Wayne Shorter, Terri Lyne Carrington, and activist Angela Davis.  On “Amerikkan Skin,” Benjamin skillfully rapped the rapid-fire words that Angela Davis performed on the CD. This commanding song deftly touches on many of the social problems of today.

              Lakecia Benjamin                             © Kevin R. Mason

Lakecia continued with “My Favorite Things,” and she said they were going to blow the roof off, with Benjamin playing the alto like she was possessed by the very spirit of her sax progenitors! In fact, she played with such zeal that she had to kneel and compose herself for a moment while pianist Zaccai Curtis started the next selection with a thrilling solo. Then, Lakecia returned to play an intense number that included “Wade in the Water” inserted at the end, and she exclaimed, “We have been flying all over, and we are flying a banner of love!”

“Jubilation,” a composition by Patrice Rushen, began with a stellar drum solo by E.J. Strickland, with ample, cohesive support from the ensemble. Their set finale was John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” which Benjamin said that she hoped would help to cure some of the troubles of the world. She also gave a shoutout to Christian McBride, for “putting this thing together and honoring George Wein.” Their conclusion was certainly a balm for the audience at NJF, brilliantly performed by Lakecia Benjamin and her fellow musicians.

Derrick Hodge – Color of Noize

        Derrick Hodge © Kevin R. Mason

Once again, Christian McBride did the introduction duties. He mentioned how many great bass players came from Philadelphia and noted that Derrick Hodge is carrying that Philly bass banner high. The Grammy Award-winning composer/bandleader/bassist has had collaborations with a diverse group of artists, including Quincy Jones, Common, Jill Scott, Robert Glasper, Terence Blanchard, Mulgrew Miller, and Donald Byrd. Hodge was accompanied at NJF by Mike Aaberg on keyboards, Simon Martinez on guitar, and Maison Guidry on drums. This set consisted of music from Derrick’s third CD, Color of Noize. The first song was an avant garde piece that was both introspective and surreal, followed by a lovely ballad where the musicians melded their instruments together in an exceptionally seamless fashion. The result was a beauteous musical concoction that enchanted the audience. Although each player had their moment in the spotlight, it was their work together that was truly impressive.

Derrick gave a shoutout to Wayne Shorter, and he noted that many of the younger musicians at NJF are carrying on the legacy of his heroes. Hodge started Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour” with an affecting bass solo, then it morphed into another emotionally driven song that swept the crowd away with a charming, subtle denouement. The next piece began as a poignant ballad that started with a drum/keyboard duet, then the group took the crowd on a whirlwind ride that resulted in a thunderous standing ovation!

Derrick and company followed with a funk fest that enraptured the audience with their toe-tapping groove that had people swaying and chair dancing. The clear weather continued, and this was the perfect song to vibe with the glorious, sunny afternoon. Hodge said that he was especially honored to be at NJF, and there is a sense of gratitude from so many artists who feel the same way about this Festival. “Angels” was a heartfelt tribute to the many legendary jazz artists who died in the past year. Derrick sang, in an affecting voice, the words “Angels watching over me,” and the emotional impact was really felt throughout the crowd. For an encore, the group performed the wistful composition by Hodge, “Message of Hope” that perfectly capped off this outstanding set.

Branford Marsalis

          Branford Marsalis            © Kevin R. Mason

The peripatetic Christian McBride was all over NJF, and he called Branford Marsalis a bona fide legend, adding that Branford was there with his Superman cape on! Part of the iconic musical Marsalis family, saxophonist/composer/bandleader Branford was joined on stage by pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist William Ledbetter, and drummer Justin Faulkner. They started with Branford’s smooth tenor on “Long As You Know You’re Living Yours,” swinging like there was no tomorrow.

“There Ain’t No Sweet Man That’s Worth the Salt of My Tears” was dedicated to the women in the audience who have experienced some heartache. Marsalis’ sax took a brilliant early lead, followed by Joey Calderazzo’s winning piano solo and Justin Faulkner’s great drum riffs on this swinging, bluesy 1928 tune that included some additional clever modern nuances within the band’s conversation. They followed with a meditative, mysterious, minor-key number that was played with great skill all the way to the last note. They closed with an old New Orleans gem about loss, “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It.” The piece had the flavor of the classic Louisiana parade songs, and Branford played his soprano like the Pied Piper, which had people dancing with fervor at the Fort Stage. You could just imagine the folks following Marsalis’ alluring sax notes down the street! In a day filled with excellent music, this group was no exception. Branford and his musical cohorts really got to the audience all the way through this marvelous concert.

Joe Russo’s Almost Dead with Branford Marsalis

 Joe Russo’s Almost Dead Band                  © Kevin R. Mason

Drummer/vocalist Joe Russo co-founded the group Joe Russo’s Almost Dead in 2013 to cover the music of the Grateful Dead. In this last set of the Friday concerts at NJF, Russo shared the stage with bassist Jon Shaw, guitarists/vocalists Scott Metzger and Tom Hamilton Jr., and keyboardist/vocalist Marco Benevento.

          Branford Marsalis                 © Kevin R. Mason

The group was also joined by saxophonist Branford Marsalis who replaced Kamasi Washington for this set. Marsalis, who had played gigs with the Grateful Dead, and had just completed his own NJF set prior to this one, was the perfect choice. The group was really tight on “Row Jimmy,” an insinuating hybrid of rock, country, and jazz that included some great improvisations. Next was the rollicking “Weather Report Suite,” which allowed Branford’s splendid inventiveness to shine, with fine input from the rest of the band. Keyboardist Marco Benevento started “Estimated Prophet” with some beautiful chords, then the other band members joined in for an electrifying performance with some excellent group harmony.

        Joe Russo © Kevin R. Mason


“Terrapin Station” was another high-flying song that the band performed with energy and verve. Although the skies had clouded up late in the afternoon, luckily it did not rain during the day’s sets. Russo introduced the band members and thanked everyone for coming. He also thanked Jay Sweet (NJF’s Executive Producer) and Christian McBride for having them perform at Newport. The band closed the set with “Brokedown Palace,” a very mellow ballad after all the musical pyrotechnics that preceded it. Branford performed a stand-out sax piece, with superb support from the other musicians. Branford Marsalis and Joe Russo’s Almost Dead collaboration worked beautifully, and the band effectively revealed some of the jazz improvisational depth of those Grateful Dead gems.

Saturday, August 5

SuperBlue: Kurt Elling & Charlie Hunter with Nate Smith & Huntertones Horn

 Kurt Elling leads SuperBlue Band           © Kevin R. Mason

Christian McBride said, “Welcome to Newport, day number two!” Then he introduced what he called a supergroup: vocalist Kurt Elling, guitarist Charlie Hunter, drummer Nate Smith, trumpeter Jon Lampley, saxophonist Dan White, trombonist Chris Ott, and pianist Julius Rodriguez. Kurt Elling started with a funky song that he scatted like he was born to do it, with excellent support by this talented band. “Baby Hold On To Me” was a soulful jam where Kurt’s rich vocals engaged fans. He truly sang his heart out! Elling greeted the crowd, “I’m so glad to see you! We’ve survived a lot since we last saw each other. We must be strong.”

     SuperBlue Band © Kevin R. Mason

The next number, “Sticking to My Guns” was a stirring piece that was like a runaway train, and the group had the standing room area at the front of the Fort Stage packed, with fans savoring every note. Kurt added the tambourine to his stellar vocals as he encouraged the band to stretch on this piece. Elling talked about how musicians had such a hard time during the pandemic, when Charlie Hunter reached out to him to do an album. They did the recording at a distance through modern technology and came up with the CD SuperBlue. “Manic Panic Epiphanic” was one of the songs from that CD, and the band’s performance was like a classic soul throwback, with jazz riffs thrown in, punctuated by Nate Smith’s powerful drumming.

The next sultry blues-funk piece had Charlie Hunter leading off with some juicy guitar passages, and captivating exchanges from the other musicians. On a hot sunny day, this set was just as hot, a real jam! The band finished with a song that had a steamy pace, with Nate Smith and Julius Rodriguez tearing it up! There could not have been a better group to set things off on Saturday at the Fort Stage!

Camille Thurman With The Darrell Green Quartet

Camille Thurman, multi-instrumentalist/composer/vocalist has shared the stage with numerous jazz luminaries, including George Coleman, Roy Haynes, Dianne Reeves, Wynton Marsalis, Kenny Barron, Jon Batiste, and Diana Krall, just to name a few. Camille was a runner-up in the 2013 Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition, and she is a two-time winner of the ASCAP Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composers Award.

Camille Thurman with Darrell Green Quartet      © Kevin R. Mason

Christian McBride (busy as ever!) introduced Camille Thurman, saying, “There ain’t much she can’t do!” Thurman was backed at NJF by drummer Darrell Green, pianist David Bryant, trumpeter Wallace Roney Jr., and bassist Lonnie Plaxico. Darrell Green began the first song with a percussive drum solo, then Camille came on stage in a striking black and white dress. The band started swinging from the start, with Camille on saxophone and Roney adding some inspired trumpet licks. This exciting original piece by Darrell Green got things off to a great start. Thurman addressed the crowd, saying, “It’s so good to be here!” The set continued with a jazzy, syncopated rendition of “Going Out of My Head,” where Camille showed off her excellent vocals, soaring over the scales.

  Camille Thurman © Kevin R. Mason

Then Thurman’s lovely a cappella scatting introduced the sprightly “You’d Be So Easy to Love.” The band matched Camille’s splendid singing, note for note. It was a delightful performance, and at one point, Thurman scatted notes so high that the crowd broke into spontaneous applause. The group followed up with something that Camille and Darrell have been working on, “Love Vibrations” by Horace Silver. It was a haunting ballad about love, compassion, and empathy that Thurman started singing skillfully, then did double duty on her sax with equal musicality. Christian McBride was right; there’s not much this woman can’t do! The closing piece was very dramatic, and Camille once again played the sax and sang, with great support from the quartet. The band moved from strength to strength, finishing to well-deserved, fervent applause.

The Charles Lloyd New Quartet

           Charles Lloyd                          © Kevin R. Mason

Christian McBride asked the crowd to make some noise for the man he referred to as a legend, multi-instrumentalist and NEA Jazz Master Charles Lloyd. In a storied career, Lloyd has worked with numerous jazz greats, including Charles Mingus, Cannonball and Nate Adderley, Joe Zawinul, Jack DeJohnette, Keith Jarrett, Geri Allen, and many others. At NJF, Lloyd shared the stage with drummer Eric Harland, bassist Reuben Rogers, and pianist Jason Moran.

The set began with Lloyd’s classic “Forest Flower” and some introspective introductory sax notes, before the song segued into a more up-tempo piece that still had an avant garde flavor. Next came a calming tune where the group just relaxed into each other, and they played some gorgeous solos. It was just the right song for the crowd to chill out to, and it was quite a blissful experience with a beautiful finish.

 The Charles Lloyd New Quartet                © Kevin R. Mason

Lloyd picked up his flute on the next number, which was an enchanting ballad. For anyone who had experienced stress recently (and who hasn’t?), this song and this set was just the ticket! Jazz can tap into so many emotions, and this concert was certainly comforting to the spirit. The group followed with a song that had a surreal, Middle Eastern flavor, that conveyed visions of beautiful sunsets and pleasant journeys. This group could have charged for therapy, since they certainly relieved a lot of anxiety in the crowd. Although Charles Lloyd did not speak a word during this set, his music eloquently spoke for this iconic artist!

Christian McBride’s Jam Jawn

Jam Jawn Band © Kevin R. Mason

Bassist Christian McBride seemed to be everywhere at the 2023 NJF, including his own set. The word “jawn” is Philadelphia slang for “a thing,” and Christian’s Jam Jawn has become an annual Newport event. McBride always gets wonderful players to join him, and last year was no exception. The group was comprised of Nate Smith on drums, percussionist Nêgah Santos, guitarist Eric Krasno, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, and pianist Bob James, who Christian called a “living legend.” Joe Henderson’s swinging “Homestretch” had some killer solos by McBride, Santos, Coltrane, and Smith. A winning version of “Afro Blue” showed the musicians best virtuoso abilities, highlighting Ravi’s rich subtle tones, and Nate’s incendiary extended drum solo!

           Bob James © Kevin R. Mason

Bob James’ composition, “Westchester Lady” was a real gem, and the players looked and sounded like they were having a blast. Guest vocalist Celisse came on stage and said how special it was to be with these musicians, and she was going to luxuriate in it. Celisse put such funk into “Hound Dog,” that even Elvis would have taken notice! She encouraged the crowd, “If you know the tune, sing it with us please.” “Baby I Love You” dipped deeply into the annals of classic soul, and Celisse’s powerful voice really did it justice. Although it was a throwback to the 60s, the group made it sound timeless. All the players added their flavor to the mix, especially Eric Krasno’s rocking guitar, and it was indeed a delicious musical stew.

Ravi Coltrane and            Christian McBride                © Kevin R. Mason

Christian said they had just enough time “to get all the way down.” McBride declared that the first bass player in the audience to come to the stage could play the bass line on James Brown’s “Get Up,” but he joked that there would be a $50 fine if they messed it up! A young bassist from Southern California did come on stage, and he did quite well. While the guest musician was tearing it up on the bass, Christian did some of James Brown’s signature dance moves, tickling the crowd to no end. Celisse sang and smoothly added an excellent guitar section in perfect unity with the firecracker band’s improvisations. This was certainly one of the hottest sets of NJF!


The Orrin Evans Quintet

         The Orrin Evans Quintet                             © Kevin R. Mason

Pianist/composer Orrin Evans has independently blazed his trail in his quarter-century career, and he finally received the honor of the first place ranking as “Rising Star Pianist” in the 2018 DownBeat Critics Poll. This NJF set included music from Evans’ CD The Red Door, and Orrin started with a dramatic piano interlude to kick off a genre-bending piece that had touches of bebop, avant garde, and Latin flavor. The talented pianist’s collaborators were trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, bassist Luques Curtis, drummer Mark Whitfield Jr., and saxophonist Gary Thomas. Their second piece was a syncopated number where Jensen’s trumpet wowed the crowd, followed by some excellent sax input by Thomas.

The up-tempo pacing of the number that followed included exhilarating solos by each player, keeping the audience riveted throughout. It segued into a moving section of “All The Things You Are.” The next offering started with an outstanding bass riff by Luques that received enthusiastic applause from the audience, it was so good! The rest of the number was an interesting mélange of some boogie-woogie by Orrin, a sultry trumpet jam by Ingrid, and some inspired flute notes by Gary. The set closed with a trio performance from Evans, Curtis, and Whitfield Jr. that was played with verve and passion. The crowd really enjoyed this concert by these skilled artists who exuded the high standard that permeated the entire NJF.

Jon Batiste

Those who arrived early on Saturday morning to get a good spot in front of the main Fort Stage were treated to something extra. Before the day of music officially began, multi-instrumentalist/singer/songwriter/composer/bandleader Jon Batiste did a sound check that turned into a mini-concert, and even the first thing in the morning, the group sounded great! It was a lovely extra treat.

Jon Batiste Big Band © Kevin R. Mason

Multiple Grammy Award winner Jon Batiste is known for his time as bandleader on The Late Show with Steven Colbert, and he won the Academy Award in 2018 for Best Original Score for the Disney/Pixar film Soul. Jon’s big band at NJF included bassist Phillip King; Joe Saylor on drums and tambourine; trombonist Colin Hughes; Steven Duffy on tuba; trumpeters Jon Lampley and Giveton Gelin; saxophonists Aaron Holbrook, Evan Helper, and Marcus G. Miller; and percussionist Nêgah Santos. Batiste came on the stage dressed in a bright red suit, and started the set with “Worship,” encouraging the crowd to sing along to the exhilarating melody.

     Jon Batiste © Kevin R. Mason

Following was the blues-infused “Let The Good Times Roll” where the band really jammed with a funky goodness from start to finish. The Latin-flavored song “The Hawk” got the audience going in a big way, with several enthralling solos. Jon really showed his brilliance on a thrilling piano piece that had the audience spellbound. “I Need You” from Batiste’s CD We Are was another high-energy piece with some spirited call and response in the middle. Multi-instrumentalist Louis Cato joined the festivities and scatted for all he was worth. The super soulful “Night Time is the Right Time” was a passionate duet with Jon and his fabulous vocalist Desi, and they really knocked the crowd out!

          Jon Batiste                   © Kevin R. Mason

Batiste said, “I love all music, but there’s something special about jazz,” and he thanked the audience for sharing it. “Freedom” had Jon singing and dancing all over the stage like the party would never end, and the crowd was there for it! He joked that where he’s from (New Orleans), people dance 10 times as much when the band plays this kind of music. He encouraged the audience to let go of all their inhibitions, and many really did, with various couples and individuals dancing throughout the crowd. “Drink Water” slowed things down, but it still had the listeners under Batiste’s strong musical spell. A raucous ragtime followed with Jon playing with such excitement that it’s a wonder he did not break the piano keys! The song morphed into Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” with some classical riffs thrown in the mix, then it transformed into a lovely, romantic “Moon River” where Batiste had the crowd in the palm of his talented hands. Then he changed “Moon River” into a jazzed-up version that was just as winning as the earlier emotional one.

                  Batiste on the melodica                                 © Kevin R. Mason

The gospel-flavored, moving “It’s All Right” was sung by Jon, often in a charming falsetto. Then, he picked up a melodica and came down into the crowd with his band to play in a manner reminiscent of a New Orleans parade. The crowd ate it up, dancing and taking photos. It was a fantastic, all-out party that ended the Saturday NJF concerts in high style!





Sunday, August 6

Matthew Whitaker

         Matthew Whitaker                  © Kevin R. Mason

Musical wunderkind, keyboardist Matthew Whitaker did the honors as the first performer of the day on Sunday at the Harbor Stage. Whitaker grew up in Hackensack, NJ, surrounded by music. He taught himself to play the Hammond B3 organ at 9 years old and was named a Yamaha Artist at 15. Matthew has performed at jazz festivals all over the world, and at just 10 years old, he was invited to play at Stevie Wonder’s induction to the Apollo Theater’s Hall of Fame. Comparisons to Stevie Wonder are apt, since they are both blind, with exceptional musical talent. Matthew was joined by percussionist Ivan Llanes, bassist Liany Mateo, guitarist Marcos Robinson, and drummer Johnny Steele. Christian McBride welcomed the crowd to the last day of the 2023 NJF. Right out of the gate, Whitaker started with a funk-filled organ solo on “Freedom” and his band joined in on this smoking hot song that was a mixture of jazz and upbeat soul.

 The Matthew Whitaker Quintet                © Kevin R. Mason

The next piece was a stirring rendition of Chick Corea’s “Spain” where Matthew began on the organ, then switched to the piano and keyboard, which he played simultaneously. This performance was so good that surely Chick Corea was smiling down from heaven, and the crowd could not sit still. Whitaker’s arrangement of Dave Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo a La Turk” was another excellent version that would have certainly thrilled Brubeck. Matthew is not only forging his own way, but he also acknowledges and honors the legends who came before him. Then the group went right into a stylized, driven song that included a shout-out to “Wade in the Water.”

Charles Turner’s “Harlem Harlem Harlem” had some gospel-inspired rhythms amid an overall blues feeling, and much of it was performed as a duet between Matthew and bassist Liany Mateo. It ended with a big band sound that was remarkable for a quartet. “Take a Break” from Whitaker’s CD Outta the Box had an insistent beat and drew the audience even more to this young talent. The band matched every note, and he threw in a quick reference to “Rhapsody in Blue.” They finished the set with a rousing performance of “What’s Going On.” The audience started spontaneously singing along, and Matthew said, “You better sing!” There was a resounding standing ovation at the end of this most impressive show.

Melvis Santa & Jazz Orishas

      Melvis Santa © Kevin R. Mason

Havana-born vocalist/dancer/actress/multi-instrumentalist/educator Melvis Santa is a leading figure in Afro-Cuban music, and her collaborations include Pedrito Martinez, Arturo O’Farrill, Bobby Sanabria, Ravi Coltrane, Christian McBride, Chucho Valdés, Kenny Garrett, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Buena Vista Social Club, and many more. She was last at NJF with Jane Bunnett & Maqueque a few years ago. Her compelling music and insinuating voice, as well as her strong stage presence, made her show worth catching.

              Melvis Santa on conga                              © Kevin R. Mason

Melvis’ band, Jazz Orishas, included drummer Allan Mednard, trumpeter Josh Evans, guitarist Vinicius Gomes, and bassist Rashaan Carter, and they played together like a well-oiled machine, so cohesive! Melvis went from playing the piano and singing to playing a conga drum as well as the percussion instrument the shekere, and she performed each role with ease and aplomb. Her music went from high energy to soothing, and the audience really appreciated the musical skill that was on display. Santa even danced sinuously, much to the appreciation of the crowd.


In honor of the late Abbey Lincoln’s birthday they performed, “My Music is Mine,” a thrilling avant garde piece where Melvis recited a poem she wrote in tribute to Ms. Lincoln. The set finished with a plaintive melody that was punctuated by some delightful vocals by Santa. This concert was a sterling example Latin/jazz music presented by some really gifted musicians.

The Bill Charlap Trio

  The Bill Charlap Trio © Kevin R. Mason

Christian McBride called this group “one of the greatest trios this music has ever known.” The Harbor Stage was packed to overflowing for eminent pianist Bill Charlap’s mid-day show with bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington. Looking dapper in a black suit, Bill collaborated with Peter and Kenny on Duke Ellington’s “Love You Madly” as a whimsical bebop that contained a snippet of “It’s De-Lovely.” This trio has been playing together for quite a while, and you can tell by their smooth transitions and seamless collaborations. Next was an excitingly dramatic version of “Caravan” where all three played their instruments with superior virtuosity, and Kenny Washington’s drum solo truly solidified the flawless tempo.

Bill Charlap © Kevin R. Mason

Charlap said to the crowd, “We are delighted to be with you here at the Newport Jazz Festival!” He then began “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” with a romantic, emotional piano solo, transporting the audience down a path to an enchanting ending to this familiar classic. The trio continued with a laid-back “Mood Indigo” where the warm breezes from Narragansett Bay were the perfect backdrop to captivate the crowd. They followed with a straight-ahead jazz piece that the musicians played with such ease, they might easily have been jamming in a living room, instead of in front of hundreds of people! They made their high-level artistry look effortless. The finale of the set was played at such a rapid pace that Charlap’s fingers fairly flew over the piano keys, and the gifted artists took the audience on a real thrill ride, ending in a fabulous crescendo.

Redman, Mehldau, McBride, Blade – A MoodSwing Reunion

    Mehldau, Redman, McBride, & Blade © Kevin R. Mason

MoodSwing was saxophonist Joshua Redman’s 1994 album with one of his first quartets. The astonishing recording featured four precociously talented musicians – Redman, bassist Christian McBride, pianist Brad Mehldau, and drummer Brian Blade – who would go on to establish themselves as leaders in the genre of jazz. On the 2023 NJF app, Redman said, “I realized immediately that this band wouldn’t stay together for very long. Not because we didn’t dig playing with each other, but well, the three of them were really just that great. They were without a doubt, for our generation, among the most accomplished and innovative on their instruments. They were already in such high demand – everyone wanted to play with them!” The group stayed together for a year and a half, then went on to pursue their independent visions. Various members of the group have crossed paths in different configurations over the years, but NJF is the first time all four of them have joined forces in concert for decades. After years of individual triumphs and other successful collaborations, they reunited for the CD RoundAgain in 2020.

Joshua’s swinging tenor was at the forefront of their first song of the concert, then the others joined in with their considerable contributions. The set included the meditative “Disco Ears” and Joshua’s composition “Undertow.” Redman said, “It’s such a great honor and privilege to be here…We appreciate each and every one of you for coming out!” He noted that NJF was the site of the quartet’s first gig together, 30 years ago. Actually, they had a job the night before, but to tease Christian, he said, “That was only Philadelphia, so it doesn’t count, right?” Knowing how much McBride loves his hometown, Joshua quipped that the bassist would get him back later. He also clarified that the Philly gig was at an intimate setting, so NJF was their first big job.

Brad Mehldau’s “Moe Honk” featured excellent interplay between the musicians, and the field in front of the main Fort Stage was packed as far as the eye could see with people enjoying the outstanding music of this group. They continued with the poignant ballad by Brian Blade, “Your Part to Play.” The quartet closed their session with the gently swinging “The Oneness of Two (In Three),” and they performed beautifully – both individually and as a group. This was a brilliant reunion, well worth waiting for.

Diana Krall

Diana Krall & Robert Hurst © Kevin R. Mason

Canadian singer/pianist/songwriter Diana Krall is a jazz superstar, and she is the only singer to have eight albums to debut at the top of the Billboard Jazz Albums chart. She has also won two Grammy Awards, multiple Juno Awards, and has collaborated with a list of musical heavyweights that includes Tony Bennett, Natalie Cole, Ray Charles, Hank Jones, Paul McCartney, her husband Elvis Costello, as well as many others. At NJF, Diana was dressed in a chic, dark ensemble with sunglasses, and she was joined by drummer Karriem Riggins, bassist Robert Hurst, and guitarist Anthony Wilson. Diana commenced the musical festivities with “I Love Being Here With You” that featured killer bass licks and a hot drum solo. “All or Nothing at All” deployed Krall’s rich, smoky voice to great effect, and Wilson’s excellent drumming kept up the cool factor.

The set continued with a delectably mellow “Let’s Fall In Love,” and despite its laid-back feel, people were dancing to the rhythmic beat. “Devil May Care” was an excellent interpretation by all the players, followed by a sultry “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” that was sung in such an intimate way, Krall could have been in a small atmospheric club, instead of at the Fort Stage at NJF, and she utterly charmed the crowd. “I Was Doing All Right” continued the relaxed vibe, as Diana and her sidemen breezed through the song like butter. The contemplative “The Girl in the Other Room” told the tale of a woman who questions her life.

“In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning” had Krall’s voice almost at a whisper at times, as she wrung all the emotions out of this ballad of lost love, once again turning NJF into an intimate experience. Diana changed the mood with an exuberant version of “Someone Exactly Like You” and this ode to love had the band playing right on point! Diana Krall and her fellow artists accomplished a remarkable feat by performing a set that was extraordinarily accessible at one of the biggest jazz festivals in the world!

Herbie Hancock

 Herbie Hancock & Lionel Loueke             © Kevin R. Mason

Once again, Christian McBride did the introduction and said, “Are you ready?…There’s only one way to close out the 2023 Newport Jazz Festival, and that’s with the King, the high exalted ruler, Herbie Hancock!” In response, the crowd started spontaneously chanting, “Herbie! Herbie! Herbie!” The revered Hancock replied, “Thank you so much. Thanks, all of you. I not only love you, I’m crazy about you!” He said he wasn’t going to waste a lot of time talking; he was just going to get right down to the music. Herbie might be getting older, but he has lost none of his skills or swagger. They don’t call him a living legend for nothing. Backed by trumpeter Terence Blanchard, drummer Jaylen Petinaud, guitarist/vocalist Lionel Loueke, and bassist James Genus, Herbie started the concert with a song that had a surreal, otherworldly beginning. The gorgeous ballad displayed Blanchard’s exquisite trumpet notes and Loueke’s riveting guitar riffs.

Next, Hancock introduced the band members with high praise, and listed some of their many accomplishments. Then he said, “We’re going to do a song for my best friend, who recently passed away.” The group played Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints,” with arrangements by Terence Blanchard, and they really did Wayne proud. Herbie joked that they were going to run out of time if he used the vocorder, but he decided to use it anyway, to a spectacular outcome. He also sang some improvised lyrics about how every person is part of the human family. It was both touching and funny at times, and the utilization of the vocorder made it a standout in the show.

For “Actual Proof,” Herbie picked up a keytar and played it with vitality and enthusiasm, while the other musicians added superb input to the conversation on this powerful song. On the closing number of the set, Hancock picked up a different keytar for a fabulously funky rendition of “Chameleon” that included a great guitar/keytar duel where Lionel and Herbie really left it all on the stage, and the rest of the band gave excellent support. Herbie Hancock, a true jazz icon, and his exceptional supporting musicians presented a magnificent closing to the 2023 Newport Jazz Festival!

In Conclusion

2024 will be Newport Jazz Festival’s 70th anniversary. Presented by Newport Festivals Foundation, it will be held August 2 to 4 at Fort Adams State Park. The performers include Makaya McCraven; Samara Joy; Stanley Clarke N-4Ever; Sun Ra Arkestra; Christian McBride’s Jam Jawn; The Anat Cohen Quartetinho; The Kenny Barron Trio; Theo Croker; Dinner Party featuring Kamasi Washington, Terrace Martin, and Robert Glasper; Elvis Costello; André 3000; Cory Wong; Nicole Zuraitis; Artemis; The Bill Frisell Four featuring Johnathan Blake, Gerald Clayton, and Gregory Tardy; Julius Rodriguez; Nile Rogers & Chic; PJ Morton; Galactic with Irma Thomas; Cimafunk; Meshell Ndegeocello; Jaleel Shaw; Legacy of Wayne Shorter featuring Danilo Pérez, John Patitucci, Terri Lyne Carrington, and Ravi Coltrane; and many more! Some performers will be doing their own sets, as well as performing in special groups for the 2024 Newport Jazz Festival. For more information about tickets, souvenirs, travel, lodgings, and Festival rules, go to: