An elemental foundation of funk and soul wafted through much of the music at the Sunday edition of the 2016 Newport Jazz Festival (“Newport”; www.newportjazzfest.net) (presented by Natixis Global Asset Management) held in Newport, Rhode Island on July 31, 2016. Newport’s indefatigable founder, George Wein, (still going strong at age 90 and in his last year as Artistic Director of Newport– to be succeeded next year by the estimable Christian McBride) was once again grinning from his golf cart as he made the rounds of Newport’s three stages admiring the stew of vital sounds that explored an expanded jazz universe (as has always been Newport’s goal!).
On Newport’s smaller stages, the restless and burbling sounds of funk and R & B were delivered by several intrepid bass players, leading their own bands into new sonic territory. Ben Williams, a bass player with a lithe, propulsive feel to his hearty bass sound, brought to Newport his sympathetic band to explore the terrain of their eclectic new recording, Coming of Age [Concord Music Group].
One of the many gifts in both listening to this new recording as well as hearing this band perform at Newport was getting the chance to hear the glittering and animated playing of young pianist Christian Sands.
I have written about Sands recently in reviewing his fantastic partnership with bassist Christian McBride and drummer Ulysses Owens Jr. culminating in their superb recording, Live From The Village Vanguard [Mack Avenue Records].
Following Sands to Newport this year, the pianist transformed himself from his lithe and creative piano presence at the Vanguard to a purveyor of boisterous funk and R & B grooves at his Newport performance; carefree and danceable on his electric and acoustic pianos. Soloing on two original Williams’ compositions, “Strength and Beauty” and “Half Steppin” (both of which appear in sparkling form on Coming of Age), Sands took flourishes of colorful runs on his electric keys with a spritely touch, punctuating phrases next to a carousing left hand bass line.
The crowd went wild as he worked up to a relentless crescendo that highlighted percussive declarations on flying bent and off-kilter notes that rose and fell on a frenetic funk dance beat. Sand’s cavorting solos were expanded upon by Marcus Strickland, (who swelled curvaceously on his sax to the rising R & B groove) and by the crisp wood rim interjections from drummer John Davis. With guitarist Gilad Hekselman adding skittish notes, bassist Williams provided a muscular foundation on his electric bass that provided a robust backbone to the surging positive R & B grooves pulsating with new declarations and directions.
Take a listen to Coming of Age and get a chance to hear these young lions at work, as they are joined by some radiant guests including singer Goapele, (soaring on a glittering R & B tribute to Nelson Mandela); trumpeter Christian Scott (in a soft soulful moment), and singer W. Ellington Felton (laying down a powerful spoken voice on “Toy Soldiers” with Williams’ bass cascading around these penetrating grooves). Williams’ solo performance of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is funk and string-slap heaven, recorded up front and present to capture the speed and crispness of his lowest plunges and his string-snapping pizzicatos.
Back at Newport’s stages, chunks of heady funk and R & B also infused other performances that mined new veins of musical inspiration within jazz’s global reach.
Singer/guitarist Jose James and his band performed a riveting rendition of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” in which James and drummer Nate Smith shared a dazzling duet in which James scatted repeated phrases from Withers’ lyrics, weaving them in creative off-kilter patterns to the beat of Smith’s big cymbal and snare. Following the crowd’s rockous ovations to this funky cavort, the band moved into the smooth swaying R & B of “Come To My Door,” highlighted by James’ unique voice with his wonderfully fluid, burnished and deeply expressive tone and delivery.
In contrast to James’ stylistic territory, singer Lizz Wright brought gospel–flowing ardor to her soaring performance highlighted by her and her band’s soulful rendition of a Neil Young song, “Old Man.” Converting “Old Man” into a rousing R & B groove was an inspired choice and involved this gifted band’s transition into a chugging groove machine with keyboardist Kenny Banks taking a stretched out solo filled with pulsating waves of high held chords while guitarist Chris Rosser and bassist Nicholas D’Amato pelted out shimmering notes below. Wright soared above all of this soulful action with her expansive voice displaying its fluidity in intonation and pitch control. The crowd urged her on with great applause as she sang with ardor and an indomitable, swanking spirit to the cranked-out propulsive grooves from her band.
A different set of funky grooves was heard from a group called The Westerlies (www.westerliesmusic.com): four brass musicians who delivered a cornucopia of spikey grooves on Newport’s intimate “Storyville” stage. Here was a combination of spirituals, New Orleans funk and off-kilter sway that was hard to resist in its unpredictable unfolding. On an original piece inspired by action observed on a French boulevard, there was the cacophony of sounds from a lone trombone (with groans and thumps); a swaying trumpet solo (filled with blurts and brazen holds) and a swashbuckling conclusion with all four members coalescing into a warm unison of tumultuous brass sounds cavorting down this crowded boulevard. The Westerlies certainly swing to a different groove that is all their own. (A new recording by them is scheduled to be released soon – see www.westerliesmusic.com for details).
Another highlight from this day at Newport was the dazzling performance by pianist Kenny Barron and his Trio, with their own set of wonderment in groove and funk on sparkling display. Barron is a master technician and composer who possesses a genius for melodic inquiry and invention. On his keyboard, he can go from bladelike articulation to an effortless polished sound. He also possesses that special gift for inviting his audience into his sonic world with perfect ease. At his Newport performance, Barron was joined by one of my favorite dynamic drummers, Johnathan Blake, and by the artful bassist Kiyoshi Kitagawa. With a capacity crowd crammed into the small “Harbor Stage”, these three musicians delivered a set filled with radiance- snatching grooves and melodies from blues, funk and Brazilian offshoots with relaxed delight in every twist and turn. Barron’s “Bud-Like” (taken from the Trio’s most recent recording, Book of Intuition [Impulse!] was one such highlight: Barron burning up his keyboard with swashbuckling speed; Blake furious on his snare and cymbal and Kitagawa running alongside both of them with his punctual, deep bass lines.
Barron commented at its end: “Now that we got that out of our system” – and immediately turned to a contrasting Brazilian ballad – all sweet, velvety and twinkling. The audience leaned in to hear every nuance of Barron’s soft bass chords to compliment the deep pauses and colors of his winsome high note twirls and spangles, all nestled in Blake and Kitagawa’s softly swaying beats.
Do take a listen to Barron’s recent audiophile gem of a recording, The Art of Conversation [Impulse!] where he intertwines with one of today’s most vivacious bassists, Dave Holland. The Art of Conversation is a superb recording in which both players are captured in perfect imagery (positioned informally next to each other on a small stage) in a textured, airy and layered acoustic space. The opening piece, “The Oracle”, (one of Holland’s early bluesy compositions of spirited force), is magnificent: the interplay between these two masters is uncanny and the recording captures their conversation in all of its entwining intimacy and creative power.
And, speaking of creative power, back at the main “Fort Stage” at Newport, redoubtable saxophonist Charles Lloyd and his “New Quartet” (pianist Jason Moran, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland) delivered a swanking set of their own “Nu Blues” and assorted dexterous grooves. They began their set with “Dreamweaver,” with Moran and Lloyd in a subtle conversation of spindly light notes cast in a slinky groove line provided by Rogers’ slowly descending (and then arching upwards) bass lines.
In another number, Moran swiped the inside strings of his piano to create breezy, slurry sounds while Lloyd took up his flute and rambled forth in a rollicking West Coast groove, (taking a page from the old Canned Heat rock boogie sound).
On “Passin Through,” the band alighted on a fleet journey with Lloyd’s sax a thunderous cascade of notes and repeats in his middle registers, big and breathy. Moran displayed breakneck speed on his piano with liquid runs up and down his register (with clusters of stops and starts along the way) and Harland spurred everyone forward with his patented feel for air and separation between each of his graceful (yet powerful) snare drum hits and lacy strokes from his delicate cymbal work.
Lloyd, Rogers and Harland (joined by guitarists Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz), have out a superb new recording entitled I Long To See You [Bluenote Records; www.bluenote.com], and this recording beautifully captures the wide open vista of sounds and grooves that these musicians create in their intriguing partnership. A great plus to this recording is its quality: it offers a spacious layered soundstage with great up-front perspective on all of the airy soulful blowing, strumming and percussive touches. This is a recording that draws you in and holds you in its embrace of warmth, evolving creativity and immediacy. There is the contrast between the band’s powerful, slow-brewing delivery of Dylan’s indictment in “Masters of War” (with Harland’s circular motion on his drums churning the deep groove) with the ballads “Shenandoah” and “All My Trials,” where Lloyd’s sax softly penetrates the surrounding air in relaxed dignified fashion alongside Frisell’s and Leisz’s spindly solos. There is the beauty and delicacy of Nora Jones’ singing “You Are So Beautiful” (recorded in unflinching clarity and presence) contrasted with the Western expansive feel of “La Llorona”, with its wide open guitar holds and languorous sax meanders. We even get the treat of hearing Lloyd’s flute (reminiscent of his flute adventures at his Newport performance), where, on “Sombrero Sam,” everyone moves with buoyant glee, (particularly Harland on his rapid fire gun hits that sound like gun shots) riding the slip stream of a serpentine and deep funk beat. Funk and rumba in the “OK Corral”- that’s the expansive jazz universe at play at Newport and beyond.