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From Jon Batiste to Trio 3, Here Are Five Must-See Picks at the 2018 Newport Jazz Festival

Adam Kissick
Jon Batiste performing at the 2014 Newport Jazz Festival

From the beginning, America's oldest jazz fête strove for a breadth of style. George Wein, the festival's cofounder and patriarch, used to say he wanted to present the full sweep of the music, "from J to Z." That doesn't mean Jay-Z, though a tradition of crossover inclusion goes all the way back to Chuck Berry, 60 years ago.

This year's roster includes the funk guru George Clinton and the hard-rock band Living Colour — two glorious examples of black music pitched to a popular audience without losing a spark of innovation. Elsewhere on the bill, you'll find José James paying tribute to the soul bard Bill Withers, and R+R=NOW forging a pointed new strain of jazz-infused R&B.

Christian McBride, who took over from Wein as artistic director last year, will connect with the visionary performance artist Laurie Anderson. And Charles Lloyd — saxophonist, flutist, NEA Jazz Master — will appear on all three days of the festival, with a different band each time. (One of these will feature Lucinda Williams, as on a great new album.) You get the point: so many of the artists on this festival bill are making connections, across genre and medium and style. And yet Newport remains a jazz festival, in ways that no observer could really dispute.

With all that in mind, here are five strong suggestions for your Newport schedule, spanning every kind of range. Far from definitive, by no means comprehensive, but it's a pretty good start.

Marquis Hill Blacktet (Harbor Stage, Friday, 3:55-4:55 p.m.)

Chicago-born trumpeter Marquis Hill has kept busy since https://youtu.be/a72KUxDSnjM","_id":"00000178-12f6-d2ee-adfc-1ff6f7f10000","_type":"035d81d3-5be2-3ed2-bc8a-6da208e0d9e2"}">https://youtu.be/a72KUxDSnjM">his brisk emergence on the national scene. Maybe you first took note of him when he won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition. Maybe you copped his often-boppish major-label debut, The Way We Play. Maybe you noticed his credit on the new album by Marcus Miller. But you haven't really experienced Hill until you've heard him with The Blacktet, a working unit with regular colleagues like Justin Thomas on vibes and Makaya McCraven on drums. It seems likely they'll play something from Hill's recent EP Meditation Tape, a cooled-out groove manifesto released late last year. 


Meditation Tape is available at Marquis Hill's website.

Trio 3 (Quad Stage, Saturday, 11 a.m. to noon)

The artists who make up Trio 3 — bassist Reggie Workman, alto saxophonist Oliver Lake, drummer Andrew Cyrille — are among the living masters of this music, irrespective of where they fall on the spectrum of "outside" to "in." As a group, this is a Newport Jazz Festival debut; as individuals, they haven't appeared nearly often enough over the years. (Cyrille played the festival in 1965, with Cecil Taylor; Workman appeared in '67, with Herbie Mann.) So yes, this inclusion is overdue. But the main point is the quality of expression in this band.

By way of illustration, here is "Bonu," a track from Trio 3's most recent album, Visiting Texture. Composed by Lake, it opens with his lonesome cry against a stir of cymbals, as Workman shadows his melody just a step or two behind him. It's a theme that communicates both anguish and resolve, along with an alert attunement to the moment at hand. 

Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl (Harbor Stage, Saturday, 12:20-1:20 p.m.)

Have I already said too much about Mary Halvorson's Code Girl? It's certainly possible. But it's worth restating the case: this is a stunningly creative statement from an artist who has already made her own space. And it's not just a breakthrough for Halvorson, who has previously played Newport as a solo guitarist (2016) and with her quintet (2013). Code Girl's rhythm section is otherwise known as the collective trio Thumbscrew, which recently released two companion albums, Ours and Theirs. The brilliant vocalist in the ensemble is Amirtha Kidambi, who makes her Newport debut; the trumpeter is Ambrose Akinmusire, who will also appear on this year's festival with his own new project, Origami Harvest. 


Code Girl is available on Firehouse 12 Records

Jon Batiste (Quad Stage, Saturday, 3:30-4:30 p.m.)

When Jon Batiste last played the festival, in 2015, he was right on the cusp of becoming one of the most recognizable jazz musicians on the planet, courtesy of his gig on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. He performed that year with his band, Stay Human, inevitably ending up in the crowd; their jubilant set was broadcast by WBGO and NPR Music. This year, Batiste will play a solo set, drawing from a forthcoming, just-announced album, Hollywood Africans, produced by T Bone Burnett. Judging by the first single, a softly exhortative ballad called "Don't Stop," it will be a performance as personal and unclassifiable as Batiste himself.


Jon Batiste's Hollywood Africans will be released on Sept 28, on Verve. For more information, visit his website.

Black Art Jazz Collective (Harbor Stage, Sunday, 4:45-5:45 p.m.)

Decide for yourself which word carries the most weight in the name of the Black Art Jazz Collective, which was co-founded by trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, saxophonist Wayne Escoffery and drummer Johnathan Blake. The group has a new album, Armor of Pride, out on HighNote Records, and among other things it’s a reminder that hard-bop is still a living language.

The album, which also features James Burton III on trombone, Xavier Davis on piano and Vicente Archer on bass, opens with a muscular track called "Miller Time." If I were a betting man, I'd wager that the title is a nod to pianist Mulgrew Miller, who died five years ago, at far too young an age (57). In any case, he would have appreciated what they do with the tune.

Visit the Newport Jazz Festival website for the complete schedule. For information about WBGO's special weekend package and day trips to the festival, look here.

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.