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Photo Gallery: Newport Jazz Festival '23 presented elders and youth, and everything in between

On August 4-6, 2023, the long-running Newport Jazz Festival, now in its 69th year, returned to the scenic site of Fort Adams overlooking the Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island. Blessed with good weather all weekend, this year’s edition featured a breadth and diversity in its programming rarely seen in a contemporary jazz festival. Mixed in with the veteran mainstays of the jazz performance circuit like Branford Marsalis, Bill Charlap, Bobby Watson, Julian Lage, and Orrin Evans were more R&B and funk leaning acts like The War and Treaty, Durand Jones, Butcher Brown, Adi Oasis, Cimafunk, Alfa Mist, and the Soul Rebels with special guests Rakim and Talib Kweli.

Embracing that blend was Kurt Elling who debuted his SuperBlue project with Charlie Hunter (along with Julius Rodriguez, Nate Smith and the Hunterones) at Newport for the first time. Likewise balancing bona fide jazz chops with funk rhythms were bassists Derrick Hodge and Marcus Miller, who both claim impressive credits off the bandstand as producers and soundtrack composers. Then there was Big Freedia whose set defies description, but did include a sort of audience participation surely unprecedented at Newport. Unless some group twerking went undocumented in the late ‘50s. There was even a dance party hosted by DJ Pee .Wee, aka hip-hop star Anderson.Paak, wearing a Rick James-like wig with massive curly locks and spinning hits from the 70s through today, all while adding his own beats and raps. Providing a truly global presence were acts like the Cuban percussionist Pedrito Martinez, Chilean jazz vocalist Claudia Acuna, Somi and her South African focused jazz material, and the critically acclaimed cross-cultural collaboration of Arooj Aftab, Vijay Iyer and Shahzad Ismaily.

Every major jazz festival needs stars, or tent-pole artists as presenters like to call them. Acts that EVERYONE knows and loves (mostly). In that category were Diana Krall and Herbie Hancock, along with more recent ascendant headliners such as Jon Batiste, Louis Cato, Samara Joy and Thundercat. Balancing the requisite presence of legendary jazz elders such as Charles Lloyd , Dave Holland and Charles McPherson were a host of emerging artists: Endea Owens, Melvis Santa, Immanuel Wilkins, James Brandon Lewis, Matthew Whitaker, Lakecia Benjamin, Julius Rodriguez, Angel Bat Dawid and Domi and JD Beck, several of whom were making their Newport debut, at least as leaders. All the name headliners aside, the proliferation of so many younger artists gave the festival a truly fresh and dynamic face.

Acting as the ringmaster and host throughout the weekend was the artistic director Christian McBride, whose curatorial touch and catholic tastes were all over the festival’s program. The influence of festival director Jay Sweet, best known for his reinvention of the Newport Folk Festival, was also significant and deserves mention. For his part, McBride managed to get in a few performances of his own, including a set with the Moodswing Reunion Quartet featuring Redman, Brad Mehldau and Brian Blade, as well as his Jawn Jam group with Ravi Coltrane, Bob James, Nate Smith and Celisse. Organist Larry Goldings presented a similar jazz jam vibe with his Scary Goldings project featuring John Scofield, Jack Conte, Tal Wilkenfeld and Ted Poor. Further representing the jam band genre (remember that scene?) were Soulive, The Big Gigantic and Joe Russo’s Almost Dead project.

Perhaps the greatest testament to the rich diversity in the programming was the audience itself. Not only did two of the three days sell out for the first time in memory, but the attendees included a healthy number of folks from multiple generations, a demographic not normally seen at the Newport Jazz Festival, or just about any jazz festival for that matter. The festival returns in 2024 on August 2-4.

Enjoy photos from the festival by WBGO contributors Jonathan Chimene and Mark Sheldon in the gallery above.

(WBGO’s Lee Mergner contributed to this report.)

Long time music lover and WBGO listener, Jonathan proudly joined the WBGO team in Mid 2018.  He is a former collegiate and tournament tennis player – with international experience both as a player and a coach. Jonathan is a published photographer, who enjoys checking out jazz clubs and festivals throughout the world, and is a life-long, die-hard New York Mets fan. Raised in Central NJ but  after a long stint in Chicago, he has resided in Brooklyn for the past two decades.
Mark Sheldon is an Indianapolis based freelance photographer, specializing in music and life-style photography. Mark is a regular contributor to DownBeat magazine and Living Blues magazine and his work has been featured in dozens of publications including The NY Times, The Wall Street Journal, Jazz Times, The Seattle Times, Newsweek, Rolling Stone, Time Out Chicago, Time Out New York, Keyboard magazine, Double Bassist/ Strad magazine (London), Guitar Player, Indianapolis Monthly and others.