From Mwenso & The Shakes to Matana Roberts, Five Buzzworthy Acts at the Newport Jazz Fest

Jul 29, 2019

The Newport Jazz Festival is upon us, and with it comes a rash of tough decisions.

With four stages running all weekend, the fest has a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure quality — at least, it does for those intrepid enough to accept the challenge.

This year’s lineup has more than its share of sure bets; you don’t need us to tell you that Herbie Hancock is worth hearing, and you probably already have opinions about Dee Dee Bridgewater, Terence Blanchard and Cécile McLorin Salvant.

So in this Newport Jazz Festival edition of Take Five, we decided to spotlight the undercard. Here are five acts you may or may not know about, all of which have new music to share. They’re worth flagging on your itinerary, even if it feels a bit like a gamble. (Just be forewarned: the line forms early for virtually any show at Storyville, the only indoor stage.)

Have fun out there! If you happen to see me — at the WBGO hospitality tent, or dashing from one stage to another — be sure to say hello.

Mwenso & The Shakes — Friday, 11:10 a.m.-12:10 p.m., Quad Stage

Not many bands in the orbit of jazz today can begin to approach the crowd-pleasing threshold of Mwenso & The Shakes. Led by Michael Mwenso, a radiant extrovert with a fidgety attention span, it has been a fixture of the late-night hang at Dizzys Club and elsewhere. Now comes an overdue first album, Emergence, releasing on Ropeadope the same day as this Newport debut.

“Big Spender,” which has its premiere here, captures the exultant, digressive mania of the band’s live show. Mwenso plays ringmaster and funkateer, Vuyo Sotashe sings up a storm, and the other musicians onstage — especially tenor saxophonist Ruben Fox and guitarist Gabe Schnider — keep the energy shifting and roiling.

Tom Oren — Friday, 2:40-3:30 p.m., Storyille

Last year, Tom Oren won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition — a considerable honor for a pianist still in his third semester at the Berklee College of Music. Oren, who hails originally from Tel Aviv, Israel, was known to astute listeners mainly for his affiliation with saxophonist Eli Degibri. Now, it’s safe to say, Oren is poised to break out — notably with this Newport Jazz Festival debut.

Oren hasn’t released an album yet, but here is fresh footage of his senior recital at Berklee, where he double-majored in performance and film scoring. The hourlong set opens with “Here’s My Blues,” an original that nods in the direction of Horace Silver, and continues with a suite called “Will I Ever Be Back Again?”

Jenny Scheinman & Allison Miller’s Parlour Game Saturday, 1:35-2:35 p.m., Harbor Stage

Parlour Game is a smartly rugged new band led by two musicians of boundless perspective, violinist Jenny Schienman and drummer Allison Miller. It’s also the title of an album due out on the Royal Potato Family label on Friday, just before this hit. 

“Fake Weather” is the third single from the album, featuring a 12-tone bass vamp and a relaxed yet tensile melody. It’s a good illustration of the sneaky charisma this band, So the band, which also features pianist Carmen Staaf and bassist Tony Scherr, knows how to deploy.

Brian Marsella — Saturday, 2:45-3:35 p.m., Storyville

Brian Marsella is an improvising pianist of exploratory ken: he appears on the recent Tzadik album Winged Serpents: 6 Encomiums for Cecil Taylor, and has toured widely as a member of Cyro Baptista’s Beat the Donkey. Last year Marsella released Outspoken: The Music of The Legendary Hasaan — an album of radical jazz repertory, with a firm tether to his hometown of Philadelphia. Its inspiration is the Philly-area pianist Hasaan Ibn Ali, who achieved local notoriety, even cult heroism, but released just one tantalizing album (The Max Roach Trio Featuring the Legendary Hasaan).

Along with Marsella and drummer Anwar Marshall, the album features bassist Christian McBride — a native Philadelphian who happens to be artistic director of the Newport Jazz Festival (and yes, the host of Jazz Night in America). The rubbery cohesion on this version of “Almost Like Me” says all that you need to know about Marsella’s fondness for this music; he’s performing a solo set at Newport, and with any luck, he’ll play some Hasaan.

Matana Roberts — Sunday, 3:45-4:35 p.m., Storyville

Brace yourself: Matana Roberts has a new installment of Coin Coin on the near horizon. Roberts, an alto saxophonist, composer and conceptualist, has released three previous albums as a part of this project, which weaves African-American history, ethnography, spirituality and folklore together in a rough-hewn tapestry. Coin Coin Chapter Four: Memphis, which will be released on Constellation Records this fall, moves the focus to an impossibly rich locale, the cradle of so much blues, soul and rock ‘n’ roll history, and the birthplace of jazz legends like Booker Little, George Coleman and Charles Lloyd.

This edited medley of pieces from the album — “Raise Yourself Up” / “Backbone Once More” / “How Bright They Shine” — gives some sense of its sonic dimension. There’s some cathartic vocalizing, over an Albert Ayler-esque free march; there’s some soulful riffing, à la Rahsaan Roland Kirk. And there’s no small amount of exhortation, which one imagines Roberts is directing both at herself and her listeners. “Live life / Out loud,” she chants, “Life live / Stay proud.”

To learn more about Matana Roberts, visit her website.

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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.