NEWPORT — The first day of the Newport Jazz Festival brought a mix of pop culture hits from the likes of Corinne Bailey Rae and the boisterous Thundercat.
Here are four highlights from the first day of the three-day festival at Fort Adams:
Sun Ra Arkestra
Avant-garde jazz collective Sun Ra Arkestra has been active since the early 1950s. This summer’s opening act on the festival’s main Fort Stage, SRA boasted a staggering 13 members, including 95-year-old multi-instrumentalist Marshall Allen, the group’s de facto leader since Sun Ra’s death in 1993.
As longtime fans have come to expect, all the best elements from the self-described “tone-scientists” were in full swing: the signature Afro-futuristic attire, and free-wheeling jazz stylings on sax, bass, keyboards and vocals. A classic performance from the legends themselves.
L.A. native Thundercat defies categorization. His jazz is psychedelic, chaotic and boisterous. In fact, more than a few festival-goers covered their ears while passing by the front of the Fort Stage as the thumping bass began less than a minute into his set.
Though it may be tricky to follow the rhythm or make sense of exactly what you’re hearing, the pacing feels deliberate and the sounds are infectious. It’s not difficult to imagine why his performance was one of the most anticipated of the day. From his look (pink dreads, stylish red shorts with a mismatched pink-and-white striped top) to his musical style (instruments/production are emphasized over his voice), Thundercat is very much an artist of the current cultural moment, pushing the boundaries of jazz forward.
Corinne Bailey Rae
“This is beautiful, Newport!” Rae remarked toward the end of her performance. “It’s the perfect day for my next song” — you guessed it, the pivotal “Put Your Records On,” which launched the singer-songwriter into the public consciousness back in 2006. Rae’s light, airy voice floated over highlights from her 15-year career, including “Trouble Sleeping,” which Rae used to get the crowd clapping and singing along. She even graced the crowd with her cover of Bob Marley’s “Is this Love?”
Women of the World
Festival Artistic Director Christian McBride declared this four-piece group was “going to put something on you you’ve never experienced before.” He wasn’t wrong. Ayumi Ueda (Japan), Giorgia Renosto (Italy), Annette Philip (India) and Deborah Pierre (U.S./Haiti) harmonize beautifully, for sure, but some of the sounds they create together are wonderfully disharmonious — who caught the gibberish-sounding cacophony of the third song in their performance? Possibly some commentary on language, culture and womanhood (and where all three intersect) is being made through their sonics.
Imagine each speaking to the others in her native tongue, except all at once, and very fast, and very loud, and each trying to relay some message. As Pierre promised early in their set, the women took jazz fest-goers on a trip around the world, exploring sounds from each woman’s home and many other homes, including Bulgaria and South Africa. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, these “storytellers through song” stood powerful and engaging before the crowd. An impressive Newport Jazz Festival debut.