Sunday’s finale to the Newport Jazz Festival resurrected the old question “Is it jazz?” – even though one might pose a similar query about the prior weekend’s Newport Folk Festival (which leans to indie-rock), or the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, which has long featured contemporary rock and pop acts.
The bottom line: when both the musicians and fans are moving and grooving like they were on a sunny, breezy afternoon at Rhode Island’s Fort Adams State Park, the jazz police need not apply. Even without rising R&B/soul goddess Andra Day (who reported ill to cancel the night before), the Sunday slate was awash in hip-hop, Afro-Caribbean beats, electronics and classic rock as well as jazz tradition.
As headliners, the Roots brought the hip-hop with brazen bombast that doesn’t exactly fit late-night TV with Jimmy Fallon, stretching out and stomping about the stage, injecting rock snippets like an early “Shake Your Money Maker.” It helps to have live instrumentalists who inject sousaphone as well as electric texturing.
Christian McBride with George Wein
Earlier, the Roots’ Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson also manned the drum kit to team with the festival’s creative director Christian McBride on electric bass and jazz/classical master Uri Caine on keyboards for the debut of the Philadelphia Experiment, which proved as interesting for Thompson and McBride’s tales of high school together as for their long, freewheeling funk-fusion grooves.
Jason Moran and Fats Waller Dance Party
Maria Schneider Orchestra
Similarly, like Vijay Iyer (who played the fest’s other days), pianist Jason Moran doesn’t let genre arguments limit him — and unleashed his entertainment-savvy Fats Waller Dance Party. Moran periodically donned a head mask of stride legend Waller, while largely ceding the spotlight to a horn section and especially robust singer Lisa Harris. They kept rhythm flowing, from Waller standards “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’” to the Latin undertow of “Jingo,” best known for its Santana version. And crowd-pleasing grooves continued with the African flavor of Bokante, an ensemble including Snarky Puppy leader Michael League on guitar, Caribbean-born singer Malika Tirolien and Roosevelt Collier on pedal steel.
Sure, there were more traditional jazz touches, from pianist Cyrus Chestnut’s trio to impressive trumpet upstart Theo Croker (whose band played two stages under a reshuffle to fill time for Andra Day’s absence) to the large-band arrangements of Maria Schneider, who debuted “Sanzen-in” – a quietly impressionistic nod to a Japanese temple — with her orchestra during a gorgeous noon-hour set.
But you could also move indoors to see Living Colour’s Vernon Reid augment his guitar fire with electronics in a Fort Adams museum space redecorated with posters and dubbed Storyville, after the 1950s Boston jazz club run by Newport impresario George Wein, who still rode around the park in a golf cart at age 91. And even French singer Cyrille Aimee, who charmed with her mix of gypsy jazz and vocalese, dismissed her band to layer her voice with an electronic looper.
Jack DeJohnette with Hudson
For its part, Hudson – an all-star fusion outfit with drummer Jack DeJohnette, guitarist John Scofield, keyboardist John Medeski and bassist Larry Grenadier – slid into rock standards mode with Jimi Hendrix’s “Castles Made of Sand” (with DeJohnette intoning the lyrics ) and Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” where Scofield covered vocal parts with crying guitar sustains instead. The group, which largely fed off the traded interplay between past bandmates Scofield and Medeski, hits Berklee on Oct. 8.
The absence of Day’s musical personality left a void in Sunday’s lineup, but there was more than enough to keep “jazz” fans busy at the historic festival – and this was only the last of three days at the Fort.