“We’re trying to go futuristic and retro at the same time,” explained saxophonist and bandleader Rudresh Mahanthappa on the first day of the 2018 Newport Jazz Festival. Mahanthappa was talking about how Agrima, the most recent release by his Indo-Pak Coalition—alongside who he was performing fluid, delicate, tabla-driven grooves at the festival’s Quad Stage—was only available for purchase as an mp3 or vinyl LP. But the ethos of finding a harmonious relationship between old and new has rarely felt more relevant to jazz as a genre, where artists are making the music’s rich history a vital part of their work instead of either sanctifying it as impossible to match or rejecting it on principle.
As one of the oldest music festivals in the country, Newport is a particularly important venue for this ongoing debate of how a music so studiously dedicated to innovation and exploration can reckon with the weighty achievements of its past. Pop acts old (George Clinton and Parliament/Funkadelic, Living Colour) and new (Andra Day) were joined by longtime marquee jazz acts including Pat Metheny and Charles Lloyd, who performed all three days of the festival with different ensembles to celebrate turning 80 years old earlier this year. Even through torrential rains on Saturday, the jam-packed lineup drew crowds of all ages and backgrounds; festival founder George Wein, 92, was as omnipresent as ever.
During a talk by writer Nate Chinen about the 1960 documentary Jazz On A Summer’s Day, which helped bring Newport to the national stage, Wein once again drew on the theme of marrying the old and the new. “At the time,” he told the audience of the film, “it meant a lot to the future of Newport, and now it means a lot for its past.”
In the spirit of the festival’s status as a destination for those looking for fresh takes on the jazz tradition, Billboard selected the best new versions of old songs performed at the 2018 Newport Jazz Festival.
The Marquis Hill Blacktet, “Maiden Voyage” (1965)
It’s only fitting that a tune made famous by Herbie Hancock begin with an extended piano solo, and during trumpet player Marquis Hill’s Friday afternoon set, pianist Michael King delivered with a five-minute long introduction that showcased his acrobatic, lush playing—the audience was enthralled, yet he never seemed to be chasing musical fireworks for effect. Once the band came in, the performance felt old school not because of the song choice, but because of the ensemble’s bombast and energy—the composition was a vehicle for the group, rather than the other way around.
Roy Hargrove, “You’re My Everything” (1931)
Hargrove, one of jazz’s recent luminaries, performed a standard that was memorably performed by one of his heroes, Miles Davis, beneath drizzle early on Saturday. Nattily dressed with flugelhorn in hand, Hargrove could have easily been time traveling; but his sensibilities in performing the lush ballad were as modern as ever. 25 years after he entered the scene, Hargroves phrasing evokes that jazz Holy Grail—sounding classic and fresh at once.
Joshua Redman, Ron Miles, Scott Colley and Brian Blade, “Guinea” (1979)
This all-star ensemble recently came together for the new release Still Dreaming, a tribute to the 1970s group Old And New Dreams, which included Redman’s father, Dewey Redman. The resulting performance was perfect jazz bro fodder, as evidenced by the whoops of approval after a slew of burning solos on the opening numbers. On “Guinea,” they dug into the song’s deep groove, seamlessly deconstructing it and then put back together again, with funk interludes that sounded as intentional as the melancholy cadenzas. Miles played an impossibly polished, melodic and still gutsy solo, while Blade brought his usual virtuosic joy to the drum set.
Jon Batiste, “Round Midnight” (1944)
Surrounded by a band of schoolchildren who had been accompanying him, Jon Batiste performed a thoughtful yet still awe-inspiring solo rendition of the Thelonious Monk classic. Afterwards, he explained why Monk’s music was so important to him. When he was 17 and had just arrived at Juilliard, he was working hard to try to articulate the kind of sound he ultimately wanted. One night at a jam session at Cleopatra’s Needle on the Upper West Side, he heard someone playing the exact music he’d been searching for. Batiste asked the pianist what he’d been playing, and he said that the tune was “Evidence,” by Thelonious Monk. “Who’s Thelonious Monk?” was, according to Batiste, his reply. Listening to Monk’s band, he was struck. “Man, this cat 50 years ago figured out the vibe I’m trying to get to right now, but way better,” he said, laughing. “Music is a continuum, everything’s already been played,” Batiste concluded. “But your perspective on what’s already been played is important.”
Jazzmeia Horn, “Have You Met Miss Jones” (1937)
Horn, without a doubt among the jazz world’s most exciting young vocalists, could not fit in better at Newport: her sound is explosive and bright and rich, catnip for audiences looking for boldness that’s still traditional. She showcased her unreal vocal dexterity on the classic “Have You Met Miss Jones,” insisting upon pushing the song to its limit instead of being content with the kind of prettiness she could almost certainly perform in her sleep: there was extensive scatting as she explored all corners of her range, trading fours with the drummer and building up to the grand finale with a bass/voice duet.
James Carter Organ Trio, “Melodie Au Crepuscule” (1943)
There is little expected about a soul jazz rework of a Django Reinhardt song, but for saxophonist James Carter, that’s a moot point: why not perform his classic songs with a Hammond B-3, and in the case of “Melodie Au Crepuscule,” with the groove from Bill Withers’ “Use Me” as a foundation? There are no rules, after all, and giving Reinhardt a revival flair as Carter solos with crowd-pleasing grit and gumption feels much more in the spirit of the gypsy jazz hero than a faithful recreation. Carter’s virtuosity makes a little irreverence even more appealing.
Artemis, “If It’s Magic” (1976)
The seven-piece, all-woman super-group performed songs from the Beatles to Wayne Shorter—but it was their duo take on the Stevie Wonder classic, which itself has jazz ties thanks to original harpist Dorothy Ashby, that proved irresistible. Cecile McLorin Salvant, accompanied by Renee Rosnes, performed the song simply and beautifully, creating a perfect pairing with the inimitable Fort Adams park vista.
Laurie Anderson and Christian McBride, “The Birds” (414 B.C.)
“I’ve been thinking a lot about Aristophanes lately,” said legendary avant-gardist Laurie Anderson as the sun came out for the first time on Saturday. Then she began to tell the too-timely story of how two men tried to convince birds to build a wall between the gods in heaven and the humans on earth; as she recounted the story with characteristic flair, Christian McBride—the festival’s current artistic director—accompanied her on his upright bass, as did cellist Rubin Kodheli. The result was dramatic and organic and a little absurd, yet totally engaging—the kind of improvisation that, at its core, jazz is all about.