Jon Batiste wows the crowd at Newport Jazz Festival
With a little help from his friends
The opening concert of the 65th Newport Jazz Festival, held Friday, Aug. 2 at the International Tennis Hall of Fame of the Newport Casino, celebrated the vibrant past, present and future of jazz.
Jon Batiste, widely known as music director of “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” hosted the two-hour show, entitled “Jon Batiste and Friends,” and performed with his four guests.
Under a twilight sky reminiscent of a summer evening in Venice, with the turrets of the historic Newport Casino rooftop and sliver of moon visible beyond the stage, Batiste opened the show with a riveting solo of the national anthem. His version injected echoes of African American musical history, from the gravitas of blues chords and craggy bop passages to second-line rhythmic ripples from his own hometown and the birthplace of jazz, New Orleans.
Attired in a black satin suit, Batiste wove threads of jazz history and autobiography into a tasty gumbo of flavors and styles, drawing from the bounty shared by jazz performers and listeners: a long memory of its rich, abiding songbook as well as a taste for the new.
Batiste demonstrated his own credentials as a masterful player with his initial solo, and then proceeded to present his four guests. Each performed a set with an introductory solo followed by collaborative pieces with Batiste and his ensemble — bassist Philip Kuehn and drummer Joe Saylor from Batiste’s own band, Stay Human, as well as percussionist Negah Santos, trumpeter Giveton Gelin and Patrick Bartley on alto sax.
Like Batiste, his guests were category-crossing, versatile and highly accomplished jazz performers. Ethan Iverson, ELEW (aka Eric Lewis), and PJ Morton are pianists, and their sets included piano duos with Batiste. Two-time Grammy-winning vocalist Corrine Bailey Rae led the concluding set.
Throughout the evening, the musicians wove in improvised quotes and renditions of classics by artists as varied as Duke Ellington, Stevie Wonder, Dr. John, Fats Domino and Art Neville, who died just three weeks ago. Riffs of such standards as “Take the A Train” and “I’m Beginning to See the Light” invited listeners, too, to celebrate their lives in jazz by conjuring the familiar within the new.
Speaking of his high school years in New Orleans, where his school offered instruction in jazz as part of its music curriculum, Batiste, 32, recalled being introduced to Dizzy Gillespie by seeing the iconic trumpeter’s 1964 presidential campaign button. It displays the motto “Dizzy for President” with the musician grinning and holding a balloon. “I saw this button and thought, ‘I like this guy,’” said Batiste. “Years later I heard his music, which is very complex, joyous and uplifting.”
The same could be said about much of the music performed by Batiste and his friends in Newport as they mingled threads of soul, country and R&B into improvisations that extended from the past to the future of jazz.
The first guest to perform was Iverson, a pianist, composer and New England Conservatory faculty member. In 2017, Iverson, 46, ended his long career as a founding member of the avant-garde trio The Bad Plus, known for adventurous reconstructions of pop and rock hits. His recent projects include creating scores for the Mark Morris Dance Group, including its Beatles-inspired suite “Pepperland,” and co-curating a major centennial of Thelonious Monk at Duke University. Introducing his first piece, a piano solo of his composition “Showdown,” he said it was inspired by the moment in which two opponents size each other up, “a profound human experience.” At first rich in baroque classical overtones, his spellbinding rendering evolved into spare phrasing and a bop-inflected close. Later, accompanying Rae on the piano in the finale, Iverson provided deft and unassuming backup.
Next came ELEW, a fellow traveler in the merging of pop and rock with strong jazz elements. A member of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, ELEW, 46, is a pianist and a jazz entrepreneur. A decade after such formidable judges as Geri Allen, Cedar Walton and Randy Weston chose him as winner of the 1998 Thelonious Monk International Institute of Jazz Piano Competition, he renamed himself, and with his Ninjazz label forged a path with mass appeal while retaining his jazz chops. Here, outfitted in a sequin jacket, he showed his vigorously physical playing style, hunching over the keyboard while on his feet. This stance suited his duo with Batiste, which unfolded like a tennis match as they tossed lines and phrases at one another with increasing intensity.
A mellow presence in his knit cap and barbeque-ready casual attire, New Orleans-born PJ Morton immediately heralded his heritage, sitting at the piano to deliver the Fats Domino classic, “Blueberry Hill,” a straightforward homage with the original’s thread of country music intact. The 38-year-old keyboardist, singer, songwriter and record producer is an innovator. He let loose with playful, spirited piano improvisation, with quotes from “Fly Me to the Moon,” and later, with Rae singing, Stevie Wonder’s “If It’s Magic.”
Rae, elegant in a flowing orange dress, concluded the show with a sampling of ballads. All the musicians joined her for the finale, with Morton singing alongside her, Batiste playing a hand-held synthesizer with an accordion-like sound, and Iverson and ELEW on pianos.
Celebrating the power of jazz to create harmony amid diversity, the finale also offered a lesson beyond music. Concluding the evening as he began it, Batiste evoked the state of the nation and chanted a repeated refrain: “As long as you keep your head to the sky, we can win.”