No matter the era, idiom or genre, jazz singers have always been the most popular and accessible practitioners of the music. From Louis Armstrong’s down-home, gravely vocals and Nat King Cole’s satin sounds, to Sarah Vaughan’s Afro-operatic airs, Billie Holiday’s dark-and-lovely depths, Ella Fitzgerald’s swing-at-the-speed-of-bop phrasing and Frank Sinatra’s dynamic delivery, it is the vocalist who emulates the instrumentalist, while the instrumentalist emulates the vocalist. For six decades, the Newport Jazz Festival® has showcased the best and brightest singers. This year is no exception as Norah Jones, Gregory Porter, Angélique Kidjo, Tierney Sutton, Lizz Wright and José James step up to the microphone and extend, elaborate and redefine the stylistic definitions of what a jazz singer is supposed to be.
Norah Jones – Saturday, July 30 (She also performs at the Newport Folk Festival, Saturday, July 23)
Unlimited and free easily describe the music and artistry of 37-year-old vocalist/pianist/composer Norah Jones. She’s been at the epicenter of jazz, country, folk pop and hip-hop ever since she appeared on the scene in 2002 with her Blue Note debut Come Away with Me, which featured her first hit, “Don’t Know Why,” and garnered her three Grammy awards for Best New Artist, Best Pop Vocal Album and Album of the Year. All totaled, her subsequent releases from 2004 to 2012: Feel’s Like Home, Not Too Late, The Fall, and Little Broken Hearts have sold 56 million units, and have also yielded hits including “Sunrise,” “Creepin’ In” “Thinking About You,” “Chasing Pirates” “Young Blood,” “Happy Pills” and “Miriam.” Blessed with a whispery, light contralto voice – sonically seasoned by her Texas upbringing, Jones has collaborated with an impressive assemblage of musicians including Dolly Parton, the alt-band The Willies, saxophonist Charles Lloyd, the rap duo, Outkast, Ray Charles, and keyboardist Robert Glasper. The daughter of an American woman and the legendary sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar, encompassing seemingly disparate musics into one body, comes second nature to her. So it should be no surprise that she would be performing at both the Newport Folk and Jazz Festivals – a feat that only an impresario like George Wein can do justice to.
“Norah Jones is one of America’s great singers of songs,” Wein said. “The scope of her artistry is so broad that it’s possible for her to appear at both the Newport Folk Festival and Newport Jazz Festival, while still feeling comfortable that she will reach her audience and fans at these two historic cultural events. We are proud to have her with us.”
Gregory Porter – Friday, July 29 and Saturday, July 30
Standing over six feet tall, Gregory Porter, 44, has carried the weight of the jazz world on his broad shoulders with the same grit and grace of his tough-and-tender tenor voice, every since he burst on the scene with his 2010 Motema CD, Water, and its 2012 follow-up, Be Good. On those early recordings, the Bakersfield, California-raised, preacher’s kid’s manly and moving message-in-the music songs swoon and croon in the same frequency of Bill Withers’ soulful sincerity, Curtis Mayfield’s Chi-town grooves, and Oscar Brown’s down-home, up-south urbanity. But, it was his million-selling, Blue Note debut Liquid Spirit that netted him the 2014 Grammy award for Best Jazz Vocal Album and was the most streamed jazz album of all time, with 20 million digital streams. When Porter steps to the Newport stage with pianist Chip Crawford, drummer Emanuel Harrold, bassist Jahmal Nichols, and saxophonist Tivon Pennicott, he’ll be performing selections from his 2016 CD, Take Me to the Alley, featuring the clap-your-hands cadences of “Holding On,” the organ-propelled groove of “Don’t Lose Your Steam” and the give-unto-others vibe of the title track.
Produced by Porter’s San Diego State alum, Kamau Kenyatta, with special guest, R&B singers KEM and Lalah Hathaway, the music retains the swing and songs about love and social commentary of Porter’s previous recordings and adds a more dance-oriented, popular mix. “I take my cue from Herbie Hancock,” Porter said in DownBeat magazine. “That audience that hears [the remixes], some of them are going to come to your thing … it’s an extension of what I’m doing. It’s not the meat. My live shows are still jazz shows, guaranteed.”
Angélique Kidjo – Sunday, July 31
The Benin-born, Paris-based singer Angélique Kidjo heard music of the Black diaspora and made it her own. No stranger to the Newport stage, Kidjo, an electrifying performer, is fluent in French, jazz vocalese, her country’s traditional zilin vocal techniques, and Fon/Yoruba language. She easily puts the Motherland in funk, Latin, jazz, gospel, Caribbean zouk, Congolese rumba, and Afropop grooves. She’s covered everything from Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” George Gershwin’s “Summertime,” and James Brown’s “Cold Sweat,” penned some Afropop classics like “Batonga,” “Agolo,” and the infectious “Aye,” and has released over 30 albums from WeWe in 1991, to her 2015 release, Sings, with the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg.
As she writes in her 2014 memoir, Spirit Rising: My Life, My Music, “When Amazing Grace came out [Aretha Franklin, 1972], it was the first time I saw a Black woman on an album cover… Just seeing an American singer wearing an African dress had a huge impact on me. She’s looking right at the camera, giving a soft smile, and her eyes, they are so serene. Everything about the photo – the stairs leading up to the open door, her open arms – suggests pathways and possibilities.”
Tierney Sutton – Friday, July 29
The Nebraska-born, California-raised vocalist/producer Tierney Sutton, 52, led her ensemble, The Tierney Sutton Band (TSB) for two decades. Their recordings include American Road, Desire, and On the Other Side, which explore themes of Americana, materialism, and the pursuit of happiness. On Blue in Green and Dancing in the Dark, she explores the artistry of Bill Evans and Frank Sinatra. But in 2013, Sutton released her most profound recording to date, After Blue on the BFM Jazz label: a reimagining of the music of Joni Mitchell. Her sidemen include flautist Hubert Laws, vocalist Al Jarreau, drummer Peter Erskine, keyboardist Larry Goldings and the Turtle Island String Quartet – along with guitarist Serge Merlaudand cellist Mark Sumner, both of whom will join Sutton on the Newport stage. Sutton’s breathy, folksy vocals elegantly lace the textured and classically-tinged renderings of Mitchell’s compositions, from, “Blue,” the guitar-centric “All I Want,” and the Chopinesque take on “Woodstock,” to the organ-funk of “Cool” and the intimate vocal/cello read of “Both Sides Now.”
“I have to say I had 30 years worth of trepidations, that’s how long people were suggesting Joni’s material to me and it took all that time to finally decide I loved the music and felt I had something to say with it,” Sutton told London Jazz News, “but I have to say that all projects are fine if you fall in love with the music, which I did.”
Lizz Wright – Sunday, July 31
If only Gregory Porter were booked on the festival on Sunday, the audience might be treated to a reprise of the duet with the Georgia-born chanteuse Lizz Wright. It doesn’t work out that way this year, but check out the two songbirds on the beautiful and moving, waltzy ballad, “Right Where You Are,” from Wright’s 2015 Concord CD, Freedom and Surrender. Produced by Joni Mitchell’s ex-husband and bassist Larry Klein, the album features some of Wright’s original material like “Freedom” and “Lean In” and a soul-shimmering rendition of Nick Drake’s “River Man.” When she graces the Newport stage, Wright, with her band Chris Rosser, Kenny Banks, Nicholas D’Amato and Brannen Temple, you’ll hear the red-clay resonance of her blessedly assured alto voice. Like Porter, she’s a preacher’s kid – so much so that her parent’s forbade her to listen to pop music, which she didn’t hear until college. Making up for lost time, she quickly absorbed all of those forbidden genres, while never abandoning her church roots. Those roots run deep on her CDs subsequent to Freedom and Surrender: Salt, The Orchard, Dreaming Wide Awake and Fellowship all released on the Verve label, from 2003 to 2010.
“I think musically and personally, I stand right in the middle of America,” she said in DownBeat magazine. “I know there are pieces of country, folk, jazz, gospel and soul music and blues in what I do. But, these styles don’t feel separate to me. They look like a collage of people in my life who taught me, loved, protected and influenced me.”
José James – Sunday, July 31
Back by popular demand for the second consecutive year, the 38-year-old, Minneapolis-born vocalist José James was obviously influenced by Billie Holiday’s achingly beautiful artistry, even though he is from the hip-hop generation. A finalist at the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition in 2004, James moved to New York, studied at the New School under jazz piano master Junior Mance, and eventually recorded his CDs The Dreamer, Blackmagic and For All We Know, on the Bronswood and Impulse! labels from 2008 to 2010. A cool and compelling mix of Johnny Hartman’s bone-deep sound and Gil Scott-Heron’s towering timbre, James dropped some serious neo-soul, quiet storm tracks including the haunting, hypnotic “Code” and “Park Bench People.” He signed with Blue Note in 2013 and released, No Beginning, No End, a further definition of his hybrid, jazz-centric sound. James finally paid tribute to Holiday in commemoration of her 100th birthday last year with his third release for the label, Yesterday I Had the Blues: The Music of Billie Holiday, his most straight-ahead recording, featuring bassist John Patitucci, pianist Jason Moran and drummer Eric Harland. James adds his sepia-toned, sonic signature to Holiday’s classics, including “Good Morning Heartache,” a boppish “What A Little Moonlight Can Do,” and spectral take on Holiday’s lynching opus, “Strange Fruit.”
“People focus on her voice, and all of the very recognizable vocal things that she does, which are great,” James said on Revivemusic.com. “I also tried to focus on songs that she wrote, songs that she had a hand in shaping, like “Strange Fruit;” songs that were written for her or songs that she wrote herself, like “Fine and Mellow” or “God Bless the Child.”
When James graces the Newport stage this time with pianist Takeshi Obayashi, bassist Solomon Dorsey and drummer Nate Smith, it will be a fine and mellow affair, indeed.
The 2016 Newport Jazz Festival takes place July 29-31 at Fort Adams State Park and the International Tennis Hall of Fame at the Newport Casino. Artists also include Chick Corea Trilogy with Christian McBride and Brian Blade, Kamasi Washington, John Scofield/Joe Lovano Quartet; Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society; Charles Lloyd New Quartet; Robert Glasper Experiment; Django Festival All Stars; Kenny Barron Trio; Toshiko Akiyoshi; Steve Coleman and Five Elements; Galactic, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah; Kneebody, The Hot Sardines, Anat Cohen and many others.