10 artists making their Newport Jazz Festival debuts

Take a look at the top of the 2023 Newport Jazz Festival poster and you’ll see some familiar names. Diana Krall, Jon Batiste, Thundercat and Kamasi Washington are all jazz superstars. Then there are the octogenarian living legends: Herbie Hancock, Charles Lloyd and Charles McPherson will all be bringing their bands, while Bob James will be part of Christian McBride’s Jam Jawn. And it’s no surprise that Samara Joy and the duo of DOMi & JD Beck are getting invited back after both were nominees for Best New Artist at the most recent Grammys, a category Joy won.

But there will be plenty of new faces making their Newport debuts as well. Some have played the fest before as side people but are now stepping out on their own, while others are making their first-ever trek to Fort Adams State Park during the festival’s run Aug. 4-6.

Lakecia Benjamin

Any question that the jazz patriarchy has been permanently smashed was answered by “Phoenix,” the urgent and powerful LP that alto saxophonist, vocalist and composer Lakecia Benjamin put out earlier this year. Produced by Boston’s own Terri Lyne Carrington, the compositions highlight the galaxy of female jazz greats that appear as guests — as do activist Angela Davis and poet Sonia Sanchez. Aug. 4

Durand Jones

Before jazz purists scoff at the heavy dose of R&B that’s presented at Newport Jazz in recent years, it’s worth keeping in mind that decades ago the likes of Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and James Brown all played the festival. These days Newport tends to showcase edgy indie R&B like 2023 artists Cautious Clay and Durand Jones. Jones first came to attention fronting the Indications, which started as a somewhat retro outfit reviving the slow soul ballads of the 1970s. Jones has recently released his first solo album, “Wait Til I Get Over.” This significant artistic leap forward is a heavily orchestrated meditation on growing up queer and Black in rural Louisiana. Aug. 4

Endea Owens and the Cookout

Endea Owens’ debut album “Feel Good Music” isn’t even being released until Sept. 1, but the Juilliard-trained bassist has already made her mark. She’s been a member of “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” house band led by Jon Batiste, done an NPR Tiny Desk concert, and had a composition about Ida B. Wells performed at both Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall. The Cookout isn’t just the name of her hard-swinging sextet. It’s also a nonprofit she leads that’s served meals and live music to those in need. Aug. 4

Julius Rodriguez

At only 24, keyboardist Julius Rodriguez is often named as one of the most exciting young jazz talents to break out in recent years. Rodriguez can play jazz as well as anyone when he wants to. He can also branch out into electronic, pop and hip-hop with ease and authenticity — often in the same song! When asked to categorize his 2022 major label debut “Let Sound Tell All,” Rodriguez simply called it “the music.” Aug. 4

James Brandon Lewis

For fans of avant-garde jazz, this should be one of the most anticipated sets of the weekend. The fiery saxophonist James Brandon Lewis certainly draws on the great free and spiritual jazz traditions, but he also has enough classical and rock influences that his latest power trio album, “Eye of I,” features cellist Chris Hoffman instead of a bassist — and was the rare jazz record released on the rock and roots label ANTI-. Aug. 5

Keyon Harrold

Trumpeter Keyon Harrold has managed to successfully maintain careers as both a highly respected jazz musician and a first-call sideman for hip-hop stars like Jay-Z and Snoop Dogg. He’s played Newport in the bands of DJ Logic and Mos Def but is making his debut as a leader. In 2020 Harrold, a native of Ferguson, Missouri, wound up in the news when his teenage son was racially profiled and attacked in a New York hotel by a woman who claimed the boy had stolen her phone. Harrold has a new album due out soon that he’s hinted will address both the political and the personal. Aug. 5

The Soul Rebels featuring Rakim & Talib Kweli

This set will be the perfect celebration of the 50th anniversary of hip-hop. New Orleans’ fierce brass band The Soul Rebels played Newport last year. Now they’re returning with two of the greatest MCs of all time: the pioneer of lyrical craftsmanship Rakim, and the beacon of consciousness Talib Kweli. Aug. 6


Another Newport Jazz tradition is the presentation of Afro-Cuban sounds. That used to mean traditional Cuban jazz and salsa stars like Mongo Santamaría and Celia Cruz. Now the new sounds emerging from the island are being represented by the charismatic singer Cimafunk and his large funky band, which is apt to start a dance party wherever they go. Aug. 6

Melvis Santa

Here’s another case of an artist emerging as a leader. Cuban singer, pianist and percussionist Melvis Santa appeared at Newport in 2018 as part of the all-female Jane Bunnett and Maqueque. She’s also appeared in concert halls and at NPR’s Tiny Desk with saxophonist Kenny Garrett. She’ll be doing double duty at Newport, appearing as part of Christian McBride’s Jam Jawn on Saturday before returning on Sunday with her spiritually-driven group that explores the Afro-Cuban Yoruba tradition. Aug. 5 & 6

Scary Goldings featuring John Scofield

There’s a lot of funky jazz this year at Newport thanks to the likes of Thundercat and the hard-touring Butcher Brown. One of the tightest sets is bound to be from Scary Goldings. The who and the what are slightly complicated: There’s Scary Pockets, keyboardist Jack Conte and guitarist Ryan Lerman, who like Cory Wong, use YouTube to air their popular sessions with a rotating cast of musicians. When they join master organist Larry Goldings they’re known as Scary Goldings. That group also rotates its guests, which on this occasion will be legendary guitarist John Scofield, who also guests on their straightforwardly titled upcoming LP “Scary Goldings LIVE! Ft. John Scofield.” If you can’t keep all of that straight, just show up and get in the groove. Aug. 6

Bonus pick: Charles McPherson

There’s no question that Charles McPherson has played Newport before But I can’t find any evidence that the alto master has ever led his own band at the festival, and festival artistic director Christian McBride Either way, the 84-year-old hard bop icon, a longtime Californian who appears far too infrequently in these parts, is still at the height of his artistic powers, most recently recording a series of suites that he composed for the San Diego ballet. And he’ll have a tremendous band with him: trumpeter Terell Stafford, bassist David Wong, pianist Jeb Patton and bassist Billy Drummond. Aug. 6

Tickets for Aug. 4 and a waiting list for the sold-out Aug. 5 and Aug. 6 days of the festival are available at NewportJazz.org.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the show Endea Owens plays for. We regret the error.

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