Berklee Acts Were Everywhere at Newport Jazz

John Mirisola
August 6, 2019

Newport Folk Festival’s hip older sibling featured tons of Berklee alumni, students, and faculty.

Current student DOMi (Domitille Degalle) plays with drummer JD Beck.
Image by Michael Borgida

Less than a week after the Newport Folk Festival closed with a star-studded final set, the Newport Jazz Festival brought more music to Fort Adams State Park in Newport, Rhode Island. Now in its 65th year (five years the Folk Festival’s senior), the three-day concert drew marquee acts including Herbie Hancock, Thundercat, Corinne Bailey Rae, Kamasi Washingon, and Common. It also featured an impressive showing of Berklee-affiliated performers. We caught up with a few of these acts on the first day of the festival.

Berklee Global Jazz Institute Workshop at the Newport Jazz FestivalBerklee Global Jazz Institute Workshop

The festival kicked off with a series of performances by student ensembles from the Berklee Global Jazz Institute’s summer workshop, an intensive four-day workshop for teen musicians from around the globe. Students in this year’s workshop came to Newport from across the continental United States, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Chile, Finland, and Australia. The performances were the culmination of a week of hard work and camaraderie, and that air of celebration was palpable in the final group jam. 

“I hope it was a moment of inspiration,” said Marco Pignataro, managing director of the Berklee Global Jazz Institute, “to go back home and keep alive in their minds everything they’re doing.” But there’s more to the mission of the workshop than community and musicianship, says Pignataro. In keeping with BGJI’s broader mission, the summer workshop at the Newport Jazz Festival is about “preparing the students to see themselves as ambassadors, as leaders, people that through music can really start creating an impact on their surroundings."

Or, as Danilo Pérez, BGJI artistic director, called to the packed crowd just before the final number: “Can we change the world through music?” After the audience cheered, he went on, “It’s time to change the direction. Like Martin Luther King said, we have a dream. Let’s make it a reality, right here.”

DOMi and JD Beck

This was not music performance major Domi Degalle’s first Newport Jazz set. The keyboardist performed as a member of Jason Palmer’s ensemble back in 2017. This was, however, her first set coleading her duo with wunderkind drummer JD Beck. "Playing every time with JD Beck is like jamming in our living room,” said Degalle, who performs under the name DOMi, of their onstage dynamic. "I don’t have stress or extra pressure. I just open my ears and listen to him, and let’s go!”

Approaching the stage, listeners might be fooled by this looseness, or by the pair’s youth, played up by their matching overalls, but what the audience heard was something positively virtuosic. Whether performing their medley of J Dilla beats or a fascinating, cracked-open rendition of the Flintstones theme, DOMi’s dexterity—playing electric piano and bass lines simultaneously on separate keyboards—locked perfectly into Beck’s frenetic grooves, coming together in a sound like the jazzier, Hancock and Coltrane–tinged side of Flying Lotus, but with live drums. 

It’s perhaps no wonder, then, that their collaboration has already won the attention of Flying Lotus’s Brainfeeder Records, which is now slated to release their debut album, currently in production.

Tia Fuller

Last year, saxophonist Tia Fuller’s latest album, Diamond Cut, received a Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Instrumental Album. A professor in the Ensemble Department, Fuller has also toured and performed with Beyoncé and Terri Lyne Carrington. At last weekend’s festival, she gave a deeper insight into the underlying narrative that informed Diamond Cut.

Through spoken word interludes between each of her ensemble’s highly melodic and rhythmically compelling compositions, Fuller took the audience on “the journey of the diamond,” a metaphor for the African American experience from the generational trauma of slavery through to the modern day.

“The diamond is rising,” she intoned over the simmering drums of alumnus Mark Whitfield Jr. B.M. ’11. "In the midst of the rise, we endure an extreme amount of pressure and temperature… We rise. As a people, we rise. As a community, we rise. As humanity, we rise."

Tom Oren

Berklee student Tom Oren’s first Newport Jazz Festival set this year came on the heels of a 2018 Herbie Hancock Jazz Piano Competition win, and it was clear the Tel Aviv, Israel, native took great care in crafting his debut performance. He dedicated his program, a solo piano set of original compositions and jazz standards, to four educators: his mother, who was his first music teacher; two teachers from his music education in Israel; and Joanne Brackeen, a professor in Berklee’s Piano Department. “[Brackeen] is really one of a kind,” Oren said onstage. “I’ve gotten to learn so much from her about music and life.”

After his performance, Oren spoke about the personal significance of performing at the festival: “This meant so much to me from the beginning because of the history of the festival and all the live recordings at the festival I grew up listening to,” he said.

"You have to have a strong sense of the tradition of jazz in order to sound your own voice and see where you fit in it.”

—Tom Oren

He also reflected further on the task of finding his own authentic voice within jazz music: "Coming from Israel, and getting a chance to play this great American art form called jazz, I never take it for granted,” he said. "You have to have a strong sense of the tradition of jazz in order to sound your own voice and see where you fit in it.” 

Women of the World

It was a rare thing to see Christian McBride, artistic director of the Newport Jazz Festival, hop onstage to introduce an act. But he took it upon himself to prepare the crowd for the festival debut from the vocal ensemble Women of the World, led by Ayumi Ueda B.M. ’10, Giorgia Renosto ’09, Deborah Pierre ’13, and Annette Philip B.M. ’09, artistic director of the Berklee India Exchange. “They are going to put something on you like you’ve never experienced before,” said McBride, who also said he’s been “one of their biggest fans” ever since first hearing the group more than ten years ago.

The group did not disappoint. Presenting a series of lovely, adventurous arrangements of original compositions and songs from around the world—Botswana, Haiti, Italy, India, Argentina, and elsewhere—the group modeled a global sensibility that, like the BGJI Workshop performances earlier in the day, spoke to a broader message of harmony across social and cultural boundaries. Midway through the performance, Philip explained how this idea influenced their music. “We disagree a lot,” she said, “But one thing’s for sure: we work through it. And that’s the point, in the world. Peace is not the absence of conflict. Peace is working through conflict.”

Renosto also took a moment to reflect on her path from Berklee to that stage. She said that when she was a student and for years afterward, she had come to Newport “about nine times.” “I was always there,” she said, pointing out to the crowd, “and I always dreamt to be here. So it’s a deep honor, an immense honor to me."

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