Sunday, May 28, 2017

Trolling for Jazz at the 40Th Annual Atlanta Jazz Festival

Legends Stage 
This year’s Atlanta Jazz Festival marks the fortieth year of one of the largest free jazz festivals in the country. With strong corporate and community support the festival is a celebration of music, a drawing together of neighborhoods near and far and a kick off to the summer season here in Atlanta. To celebrate this milestone, the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs commissioned a book of pictures, photographs taken from the Festival’s forty-year history, that best captures the spirit of this tremendous yearly spectacular. The coffee table book features the work of photographers Jim Alexander, Ernest Gregory, Susan Ross, Michael Reese and Julie Yarborough and can be purchased by linking here.

So far, the weather has cooperated and the festival seems to be enjoying record crowds. I was able to  attend part of Friday night’s session. The evening started out with the Pedrito Martinez Group at 7:30 pm on the main stage which by all accounts had the house rocking. I got there in time to catch the genre bending Robert Glasper Experiment which was the headliner on the Main or Legends Stage at 9 pm.

Robert Glasper
Glasper is a contemporary pianist and keyboard artist who often plays in a modern trio format as well as his more progressive, electronic group The Experiment. He recently won the Grammy for his work on the soundtrack to Don Cheadle’s Miles Davis movie Miles Ahead as well as for his fifth studio album from 2012 Black Radio. His work is an amalgam of R & B, Hip/Hop, Groove based music with jazz oriented improvisations.

Glasper came onto the Legends stage in high spirits. It appeared as if he was feeling no pain, amusingly rapping with the audience before he even got started about how they should show their appreciation for him and his group, whether or not they were any good, because the concert was free. This version of the Experience featured Glasper on keyboards, Casey Benjamin on saxophone and vocoder, Mike Severson on guitar, Burniss Travis on electric bass and Justin Tyson on drums. The band started with “Cherish the Day” a Sade tune from his Black Radio album and proceeded with a set of mostly groove based tunes that had the crowd vibing.  Mr. Benjamin has an arresting voice with a high range that he processes along with his saxophone through a vocoder. The eerie sound can be compelling but is best used sparingly. Guitarist Severson whose credits include work with singer/rapper Bilal, showed some gutsy  rock playing that at times recalled Carlos Santana’s guitar work.  Glasper was most effective when he played solo, a dedication of sorts to Miles Davis whose birthday was the day before, on the Cyndi Lauper pop tune that Davis memorialized into the jazz canon “Time After Time.” The crowd sang willingly along and glassy eyed Glasper seemed to have them all in the palm of his hand.

Randy Weston

On Saturday I made my way to the Legends Stage and caught the first few songs of the maestro Randy Weston and the infectious sounds of his African Rhythms Quintet. Mr. Weston, an incredibly vital ninety-one-year old, brought together a stellar group of musicians on the big stage. Joining Mr. Weston was his core group of T.K. Blue on alto saxophone, Alex Blake on contrabass and Neil Clarke on percussion. The tenor saxophone legend Billy Harper, a longtime collaborator also played on this gig. To watch Mr. Weston bounce his feet while playing his piano with such exuberance is a real treat. Harper’s tone is so focused, mellow and penetrating as to be its own reward. The group just played beautifully swinging and deeply soulful music.

I made my way across the throngs of people, past the rows of tents, the spread blankets, the myriad of camper chairs, the parade of porta-potties and countless concession stands to the Contemporary stage in anxious anticipation of Nicholas Payton’s performance scheduled for 5:30pm. The lawn that faces the bandstand was brimming with people for yards and yards. It was a beautiful day and the crowd was into a party. At forty-three, New Orlean’s born trumpeter Nicholas Payton is a force to be reckoned with. He has made his bones touring with such legends like Elvin Jones and Marcus Roberts. He received a Grammy for “Best Instrumental Solo” for his work on the album Doc Cheatham & Nicholas Payton from 1997. While his work is always evolving, his distinctive, rich trumpet is always at his ready command. He is a prolific writer and social commentator who has challenged conventional thinking on racial inequities. 
The Crowds swelled  at the Contemporary Stage
For this concert, Payton brought his group from his recently released Afro-Caribbean Mix Tape album, and sat behind a stack of keyboards, his trumpet was mounted to his right on a bracket that allowed him to both blow and play keys simultaneously. Turntable artist DJ Lady Fingaz deftly maneuvered the scratches and taped vocals into the flow of the music. Bronx bopper Daniel Sadownick laid down the Afro-Cuban groove on percussion, with Joe Dyson on drums and Vincent Archer on bass. Payton’s grooves skillfully integrate musical influences developed from world influenced beats, harmonies and melodic roots. At the same time his signature clarion trumpet utilizes a variety of notes, slurs and trills that complement the music brilliantly. It was especially interesting to listen and watch as the rhythmic patterns developed by Fingaz’s turntable melded so seamlessly with Sadownick’s congas and Dyson’s rhythmic patterns.

Nicholas Payton
I hurried over to the New Gen stage, quite a trek at the far end of the park, to catch the Marquis Hill “Blacktet” which started at 6:30 pm. Marquis Hill was new to me, but he and his group of young pumped up musicians, thrilled the smaller more intimate crowd at this venue. The twenty-nine-year old Hill is from Chicago and won the prestigious Thelonious Monk Trumpet Competition in 2014. He is considered one of the new wave of players to be reckoned with. The group did a set of tight, well-conceived music, mostly standards, but rearranged by Hill and company to better express their modern sensibilities. With Hill on trumpet and, was the formidable Mike King on Fender Rhodes, Josh Johnson on alto sax, an animated Jeremiah Hunt on bass and Jonathan Pinson on drums. I caught a few songs the most recognizable was a potent version of the Herbie Hancock standard “Maiden Voyage.” Hill claims Donald Byrd as a major influence and one can see some similarities, but the young man has a fluid style that is rapidly becoming his own. It was interesting to see Nicholas Payton checking out the younger Hill from the sidelines.

Marquis Hill,  Jeremiah Hunt and Josh Jackson on the Next Gen Stage
I made my way back to the Contemporary stage to catch a few songs of one of the evenings headliners Macy Gray and take some pictures. Ms. Gray has a distinctive, gravelly voice that can be very engaging. As a seasoned entertainer, she played to the large overflowing audience with aplomb.  She wore a slick, dark gray leather gown with a red and black boa and pink shoes. I surveyed the lawn in front of the stage and it was more overflowing then I had ever seen in in the last two years of being here. A very impressive showing for an artist whose appeal is more pop than jazz. The band was tight and professional and Ms. Gray accommodated the crowd with some of her popular favorites like “I Try.”

Macy Gray

I moved my way to the Legends stage to try to catch some of Rene Marie’s act. Ms. Marie looked elegant in her tightly clipped silver gray hair, wearing a white tunic over black pants. Ms. Marie, a talented singer who writes much of her own music, finally achieved some national recognition when her last album Sound of Red was one of those nominated for Best Jazz Vocal Album for 2016. She brought a stellar cast of musicians with her on the Legends stage including pianist John Chin, bassist Elias Bailey and drummer Quintin Baxter. Inspired performances by the energetic pianist Chin and a masterfully bowed solo by Bailey added to the set.

Rene Marie, Quintin Baxter,ELias Bailey and John Chin on the Legends Stage
Ms. Marie has a beautiful voice with a full range and a sophisticated delivery that is quite compelling. Her bluesy, soulful sound is always a treat and she was warmly received by the enormous crowd.
The evening’s top bill on the Legends Stage was saxophone and flute legend Charles Lloyd who started just before nine pm. The seventy-nine-year old Mr. Lloyd was nattily attired in his signature pork pie hat, blue deck shoes and a white loosely fit blazer under a horizontally stripped deck pullover shirt. Mr.  Lloyd is a west coast musician who has a long and storied history of going his own way. In the sixties, he was musical director for drummer Chico Hamilton’s Group and was with Cannonball Adderley’s Group for Two years.  In 1965, he formed a legendary quartet with pianist Keith Jarrett, bassist Cecil Mc Bee and drummer Jack De Johnette, whose recording Forest Flower was one of the first crossover jazz albums to sell over a million copies. His experiments with fusing psychedelic rock, avant-garde and free jazz were revolutionary.

Charles Lloyd
The always morphing Lloyd still attracts top talent as his most recent rhythm section demonstrates. On the stage, he was joined by the facile Reuben Rogers on upright bass and the ubiquitous Eric Harland on drums. Rogers was in top form as he pushed the pulse along with Harland’s dancing traps. Mr. Lloyd rocked the music, his spindly figure wielding his large tenor as if it was one with his being. Lloyd has a youthful energy that he communicates through his horn and the two younger musicians were visibly prodded on by his enthusiasm. On one tune, Mr. Lloyd picked up his flute and started to play a soulful peppered vamp that Mr.  Rogers countered to with his own staccato response. It was quite entertaining to watch the younger musicians follow the lead of the master.

As the evening wore on the crowd started to dissipate, as many were there from mid-afternoon. For the truly fanatic, there was a sold-out Jazz Jam, hosted by local drummer “Little John” Robert’s and his All-Star Band and featuring trumpet master Russell Gunn and percussionist Mino Cinelu, after eleven pm at the Park Tavern at Piedmont Park.

If you missed the events of the last two days you still have Sunday when the lineup will include local  saxophonist  Frank Houston, trumpeter Darren English, chanteuse Kemba Cofield, Cleveland Jones, singer Julie Dexter, Joe Gransden’s Big Band, trumpeter Russell Gunn and saxophonist Kebbi Williams and the venerable crooner Freddy Cole to name just a few. 

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