from Jacksonville Jazz Festival:
Is the Jacksonville Jazz Festival still a best kept secret? Judging from the amount of people I met who had traveled to attend this year's festival word is getting out. The Jacksonville Jazz Festival offers a star-heavy lineup that covers all facets of jazz in a comfortable, casual setting with a daily ticket price that is less than the cost of a medium take-out pizza. Produced by the city of Jacksonville, the festival features three days of music in three different venues: Metropolitan Park- a riverside amphitheater, and The Florida Theater and The Ritz - two beautiful refurbished historic theaters. This year a daily $10 ticket covered admission to all three stages as well as shuttle service between them.
This festival is one of the city's major events. It started in 1980 as a one-day concert featuring regional talent and a major headliner. The producers expected a few hundred people to show up. Instead the crowd swelled to several thousand. Since then it has evolved into a weekend event with major acts on thee different stages. Over the years every almost every big name in the jazz world has played here. During the early years it was a free event but with production costs rising there is a nominal admission charge. What does this get you? It gets you the chance to wish you could clone yourself and be three places at once. This years lineup included Al Jarreau and George Benson, Jazz Attack, Steve Cole, Chris Botti, Lao Tizer, and Karrin Allyson at the park, Guitars and Saxes, Chuck Mangione, and Roy Haynes at the Ritz, and Greg Adams, Dianne Reeves, Dianne Schuur, Regina Carter, McCoy Tyner Trio, and the original Superstars of Jazz Fusion (Roy Ayers, Jean Carne, Wayne Henderson, Ronnnie Laws and Lonnie Liston Smith) at the Florida Theatre. There was no way to see everyone you wanted to see but there was no way to be disappointed with whatever choices you made either.
Some years the erratic Florida weather doesn't co-operate. The recent trend has been heavy rain during even numbered years. This was an odd numbered year and it was beautiful and sleeveless shirt warm for the Friday evening concert at Metropolitan Park. People were starting to wander in and settle in for the evening when Lao Tizer started his set. Nobody at my table had ever heard him. I told them they would want all his CDs by the end of his set and they did. Tizer is one of the new generation of instrumentalists who can't really be categorized. It's a mixture of pop-rock, world beat, and contemporary jazz with some jam band sensibility thrown in. Tizer is a powerful player who can shift effortlessly from power chords and funky riffs to lyrical ballads. Guitarist Jeff Kollman has the look and presence of a rocker and delighted the crowd with some scorching solos. The set was full of guitar and drum solos, percussion jams, and hook-heavy songs that had the crowd on their feet. The piano/acoustic guitar setting of “Ella's First Light” was particularly beautiful. “Diversify” was wonderful with its Metheney-ish melody and vocalese, “Olivia's Adobe,” ventured into Flamenco territory, and they morphed into a fusion band with wailing sax and guitar effects on “West Side Highway” and “Uptown.” With all the talk about smooth jazz artists who can bridge the generation gap and bring a younger vibe to the genre Lao Tizer and his band – Jeff Kollman (Guitar), Steve Nieves (Sax), Christopher Maloney (Bass), and Drew Megna (Drums) - should be mentioned more often as one of the acts that is on the front lines of this movement.
George Benson made his JaxJazzFest debut 20 years ago in 1987 and has returned several times. We didn't get Al Jarreau here until 2000 but this is his third time back since then. Benson's sets tend to be extremely polished greatest hits shows; Jarreau is more adventurous with both his song selection and his interaction with the audience. Together, and touring to support their chart topping Givin' It Up CD, they seen to meet somewhere toward Benson's side of the middle. The show was hit-driven and as polished as it comes. They breezed through a collection of audience favorites starting together with the new version of “Breezin.” Jarreau's solo segment opened with his version of “Your Song” which he has been doing towards the beginning of his concerts for years and comes across as an invitation to the audience to get close and connect. Then he did the hits, “We're in This Love Together,' the always impressive “Take Five,” and “Mornin' which has shifted over time from a cutesy pop song into a spiritual experience. Benson returned for the jazzy “Tutu” and delivered the kind of solo that reminds us that he may have a string of pop hits but he is truly a jazz musician. He had several of those, notably in “Moodys Mood For Love” and when he tossed out those fluid octaves in “This Masquerade.” Somewhere between “Love Song” and the sizzlingly raucous version of “On Broadway,” I wrote, “this band is tight!!!” in big letters on a notepad. They were! With perfect timing the post-game fireworks started at the baseball field across the street. This performance didn't hit the level of crazed rowdiness that was there at Jarreau's 2004 Festival appearance, but that was a rare experience in itself. This was artistry and professionalism, and a chance to see two musicians who have managed to defy the industry and keep their careers going well into their sixth decades on the planet.
This was my first torn-between of the weekend too. Guitars and Saxes - Jeff Golub, Gerald Albright, Kirk Whalum and Tim Bowman, with the great Ricky Lawson on drums - was doing a 10:30 pm set at the Ritz. Hopping from one favorite (Jarreau) to another (Golub) was not an easy trick to pull off since it involved a drive through the heart of downtown Jacksonville where there is a stoplight on every corner... By the time I got to the theater there were no seats left and the overflow crowd was milling about in the lobby trying to hear the concert through the auditorium doors. It seemed like more people had traveled to see these guys than any of the other acts. I met people from New York, Chicago, somewhere in Maine, Washington DC, Kansas City, and lots of folks from Atlanta while I wandered the lobby trying to get close enough to the door to hear. Fire Marshall rules trump media credentials every time so I stood at the door until someone left and I got to go in and take their seat on the back row. The intimacy of the small theatre was fun, especially when they sat on stools and did an acoustic set, chatting with each other about the songs as they went along. It was fun to hear them talking about out-of-format songs. Whalum started singing John Mayer's “Waiting for the World to Change” which segued into Albright's version of “Why, Georgia?” I missed Golub and Whalum's sets but got to hear Tim Bowman, who was excellent, and Gerald Albright, one of the most expressive sax players out there. He can send the crowd into rapture with just one perfectly played note then multiply that into a song and a set. I haven't ever seen Kirk Whalum in concert and I was surprised at what a sense of humor he had! They were all loose and conversational but he's the one that got the laughs. And this was at 1 am! Sad that I missed Golub. He'll just have to come back.
They let us sleep in on Saturday. Greg Adams' set at the Florida Theatre didn't start until 2pm. The midday sun was pushing the temperature into the 90s, which drove a lot of people into the beautiful and air conditioned theater. The ones who hadn't seen Adams before were in for a treat! When it comes to live performances (and CDs for that matter), Adams is one of the biggest sleepers in the smooth jazz universe. Fans who saw him at our summer concert series said he was the best one they had seen in a lineup of luminaries who have come through over the years. The whole band's musicianship and stage presence are impeccable and the set list is perfect. He played several tracks from his latest release, Cool To The Touch, and of course the crowd-pleasing showstopper “Smooth Operator,” which has evolved into a vehicle for some extended jamming. Two originals that have a similar vibe - “Burma road” and “One Night In Rio” - were the highlights for me. “Burma Road” starts out chilled and trancey and just keeps gaining momentum as it builds into a jazz-rock showcase with James Wirrick's Santana flavored guitar work upfront. Johnny Sandoval's percussion jam and Joey Navarro's spicy keyboard work heated up “One Night In Rio.” “Moon over Palmilla” brought out the brass you’d expect from this Tower of Power alum and they shifted beautifully into the haunting acoustic ballad “When The Party's Over.” Don't miss a chance to see Greg Adams live. He and his band will take you there!
Back at the park Steve Cole had been booked as a last minute replacement for Wayman Tisdale, who has taken a hiatus and is battling cancer (our prayers are with him). In a weekend of show-stealing performances and new discoveries for an audience that is largely not familiar with smooth jazz, Cole was probably the biggest surprise. He tore it up with Richard Elliot level energy and to tell the truth I was having so much fun I forgot to take notes. I do remember the haunting and passionate “Letter To Laura,' some really fun guitar and sax tradeoffs during the danceable “Bounce,” and pretty thrilling guitar work during “Spin.”
It started raining toward the end of Cole's set, which actually worked in our favor because it forced the people in the front stage area to abandon their tables and drag their chairs under the shelter of the roof that hangs over the stage and created more of a party vibe. Already warmed up by Cole's set, the crowd energy was going and we were ready to rock when Jazz Attack hit the stage. They were on it that night too! Jazz Attack is Richard Elliot, Peter White, Rick Braun, and Jonathan Butler with Ron Reinhardt on keyboards, drummer Rayford Griffin, Stan Sargent on bass, and guitarist Dwight Sills. There's a lot of chemistry at work with this group of musicians. You can tell they genuinely enjoy playing and hanging out with each other. They share the stage throughout the show rather than doing separate sets and a finale. With this lineup every song is a highlight but the song that took everyone's breath away was Butler's acoustic “No Woman No Cry.” At an event that focuses on bands and combos on an evening when it was all about big and loud this was a reminder of how powerful one voice, one song, and one instrument can be. I love Richard Elliot when he's over the top. So does the rest of the crowd. He and Braun pushed each other up a whole other series of notches on a dueling horns break during “Cool,” Butler added the vocal at the end of “When A Man Loves A Woman,” “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” got everyone on their feet and “Notorious” was, as always, breathtaking.
Sunday started out rainy and cold. The clouds blew away but the wind stayed in full force. Choosing between Dianne Reeves and Karrin Allyson was tough. I faced the wind for Allyson because I had seen Reeves do a stunning long, intimate set a few years ago. Allyson comes by less often. She is one of those artists that makes me wish there were more ways for adults to discover new music. Don't let the “jazz” thing scare you. She's a jazz musician but she's also a singer/writer/pianist/interpreter of the highest order. Anyone who grew up listening to smart, literate singer-songwriters would fall in love with her. She has a clear, emotive voice with a touch of a rasp. She can bop and scat or just quietly let the song speak. Her loose, engaging stage presence and sense of humor served her well as the wind blew audibly into the mic and tossed a few items on the stage around. She just had fun with it and didn't miss a beat. Her hushed version of Jim Webb's “The Moon's A Harsh Mistress” brought goose bumps and her arrangement of Joni's “All I Want” brought cheers of recognition. Her latest CD, Footprints, is a set of traditional jazz songs with new lyrics that combines the best of both the singer/songwriter and jazz genres. The music swings and twists and turns while the lyrics are relatable in a contemporary sense. “Follow the Footprints,” the fun “Life is a Groove (Jordu)” and “The Turnaround” had people heading for the merchandise booth the minute her set was over.
OK. I'll come clean. I've never been a big Chris Botti fan. I'm just more of a booty-shaker than a romantic. That being said there is no denying his artistry. His tone and subtlety come from a tradition that goes through Chet Baker and Miles. The looks and stage presence make it accessible. This time around he managed to bring the booty-shakin factor in without messing with the romantic. He let Billy Kilson (drums) and Mark Whitfield (guitar) have their way with every song. Playing under and over their powerful accompaniment and sometimes stepping aside and just letting them go off. The set was book-ended by Botti standards, “When I Fall In Love” and “The Look Of Love.” In between he spent a long time standing in the crowd which got him away from the on stage wind tunnel effect, and held the crowd in awe. He played Miles Davis' “Flamenco Sketches,” and a hushed and haunting “Cinema Paradisio” with just a piano accompaniment while people surrounded him and took photos. He even managed to make a warhorse like “My Funny Valentine” sound fresh. “Indian Summer” morphed from a chilled out radio song to a Corea-ish fusion throw-down that had Kilson and Whitfield trading frenetic licks. It was a supercharged way to wrap up the weekend, a strong performance from a genre star.
Since the Rippingtons and Bela Fleck and the Flecktones came out of nowhere and stole the show as early-day acts in 1991, naming the show-stealer has been a hobby for local jazz fans and festival aficionados. The show stealer is an act that people talk about for weeks after. The one they may not have heard much about before, or just weren't expecting to be as blown away as they were. This year there was a bounty of acts that fit that profile. Lao Tizer, Greg Adams, Karrin Allyson, Steve Cole, and Tim Bowman have generated the most water-cooler buzz in the weeks following the festival. The people who saw Dianne Reeves loved her and Roy Ayers and Co. got props from the old school gang. Since this festival is a heritage community event as much as a jazz event it draws a lot of people who attend for the atmosphere but aren't familiar with a lot of the performers. It's fun to watch them discover new musicians and become fans. They'll go home and listen to their new CDs. Hopefully they will share them with friends and go online to find more like what they have. The City of Jacksonville is definitely in the community service business when they stage this festival. Music is more than entertainment. It's inspirational, educational, inspiring, and even healing. This is the most fan-friendly, casual, fun way to hear jazz music that anyone could hope for and as I walked to the parking lot I heard groups of people already making plans to come back next year.
A gratitude list: While I was waiting for the gates to open so I could grab a front row seat on Friday night I met some wonderful new friends who formed the nucleus of the cool little crowd that took over a table for the weekend and shared music, conversation, stealth cameras, and much food and drink. Many thanks to Matt & Sara, Bill & Joan, Robin and her hubby, and the rest of the gang who all helped this Type-A girl remember that “working media” can have fun too! ...And to Christina Langston of the City of Jacksonville Office of Special Events, for help and support above and beyond the call. See y'all, and everyone reading this, next year!
- Shannon West