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2013 Atlanta Jazz Festival

Alexander Brown
Staff Writer / @relaxandaspire

About midway into Me'Shell NdegéOcello’s set on the first day of the Atlanta Jazz Festival weekend, an older gentleman near me audibly complained “Where’s the funk?” Immediately after he started bobbing his head, and tapping his hand on his chair as Me'Shell launched into the cover of Nina Simone’s “See Line Woman.” The festival played out much in this same way throughout, with people coming from all over Atlanta expecting jazz music that ended with Miles’ Blue period and getting the music they didn’t even know they wanted to hear.

For anyone who was in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park, attempting to span the length of the concert acts they got a distinct show with every performer. Like any music festival, the only defining characteristic linking the performers was the fact they were all there. The breadth of the jazz genre moniker is at times over-encompassing, seemingly trapping any performer who tests the limits of the music they made a career on.

There’s a bit of this “moving beyond” in the latest wave of indie hip-hop acts, who almost seem to have stumbled into Gil Scott-Heron’s footsteps. José James acted as a bridge of sorts during his set to close out the night. Despite mentioning several times that he was signed to Blue Note Records and a jazz singer, his frontman persona was effortlessly hip-hop in it’s showmanship. Watching James you’d forget he was playing a jazz show, until he let his band (which included the likes of trumpeter Takuya Kuroda, drummer Nate Smith, keyboardist and 2011 Thelonious Monk Competition winner Kris Bowers, and others) improv and solo, that is.

Even artists of similar band make-ups and instrumentation couldn’t be said to really follow one another in terms of style. Alexandra Jackson performed a traditional jazz vocal set, if your definition of traditional goes back to the 1940s, with a flirtatious ease. Compare her with Gretchen Parlato, whose band (bassist Chris Morrissey, pianist Taylor Eigsti, drummer [and husband] Mark Guiliana) looks to have stepped straight out of a beer bar and gastropub, is tantamount to agreeing that vinegar and oil are liquids.

Parlato’s set was much like the music presents on her cool, pretty, and a bit understated. For a festival atmosphere it seem inappropriate to include a band who, on it’s surface, would better fit in at Bonnaroo and its legion of yearly folk acts. But the crowd was no less massive nor responsive to Parlato than anyone else that weekend.

If there were any clear indication of what kept this festival of motley performers together it had to be the fun and sincerity every act conveyed. Aruán Ortiz grinned almost madly throughout his performance. It worked as a nice contrast to his spacy, at times disconcerting improv session with his band (all selections from his latest record Orbiting.) He wasn’t the only one. Every performer gave off a shimmer of fun, even given the fact many made the trek from jazz Mecca, New York City, to jazz Jakarta, Atlanta, Ga.

Dominick Farinacci, probably typifies the fun-loving performer best of all for the weekend. His set was accessible to all, well-played, and thoroughly enjoyable. His jokes in-between songs were conry enough to be served up in many of the food tents around Piedmont Park that weekend. But his earnestness and his love of playing to a crowd showed through, making every bit of his set his own. As much as he notes that listening to Louis Armstrong inspired his youthful horn pursuits, I would be amazed to find no child who wouldn’t say the same after Farinacci’s performance that Monday evening.

There’s an interesting incongruity there. Jazz as a whole, as it was typified in this year’s Atlanta Jazz Festival, is both complex and accessible in a way most musical genres cannot compare. While most American music is clearly divided between what is “good” and what is “popular” (both terms undergoing huge reassessment in the internet age), for jazz music there is not significant breakdown. There’s little chance Robert Glasper is going to start a public beef with Harry Connick, Jr.

It’s in that same weird space that Tia Fuller closed out the second night. As far as popular culture is concerned Fuller is best known as a member of Beyonce’s all-female backing band, Suga Mama. But in the realm of jazz music, Fuller is an accomplished musician, bandleader, and educator. All three of those aspects were on display that night, from the raucously enjoyable final sound check, to the point where the festival was closed for the night.

Fuller, as a Spelman graduate, and Alexandra Jackson, the daughter of lauded former mayor and instigator of the Atlanta Jazz Festival, Maynard Jackson, cemented the weekend as a place for family. Indeed, it feels as if the Atlanta Jazz Festival is the one weekend a year that the mostly black residents of southwest Atlanta remember there’s a Central Park-like green space in the city, with the myriad of family, greek, or club tents pitched all around.

Family functions usually serve to be boring and predictable in our current cultural need to not upset children for any reason. It would not have been hard to believe in a municipally-sponsored festival would keep acts grounded in acts echoing my grandparents era, just to keep things "safe". This music festival prides itself on showcasing innovation while seemingly unconcerned with keeping things age-appropriate. Maybe it’s how hard the organizers work, or the conscientiousness of the performers. Or maybe jazz, as a mature musical form, is less concerned with rigid notions of appropriate or tradition and, like the performers displayed that weekend, is most about breaking boundaries and being good at it.

Alexander Brown is a freelance writer. More of his work is available at his blog, Relax and Aspire.