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Atlanta Jazz Fest Weekend 2014

Alexander Brown
Staff Writer / @relaxandaspire

Atlanta’s Jazz Festival, held on the Memorial Day weekend, is quite like the culture of jazz music itself: a huge melange that only mixes in this specific context. The festival is equal parts city-wide picnic, stoner recreation nights, food-truck free-for-all, and of course, celebration of the many different styles of jazz. It’s hard to pick just one aspect of the weekend to focus on with all the different goings on, which is appropriate given much of the talk around jazz includes much of the same difficulty.

There’s the aspect of how the weekend as a whole and the artists are taken fully for granted during the free festival. But you cannot really blame the public at large for just showing up to a free festival that’s got a huge play area sponsored by Cartoon Network next to the main stage. But anyone who was close to the stages, and they were multitudes, were enraptured.

Roy Hargrove who, along with his quintet, headlined the opening night looked like he was having the most fun of anyone in attendance. He didn’t talk once except at the end of the set, thanking everyone and introducing the band. He was, however, fond of cheerfully laughing throughout, giving off the impression that the band playing together was an intimate affair and we were all voyeurs with great seats and audio as they barreled through their set list. Atlanta sat back watched the cool kids in their own little world. This was most evident as the band played themselves off the stage, one-by-one, after their encore.

In stark contrast was the set by Somi, who drew most of her material from her upcoming album The Lagos Music Salon. Drawing upon her experiences crafting the album in Lagos, Nigeria, she explained where in her heart each song took place. it was equal parts confession and tutorial on the country we now most identify with stolen schoolgirl and African Islamist terrorism. Throughout the set Somi lost herself to her band’s playing, often dancing about and encouraging audience members to do the same.

Somi - "Last Song", off the upcoming 'The Lagos Music Salon'

Then there was new kid on the block-- Ester Rada and her Magnificent Seven. Rada waited out the first number as her band played showing off their skill without their bandleader and frontman. This is the band that felt almost out of place; playing a rollicking funk-and-soul oriented jazz throughout, you’d expect to see this band more at home with the more hippyish likes of Bonnaroo. But like Somi’s set earlier that day Rada had the crowd up and moving.

Ester Rada - the title track off her 'Life Happens' EP

Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, who headlined the second night, probably gave the most memorable performance of the festival, for more than just the incredible performance of himself and his young and talented band. At one point Scott stopped the performance midway to make certain his wife, Isadora was properly mic’d. And upon learning they’d have to shut down their set quicker than they thought, ostensibly due to civic rules, Scott introduced the story behind their last song of the night "K.K.P.D." off Yesterday You Said Tomorrow.

Fittingly, the festivities all closed out with the legend Ahmad Jamal, whose music blended all the disparate parts of what was seen during the weekend. In all the songs Jamal’s band was moving, funky, personal, crowd-pleasing, easy to enjoy, and difficult to ignore. At least it was all those things until one of Atlanta’s vaunted flash rainstorm cleared out most of the crowd mid-way through the set.

But throughout all of the rain and the yelps of those looking to protect their hair, Jamal and his band played on, not caring about the shrinking audience.

Much the same can be said about jazz as a whole. Though the audience shifts and diminishes with through different eras, the music itself keeps going and growing. Jazz as an art form supports a wide range of sounds and a huge array of artists all around the world. And as long as someone is playing there will be someone else to listen, even if they have to brave the elements in order to do so.

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