Art of Cool Fest 2014 – The Rundown

Last weekend, the first ever Art of Cool Festival took Durham, North Carolina, by storm (in addition to an actual storm), marking a first ever event of this kind in the city as well as a combination of artists so perfectly suited that many who performed and attended are downright demanding this festival returns next year. In the meantime while we at AoC take some time to crunch the numbers, tinker with upcoming plans, and sleep at long last, here’s just an idea of some of the amazing sets last weekend held.

Thursday, April 24
Zoocrü – Reverbnation – Volunteer Party – 6pm
There’s something encouraging about seeing a young group with room to grow. Zoocrü, the quartet of North Carolina Central University students bassist Chris Sharp, saxophonist Alan Thompson, drummer Jonathan Curry, and guitarist Jared Wofford filled various roles throughout the festival playing alongside AoC co-founder Al Strong as well as with other groups, but their own combo is good fun to hear, though they still have some strides to make. Their youth has given them so much to pull from their repertoire, and their six-song set at this party for the festival volunteers was made up entirely of covers, half of which were Michael Jackson songs, but they still manage to do a lot with what they have. Saxophonist Thompson has a refined sense of soloing, either through a limited musical vocabulary or by the notion that this audience is paying partial attention. It’s reminiscent of Mike Phillips’ work without the associated stigma. In time, it’ll be exciting to see where these guys will go professionally as a group as they grow as musicians– individually and as a group. They do indeed sound good together and had the good sense to tackle Pharrell & Jay Z’s “Frontin'” in 7/4 and then shift to 6/8 in the bridge with great dexterity without sounding too music school-ish. In time, these young men will get themselves together to have an album and a manager and all the other things necessary to be musicians out in the world. Zoocrü is just about ready to make these steps, they certainly have the talent worthy of making such a move.

Friday, April 25
Butcher Brown – Hayti Heritage Center – 7:30pm
Once you’re done marvelling over their incredible funky sound, the next thing that must astound about Butcher Brown is their incredible output of material. Last year, this quartet released two beloved EPs and an album (all of which are available for free at their website), yet half their set at the Hayti was yet to be released work. Despite this, their performances of these new songs show just as much polish and seamless navigability as songs months older. The greatness of this band isn’t only in drummer Corey Fonville’s expansiveness, Devonne Harris’ Stevie-like feel on the keys in tandem with his limited but perfectly appropriate vocals (imagine all the commentary about Irish folkster Damien Rice except about a really soulful black dude), Keith Askey’s pure tone on the guitar, or Andrew Randazzo’s ability to hold things down on the bass along with a sense of whimsy (dude totally played “The Lick”), but in how they just never seem to stop. Just as there seems to be no shortage of compositions from these guys, their whole set hardly glanced at the idea of playing a ballad. The throttle was thrown forward and there it stayed for the hour. When trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah guested on “Country Boy” (yet another new song), it seemed almost impossible for the energy to build even higher, until it did. It would be clear that I would have an extremely overt bias talking about this set, but judging from the reaction of those catching this kickoff set at the Hayti on the festival’s first proper day, I’d like to think Durham learned a little something about believing the hype (and subsequently copping all they free music these guys have released shortly thereafter, it’s the kind of music you want around you all the time).

Rafiq Bhatia – Motorco – 9:00pm
Guitarist Rafiq Bhatia doesn’t just play his instrument, he showers the listener with notes. His melding of electric guitar with electronics creates a richer palette than his trio setup would imply. Tones spiral from his ax in dizzying arrays. This is of course accented by his mad decent bassist and drummer who not only play but seem to make definitive statements. These thumping beats are so solid and secure, they seem to carry the essence of punctuation. There’s nothing but periods and exclamation points in these parts.

However, Bhatia’s approach is shaped by his being young and influenced by everything musically. As he stood on stage looking dope af with his orange cap pivoted to the side totally shredding Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar songs, the slowly growing crowd was definitely feeling it. He has an eclectic taste that makes this set perfect for this varied festival, fitting in perfectly with the notion of stretch or fringe jazz. He’s definitely rocking out and this band is, too, but they’re still vibing with a jazz sensibility. It’s as though they’re playing Sufjan Stevens songs with Nels Cline (though the connection isn’t too far off since Bhatia currently plays with Son Lux and is on the new Sisyphus album alongside Son Lux & Stevens).

Russell Gunn & Electric Butterfly
Russell Gunn gets funky and he goes hard. Everything about his set had an intensity to it that was just beyond words. In fact, Gunn and his group, Electric Butterfly, flew through their set without saying a word to the crowd, informing us of their songs, or with any real banter whatsoever. All that mattered was the music and the groove.

Thundercat – Motorco – 11:45pm
What could arguably be considered the hottest ticket of the festival, Thundercat’s closing set at Motorco on Friday was the place to be in Durham late that Friday night. It was the final funnel point for everyone in attendance– fan, festival staffer, volunteer, and artist alike. Yet judging from the look of those who remained crowd by the end of the night, this felt moreso like a musician’s set.

Bassist Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner was joined by his Grammy-award winning brother Ronald Bruner, Jr., on drums and Dennis Hamm on keys. As incredibly talented as all these musicians are, especially with their individual predilections for being particularly freewheeling, it’s surprising how well everyone stays in his own lane. Hamm provides such a chill virtuosity, his casualness at the instrument is practically a comfort. To hear him play so well alongside the rambunctiousness of the Brothers Bruner is to know there’s a balance in the room that was very carefully tailored.

In Thundercat, there’s a constant warmth. It’s constantly evoked in his style of play– his wide smile when rapturously in the moment; his knowing head nods, not merely as cues but true enjoyment; in his feeding off the crowd so intently. It’s a warmth that’s a part of his very nature. When hanging with him, he encourages those around him to keep the playful, conversational ball in play. He’s a weirdo, no doubt; all great artists are. But he’s not crazy. He’s a fun guy, on and off stage, and he’s very much himself in all arenas. Seeing him joke around with his brother, Ronald (a true beast on the kit, but I’ll get to him later), and other musicians and fans, feels just like a natural extension of who he is.
Ronald Bruner is sure as shit no slouch himself. He was just as much a master of his domain on the drums Friday night as he was when I last saw him in San Antonio at the Carver with Stanley Clarke. He’s been at this professionally for at least a good fifteen years. He’s played with the late great Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, among many others who would ultimately make for too long a sentence, even for me (though I’m never one to shy away from footnotes and a decent Googling). He throttles forward in all he does. He keeps the energy high constantly on the set, he’s raucously jocular just hanging, he stays stuntin’.
Nevertheless, the energy stayed high at the Motorco throughout the night, even though the murmur was never quite killed. It is in this respect that one can say this was a set for the truly devoted, but it wasn’t that hard to catch the spirit. Jondy!

Saturday, April 26
Cody ChesnuTT – Diamond View Park – 5:00pm
ChesnuTT’s AoC Fest set was not that different from the set he played last month at Austin’s Clive Bar during SXSW, however the look of the crowd was distinctly different. The audience at Diamond View Park had many more families and many more black faces than the halfway jaded, small but concentrated crowd of media and scenesters of an Austin converted house bar on Rainey St. The atmosphere was more relaxed, the crowd more receptive, even the murmur seemed somewhat diminished for a crowd of families on a Saturday afternoon in the park. ChesnuTT’s band exuded the same professionalism and tightness that they do; however, in a festival so well curated with such fine musicians, this quintet’s professionalism is more par for a very nice course than their usual rising above the fray. Whereas one would call them incredible in any other context, here the hyperbole must go by the wayside– this band is quite credibly good. They’re great… just like so many others on this bill.

However, it was still quite clear why this group were the headliners of the free party at Diamond View Park– their rock & soul vibe had a high and tight sound like they learned everything they know from the great James Brown. ChesnuTT showed such joy and generosity here, clearly enjoying playing the festival and soaking in Durham throughout the whole rest his time there in various locales. He even set up a tent after his set to take pictures and sign autographs for every person who dropped by until the entire line was finished. It really was a perfect close for a perfect afternoon.

Carolina Soul Tribute – Carolina Theater – 9:00pm
Before a note was even played in the Carolina Theater, the crowd was already riled up for composer/viola player Miguel Atwood-Ferguson. His suite in tribute to the rich musical history of North Carolina commemorates the works of Nina Simone (represented by N’Dambi), Thelonious Monk (represented by Gerald Clayton in what is possibly the most logical decision one would make in the world), John Coltrane (represented by Marcus Strickland), and Roberta Flack (represented by Nnenna Freelon). The entire performance (which went on for quite some time and for which I was only able to catch about the first half) was truly an accomplishment– a rather large arrangement featuring some of the finest jazz musicians around. Among the highlights included a transcription of Coltrane’s “Resolution” performed by the entire ensemble note for note, the most beautiful performance I have ever heard of “Round Midnight” featuring Clayton on keys and Bilal on vocals, every drop of every note out of N’Dambi’s mouth, and getting to hear drummer Gene Coye truly unwind.

This show is by its very nature a tribute. It must retain so many of its original elements, adding only somewhat. It isn’t meant to be entirely new. It helps to remember this. Nevertheless, hearing a not too common Coltrane solo of “Peace on Earth” fleshed out to this ensemble is well worth the price of admission, especially when it’s Marcus Strickland taking the lead and remind us why he is a beast. This really was a can’t miss show where if the recordings of the evening do resurface, you must cop.

Christian Scott Sextet – Motorco – 11:50pm
Suffice it to say, it’s impossible for me to be objective at all when writing about this show. Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah has been a friend of Nextbop’s since the very beginning of the site back in 2009. His visage graces the only T-shirt our site has ever made and it’s currently discontinued. In every possible way, Scott has been supportive of what it is we do. Meeting with him finally was, in a way, fulfilling this publication’s promise, especially in the context of combining Nextbop with the Art of Cool– he functioned as the true glue of our respective organizations’ merger. Watching his group of bassist Kris Funn, alto saxophonist Braxton Cook, keyboardist Lawrence Fields, drummer Corey Fonville, and guitarist Cliff Hines (his first gig ever with this group) was the fulfillment of everything Nextbop has worked for over the last five years. This set was the capstone of the most rewarding and emotionally overwhelming moment of my life, professionally and personally. So, yes, objectivity is getting thrown out the window.

Before they hit the stage, I stood beside guitarist Hines as he stretched. He noted that he always gets limber before a show, which seemed puzzling until one can see why in action. When he was performing last month in Austin at Nextbop @ AoC’s Jazz for the Masses SXSW day party, I didn’t have the opportunity to pay close attention to what Hines brought to Brad Walker’s set.1 The spacey underlining that flowed all throughout Walker’s set was easily noticed in Scott’s, and Hines may very well be that throughline. Hines put his all into this set, weaving around his corner of the stage with such joy, contorting his face with an intensity one could only describe as bass face (which one would suppose he’s doing double duty in this regard since bassist Funn was incredibly poised center stage, cool as a cucumber in every possible way). As he wailed on the guitar, brilliantly though he may be, one could cast any idea of the group’s former guitarist Matthew Stevens out of mind. Hines is his own animal and he’s a wily one, mashing his guitar against his amp, accidentally breaking a glass bottle and subsequently playing with it by the tail end of the set. Yes, Hines can provide a spacey atmosphere, but dude fucking rocks hard.

However that same sort of spacey vibe that Hines at times gave was also found in the ever-contentious Nicholas Payton Sexxxtet when he rolled through San Antonio a few years ago, when Lawrence Fields was easily the best part of that group (and I made that declaration before Payton and I ever had our disagreements). Fields pulled double-duty in this festival, also playing in Igmar Thomas’ Revive Big Band earlier that day. There’s a sweet beauty in his style and a brilliance on the Rhodes that one doesn’t truly hear in this way often enough lately. Fields is a master of his craft and it’s clear why he’s been in this group over the years. As Scott continues to make permutations to his group and shifts in where his sound is going, it’s clear that this young talent like Hines, Fields, and the equally youthful and talented Fonville and Cook function as an undercurrent for Scott to blare incredibly. This isn’t to say all these men can’t and do go big– their pocket is wide, it contains multitudes.

However, it’s all about Scott who proves he’s gunning for that Miles spot but doing so all his own way. The stories of the songs mean just as much as the songs themselves as he frequently regales the crowd with the full context and inspiration of his compositions (New song “West of the West” is all about Scott’s joyous exodus from Los Angeles; the always heartwrenching “K.K.P.D.” is accented by his story of his highly upsetting run-in with the New Orleans Police Department; his version of Emily King’s “Georgia” is introduced by his declaration of love for his stunning wife, vocalist Isadora Mendez-Scott). Each stop in the set is littered with Scott’s charisma and perfect flavor with the word “motherfucker”. The honesty and forthrightness that Christian exudes just can’t be denied in the passionate way he blows his horn. All else he has to say is an extension of this.
Nevertheless, there’s just something magical about this group. Every member of this band not only listens intently to each other play, not only watches with amusement, but they all crane their necks so intently when they do so one could only compare the intensity of the angles their necks are turning to the kind of looks one would give a beautiful woman just entering the room. Of course, Scott’s wife Isadora trulyis a beautiful woman in the room whose voice has an astonishing power and form that cannot be denied, even by her own body. As she works through her own respiratory issues, he vocal chords just won’t quit. Her place is on the stage. Her place is in filling every nook and cranny of your ears.
Ultimately, this group was the perfect close to the festival (unless maybe you were able to catch Kneebody at Pinhook on Main St. whose set was running concurrently). This sextet was a perfect experience, utterly fulfilling every idea of what the Art of Cool is.

1. This is in part out of the exhaustion of putting on the event myself, clearly distracting my attention from paying much attention to many of the sets performing that day, and in part because of drunkenness which thankfully kept me off Red River St. that night. If you haven’t read my many thoughts about this last SXSW, you should definitely take some time to do so.