Memorial Day Weekend in Atlanta comes with the seductive, resonating music in midtown, alongside the colorful blossomed flowers and the sweet smell of honeysuckle. The Atlanta Jazz Festival kicked off its 37th year with an explosion on Friday night, May 23 and the multi-sensory vibrancy continued through Sunday, May 25.
This year’s festival included the introduction of a third stage, the Locals Stage – highlighting local performers, known among the Jazz enthusiasts within the Atlanta Jazz Circuit. This, in combination with the International Stage and the Main Stage, there was always a place to be.
As I drove through the Piedmont Park neighborhood, looking for the one parking spot that all of the others have missed, I watch the parade of families migrating through the streets towards the park, all with expressions of calm excitement and happiness. It created a sense of excitement for me, not only will I be experiencing some incredible jazz music, I am about to interact with the loyal jazz crowds, whom all have the sole purpose of enjoying time with loved ones, enjoying the musical interludes among the park. No hidden agendas, just relaxation in the park on a holiday weekend.
Upon entry to Piedmont Park from the Tenth Street entrance, local jazz radio stations are the first encountered, having claimed the primo real estate with tents in order to greet the visitors. To the right is the Meadow, and is the home for the Main Stage on the giant lawn. Straight ahead is Vendor’s Alley, with an incredible assortment of food, arts, crafts along side a few big product promotions. Hey, what’s a festival without a few freebies from the large sponsors promoting autos, coffee and wine?
As has been true for the previous decades, friends and families planted themselves on the lawns, under trees and anywhere that provided a comfortable location for the day. Picnic baskets could be seen from all vantage points, as group meals were being enjoyed throughout the day and night. Over the three days of the festival, not a single disgruntled visitor could be found.
Walking further, and over the Clara Meer Bridge, one was given the option of going to right to the Local Stage, or to the left to the International Stage. Both, of which, provided a much more intimate musical experiences compared to the Main Stage, with smaller crowds and a higher level of musician to audience interaction. At these stages, you could find the loyalists, who danced and relaxed at their stage of choice, inspired by the quality of the intimate settings and organic music.
A simple walk through the festival provided a variety of musical talent, beyond the performances on any of the stages. On the Clara Meer Bridge was a bluegrass band, equipped with a musical hand saw and banjo. Amongst the food vendor trucks was a trio of two trumpets and a trombone, which would not be complete without an entourage of dancing spectators.
A further walk introduced one to the various guitar players and vocalists. It was the little things among the crowds that truly gave the festival its charm and personality.
But keeping true to the Festival’s main goal of providing organized musical talent, the Main Stage was the central point for the weekend. On the Main Stage, you could find performances by mainstream artists, such as the sultry vocals of the Roberta Gambrini and Quartet succeeded by the melodic trumpet Roy Hargrove Quintet on Friday. Saturday included the powerful vocals of Ester Rada, a contemporary R&B merging with a traditional orchestral jazz band by Russell Gunn’s Krunk Jazz Orkestra and a finale to the evening from Trumpeter, Christian Scott.
The energy on the Main Stage continued on Sunday with the same velocity, and included world renowned Freddy Cole Quartet (Nat King Cole’s brother) on piano, the Space Age sound of Bill Frisell, Greg Leisz, Tony Scherr and Rudy Royston, and the artist to bring the weekend to a roaring finish, piano master and composer, Ahmad Jamal.
It was the Main Stage that fulfilled the true conventional expectations of a Jazz Festival. The powerfully soothing vocals of Roberta Gambarini truly set the weekend off with an engulfing grip that stayed strong, right through the pure genius of Ahmed Jamal, where a complex melodic piano composition that seemed so effortless and intuitive, yet playful. And in the middle of it all was the elaborate contemporary music from Russell Gunn’s Krunk Jazz Orkestra, that included a rap style composition, as well as a vocal performance from Dionne Farris.
The Local Stage name was certainly misleading as there was no shortcoming in talent that appeared there. As a spectator, listening to the specialized musical performances just made you feel excited knowing you were a part of these artists sprouting lives’ work. At the local stage, performances by Willie Ziavino and the C.O.T Band, followed by the Brian Hogans Quartet could be seen on Saturday, while on Sunday, Darren English Quintet was followed by the Kemba Cofield Quartet.
Of all of the stages, for no other reason than my own personal preference for the unconventional, I found myself spending a lot of my time at the International Stage. The intimate environment, and willingness of the artists to interact with the audience made one feel a part of the music that was being created on stage.
Saturday was an eclectic day at the International Stage, including performances by the Edmar Castañeda Trio, the addictive vocals of Somi, followed by the Piano mastery of the Eldar among the Trio. Sunday opened uniquely with the Moroccan born Qanunist, Ali Amr. The gracious talents of Brazilian Guitarist, Diego Figueiredo and French and Dominican Vocalist, Cyrille Aimée then followed, and were then dominant forces for the remainder of the day, each making an unannounced appearance in the other’s production.
Over the weekend, the biggest highlights at the International Stage began with Somi’s incredible embracement and engagement of her audience with her ability to sing from her soul. She concluded her set with the tune “Gingerly,” and it gave the crowd a boost of spontaneous fuel, with singing and dancing fans. Figueiredo amazed his fans with his incredible guitar dexterity and constant smile. The audience roared with his exquisite acustic performance of “The Girl From Ipanema.” And far from least, was the passionate and silky vocal performance of Aimée, that included a captivating Spanish rendition of The Doors,’ “People Are Strange.” It doesn’t get any better than this.
This year’s Festival also introduced a series of Educational Workshops, led by the stage talent. On Saturday, Roberta Gambrini instructed the Vocal Workshop while Roy Hargrove gave the Trumpet Workshop. Airmen of Note lead a discussion on Effective Rehearsal Stratgies. Sunday began with Somi directed a talk on Inspiration and the Creative Process, and Danny Harper conversed on Negotiating the Changes. UGA Jazz Director David D’Angelo discussed Practice Techniques & Listening Sills.
The 37th Annual Atlanta Jazz Festival has once again proven itself as a fore-front leader among US Cities Jazz Festivals, and has undoubtedly earned its ranking in global jazz events. I envision the 38th Annual Atlanta Jazz Festival will be even more outstanding.