SXSW Performers Dabble in Jazz, World Music
With more than 2,000 acts competing for attention literally 24 hours a day, the 2012 edition of the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, was an aural overload of unprecedented proportions. From the minute fans arrived at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, they experienced live music through non-stop day parties, pop-up concerts, official showcases and unofficial jams. Performances filled every available space, from parking lots to hotel lobbies and grocery store checkout lines on March 9–18.
Though jazz appeared to be somewhat of an afterthought among all the buzz bands and rock stars, it had its moments throughout the festivities. Keyboardist Robert Glasper, who had staged a multi-guest, vocal-oriented show in Houston a couple weeks earlier, emphasized his jazz underpinnings with a sublime set as Berklee College of Music guitar professor Bruce Saunders augmented his straight-ahead performance with intriguing angular embellishments. Composer/pianist Graham Reynolds, who composed the music for “A Scanner Darkly,” was heard in multiple contexts, from country jazz to Prokofiev classical. Guitarist Gabriel Santiago led his band through a well-balanced Brazilian take on jazz standards, and trumpeter Jeff Lofton unashamedly and entertainingly reprised the early Miles mode.
The three acts who most distinguished themselves are stalwarts of the Austin scene. Saxophonist Elias Haslanger, who also performed with Bruce Springsteen, saved his best work for his group showcase set at the Elephant Room basement jazz club. Haslanger boasted a confident sound of his own and solid original material that artfully framed the enlightened lyricism of his playing.
The muscular virtuosity of the Black Red Black trio was displayed to excellent effect in a wide-ranging set. Trumpeter Ephraim Owens, Hammond B-3 organist Red Young and drummer Brannen Temple, all group leaders in their own right, challenged and complemented each other with high-level explorations that transcended their music's inherent deep groove.
Vocalist and Kickstarter success story Kat Edmonson was heard several times during the festival as she personalized an assortment of sweet standards with unpredictable phrasings and tonal variations.
One of the festival’s highly-anticipated individual instrumentalist was young Hawaiian ukulele phenom Jake Shimabukuro, who dazzled fans with flurries of unexpected notes as he transposed classic rock riffs with improvisational flourishes. Other esoteric delights included the fusion unit Bee vs. Moth, which provided an original score to 1919 Ernst Lubitsch silent film The Oyster Princess, Rabbi Neil Blumfoe, a New Orleans native and Austin jazz activist with a unique vocal approach, and Brownout, the aggressive funk side project of Grupo Fantasma.
The international music community was well-represented during SXSW’s numerous showcases devoted to individual countries. But it was reggae icon Jimmy Cliff, a pleasantly peripatetic presence throughout the festival as he performed in a multitude of settings, who was most memorable. African music, headlined by dynastic Nigerian bandleader Seun Kuti and his high-powered big band, was prominently displayed in a variety of showcases. Kuti's anthemic Afrobeat energy was balanced by several superlative sets by Sauti Sol, an invigorating acoustic Afro-fusion quartet from Kenya, while the full-costumed Canalon de Timbiqui from Colombia probably provided the most uniformly enjoyable ethnomusical experience.
The female voice was a featured instrument during several entertaining performances. The surreal, cinematic eroticism of David Lynch collaborator Chrysta Bell, who staged her own full concert event in addition to doing an official showcase, delivered a dreamy Euro-cool sound. Akina Adderley, granddaughter of Nat Adderley, worked the opposite end of the sonic thermometer with a steamy set of passionate, but polished, funk.
Fiona Apple returned to the stage with an impressive and often jazz-tinged set in a large, overflowing outdoor venue. Trixie Whitley delivered a stunningly raw and radiant mini-set for a couple dozen fortunate fans as part of the Miles Davis House proceedings at the historic Victory Grill.
Other female singers shining in the spotlight were German-based, Nigerian-born Nnek and native Texan Erykah Badu, Ruthie Foster, roots-conscious Mexican crossover star Lila Downs and Canadian experimentalist Claire Boucher in her multi-genre Grimes persona.
The was an obvious surplus of superstar spectacle: Jay-Z, Nas, Lionel Richie, 50 Cent and Eminem, 17-time Latin Grammy winner Juanes, Lil Wayne and a surreal Snoop Dogg set that had him performing inside a giant vending machine. Bruce Springsteen played a smaller venue with the full E Street Band to warm up for the ongoing tour and popped up for impromptu jams, was one of the most visible artists at the festival.
Norah Jones, who made her SXSW debut a decade ago to promote her first album, did several shows with her country outfit Little Willies, one in the parking lot of indie legend Waterloo Records, and used her own showcase to do a sequential preview of her new album instead of playing past hits. The confluence of the affiliated film festival also provided several musical highlights, such as filmmaker Robert “Desperado” Rodriguez taking to the stage for some raucous Tex-Mex rock. The screening of the Mumford and Sons Big Easy Express movie, a free, comfortable outdoor event staged on University of Texas lawn, was a perfect antidote to the crowded downtown scene as the band performed a relaxed show, complete with the Austin High School marching band.