Atlanta Jazz Fest Searches for Formula, But Still Provides Entertainment


Joel Ross performs May 25 at the Atlanta Jazz Festival.

(Photo: Sarah Htun)

In the sticky, oppressive heat of a spring Atlanta day, Stefon Harris pounds out a chordal interval on his marimba in two quick, aggressive strokes before dashing across the instrument, mallets a blur, in a flurry of sixteenth notes. The opening measures of “Dat Dere,” backed by a frenetic hi-hat rhythm and bass hits courtesy of his Blackout bandmates, were indicative of the majority of the music played at the 2019 Atlanta Jazz Festival: a good bit of high-octane modern jazz anchored by a lot of groove and a healthy dose of danceable music.

By Harris’ 3 p.m. set on May 25, a legion of umbrellas dotted the spacious expanse in front of the main stage at Piedmont Park. It was nearly impossible to find shade, unless you were carrying an umbrella, and a lot of the crowd sat in front of the stage in lawn chairs, covered against the beating sun, while hundreds set up camp in sun shelters under the trees at the edge of the meadow. The heat easily could have kept people away from Blackout’s set; vocalist Alicia Olatuja started the day off with a 1 p.m. performance, culling from her latest album, that was less well attended. Harris commented on the oppressive temperature at least twice, but truly seemed pleased to be at the Atlanta festival, where he previously has performed.

The 42nd Atlanta Jazz Festival, held during Saturday and Sunday of Memorial Day Weekend in the city’s main park space, presented performers as diverse as Harris’s Blackout band, the Ofer Assaf Quartet, Richard Bona, Lizz Wright and Kandace Springs.

During its run, programming at the festival has been a mix of mainstream jazz, a bit of luck (booking Cécile McLorin Salvant’s band in 2013 seems now like a stroke of genius) and a healthy portion of r&b-leaning, radio-ready instrumental music. But what used to be an immersive, three-day event featuring legions of jazz heavyweights, has waxed and waned. In 2015, Pharoah Sanders closed out the three days of music with his quartet; the more Atlanta-based 2009 festival included headliners pianist Freddy Cole and trumpeter Russell Gunn (Gunn closed the festival this year with his Royal Krunk Jazz Orkestra).

The Atlanta gathering is first and foremost a free Memorial Day event that serves as a meet-up spot for families eager to spend the day outside listening to music. And in this sense, programming has seemed to play second-fiddle to the overriding theme of creating a safe space for staycations.

Half an hour before Harris and his band took to the main stage, inventive young vibraphonist Joel Ross was working a similar musical aesthetic on the smallest of the festival’s three stages. Appearing with his Good Vibes group, Ross’ labyrinthine playing was backed by pliant saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins. The tiny performance area proved to be the place to hear the greatest array of jazz during the festival. But it was a shame programmers stacked the Ross and Blackout sets atop one another, a move that was indicative of the odd scheduling that made for unnecessarily tough choices during the event.

Also on the tiny stage, pianist Christian Sands crafted a masterful, bluesy set with exquisite and innovative playing, and an easy-going and fruitful rapport with bassist Yasushi Nakamura and drummer Jerome Jennings. The group’s set, spanning originals like “Rebel Music” and “Song Of The Rainbow People,” as well as the bandleader’s expansive take on “Yesterday,” was a thrilling example of the dynamic interplay and sheer amount of music that can be created in the trio format.

Earlier, on a separate stage, Delfeayo Marsalis’ jumpy swing and blues—and the suit-and-tie uniform worn by most of the band—seemed almost out of place at the festival. Beginning with a blues and then launching into “Autumn Leaves,” Marsalis used his trombone like a wand, casting a bebop spell over the crowd. His music seemed a world apart from the modern jazz that dominated the event. A case in point was Assaf’s group.

Assaf, who opened for Marsalis, has an approach rooted in a prog-rock sensibility. Buffeted by an arena-rock guitarist, an electric bassist and an energetic drummer, Assaf screamed on tenor, moving from woody runs of notes to primal roars. Most tunes were anchored in a funk-based groove that propelled the music. But the band also proved it could simmer, as it did on a tune that thrust Alex Skolnick’s bluesy, wah-wah guitar solo front and center. Assaf’s music has a tendency toward too many moving parts, but his band puts on a good festival show.

On Sunday, local flavor pervaded the festival, as area performers and touring acts that call the city home, took the spotlight. While the Atlanta Jazz Festival has experienced recent growing pains, and the bookers have yet to hit on a formula that truly creates an enviable jazz environment in the city, the event still offers plenty of jazz aficionados—and a legion of music-loving Atlantans—an accessible lineup of jazz artists in a serene, if sweltering, setting. DB

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