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New Century, Same Genius: Ornette Coleman at JVC

Benny Golson at home

It’s billed as “the nation’s largest free jazz festival,” with quite deserved emphasis on the “free.” The Atlanta Jazz Festival, which presented its 29th annual fest at Piedmont Park over Memorial Day weekend, is just about the freest, most laissez faire jazz festival you can imagine. Not only is there no admission charge; it also lacks typical concert gates and entries. Even in this post-9/11 age, there were no checkpoints for carry-in bundles-such as rolling coolers, portable grills and big tents-to be scrutinized for contraband. While other big free festivals often limit what food and beverages attendees can bring in, so as to favor on-site vendors, you can bring just about anything with you to the Atlanta Jazz Festival.

Not that there weren’t plenty of food and drink options available. Up on one of the hills was a three-block long vendor’s row with dozens of food, beer, wine and even martini choices for those who hadn’t brought their own. Meanwhile, all manner of tents and shade-tent pavilions rose up, interspersed with lawn chairs and blankets, as folks and fans converged for three days of main stage music beginning at 2 p.m. and continuing until 10 p.m. each night. In addition, a Future of Jazz stage offered youth and local bands from noon until 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.

For an area that favors smooth jazz (one of two festival radio station sponsors was WJZZ, Atlanta’s commercial smooth jazz outlet), the lineup was surprisingly mainstream/straightahead. Of the 14 headliners over three days, only Pyeng Threadgill and the Yellowjackets (who closed the festival on Monday night) fit a WJZZ format. And five of the headliners were piano trios (one with a guest saxophonist).

But then again, jazz wasn’t the point for a good number of the attendees. For them, the Atlanta fest is foremost a happening, a chance to reunite and socialize with friends, fraternities, sororities and family. Which presents a problem for those of us there to listen. Although hardly subtle, the sound system was good, not great, and projected well into the far reaches of the festival area. But it wasn’t close; the rest of the often very gregarious and talkative audience was. So ambient “people noise” was a constant, most noticeable during piano and bass solos. It’s a variation on the age-old jazz trade-off: Whether ’tis better to listen to a pristine recording on a great sound system or experience scintillating live jazz in all its surrounding sonic chaos.

Nevertheless, enough could be heard to provide a satisfying fix to jazz fans. A real highlight on Sunday was Moncef Genoud (pictured). A 45-year-old Tunisian-born, Swiss-raised pianist whose first American album, Aqua, has just come out on Savoy, Genoud is a highly rhythmic pianist who, like Randy Weston, incorporates African elements and Ellingtonian pianistic flourishes into his style. Other fest piano highlights included a rather mellow McCoy Tyner, handing over most of the pyrotechnics to bassist Charnett Moffett; Barry Harris reeling off his bebop chops in a Bird-flighty program with guest alto saxophonist Charles McPherson; Geri Allen in splendid form, reaching the audience with a deep gospel groove momentum on one number, a folksy vamp on another, rhythmically buoyed by veteran drummer Jimmy Cobb; and Robert Glasper, a pianist who seems preternaturally mature for his 27 years, creating long, episodic solos spiced by prickly, insouciant rhythms.

Of the three legendary septuagenarian horn players, only Benny Golson fared well. Leading his own quartet, tenor saxophonist Golson waxed nostalgic, employing his vintage breathy vibrato on some of his old classics like “Whisper Not,” “Along Came Betty” and “Killer Joe.” Trumpeter Donald Byrd joined a funky young band, masking his dubious chops with a Harmon mute until he attempted a reprise of his Blue Note classic, “Cristo Redentor,” wobbling through it on open horn. Trombonist Curtis Fuller was also shaky, chops seemingly faded, on his lone number.

Fuller was billed as part of a festival-circuit-ready United Trombone Summit. With the young Andre Murchison filling in for Fuller, the group also featured Steve Turre, Robin Eubanks and Delfeayo Marsalis in a crowd-pleasing set of smartly arranged jazz. The one big band on hand, Kendrick Oliver and the New Life Jazz Orchestra, performed robust, rousing swing versions of gospel songs and spirituals, including “Down by the Riverside.” They were joined too briefly by singer Kevin Mahogany, and not briefly enough by a screeching female singer.

Singers were also featured each day. Carmen Lundy offered more proof that she is closing in on Sarah and Ella jazz diva status, if she wouldn’t insist on doing only original material. A terrific band including saxophonist Bobby Watson, trombonist Turre and a full rhythm section joined her. Grady Tate crooned, swung and scatted urbanely through a set of standards in his suave bass-baritone. Pyeng Threadgill sounded like a new age cross between Norah Jones and Sade, her Octet’s horns providing the set’s only jazz content.

A Future of Jazz competition on the second stage yielded a winner, Jaspects, who played the main stage on Monday. A sextet from Morehouse College in Atlanta, Jaspects played a canny mix of Miles/Trane post-bop leavened with funky electric touches and R&B-style vocals. Their approach would have heartened McPherson who, in a jazz workshop the day before in the Education Tent, said that true jazz “innovators bring new things to the music but don’t take away anything.”

Originally Published