The temperature was hot, but the jazz was cool at the Concord Jazz Festival on Saturday, August 3. At the Concord Pavilion, an outdoor venue east of the city of Concord, California, around 10,000 people gathered for an event that was born in their town and, after a 15-year hiatus, was now celebrating its 50th anniversary.
The original festival was produced in 1969 by a local car dealer/jazz enthusiast, Carl Jefferson. He believed Concord needed some culture, so he talked the city into starting a jazz festival in a neighborhood park. By 1975, the festival had grown so large that Jefferson decided to build a stadium for it: Concord Pavilion. By this time he’d also formed his own record label, Concord Jazz.
To commemorate this milestone, the current president and CEO of Concord Records, John Burk, set out to create a one-day, seven-hour-plus festival that would pay tribute to the past, present, and future of jazz, with both veteran and emerging artists representing different subgenres. The lineup included Jazzmeia Horn, the Count Basie Orchestra, Poncho Sanchez and His Latin Jazz Band, Chick Corea and the Spanish Heart Band, Esperanza Spalding, and Dave Koz & Friends. In between sets, various tributes were made to Jefferson.
“We wanted to cover the spectrum of what the Concord Jazz label is doing now as much as we could in one night, and to show the breadth and diversity of what jazz is,” Burk said by telephone. “These are all artists who have current records or records about to be released, and represent a really good cross-section of the spectrum of jazz.”
The mainstage performances began at 4 p.m. with 28-year-old rising-star vocalist Jazzmeia Horn. Sadly, there were many empty seats at that point, probably due to the heat and the early time, but the pavilion did fill up steadily as the night went on. Strikingly dressed in one of her colorful signature African-inspired outfits, Horn was backed by a top-notch band that included Keith Brown on piano, Jeremy Clemons on drums, Ben Williams on bass, and Irwin Hall on saxophone. The set featured several songs from her soon-to-be released album Love and Liberation, including a compelling self-penned tune, “Free Your Mind.” Horn’s personality is exuberant and engaging, and her scatting is fearlessly acrobatic, though her live performances don’t quite match the spot-on timing and tuning found on her recordings.
Another standout in the new-artist category was Grammy-nominated vocalist and drummer Jamison Ross. Joining the Basie Orchestra midway though their set, he enthralled the audience with a few sublimely sung standards and, without missing a beat, drummed his way through complicated rhythmic riffs. It was a marvel to watch him do both simultaneously with such agility and flair.
Harkening back to earlier days of jazz, the Basie Orchestra was smooth as silk. Another one of the group’s guest vocalists was Carmen Bradford, who gave me a chill when she sang the opening notes to “Daydream.” Basie himself originally hired Bradford, who spent nine years singing with him, and she certainly hasn’t lost her luscious tone or her adept delivery in the decades since.
Veteran conguero Poncho Sanchez performed an infectious Afro-Cuban set, with salsa rhythms accented masterfully by a punchy über-tight horn section that swayed together as they played. Their Latin-beat version of John Coltrane’s “Blue Train,” featured on Sanchez’s new album dedicated to the jazz king, Trane’s Delight, due out in September, was delightful. The percussionist reminisced about the first time he performed at the festival with Cal Tjader back in 1976, when there was no roof and only about half a stage. Stirring solos by Sanchez and the rest of the band throughout the set drew thunderous cheers.
Keyboardist and jazz visionary Chick Corea opened his set with “Antidote,” from his new album of the same name. His opening solo lines were reminiscent of his Return to Forever days; from there, the Spanish Heart Band proceeded directly into a strong Latin groove, with driving congas, tight accents from the horn section, and Corea and a few band members singing the Spanish lyrics, giving it a jubilant fiesta feel. The closing number, “Armando’s Rhythm,” written for Corea’s father, started out as a quiet solo-piano piece, then segued into a complex syncopated melody over an Afro-Cuban beat. At one point, Corea and bassist Carlitos Del Puerto traded off riffs skillfully with obvious rapport; then the majority of the group cut out so drummer Marcus Gilmore and conga player Luisito Quintero could have a chance to heat things up in duo format. When the set ended, Corea and the band members exchanged hugs—this was the last stop on their Antidote tour.
The most unusual artist at Concord was Esperanza Spalding, a genre unto herself; her vocal range is astonishing, her agility on the bass is unquestionable, and her compositions are fresh and original. First she took the stage alone, and she commanded it, plucking the bass in rubato run-on rhythms and singing a story with a melody that wove in and out of the bassline. A stellar but minimal band then joined her—drums, sax, and two backup singers. They all became part of an edgy jazz/Beat poetry project, full of extraordinary harmonic and rhythmic passages. Although none of the songs was exactly hummable or commercial, the audience cheered her on—they got it. The 40-minute set ended all too soon, with Spalding herself commenting that she was just starting to warm up, as the crowd applauded and shouted wildly.
The evening closed out with the rousing party-band sound of Dave Koz & Friends—a questionable choice for jazz purists and a striking contrast to Spalding’s set just before. But Koz and his all-star band are unquestionably solid players, and they rocked the stage with singles and hit medleys in flashy arrangements, with dance moves that made it feel a bit like a Las Vegas show. Guest vocalist Kenny Lattimore fit right into their groove with his silky voice and upbeat personality. A rousing duet with guest trombonist/vocalist Aubrey Logan on “This Will Be” was a nice showcase for the latter’s vocal expertise. The frenzied set of mostly nonstop up-tempo, feel-good music did hit a chord for many audience members, clearly Koz fans, who danced and clapped enthusiastically right up until the final notes.