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The 32nd Annual Atlanta Jazz Festival
Alternating between drenching rains and seriously intense heat, even the weather couldn't subdue the power of this festival
By Michele Wilson-Morris
(more articles from this author)
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I had the pleasure of attending the 32nd Annual Atlanta Jazz Festival on May 23-24 in the great city of Atlanta. The ambiance, the fans, the food, and the entertainment were unrivaled. Alternating between drenching rains and seriously intense heat, even the weather couldn't subdue the power of this festival. It was more than great music, food, and fans - it was an 'experience extraordinaire'.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Thank goodness for press amenities. I say this with all humbleness and respect because had it not been for these, I would have had to park so far away that my feet would still be talking to me, and not nicely either. There were so many people at the Atlanta Heritage Jazz Festival that it was truly a sight to behold. And there was something else about it - not just the number of people, but the attitude of the people there. Everyone from the vendors to artists to the fans seemed to have only one purpose - to have a great time and make sure that everyone else did the same. I'm truly convinced now that no other city knows how to party quite like Atlanta.

Unfortunately, I missed the first two acts (Rialto Jazz for Kids All Star Jazz Band and Madoca) because of an unavoidable conflict in my schedule which put me on the road from Birmingham to Atlanta much later than I wanted to be. However, after checking into the W Hotel - Downtown (a really great modernized hotel with the most accommodating staff I've ever seen) and getting back in time for Ms. Dionne Farris, it was clear that I was in for a treat.

Farris performed three songs from her new CD "Signs of Life." A unique talent with a strong voice made for jazz, she belted out "3 for U", "Hidden Charm", and "Open." There's so much to appreciate about her music, but I have to give her props for how positive her messages are. Farris had the audience completely captivated and there were many who threw inhibition to the wind and got up and moved to her melodies and rhythms. And, after the set, a line of people had formed to purchase "Signs of Life." I have it myself and this is one of those CDs that you just need to own - it's great.

Russell Gunn and Elektrik Butterfly performed next just a bit after 7:00 p.m., and they kept the crowd on their feet. Starting out with a seriously funky jam that included a very nice saxophone and guitar duet, it was clearly evident that Gunn is a master of the trumpet. His music is full of energy, and he had no problem whatsoever going from smooth right back to funky. I was particularly impressed by his rendition of Janet Jackson's "I Get Lonely." Again, there was a lot of dancing during this Grammy nominated brother's set.

What can you say about Freddy Cole? Anyone who studied piano at the Julliard School of Music and earned a Master's Degree at the New England Conservatory of Music has earned his respect. And did I mention the fact that he happens to be the younger brother of Nat "King" Cole? Currently a resident of Atlanta, Cole was backed up by a trio which included guitarist Randy Napoleon, drummer Curtis Boyd, and bassist Elias Bailey.

There's so much to say about how smooth Mr. Cole is, I wouldn't even know where to begin. Just know that he, like his famous brother, is truly a phenomenon, and the audience and I enjoyed him tremendously as he closed out day one of the Atlanta Jazz Heritage Festival at Grant Park. By the way, there was also a 'Late Nite Jazz Jam' back at the W Hotel, which was from 10:00 p.m. - 2:00 a.m. (Ah yes, the people of Atlanta really know how to party. They really, really do.)

Sunday, May 24, 2009

After a great night's sleep and breakfast, I was ready for day two. And, it was ready for me as well. At 3:00 p.m., the festival was kicked off by the J.C. Young Middle School Jazz Ensemble. These kids were great, and are on their way to doing some big things in Atlanta and other towns as well.

VINX hit the stage at 4:00, and I have to tell you, he was what Forrest Gump would call 'sumpin' else.' His vocal warm-up was an acapella version of Bill Withers "Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone." So, as you can imagine, it got much better from there. He really knew how to work the crowd, infusing comedy (or just one heckuva great onstage presence) into his music. The first song he performed, "Don't You Talk to Me Like That" was written for Will Downing, followed by "Somehow You Know." Another song he performed was "Sensuality," but it was "I Can't Stand Your Ugly Face No More" that brought the house down.

The song was written for a young woman with whom he was having hmmm; let's just say "issues." Okay - we've all been there. You know the relationship - the one with a spoiled, manipulative, controlling and whining person whose most basic philosophical question in life is "What about ME?" Well, girlie, you're out there somewhere and I bet you wish you'd whined just a little bit less now.

VINX, originally from Kansas City, has a great voice, great style, and also plays a combination custom made base drum/talking drum/djumbe, and yes, he does it well. "Music is my language. I'm bilingual - it's a way for me to tell my stories and have conversations with myself and with my audience." His philosophy about music is simply this: "Even silence is a note." He formerly played with artists such as Taj Majal, Sting, Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Hornsby, Lou Reed, B.B. King, Herbie Hancock, Kenny G and Woody Harrelson. He's toured with Teena Marie, Rickie Lee Jones, The Bus Boys, Toni Child, and Robben Ford. VINX also spends his summers teaching at the esteemed Berklee College of Music in Boston.

Mausiki Scales and the Common Ground Collective kept the music thumping and the audience jumping for the next hour or so. The group consists of several vocalists with different styles, and a band second to none. They performed one jam after another - some slow, some fast, and all good. I liked the African garments of some of the band members and the reggae tone on a couple of the numbers. It appears that this group dips in and out of several jazz mixed genres, and they were well liked by this reviewer.

Not to be outdone, even after just getting off of a plane from Europe minutes earlier, Cindy Blackman and Rave Electrique put down some serious funk. Blackman played jazz mixed with electric rock of which the centerpiece was her incredibly strong drum talent. When Cindy came on, it was raining cats and dogs, but nobody cared. Umbrellas went up, and people moved and grooved to the music.

The enormous amount of frenzied energy that came off of that stage was incredible. My initial thought before she began was that she would be jetlagged and probably play just enough to get by. Not so. Blackman beat those drums until my arms were tired, and all I was doing was taking notes and eating a grilled chicken kabob and egg rolls (which, by the way, were delicious). She took control of the audience from the very first beat and never let go.

Blackman began with the song "All I Want," followed by "Curiosity." The bass player (Steve Jenkins) then began an improvisation and the rest of the band joined in. Ms. Blackman also performed "The One" which was followed by another improvisation with the band, and she continued to ride the wave with "Thought Police" (written by Jenkins). They closed with Budynek's song called "Sleep Deprived." Trust me, though, there wasn't a sleepy eye in the house when she was done. It was a fantastic performance from a master artist who, despite the fact that she receives accolades around the world, still considers herself to be a "student of her instrument." This has to be because of the many famous artists she has worked with such as James Brown, Jon-Paul Jones, Iggy Pop, Prince, and Mick Jagger, just to name a few.

Hiroshima gave the final performance of the night and festival. While it took a bit of time to get their instruments and technical aspects of the show up and running, it was definitely worth the wait. It was quite obvious by the fact that the number of people close to the stage swelled greatly as they began to perform that Hiroshima was the act that everyone had been waiting for. As someone who was only slightly familiar with their music, I wondered if they were really as good as they are touted to be. Since they'd toured with Miles Davis, been signed by Quincy Jones himself, earned a Grammy nomination, received a Soul Train Award for Best Album, and had a single hit at the top of the Billboard Contemporary Jazz Chart for 3 consecutive months, I was looking to be stunned. They did not disappoint.

Hiroshima's unique blend of Asian and traditional jazz instruments is a genre all to itself. They have, over a 30 year career, obviously perfected both their music and onstage performance. But there's more to it than that. They obviously love what they do and that comes across with a rich, bold sound that mesmerized all of us. They connected with the audience in a way that I can only describe as hypnotic. As we slightly older than young but younger than old people sometimes say, they stole the show. People of every race, age group, gender, and religion came together as one while we were lulled into bliss and loved every minute of it. I could write on and on about Hiroshima, but what good would it do? You'd be bored, and I'd be tired. So, let me instead sum their performance up in one word - PERFECTION. I am now and will continue to be a Hiroshima fan for the rest of my days.

And last but not least, I just couldn't end a review of the 2009 Atlanta Heritage Jazz Festival without thanking all of the artists who took time to give me an interview: Dan Kuramoto of Hiroshima, Dionne Farris, VINX, and Cindy Blackman. Please click on their names to read the interviews and get to know them a little better. Also, I owe a big shout out to Michelle Marron of 360 Media, Inc. in Atlanta, GA. Michelle helped me before, during, and after the festival, and without her assistance, this article would not be possible. Thanks Michelle!

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