May evenings in Florida have a soft feeling about them. It isn’t too hot by nightfall and there is often a slight breeze. It’s just a matter of time before we move into the season of heat, humidity and mosquitoes – that dense and sticky feeling that comes with the summer. For now, though, it is Memorial Day weekend, the Jacksonville Jazz Festival is in full swing and Al Jarreau is headlining the second day of the three day event.
A lot of us got there early. Yeah, we wanted to hear the rest of the lineup that day but we also knew that Jarreau would draw a huge crowd and the best way to get close to the stage was to get there early and stake out a place. The sun and heat can drain you, sunscreen and big cups of lemonade notwithstanding. As the evening progressed people were getting tired and fortunately more mellow than rowdy after frequent visits to the adult beverage vendors. Then the lights dimmed, five musicians took their places. There were a few quiet moments as an open field full of people that went back several blocks stopped and took a collective breath. We were about to have that breath taken away. The band started playing, Al Jarreau hit the stage to the opening notes of “Boogie Down.” It was ON!
This is how it works. Five seasoned and stunning musicians who have been playing together for years and are so in tune with each other that these complex arrangements flow effortlessly. In front, a vocalist who walks the tightrope between the precision of professionalism and edgy spur of the moment improvisation better than anyone. He is inside the music, he is the music. The band is in there with him and the joy of it all is contagious. Front row or out in the field there is no way not to feel it.
The set list was perfect. The crowd pleasers are in there but so are some gems that did not get as much hype. The way he continually reinvents nuggets like “Mornin’” and “We’re In This Love Together” is astonishing. It seems like he morphs them into something different every time he tours. “Mornin’” has evolved from a potentially cheezy 80s retread to an invocation and this time around he jazzed up “Love Together” and turned it into an entirely new thing. “I Will Be Here for You” turned the crowd into family then he lit it up with “Double Face,” the energized 2012 hit with the clever lyrics and irresistable hook that recaptured the spirit of all those contemporary jazz vocals from back in the day. During that song he had a scat-off with himself and the band, then during a medley of “Auga De Beber” and “Mas Que Nada” he got the audience into a sing-off. “Scootcha Booty” had him speed singing and flinging out percussive vocalese around a complicated arrangement that would bury most vocalists alive. He and the band made it look easy and multi instrumentalist Joe Turano delivered a sax solo in the middle that reminded me of those amazing free fusion solos on the Impulse albums I owned in college. Then John Calderon goes off on a major rock guitar shred, this happening two songs after his elegant, lyrical acoustic intro to “Hearts Horizon.”
One thing you will always experience at an Al Jarreau concert is the connection between Jarreau and this group of musicians, and their connection with each other. If you sit up close you can see the eye contact, the smiles, the visual cues. He completely shares the stage, giving each of them plenty of time to solo, and he doesn’t exit, he stays right with them cheering them on, riffing with them and even laughingly apologizing for getting in their way. bassist/vocalist Chris Walker steps front and center to sing “How Do You Heal A Broken Heart” and holds the crowd in his hand then he and Jarreau, eye to eye, throw down some funky inspiration with “Random Act of Love.” Larry Williams can play one chord on his keyboards and send goosebumps to the back row and Mark Simmons does a drum solo that
has even cynical alt-rockers dropping their jaws. Yeah, grown folks do that stuff!
And so it goes, an evening of complete immersion in a this beautiful wall of sound where voices sound like instruments and instruments sound like voices and the joy of it all is so contagious you take it home, take it to work, and end up spreading your own Random Acts of Love in the afterglow. They wrapped up the night with a rousing get outta your seats mashup of “Roof Garden” and George Duke’s “Reach for It.” It started with a party, it ended with a party. It’s a deep party and it’s a party that’s gonna make you think a lil’ bit ’bout stuff and open your mind about how inclusive and accessible this thing called “jazz” really is. The bottom line is that its always a party when you go to see Jarreau. It’s the kind of party that leaves you feeling really good and really special, and that’s the kind of party we need more of.
Jarreau blogs about his experiences as he tours. Here’s the view from his side of the stage: Notes from Al: Jacksonville Jazz Festival
I met fabulous photographer Lisa J. Love at the festival and she saved my life. If it wasn’t for her you would be looking at blurry pix I took with my phone. See more Jarreau and Jacksonville Jazz Festival photos here: Lisa J. Love Photography