A kid in a toy store with a huge gift certificate, that‘s how I felt when they announced the line-up for this year‘s Jacksonville Jazz Festival during a press conference to a group of medial folk -- who, except for one (that would be me), managed to restrain themselves from claps and joyous shouts as each act was announced.
Spyro Gyra, Jazz Attack with Richard Elliot, Peter White, Jonathan Butler, and Rick Braun, Chick Corea, David Benoit, Pamela Williams... and that's just the opening night list! Mindi Abair, Danny Gottlieb (former Pat Metheny Group), David Sanborn, Pieces of a Dream, Sax Pack with Jeff Kashiwa, Marion Meadows and Kim Waters, LaLah Hathaway, Al Jarreau, Chris Botti, the YellowJackets, Stanley Clarke and George Duke, Jon Hendricks, Kurt Elling, and well... a full slate of regional favorites including Noel Friedline and Paul Howards.
The festival takes place on three different sites: the main stage at Metropolitan Park, an outdoor amphitheatre on the St. Johns River in the shadow of Alltel Stadium (the site of this years Super Bowl); Friendship Fountain, the other outdoor venue, will also be familiar to sports fans as the site of ESPN's "SportsCenter" during the Super Bowl; and the third site is the Ritz Theatre, a beautifully refurbished theater in a downtown historic district. During the weekend, shuttles continually circle the route between the venues, making it easy for attendees to catch a shuttle after one act finishes and arrive at a different stage in plenty of time to not miss another artist's first song. This year there were times when fans had to make hard choices. Chick Corea, David Benoit, and Jazz Attack were all scheduled for Friday evening. Sax Pack, Al Jarreau, and Jon Hendricks overlapped (a true irony as Jarreau considers Hendricks one of his major influences), and Clarke/Dukes funky party jam coincided with Botti's smoothed-out chill. On the other hand, it gives groups of friends with disparate tastes a lot of options and makes it an enticing travel option for people who like to pack as much music as possible into a mini-vacation.
When it comes to outdoor concerts in Florida, weather is always a factor. In April it can be clear, crisp and beautiful, sunny, hot and humid, or it can rain. A band of storms passed through the day before the first outdoor concerts, but it appeared to be clearing by Friday afternoon. As Spyro Gyra hit the stage clouds started to move into the area, and halfway through their remarkable set rain started to fall. When most people run for cover, the hardcore fans pull their chairs as close to the stage as possible which creates an instant intimacy between the band and the fans who don't mind getting a little bit soaked in the process of hearing a heritage act that keeps getting stronger. The sky cleared for Jazz Attack. Straight out of rehearsals and opening their spring/summer touring season with this set, in the local vernacular these guys "kicked a**." From the second the spotlight hit Rick Braun standing in the crowd for the opening notes of "Cadillac Slim," this was both musicianship and showmanship at its best. Richard Elliot tore it up as usual. Jonathan Butler's vocals were stunning. The chemistry between these guys added a new dimension to both the solos they traded off and the songs they did as a group. As they wrapped up with their version of EWF's "September" fireworks went off across the parking lot as a minor league baseball game wrapped up.
Saturday brought beautiful weather, choices to be made, and a lot of shuttle-runs. I got there early and staked out a seat on the front row. The day opened with Danny Gottlieb, the drummer and educator known for his work with Pat Metheny and for his solo cjazz/ fusion projects in the early 90s. He backed Benito Gonzalez, the winner of the Great American Jazz Piano Competition -- the event that traditionally opens the festival on Thursday night -- then did a set with his trio. Next it was time to hop a shuttle and watch Mindi Abair win over a new group of fans at the fountain. Like most smooth jazz artists, Mindi takes it up a few notches onstage. She is also one of the warmest, nicest, most crowd-friendly artists out there. She bantered with the crowd and delivered an excellent mix of her hits, some funkier CD tracks, "Every Time," her enchanting vocal that should be a pop hit, and an extended version of Cannonball Adderley's "Work Song" that shows you can have pure jazz chops and charisma at the same time without compromising either.
Meanwhile, the stage was being set for David Sanborn back at Metro Park and the shuttle arrived giving us plenty of time to settle in. The crowd that would overflow the park by early evening was beginning to grow. Backed up by a band that included long time stalwarts Ricky Peterson, Richard Patterson and Don Alias (I have a 1993 Sanborn concert program with these guys in the lineup), he played a set that included classics like "Maputo," "Chicago Song," "As We Speak," a beautiful version of "Smile" - the most subdued song in the set, "Tin Tin Deo" from his latest CD, and a rousing jam around "Camel Island" that gave band members a chance to do some stunning extended solos. As strong as ever, he once again demonstrated why he is one of the most influential musicians in contemporary jazz, both in the studio and onstage.
As the sun set over the river, regional favorites Noel Friedline with Renee Dickerson on vocals showed why they are building a national following and deserved to share the main stage with a list of mostly high visibility artists. Simply put, Dickerson sings with power and range. Every note is clear and on pitch and even when handling power ballads, she remains true, never wailing or oversinging. LaLah Hathaway followed with a beautiful, spiritual set that was greeted with a standing ovation.
Then it was time for Al Jarreau. If you want to immediately win over the Jacksonville crowd, give a shout out to our NFL team. Jarreau walked onstage, scatted a few notes, and shouted "Jacksonville Jaguars!" The crowd roared, so he said it again. Then it was off on the joyride that is Al Jarreau in concert. I have been to a lot of Jarreau concerts. He usually plays Atlanta in late August, and going to that concert has become my island of sanity between Fantasy Football drafts and NFL week one. This concert was his best in years. He was, as he said in his SmoothViews interview a few months back, "in the zone," and he took several thousand of his new closest friends there with him. A week later he told a crowd at a festival in Cleveland, "Y'all stay tuned. My best work is in front of me." If there were any doubters in the Jacksonville audience, they were believers by the end of his set. Meanwhile, across the river the Sax Pack had a smaller but equally enthusiastic crowd on their feet and yelling for more.
Sunday brought the return of Paul Howards, a sax player who has stolen the show at several previous festivals. He has been perched on the brink of stardom for years, and toured extensively with *Nsync and the Backstreet Boys, giving the moms in the crowd someone close to their own age to scream for. The Yellowjackets were next but, alas, some of us had to work that day and missed them. I did make it back to the park just in time for the biggest party jam of the festival - Stanley Clarke and George Duke. Rarely is such virtuosity mixed with so much fun and so much funk! Starting with "Wild Dog," they took us on a wild ride through some of their biggest hits and our most fond memories of discovering this music back in the day. Duke played his new hit "T-Jam." Clarke gave us his classic "School Days." They brought back "Sweet Baby" and "No Rhyme, No Reason," and they got several generations of booties out of the chairs with "Reach For It" and "Mothership Connection." The festival ended with long lines of happy autograph seekers in the park waiting for Clarke and Duke, and at the Fountain waiting for Chris Botti -- who got an equally passionate response with a totally different mood, vibe and sound. That's the beauty of this music and this festival in a nutshell.
This festival is a benchmark event in Jacksonville. It's right up there with fireworks on the 4th, the Jaguars' first home game of the season, the Florida-Georgia game, and the Greater Jacksonville Fair in October. It marks a point in time and the memories that surround it: the year you had the great party on a boat docked near the stage; the year you fell in love with someone and remember exactly who was playing; the year you came for the hang and ended up buying CDs by every artist you heard. People who met there are now bringing their kids. Soon they will be bringing their grandkids. Over the years people have shown up for the atmosphere, free music outdoors and beer on tap, and left as fans of a type of music they never considered before. When PBS was airing highlights of the festival nationally, friends from major markets would comment on the people in the crowd shots -- folks who looked like they should be shakin' it to ‘Skynard instead of Spyro Gyra. But they were into the music they were hearing in a place where nobody was going to tell them they had to be "sophisticated and upscale" to enjoy it. We aren't like that here, and that's what is so much fun. After his set Al Jarreau was talking to a small group of media people and fans. He said "Don't lose this!" That is what he was referring to. We won't lose it. Maybe it is one of the reasons this is one of the fastest growing areas in the country. Next year come down and see for yourself!
Jacksonville Jazz Festival website: www.jaxjazzfest.com
- Shannon West