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Atlanta Jazz Festival 2018

Mark Sullivan By

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Atlanta Jazz Festival
Atlanta, GA
May 26-27, 2018

The Atlanta Jazz Festival prides itself on being one of the largest free jazz festivals in the United States. The 41st edition took place under a forbidding forecast of heavy rainstorms: the event announcements made a big point of stating that the festival was a "rain or shine" event. In the end the weather largely held—with the exception of a couple of brief showers on Saturday afternoon—and if the crowd size was reduced due to the weather forecast, it still looked like a big party in Piedmont Park to me.

May 26, 2018

Thumbscrew/Jane Bunnett & Maqueque/Ingrid Jensen Collective/Linda May Han Oh Quintet

My first show took me to the Contemporary Stage. Thumbscrew is like a contemporary jazz supergroup: guitarist Mary Halvorson, double bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara form a true collective, with compositions from all of the group members as their core repertoire. I wasn't able to catch their whole set, but what I heard was memorable. I came in on a very musical unaccompanied drum solo, which led into a guitar solo with backwards looping. Formanek said the tune was "Saturn Way," named after a street in Pittsburgh. The next tune was named after "any cruel, heartless bastards you can think of." The head featured truly disorienting accelerandos and ritardandos: confusing the tempo for the listener, while demonstrating the close communication of the band. They were allowed to play an encore, a rarity in a festival that takes the performance schedule seriously. That piece included lots of whammy pedal guitar, an unexpected archtop guitar effect that Halvorson has made a hallmark of her style.

The festival was proud to present a special lineup of all-female jazz headliners on Saturday, for the first time in the festival's history. I heard a bit of the Yoko Miwa Trio on the Legends Stage—a powerful piano trio in the McCoy Tyner tradition—but the first full set I caught was Canadian saxophonist/flutist Jane Bunnett and her all-female Cuban band Maqueque. I heard them at the Montreal International Jazz Festival last year and was very impressed. They were equally impressive here, opening with "Little Feet" (which Bunnett dedicated to her nieces). After introducing the band—this version all hails from Cuba—she switched from soprano saxophone to flute for the band's title tune. She encouraged the audience to dance, but got few takers, despite the eminently danceable rhythms the band played, which in this tune included a workout for the percussionists. They slowed things down for a beautiful ballad treatment of the 1971 Bill Withers hit "Ain't No Sunshine." Bunnett dedicated "Tomenta" to the victims of the Hawaiian volcanic eruptions (which includes a friend of hers). Bunnett switched back to flute for "La Flamenca Maria," which was followed by "Changui del Guaso" from the pen of drummer Yissy Garcia. The set concluded with "Café Pilon" from the group's last album Oddara. They may not have gotten this audience to dance, but I'm still moving a little just remembering it.

Trumpeter Ingrid Jensen also hails from Canada, although she graduated from Boston's Berklee College of Music and has been associated with several American groups, including the Diva Big Band and the Maria Schneider Orchestra. Her Ingrid Jensen Collective brought a bit of old-school fusion to the Legends stage. On the opener "Center Song" she played her trumpet through echo and wah-wah, like classic fusion trumpet by Miles Davis. She introduced her band: busy pianist Gary Versace, bassist Richie Gibbs (a Berklee classmate) and drummer Jon Wikan (her husband). "Landings" was reminiscent of early Weather Report, with Fender Rhodes electric piano and electric bass. Based on a folk song associated with Pete Seeger, it began with an open trumpet loop. "Hopes Trail" was a ballad, featuring an unaccompanied bass introduction. Jensen introduced a medley in honor of the late pianist Geri Allen which the band had recently started playing, combining Allen's arrangement of the traditional song "Barbara Allen" with her composition "Swamini" (which was dedicated to Alice Coltrane). It featured a relentless piano/bass ostinato, along with a looped melodica with echo (played by Jensen) and a section where Jensen played her trumpet into the open piano. To close the set she introduced Atlanta saxophonist Morgan Garrett, who joined the band for a 6/8 burner and another closing tune. There was a brief rainstorm near the end of her set, which she and the audience both took in stride.

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