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Atlanta Jazz Festival 2019

Mark Sullivan By

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Atlanta Jazz Festival
Atlanta, GA
May 25-26, 2019

Last year the festival operated under the threat of rain all weekend. This year's 42nd edition saw record-tying high temperatures: 93 and 94 degrees Fahrenheit (ten degrees above the historical averages). No doubt it is a coincidence that the programming was cooler than last year's: lots of contemporary/smooth jazz and pop, and very little progressive jazz or Latin. Not that this had any apparent effect on the size (or enthusiasm) of the audiences. It should also be noted that several of the acts have current or past associations with Blue Note Records, giving the festival a bit of contemporary Blue Note flavor overall.

Ofer Assaf Quartet

Israel-born tenor saxophonist/composer (now a New York City resident) Ofer Assaf played contemporary jazz with a heavy rock tinge. And he brought a crack band: rock/fusion guitarist Alex Skolnick; fusion/Latin jazz electric bassist Lincoln Goines; and Latin drummer Robby Ameen. The leader and Skolnick were a dynamic duo all the way through, frequently doubling the heads as well as playing high-energy solos. "Burning Desire" gave Goines an opportunity to demonstrate his soloing gifts. The single "Altruism" (Assaf recommended checking out the YouTube video, which also features Skolnick's guitar) was a kind of power ballad, with soaring saxophone and guitar lines. There was also space for a very controlled drum solo from Ameen, accompanied by a repeated riff from the rest of the band. The set ended with a rousing funk tune.

Joel Ross Good Vibes

Vibraphonist Joel Ross and his Good Vibes band presented what turned out to be the most modern jazz of the festival. The sound and instrumentation matched his album KingMaker (Blue Note Records, 2019): a quintet with vibes, alto saxophone, piano, double bass and drums. The first tune featured a lovely unaccompanied piano interlude from Jeremy Corren, and blazing traditional double-mallet technique from the leader. Ross favors a very percussive attack, which was emphasized by a broken mallet head that went flying into the audience. The second piece began with an unaccompanied drum solo from Ofri Nehemya, which was joined by the vibes, before featuring trading between alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins and the leader.

The third selection began with an unaccompanied vibes introduction, leading into a lyrical alto saxophone theme. The anthemic chord progression inspired a lyrical sax solo, followed by a very contrasting vibes solo, much more rhythmic and harmonically "out." At this point there was definitely dueling vibes, as bleed-through from the Meadow Stage carried vibraphonist Stefon Harris and his band into the space. The fourth tune in the set again began with unaccompanied vibes, playing a rhythmic, etude-like passage, followed by another lyrical (but complex) head. This is a band with a clearly defined identity, as well as a cooperative, mutually supportive playing style. It also boasted Kanoa Mendenhall on double bass, the sole woman bassist at the festival.

Stefon Harris + Blackout

Vibraphonist/marimba player Stefon Harris and his Blackout band's set overlapped with Ross, and no doubt the bleed-through was not their fault. Their current album Sonic Creed (Motema Music, 2018) is a tribute to jazz heritage from the iconic Blue Note years, but with their own twist. "Dat Dere" is a tune by pianist Bobby Timmons made famous by Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. An original evoked a family barbecue atmosphere, while another original presented soul jazz with vocals—Harris' approach encompasses both hard bop and contemporary black pop. Pianist/composer Horace Silver's "The Cape Verdean Blues" featured a mallet solo that transitioned from vibes to marimba, ending with a dramatic repeated rhythmic riff. Other tributes included saxophonist/composer Wayne Shorter and fellow vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson. Keyboardist/vocalist Marc Cary took the final vocal, with help from bassist Luques Curtis, drummer Terreon Gully, and saxophonist/vocodorist Casey Benjamin. Several of Harris' previous albums were recorded for Blue Note Records, and his sound with Blackout fits in with the blend of bebop-based jazz and contemporary influences (such as hip-hop) common to many of the label's recent releases.

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