Smaller Is Better at Atlanta Jazz Festival
At the 36th annual Atlanta Jazz Festival, held May 25–27 at Piedmont Park, smaller proved to be better.
The free three-day event featured a wide range of acts on the Main Stage, where the majority of the bands either partially or blatantly espoused r&b and hip-hop aesthetics. Saxophonist Tia Fuller and singer José James were among the nightly headlining performers who played to thousands of Atlantans in the sprawling meadow of the park. Armed with picnic supplies, umbrellas and folding chairs, most fans appeared to have come looking to have a good time on a holiday weekend; they didn’t seem to care what type of music was being performed.
Throughout most of the festival, though, the smaller International Stage featured the best jazz performances and the most attentive audiences.
Jazz did happen on the Main Stage, but only in fits and starts. On May 25, pianist Aaron Diehl’s quartet played the first show of the festival, moving through a compelling, captivating set featuring tunes from Diehl’s latest disc, The Bespoke Man’s Narrative (Mack Avenue). Vibraphonist Warren Wolf added some depth to the band’s performance, which also included bassist Paul Sikivie and the explosive drummer Rodney Green. The band played a bit of double-duty later in the day, serving as the backing group for the exceptional young singer Cécile McLorin Salvant on the more jazz-savvy International Stage, which was set up on the other side of the park.
Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, who excels in quiet, intricate music, closed the festival later that night on the Main Stage aided by the fiery tenor saxophonist Dayna Stephens. The noisy crowd’s low din was audible during some of the trumpeter’s more delicate numbers; perhaps overzealous audience noise is one of the hazards of festivals everywhere.
On May 26, local jazz workhorse Jacob Deaton’s set was marred by an enthusiastic tambourine player in the crowd who parked himself right in front of the Main Stage.
When McLorin Salvant took to the smaller stage the preceding evening, she sang what could be characterized as more serious standards (“I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” “What A Little Moonlight Can Do”) that showcased her range and vocal grain. But she also showed her playful size by milking notes on “Moody’s Mood For Love” for comedic effect and tiptoeing through the ribald “You’ve Gotta Give Me Some.”
Saxophonists Rudresh Manthappa and Miguel Zenón, performing on the International Stage on two different days, proved to be the highlights of the festival, with both leaders’ bands blazing through two very different sets. Mahanthappa’s Gamak ensemble blurred the lines between jazz, Indian music and rock, with the saxophonist’s aggressive and rough playing pushing the ensemble forward. Right from the repetitive start of “Waiting Is Forbidden,” each member of the ensemble seemed bent on playing as loud and as vigorously as possible.
Zenón, who had the last set on the small stage on May 27, stood in contrast to Mahanthappa, manufacturing danceable Latin rhythms, his light alto tone sitting above the band’s dense accompaniment. Zenón unfurled long, branching lines that ebbed and flowed with the music, fitting perfectly into each song.
Regardless of how much actual jazz happened, it’s significant that music occurred in the park at all. This year marked the third festival held at this location since a string of issues relegated the event to smaller venues throughout Atlanta right after its 30th anniversary. In the park once again, it likely worked out better that Zenón and other artists appeared on a smaller stage, as it gave listeners a better opportunity to fully enjoy the music at close range. If organizers continue to present many of the more interesting jazz acts out of sight of the main crowd, that might not be a bad thing at all.