Burlington Discover Jazz Fest Builds Upon Community
Bobby McFerrin, despite giving a typically rousing performance during the first weekend of this year’s Burlington Discover Jazz Festival in Vermont, apparently forgot one thing during his concert preparations.
Midway through a June 1 set dominated by material from spirityouall (Sony Masterworks), the singer’s latest disc full of folk-tinged spiritual music, McFerrin asked for song suggestions from the audience. He obliged the sell-out crowd with “Flight Of The Bumblebee” and a few lines of “At Last,” but one request gave him a bit of trouble. After a false start of “Moonlight In Vermont,” McFerrin, glancing questioningly at his musical director, Gil Goldstein, then turned to the audience. “How does it go?” The band tried again. “We don’t really know that one,” he admitted.
That moment in an enjoyable evening at the Flynn Center, a restored 1920s movie house on Main Street, typified how Vermont-centric the festival has become over its 30 years. Before each concert, audiences responded with wildly enthusiastic applause when the names of locally owned festival sponsors were acknowledged—an unusual happening, to say the least. Each performance during the first weekend of the 10-day event (held May 31–June 9), whether free or ticketed, featured large, eager crowds.
This year, a fresh director on her first go-round helmed the festival, and the head of the main arts organization in town, which helps put on the event, was new as well. No programming during the first weekend reinvented the wheel—paid performances featured Dr. Lonnie Smith and John Scofield’s UberJam, McFerrin, harpist Edmar Castaneda and Branford Marsalis’ quartet—but rather presented a solid lineup and a picture of a festival comfortable with its legacy.
Aside from headlining concerts at the Flynn Center, the festival sponsored free shows and other attractions throughout the downtown area during the weekend and throughout the next week. On the afternoon of June 1, saxophonist Uri Gurvich’s band performed with two other groups in a park adjacent to the Flynn Center. Ticketed concerts occurred during the week at the Flynn Space, a downstairs club next to the concert hall, which also served as the venue for informal chats with headlining artists conducted by critic Bob Blumenthal. The following weekend, organizers held additional concerts in the main venue.
At the opening concert on May 31, Dr. Lonnie Smith, dressed all in black save for a red turban and scarf, gingerly approached his organ with the aid of a cane. Looking a bit frail, he sat down with great care, then proceeded to vigorously attack his Hammond B3 for the next hour. The band played a number of funk-based tunes from his latest disc, The Healer (Pilgrimage), that all rode a dynamic wave; they generally began with sparse, uninvolved melodies, worked up into a crest of organ punches and chromatic runs, then finished back near the bottom of the dynamic range. The one misstep, “Don’t Go Into The Forest,” fell victim to the oversampling of orchestral instruments, creating a mush of sound.
For the most part Smith’s genre-bending tunes—which moved through funk, blues, gospel and even arena rock—remained hearty enough for jazz fans but accessible enough for those uninitiated into the music. Echoing his energetic music, Smith leaped up during his encore, exposing his cane for what it really was: a percussion-like instrument plugged into an effects pedal.
After Smith, guitarist John Scofield’s UberJam kept up the arena-rock feel. Scofield filled his set with lengthy guitar jams framed around some quasi-reggae tunes, songs rooted in electronic beats and music containing a thin veil of jazz. The solos surrounding these pieces were, at times, self-indulgent. Scofield, however, succeeded in working up the crowd by playing short, disjunct phrases that worked into the songs’ overall grooves. He used 16th-note runs sparingly, letting them fly only in service to the song.
Dynamic contrast, not needless velocity, grounded Marsalis’ quartet set on June 2, the closing concert of the first weekend. Marsalis, who had last been to the festival in 2009, turned in a wide-ranging and captivating set aided by his exceptional band, which includes drummer Justin Faulkner, an amazing talent who has come into his own as part of the group. Creating a complete ensemble sound and true improvisatory music is at the center of Marsalis’ aesthetic, and throughout the evening he let his bandmates improvise at length, stamping their own personal approach onto his tunes.
The festival’s newcomer award must go to Castaneda, a jazz harp player from Colombia with an international trio. Soprano saxophonist Shlomi Cohen, who possesses a pliant, vibrant sound, followed Castaneda’s every move during a riotous late-night set after the McFerrin concert.
Castaneda is a dynamic performer who percussively attacks the harp, playing accented chords, bass lines and weaving in melodies. He builds his music into a frenzied party aesthetic, joyously bouncing the harp against his shoulder. His fingers jumping all over the strings, he puts his entire body into the performance.
To festival organizers, Castaneda represents the next generation of jazz and embodies a genre-blending approach that breathes new life into the music. For the assembled locals, the harpist was simply one more reason to cherish, and relentlessly support, this exceptional festival.