The city of Austin is known as the “Live Music Capital of the World” and the people here take that title very seriously. On any given day, you will be able to find somewhere in town that will be hosting a musical event. This past Memorial Day was no exception.
The annual “Austin Area Jazz Festival” has become synonymous with having a good time, but this year, that was taken to another level with the introduction of the newest lifestyle brand, Jazz Blues Soul.
This festival was different, and you could see that from the moment the doors were opened. This was about more than just music, it was about the lifestyle.
As soon as guests entered the doors, they were greeted by brilliant artwork that was being painted on the spot by Houston-based artist, Israel McCloud and Austin artist Chris Rogers.
As we headed outside to the Outdoor Lounge for the first group of artists, we quickly realized what a fantastic treat we were all in for.
The first performer was soul singer, Toni Ringgold. She made sure the crowd was not afraid to have a good time as she did a brilliant job covering “Treasure” by Bruno Mars, and “Golden” by the incomparable Jill Scott. If that wasn’t enough, she ended her set by singing an original song written to empower women. By the way, the women in the crowd were nodding their heads and hanging onto every word, I would say they enjoyed it!
Next up, was trumpet player, Jeff Lofton. As a trumpet player, I was very interested to hear Mr. Lofton and his band. Their music was very free, yet the sounds of the trumpet, bass, guitar, and drum all blended together beautifully. When the band members had their solo time, all I could say was, “Wow!” If you closed your eyes, at times you could have sworn you were listening to Miles Davis play alongside Jimi Hendrix. Anybody who has ever heard those names know what a huge compliment that is!
The next opening act was the group, Savannah Red. The lead singer, Anslee Connell had a very “old school” sound that flowed effortlessly from music that would have fit in perfectly during the times of Motown, to the times of Billie Holiday. When the group played “Summertime,” the smile I had on my face would not go away. Every song the band played was done with precision. Every moment was great, and the trombone solos throughout their set were second to none.
Once Savannah Red ended their performance, it was time to make the transition inside to the main stage. As I stepped back inside, I was pleasantly surprised to see DJ Batman playing songs that made everyone step on the dance floor. People danced in unity as if their moves had all been choreographed and practiced for weeks. It was wonderful to see so many people smiling, laughing, and just having a great time in the presence of one another. This is when the AAJF stopped feeling like a concert, and more like a wonderful family reunion.
As it moved closer to 4:30, everyone at the “reunion” made their way to the main stage. The husband and wife duo from Philly, “Kindred the Family Soul,” were set to go first. Dressed in all white, they approached the stage like true rock stars. Their confidence was evident as they moved closer to the stage. Once they took a look at the crowd, their band started playing and they got right into their performance. It was nearly impossible for any of us to not enjoy what they were doing. The combination of their voices were both strong and soothing. As they constantly looked into each other’s eyes, you could tell their words were heartfelt. The duo glided smoothly through songs as they sung their hits, and they even found a way to mix in some of Mos Def’s classic song, “Umi Said.” The fact that they were able to do that so seamlessly made me respect their talent more than I already did (which is saying a great deal). Then, the reality of their 19 years together stood in front of us all to see as Fatin admitted he and his wife, Aja just finished an argument before they started singing. He felt it was necessary to apologize to her for his part in their disagreement. He asked for forgiveness in front of us all, and he promised this was not a part of their normal show. He was being real to the woman he loved, and he didn’t care who was there. They ended their show by mixing in “Zoom” by the Commodores to their mega-hit, “Far Away.” That combination, like their entire show, was brilliant!
If “Kindred the Family Soul” were the only performers, all of us would have been more than satisfied, but the AAJF had more “Jazz, Blues & Soul” to present to us.
To close out the Outdoor Lounge performances was Soul & R&B artist, Ter’ell Shahid. Ter’ell sang songs from his latest cd, “Chocolate City”. In true Memorial Day Weekend fashion in Austin, TX, the skies opened up and forced a shortened performance.
Back on the main stage, the next act was the legendary musician, Najee. While he is mainly known for his skills on the soprano saxophone, he had a tenor saxophone and a flute waiting for him on stage. This was a wonderful surprise, and I couldn’t wait to hear the songs he was going to play.
Najee didn’t wait to start his show until he got on stage. Instead, he started his first song while walking around the first few rows. Since his “Share My World” CD was one of the first I ever purchased, I couldn’t wait to see what he had in store for us. His band moved around the entire stage as they played and waited for him to join them. When he did, we were treated to smooth jazz at its finest. The group played original songs and even covered Earth, Wind, & Fire’s, “Can’t Hide Love,” as well as Anita Baker’s “Sweet Love.” As they progressed through their show, each person on stage had their time to shine. The drummer, Levi Bennet, was beyond amazing as he played the drum set as if it was an extension of him. And then, it was time for Chuck Johnson (the guitar player) to have some solo time. He did not let us down.
Chuck had about minutes to “do his thing,” and he took advantage of them all. Not only did he play his guitar, he also showed us his vocal skills by singing some Freddie Jackson music. He ended his time by paying homage to James Brown as Najee placed on his “cape.” The crowd went crazy. After that, Najee took center stage, once again. He played Stevie Wonder’s, “Knocks Me Off my Feet.” We were all in awe, not only of that song but how long he was able to hold notes. There were multiple times Najee literally held a note for at least 2 minutes without taking a breath. As a musician, I have seen many amazing things, but I had never seen (or heard) anything like that before. It was truly amazing. Najee and his band had given us a tremendous show, but he couldn’t leave without paying respect to Al Jarreau, Prince, and all of the other legends we have recently lost. It gave us all a time to reflect, and appreciate those we cared about.
We were still thinking of the brilliance of Najee when the emcee announced the iconic Betty Wright was about to hit the stage. Everyone clapped and screamed as loudly as they could as the “Cleanup Woman” herself strolled to the stage. I had never seen her perform live, but I had a preconceived notion of how her show was going to be. She surpassed anything I could have imagined! Ms. Wright had the youthful exuberance of a new act. Her energy surpassed 90% of the people performing today, and with each song, she gave everything she had to entertain us. She even found a way to mix in a Dancehall/Reggae session into her classics. Every once and a while, she would stop and talk to the crowd. She spoke to us as if we were all her kids, grandchildren, and younger siblings. She gave us honesty, realism, and wisdom. She showed us first hand why she has been relevant in the industry for long.
All-in-all, this year’s jazz fest was one of the best shows imaginable. The food was great, the family atmosphere was inviting, the vendors fit in perfectly, and the musicians were great examples of how much talent there is in the world. This was more than a show, it was an experience. And the music, well, it’s more than just music, it’s a part of our lifestyle. Kudos to everyone who had anything to do with putting this show together. I will definitely try to be at next year’s event, and you should too! They truly lived up to their theme for this show, “come for the music, stay for the fun”
Words by Jacob Grovey Photo Credit: Kokovisions Photography/John Gutierrez Photography