Coltrane Festival goes like this, ’Trane went like that

by Ryan Snyder

In the broad continuum of ideas that encompass the register of John Coltrane, inertia is not among them. The massive stylistic leaps in the short periods between Giant Steps and My Favorite Things and A Love Supreme and Ascension still represent some of jazz’s most profound sea changes. You could plot his remarkably fertile, nine-year solo recording career by the albums where he helped give birth to modal and free jazz, or you could do it by the ones where he perfected them. He left few questions unanswered before his early exit — about his voice, his muse and idea that jazz should be a challenging endeavor. So the question is begged, that, after the second year of the music festival bearing his name and countenance, how did inertia and restraint become its muse?

It was hard not to detect a certain degree of artlessness and inward focus in the lineup of Saturday’s John Coltrane International Jazz and Blues Festival at Oak Hollow Park. The ties between smooth jazz and the work of Coltrane are tenuous at best, though the former still has an audience despite its increasing radio scarcity. The return of schmaltzophone master Kirk Whalum in a pre-headlining capacity, however, suggests that at best, personal preference is a driving force in their bookings. At worst, it’s evidence of a severe lack of imagination.

Individually, headliners Stanley Clarke and George Duke both belong to the upper echelon of jazz heavyweights — Clarke known earliest as the bass monster in Chick Corea’s Return to Forever and Duke as the effusive foil to Cannonball Adderley. The duo configuration with which they headlined, however, is mostly remembered as a tedious, undistinguished stab at breaking into the charts 30 years ago by pandering to the crossover pop audience enabled by fusion’s popularity. For most other jazz festivals, it would have been an excellent niche get: two big names on the reunion path pairing eruptive synth funk with pop hits. For the John Coltrane brand, it was the equivalent of dragging out the McRib for one more round of farewells. It felt nice at the time, but by the time they riffed on the cloying “Sweet Baby,” a realization set in that an opportunity to challenge the festival’s largely complacent core audience had slipped by.

The festival came perilously close to a repeat of last year’s “Sweet Baby” equivalent — where the Coltrane faithful collectively slap palm to forehead — as former Atlantic Starr vocalist Barbara Weathers joined Whalum onstage yet again. It was not for another agonizing duet of her sappy, soft R&B hit “Always,” but for something less provocative and equally disjointed. Whalum’s tribute to Whitney Houston might have qualified had it not actually been so stirring. There’s no questioning his chops, nor his ability to scale with uncommon grace, but framing Coltrane’s influence via smooth jazz and “Quiet Storm” is the very definition of asteistic. 

Where the “blues” in the festival’s title is derived is also worthy of debate. “Blues” appeared frequently in his work (Coltrane Plays the Blues, Blue Trane, “Afro Blues,” etc.), but more often as a mode of catharsis rather than a stylistic framework. Shemekia Copeland, who conceded sophistication for brute vocal force, spoke to this disconnect. Her style of Southern boogie blues was a distant cousin even to Coltrane’s work with Dinah Washington.

Despite those ravaging artistic hiccups, there was jazz worthy of the Coltrane name. The opening set by a group comprising the legendary Joe Robinson, Lynn Wood, Bob Sanger and others swung brilliantly through interpretations of Coltrane’s work with Miles Davis and Thelonius Monk. The Pancho Sanchez Latin Jazz Band offered possibly the most inspired interpretations of classic ‘Trane, performing percussion-forward takes on “Giant Steps” and “Blue Trane” with his three-piece horn section crisscrossing over the lead. Pleas for an encore after organizers ended his set prematurely went ignored.

Its narrow artistic philosophy aside, the faults in the John Coltrane International Jazz and Blues Festival ran even deeper in its second year. Whalum had been billed as emcee for months and no explanation was given as to his absence prior to his scheduled show. His replacements, ex-102 JAMZ personality Busta Brown and comedienne Debra Terry, quickly contributed to turning set changeover into an agonizing debacle. When they weren’t needlessly politicizing the apolitical event, Terry proved a veritable encyclopedia of stock schtick, including the benchmark for lousy comedy, the old white-people-go-like-this, black-people-go-like-that bit.

It got so bad during the endless wait before Clarke-Duke that she resorted to petitioning audience members for talent. The result, predictably, ranged from pitchy a capella gospel to singing so bad that it eventually earned Terry herself the hook. You wonder where Coltrane’s son Ravi Coltrane was in the festival’s second year after a sterling first year performance, but then the emcee declasses its spirit with an unending barrage of tired, tacky jokes and you’re suddenly glad he’s not there to witness it.

There is still massive potential in the John Coltrane International Jazz and Blues Festival, but organizers must first understand that the best jazz is thriving well outside the boundaries of the limited scope to which it has thus far been confined. Robert Glasper, Jason Moran, Stephen Bruner, Adam Rudolph — all young, remarkable composers at the vanguard of jazz, carrying the Coltrane torch; something the festival itself has not yet learned how to do.

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