IT’S SMOOTH SAILING FOR JOHN COLTRANE FESTIVAL
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There’s been ample space to question whether the product the John Coltrane International Jazz and Blues Festival is putting out has lived up to the sizable expectations it created by invoking a pillar of American music as its avatar. Its programming through four years by and large has been dedicated to smooth, funk-fusion, R&B, pop and easy listening, and very rarely to the straight-ahead bop and early modal schools with which its namesake, a High Point native in his youth, is associated. It has avoided showcasing anything remotely experimental (outside of Christian Scott’s ephemeral dabblings last year), despite Coltrane himself being one of jazz’s most extolled experimentalists. It’s not exactly a new point of contention; while it might be the festival equivalent of Kenny G dubbing straight over Louis Armstrong, it has made a strong case that it’s doing just fine with this more palatable, nutrient-deficient vision of jazz.
What can’t be debated, however, is that the Coltrane Festival has been the kind of cultural/economic instrument that the city of High Point has desperately needed to hang its hat upon.
This past Saturday, the festival drew several thousand to Oak Hollow Park to hear the music of pop/ jazz hitmaker George Benson, upstart soul chanteuse Morgan James, Latimore’s racy bedroom R&B, and the prodigiously talented teenager Andreas Varady, and at $60 to $100 per ticket, the Coltrane Fest is dealing with not-insignificant sums at the gate. It has grown its audience consistently from year to year around the nebulous concept of the urban standard, the more commercially viable outcropping to which jazz formats converted in the late ’70s once the straight-ahead stuff became a harder sell. Mostly this happened because, as its consumers’ capacity for the abstract ebbed with age, demand arose for a more digestible form of jazz that only hinted at its earlier creative peaks. Scenes became commodities, as they are prone to do, and now you have a festival bearing the name John Coltrane that has essentially been booking the playlist of its chief commercial sponsor, WQMG, a station with great old school variety and R&B content, but little in the way of an honest jazz product.
Extrapolate that over a couple of generations, and the response that one of the Coltrane Scholars “” high school recipients of new instruments challenged to write a 150- to 200-word essay on the topic of what jazz means to them “” offered was inevitable. “Hardcore people like rap and rock. Smooth, easygoing people like jazz,” she wrote in her essay from which the festival emcee read aloud. Never mind that, on Kulu Se Mama’s “Selflessness”, Coltrane, McCoy Tyner and Pharoah Sanders essentially formed the template for punk and hardcore through lightning tempos and head-spinning chord changes. There was no pleasant back-andforth so much as they were screaming over top of one another in the harshest, most cacophonous way.
Not that one should expect a highschooler to have strong opinions on the outer reaches of the Coltrane oeuvre, but one of the most cursory elements of jazz is that it is music that intrinsically defies stereotype. For every passage of saxophone pillow talk that Boney James makes, there’s a nuclear blast by Last Exit via Sonny Sharrock and Peter Brotzmann. It would naturally seem be the duty of institutions like the John Coltrane Festival to subvert those unfavorable limitations, but it is itself a festival for smooth, easygoing people. It’s for kicking back out of the unforgiving heat lakeside underneath an umbrella with a cooler full of snacks and taking it easy, in the smoothest way possible.
This year’s bill was particularly conducive to doing so. With regard to the business of actually relating to the mission of Coltrane, early sets by the Coltrane Festival’s youth ensemble and all-star band “” a group composed of area academics and freelance aces rendering Coltrane’s most well-known pieces expertly and unpretentiously “” were singularly potent. They also came at the earliest part of the day when the heat was at its most oppressive and the audience was at its smallest, so those who weren’t up to that challenge weren’t privy to the event’s heart and soul. They may, however, have caught 17-year-old guitar phenom Andreas Varady’s exquisite rendition of “Giant Steps”. The demure, diffident Varaday, like most young prodigies, has not developed a stage presence that elevates his music beyond simply great playing, but “great” might be to casual a word to describe his talents. He worked over the Beatles’ “Come Together” into a chatty gallop, rarely nodding to the signifiers of the original composition other than jamming the brakes for the breakdown and scaling down heavily and deliberately. He didn’t bother to identify the piece, instilling those who made out a famous tune through his clever subterfuge with a sense of accomplishment.
Following the youngest billed act to ever play the Coltrane Jazz & Blues Festival was the oldest, but at 75, age ain’t nothing but a number to the concupiscent crooner Benny Latimore. He was announced as the “blues” component of the day (and also by the more reductive title of Mr. “Let’s Straighten It Out”), but like the festival’s jazz component, Latimore eludes traditional characterizations. What he didn’t elude was a PG set at 4 p.m. Latimore’s version of the blues is basically the R&B version of Theodis Ealey’s off-color, after-hours jams. When he’s not horndogging in his songs, he’s kicking his no-good lover out or being kicked out. He was the latter when he sang “My Give A Damn Gave Out”, adlibbing in the voice of his estranged lover, “I’m sick of you coming home with Massengill on your breath. You know I only use Summer’s Eve.”
As risquÃ© as Latimore was throughout his set, at least he was willing to take some chances. There were no low points in smooth sax master Boney James’ set afterwards, nor were there high points. For a player with a band that exuded such instrumental muscle, they rarely flexed it. There was hardly any risk-taking, save for Boney’s sprint through the crowd of indiscriminately-placed camp chairs. It was one indistinguishable mid-tempo instrumental after another, marked by clean lines and deft use of space, played by a band that could ostensibly play much more interesting music.
Morgan James (no relation to Boney) has, however. Her debut LP this year, Hunter, shows a mastery of not just the soul canon, but the soul jazz canon. The arrangement on its title track nods to James Brown’s “Funky President” and the Charmel’s “As Long As I’ve Got You”, as if she had been digging around in the RZA’s sample library before writing the album. She challenged her band with the full repertoire, from the Stax-inspired “Heart Shake” to the arty “You Never Lie”. At 32 years old, James’ ascent into stardom seems inevitable, if not a bit overdue. She shows balance and restraint when it’s called for, but can unleash her full range at will, and it doesn’t hurt that she’s stunning to behold. She’s already earned her stripes on Broadway, however, playing Teena Marie in “Motown: The Musical”. Now she’s vying with Sam Smith for the niche in urban radio playlists that Marie left vacant, but given Smith’s popularity and James’ credentials, there will have to be room for both.
There was an opportunity in headliner George Benson’s set to revisit the music of Coltrane one last time “” Benson recently released his interpretation of “Naima” “” but he passed it up in favor of a hit-heavy setlist that opened with “Breezin'”, one of the biggest-selling jazz singles of all time, and closed with the Lieber and Stoller hit “On Broadway”, the song that catapulted Benson from jazz and into firmly adult contemporary. In between, he mostly focused on his pop hits like “Turn Your Love Around”, a song that marked a full departure from jazz and into machine recording, but took on a fuller identity with help from his five-piece band. Even still, as the Coltrane Festival faces stiff challenges to its integrity from other jazz programmers in the region “” the Art of Cool Festival just announced Roy Ayers as its headliner in its second year, and Duke’s performing arts series will feature the Campbell Brothers performing A Love Supreme this coming weekend “” it’s fifth year would be the ideal time to expand its repertoire. A second stage, a second day, one-off performances; anything to break the formula, even if sticking to a formula is where its bread is buttered. !