Third time’s the charm for the Coltrane Festival

by Ryan Snyder

The first two years of the John Coltrane International Jazz & Blues Festival in Coltrane’s childhood residence of High Point presented something of a boondoggle for the straight-ahead jazz fan. The festival disregarded a sizable portion of its namesake’s oeuvre in favor of more palatable deviations like fusion, funk and smooth jazz, much to the chagrin of its socialmedia audience. It was light in hard- and post-bop, devoid of free jazz and short on important young players. The announcement of this year’s event back in April drew a chorus of boos over the inclusion of Dave Koz, the apotheosis of cheeseball horn-blowing, in a festival ostensibly honoring one of the two or three most important horn players who ever lived.

But in its third year, two things became apparent about the Coltrane Festival: Its primary audience would never stomach a full day of by-the-letter improvisational and modal jazz or bebop, and the festival organizers have come to realize that they have a wide array of tastes to satisfy. In regard to the latter, they got it right the third time around.

It’s funny how much the shifting of one piece could go so far in meeting the prejudices of the purists. Whereas a midday set might have been held down by a Tom Browne or a Ronnie Laws in the past, the inclusion of Christian Scott and his quintet was a coup. The 30-year-old trumpeter defies the neat categorization that most of the festival’s bookings carry. His voice is chameleonic, shifting fearlessly and effortlessly between Colemanesque fluidity and graceful, Chet Baker-style ballads. The piece he composed for his nowwife, “Isadora,” was bathed in longing. He plaited his tone through the wide-open spaces created by drummer Corey Fonville, complemented by the empathetic voice of saxophonist Braxton Cook.

Scott could be incredibly aggressive at times as well. His most common expression was a snarl as he eyed bassist Kris Funn and Fonville engaging in a two-week old piece and his confrontational kiss off to the New Orleans police, “KKPD.” He prefaced it with the story that inspired it, one where he found himself on the asphalt with his pants around his ankles and threatened with a baton. Not all of his audience appreciated such brutal honesty. “There’s no need for this,” an older African- American gentleman was overheard saying. But there it was. Jazz in its very soul is about confrontation. If it wasn’t, Coltrane himself never would have written “Om.”

It was especially necessary given the context of Dave Koz’s Summertime Horns performance. This was a show whose lingua franca was not in psychic or melodic cues, but essentially in being an unintentional parody of that. Koz’s harmonic foursome was rounded out by Mindi Abair, Gerald Albright and Richard Elliot, all four rooted in smooth jazz and combined presenting covers of ’60s and ’70s rock and funk in the most garish ways possible. Showmanship and bluster supplanted nuance and taste in covers of “Hot Fun in the Summertime” and, worst of all, their tribute to Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.”

“We wanted to find the best way to pay tribute to him,” Koz said. “So I thought, ‘What if we did it with four horns?’” The result was that Koz and co. FUBARed one of the most recognizable pieces in all of jazz into a muddle of conflicting phrases and wild facial gesticulations. It was a contest to see who could raise their sax the highest in the air. Yet, there was something undeniably charming about Koz’s caricature of jazz.

The headlining slot occupied the year before by the recently departed George Duke was occupied by his one time compatriot Al Jarreau, whose vocal dexterity remains a thing of beauty even into his seventies. His opener “L Is for Lover” in particular is as demanding a vocal piece as there is in the popular fringes of jazz, and he threaded its tricky latticework flawlessly like a true professional, something the Coltrane Festival itself is getting better at over the years.