The debut of the Art of Cool Fest last year in downtown Durham teemed with dazzling moments. There was the superhero instrumentalist, Christian Scott, who wielded his custom-made horn like a sorcerer's wand; the underground soul hippie, Cody Chesnutt, who wore an Army helmet and sang about his crack-smoking days; and the alt-soul priestess, Alice Smith, who cast a spell over Hayti's pews.
And may I never forget the festival usher who claimed that, at any minute, he would unveil his karate moves for any overly enthusiastic festivalgoer.The 10 acts from the second Art of Cool, listed below in chronological order, each have the potential to top any of those aforementioned sets. You can't catch them all because of time conflicts, but that's a fine problem to have. Just watch out for the tough usher.
As D'Angelo once restyled Smokey Robinson's "Cruisin'," Chris Turner popped his collar on a mouthwatering modification of Sade's "Kiss of Life." In fact, his 2012 mixtape, LOVElife Is a Challenge, seems a not-so-distant cousin of D'Angelo's Brown Sugar. On "Sticky Green," Turner laments his love affair with cannabis just as D'Angelo once seemed to personify the green leaf. Turner has helped a new generation of experimental soul truthers compose with romance. (Friday, 8 p.m., Motorco)
Unlike many music festivals, Art of Cool Fest began after years of fertilizing its surrounding scene with standout jazz and soul acts. As this happened, area soul enchantress Carlitta Durand watched from the sidelines, a new mother and singer-in-waiting. Her much-anticipated I'll Be Gorgeous When I'm Dead album is scheduled to arrive hours after she takes the festival stage. So far, she's teased a diverse trio of soothing singles—"100 Nudges of Love," "Frankenstein," "Find a Way." Debuting them live could, at last, be the start of significant attention for one of the state's best voices. (Friday, 10 p.m., Durham Armory)
Moonchild's Amber Navran has a firm grip on her soprano, using it for three years to lead her band's jazz-heavy romp through yesteryear's neo-soul splurge. Once that era's architects grew tired of being labeled as such, they surrendered the sub-genre to B-listers. But younger acts, like the music-school buddies of Moonchild, helped resuscitate the form. Anticipate these virtuosos to be this year's surprise standout among louder bands with less finesse. (Friday, 10:20 p.m., The Pinhook)
The first Art of Cool closed with the trombone bravura of Christian Scott, who proved Motorco's largely standing-room-only setup could accommodate and even bolster jazz performed in front of quiet, seated clubs. This year, one of the most accomplished and beloved living jazz musicians, saxophonist Kenny Garrett, will try to make it a trend. Watch as the 54-year-old bandleader weaves between strains of Miles and Coltrane and from Africa to the postbop marksmanship he delivered on 2012's Seeds from the Underground. (Friday, 10:45 p.m., Motorco)
When this Blue Note Records trumpeter paired with soul-jazz vocalist José James to rework Roy Ayers' "Everybody Loves the Sunshine," the result was a drum-happy playdate. Kuroda's brass chattered in a smoky horn dialect, recalling the original like the two spoke across decades in a secret code. Keep your fingers crossed for Kuroda to join Ayers on the main stage, too. (Friday, 11:35 p.m., The Pinhook)
Singer-songwriter Kendra Foster helped pen D'Angelo's triumphant return, Black Messiah. Her lines show variety. "Perilous dissidence evening up the score/Do we even know what we're fighting for?" she offered at one point. And for the lovers: "The candy coated thoughts that drift through my sleep/Let me know it's you that holds the key." She'll discuss collaborative songwriting during the debut "Innovate Your Cool" conference. Then Foster, who has spent a significant amount of time touring with the P-Funk All Stars, will perform her own material on the new American Underground rooftop. (Saturday, 3 p.m., American Underground Rooftop)
With the exception of hip-hop-leaning jazz trio BADBADNOTGOOD and locals The Beast, emcee and vocalist Maimouna "Mumu Fresh" Youssef is the closest this year's Art of Cool gets to rap. That's quite a load for one act to carry, but Youssef has made a career of heavy lifting by repurposing well-known songs into fun, adroit numbers about gender, class and race politics. There's a softer songstress element to Youssef's repertoire, too. Her "I Got A Man" became an anthem of the BET series Being Mary Jane. (Saturday, 6 p.m., Durham Athletic Park)
You might see the name of this North Carolina-born R&B crooner on several soul-oriented festival lineups this summer. But this may be the only instance where he'll perform his folk-forward soul classic, Comin' from Where I'm From, in full. Hamilton's country-fed vocal range moves from balmy baritone to swooping soprano. He'll offer a lot of action in the old Durham Bulls Ballpark. (Saturday, 8 p.m., Durham Athletic Park)
Shania Twain's 1998 hit "You're Still the One" won some awards, sold a bunch of copies and helped fuel country music's crossover. But when decorated jazz singer Gretchen Parlato hijacked it with her spellbinding coos last year, the 38-year-old, Grammy-nominated talent stole the glory. Parlato only gets more potent alongside bassist and guitarist Alan Hampton; they find new ways to turn the singer's subtleties into emotional, progressive vocal jazz. (Saturday, 10:15 p.m., PSI Theatre)
In the 16 years between jazz keyboardist Marc Cary's first Rhodes Ahead project and the second installment, last month's Rhodes Ahead Vol. 2, little changed. The light-rail arrangements and cool pace still offer a modern jazz take on Afrofuturist soundscapes. The Fender Rhodes purrs, as soul rhythms embrace drum-and-bass textures. Cary assembled the team for this experimental jazz project at the request of dance music producers. "They came to us looking for a certain sound," says Cary. "They were trying to get a real organic and true sound. They wanted real players. We were a sound." (Saturday, midnight, The Pinhook)