Art of Cool Fest 2016 Wasn’t the ‘Coachella’ of Jazz, and That Was a Good Thing | Music
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Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Art of Cool Fest 2016 Wasn’t the ‘Coachella’ of Jazz, and That Was a Good Thing

Posted by on Wed, May 18, 2016 at 7:04 AM

click to enlarge Rapsody at The Pinhook - PHOTO BY ALEX BOERNER
  • Photo by Alex Boerner
  • Rapsody at The Pinhook
One of the only pieces of national coverage for early May's third-annual Art of Cool Festival arrived in the form of a half-baked blog post on The Huffington Post called “This Festival Is Being Called the ‘Coachella’ of Jazz.” A few hours after the post went live, Art of Cool president Cicely Mitchell expressed her elation for the analogy. Her homegrown festival had been “crowned by Huff Po,” she said. This was big promotional bait. 

If by crowned, Mitchell meant that AOC had approached major status by being able to book two major acts that matter—Anderson .Paak and Kamasi Washington—from this year’s Coachella lineup, then, yes, her homegrown Bull City draw had reached the big leagues. Otherwise, this year’s Art of Cool hit cultural and musical heights distinct from Coachella and the country's general festival monoculture.

click to enlarge Terence Blanchard at the Carolina Theatre - PHOTO BY ALEX BOERNER
  • Photo by Alex Boerner
  • Terence Blanchard at the Carolina Theatre
I’ve never attended Coachella, so I can only imagine what downtown Durham would look like if Art of Cool were to even slightly resemble that California desert. The streets would be largely flooded with white millennials and festival all-timers, lost in sound expeditions to validate Beatport and Apple Music obsessions. Nevermind the obvious format differences between Coachella’s destination experience and AOCFEST’s urban footprint, but it makes little sense for Art of Cool to aspire to a festival that has gotten so muddled.  Wouldn’t Art of Cool feel better if it looked in the mirror and saw a jazzed-out version of Austin’s SXSW, New York’s CMJ, or even Raleigh’s Hopscotch Music Festival—urgent, alive incubators of talent, not merely buzz-responsive pieces in the hype machine?

“This is not Coachella,” confirmed Anderson .Paak on Friday night from the Durham Armory stage. “B.J. the Chicago Kid is not here with me.” Accompanied by his band, the Free Nationals, his crowd was, by far, the most massive of Art of Cool's first evening, as many festivalgoers' main agenda was to catch a glimpse of the rising, Dr. Dre-approved California soul star. Besides, as it has been wont to do on every opening day of AOCFEST for the past three years, scattered rain showers kept many pedestrians off of the streets, away from from some of the earlier performances, like harpist Brandee Younger’s tantalizing set at PSI Theatre.

By the time the sun popped back out, it was low, marking the night’s new phase and setting the stage for .Paak to parade the festival toward its first peak. Switching between simultaneously playing the drums, singing, and rapping to dancing and sweating through favorites from his recent Malibu, .Paak earned the adoration. Later in the night, he’d jump on stage with Rapsody and her band the Storm Troopers in front a packed house at The Pinhook, too. 

I wasn’t too excited about breaking my neck to catch a live rap performance during what has traditionally been a jazz-and-soul festival, so my time there was limited. My hip-hop fix came earlier at Motorco, where the The Art of Turntables exhibition went from DJ Skillz’s slow burn to a relaxed Rich Medina playing samples, from Maseo’s humor to Pete Rock’s grand finale with the mandatory “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y)” send-off. While they spun, host and emcee D.R.E.S. tha BEATnik engaged the crowd with call-and-response routines, occasionally turning his back to the crowd to change T-shirts, including an old-school Justus League number that listed all the members of the pioneering Triangle hip-hop crew. “There’s no way I’m comin’ out here and not wearing this,” he boasted. Unfortunately, only a few audience members—including actual Justus League member, Median—recognized the homage, which led me to wonder if AOC’s hip-hop sub-agenda had proven a tad alienating for the jazz heads.

click to enlarge Kamasi Washington and company at the Durham Armory - PHOTO BY ALEX BOERNER
  • Photo by Alex Boerner
  • Kamasi Washington and company at the Durham Armory
Having performed in Durham almost a year ago, Kamasi Washington’s Friday night performance inside Durham Armory brought both repeat attendees and first-timers. There hasn’t been much pushback to the idea that Washington is one of today’s most masterful and messianic horn messengers. The consensus is correct. Still, Washington remained selfless, inviting his father—saxophonist and flutist Rickey Washington—on stage to knock out a solo and play in the horn section for the rest of the set.

Two songs later, Washington stepped back again and gave upright bass player Miles Mosley the floor to launch into his new single “Abraham.” Like he was gutting an animal, Mosley cut his bow back and forth across the bass strings, suggesting an electric guitar's roar. He recently described the song as “a coming-of-age sermon to myself,” and between Washington and the rest of the horn section dipping back in the mix to funk up the chorus, it felt like a soulful revival.

“So, where’s all of the jazz this year?” asked a middle-aged woman, having a smoke outside of Motorco on Saturday night as Canadian duo Tennyson offered its own electronic interpretation of what jazz may sound like if filtered through another space-time-continuum. Although the previous day had been replete with a diverse lineup of young jazz innovators like Younger, saxophonists Marcus Strickland and J.D. Allen, and famed jazz composer Terence Blanchard, she raised a great question.

The crucial issue with this year’s AOC was that, despite the beautiful and rare racial makeover of downtown Durham for an entire weekend, there were very few other indicators that a jazz festival—or, for that matter, festival of any kind—was in town. Signage was limited, and buskers were scarce. During the daytime, hip-hop, not jazz, blared from the stages of two of the festival’s only three outdoor venues. And in the evenings, there were no outdoor venues. Had you really wanted to be in the company of the sort of compositional jazz that The Art of Cool Project has prided itself on presenting in the past, you would have had to spend four straight hours of your Saturday festival time inside the dark confines of PSI Theatre. I did some of that.

During last year’s AOC, the singer Gretchen Parlato and guitarist Alan Hampton performed in that space as a duo. This year, without Parlato, another one of her collaborators, the drummer Otis Brown III, took the stage. On Brown’s 2014 Blue Note debut, The Thought of You, he and Parlato amended Shania Twain’s 1998 hit “You’re Still the One” into an improbable yet tranquilizing jazz cover. On Saturday, however, up-and-coming jazz vocalist Christie Deshields did the honors, adding vocal bite where Parlato’s tone had been soothing. Marcus Strickland joined Brown for the yet-to-be-released “Rainbows for Ana,” a sincere and sparkling requiem in honor of six-year-old Ana M. Marquez-Greene, killed during 2012’s Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. For years, her father, saxophonist Jimmy Greene, has been one of Brown’s bandmates and friends, so when Brown’s twelve-year-old son wrote the foundation for “Rainbows for Ana” on his piano, Brown turned it into proper song.

An organ-fueled rendition of Andrae Crouch’s “God Is on Our Side” prepped me for the gospel experience I would find an hour or so later at The Pinhook, where The Colored Section soul/gospel singer Donnie lit up the room. These days, Donnie is looking more and more like that drunk uncle who’ll swear on his grave that he used to be the star of a sixties soul group named something like “The Recollections.” But isn’t that the uncle we all can’t wait to see? By the time I arrived at The Pinhook from catching Raleigh’s jazz-fusionists The Hot at Nights shred at Motorco, Donnie was in the middle of introducing his most well-known hit, “Cloud 9.” Supported by three superb background singers, including local soul raven Tamisha Waden, Donnie’s holy soul was more contagious than any other note that rang out during the weekend.

Inside Carolina Theatre, Moonchild’s Amber Navran seemed to have had added even more fierceness to her vocal stock than was on display during last year’s Art of Cool performance in The Pinhook. At first, I was worried that Navran’s voice wouldn’t be able to fill such a large room, but then I remembered that Moonchild just ended a tour as openers for the night’s headliners, The Internet. Indeed, Navran knew how to work the larger space.

Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said of The Internet’s lead singer Syd tha Kyd, who sounded unproven and untested live. After watching a few handfuls of people in front of the stage go nuts over this foggy, playroom R&B, I left.   

After all, I still had Taylor McFerrin, J*Davey, and All Cows Eat Grass to knock off my list before I could end my night at Motorco by watching Thundercat’s bass brilliance, just as I had during Art of Cool's first year. It was everyone’s last stop of the night, so naturally the place was beyond capacity. Oh, well: seventeen acts in one night is a personal record for me. Sure, I probably could have seen more at Coachella, but that's a long way from downtown Durham.

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